A well-trained movie man (he went to Juilliard and the American Film Institute), John McTiernan is not a guy to be messed with—and his movies are pretty tough, too. Famous for Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and Die Hard: With a Vengeance (the third installment in the series), McTiernan proved his action chops early on in his career. But his star has fallen a bit of late, as he got himself imprisoned on felony charges for criminal activity relating to his role as a director and producer of Rollerball, which sounds about right.
Known as a master storyteller, McTiernan makes use of a wide variety of techniques in his directing style. Die Hard, in particular, employs a ton of tracking shots. McTiernan tracks McClane, as he walks through the lobby of Nakatomi Plaza. Or Holly, as she acts all business-like, marching down the office-lined hallways of the 30th floor.
McTiernan also makes clever use of tracking shots when it comes to objects. Instead of tediously plotting out several angles for an action scene, he'll often unify the scene by tracking an object—instead of the people handling it. So, for example, when Gruber's lackeys are wiring the roof with explosives, instead of shooting each of them, he simply follows the yellow cord, as it's tossed from henchman to henchman. The technique makes smooth work of adding a swift pace and sense of criminal efficiency to the scene.
He's also got an interesting habit of cutting away during a big moment. So often in Die Hard, the pivotal event happens off screen, and we're left watching the reactions of another character, and witnessing the disastrous consequences in the aftermath of the big moment, rather than the big moment itself.
So when we see Hans and his homies exit the elevator, guns at the ready, silently slipping into the jovial and unaware crowd at the Christmas party, we don't actually see the moment when they make their intentions known and shoot up the place. Instead, we cut to McClane, who's barefoot and practically bare-chested. We watch him as he hears the gunfire, registers what's going on, and goes immediately for his Beretta. Then we cut back to the party, where all hell is already breaking loose.
The camera also cuts away when Gruber shoots Harry Ellis. Not to spare us the violence, of course, but to make us privy to McClane's pained reaction. At this point in the storyline, it's much more important that we see how torn up John is about the fact that there was nothing he could do to help this guy (who wouldn't help himself), than it is we watch Ellis—whom we frankly didn't like very much anyway—kick the bucket.
McTiernan also set up the everyman qualities of Die Hard with his previous film Predator, which set Übermensch Arnold Schwarzenegger against a monster from outer space. We got to see something we never had before in that film: ultra-butch unstoppable '80s action heroes getting wiped out like teenagers in a Friday the 13th movie, removing the aura of invincibility from the era's previously unstoppable action movie stars.
That paid big dividends in Die Hard, which presented a very vulnerable action hero for the first time in the era.
Another favorite technique that McTiernan makes use of in Die Hard is the good old-fashioned zoom. He's not cheesy with it—he uses a delicate touch—but he makes use of the zoom shot in moments where he wants to ramp up the tension.
Just think of the scene when Gruber finally figures out that the sassy Ms. Holly Gennero is actually Mrs. Holly McClane. As he makes the discovery, the camera zooms in quickly on Holly's horror-stricken face. Then the camera cuts to Gruber, and zooms in quickly on his self-satisfied one. The twin zooms create a sense of face-off between the two characters, as we quickly realize that John McClane's mission just got a whole lot clearer, and a whole lot harder: Gruber's got Holly, and that's all that matters.
Like we said: McTiernan's a well-educated guy. Dude knows his stuff. And he's not afraid to bring some old-school filmmaking techniques to a for-the-masses flick like Die Hard. One of those techniques is the Dutch angle.
A Dutch angle is a shot in which the camera is set up at a wonky angle so that the action on screen appears crooked. It helps create an unsettling feeling for the viewer and is often used to suggest uneven psychological footing for the protagonist, or to keep the general tone of the scene off kilter. McTiernan makes famous use of these in his submarine flick The Hunt for Red October, which, since it takes place on a sub, in small, cramped, and waterbound places, makes perfect sense. No one is ever surefooted on a submarine—not even Sean Connery.
Now McTiernan doesn't make much use of Dutch angles in Die Hard, except for one, absolutely pivotal scene: the first meeting between John McClane and Hans Gruber. As the two converse, and the viewer is unsure if McClane knows it's Hans—and that he's bad news—the camera angles are all kinds of off kilter. The wonky angles are made even more noticeable by the stern and straight grid pattern on the walls behind them. We, as an audience, feel McClane's uncertainty as he attempts to feel Gruber out, and the Dutch angles fuel our nail-biting habit as we watch in suspense.
Literature is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Die Hard. But literature it is. The storyline started as a novel called Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp. Nothing Lasts Forever was actually a sequel to his better-known novel The Detective, which was adapted into a successful movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. That certainly helped get the ball rolling when it came to green-lighting what eventually became Die Hard, but we think it was really the top-notch talent of screenwriters Steven de Souza and Jeb Stuart that helped propel the movie to the iconic status it enjoys today.
De Souza and Stuart both have plenty of action movie credits to their names. De Souza was responsible for smash hits like Commando and The Running Man, while Stuart's name can be seen in the credits of The Fugitive. As a team on Die Hard, they didn't so much co-write as they did sub in. Stuart penned the original script, and de Souza was responsible for the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants revisions as the movie was shot.
That's right: much of Die Hard was scripted as the movie was already filming. As Bruce Willis puts it:
I remember that the script was in flux. It would change and they would rewrite scenes and we would come in and there'd be new scenes. I'll give you an example. The second biggest line in Die Hard was 'Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs…' That line was written while I was in this mock-up of a ventilator shaft, trapped in there, I couldn't come out. In those days, a cell phone looked like a shoe box, they were enormous. And someone had to hand me a phone with Steven de Souza, the writer for the rewrites on Die Hard, and he'd tell me a line, they'd turn the camera on, we'd shoot it. (Source)
In fact, one of the film's most iconic scenes, in which ultra-villain Hans Gruber pretends to be a hostage, was only added after Alan Rickman demonstrated the fact that he could swing an American accent (we must say we beg to differ). John McClane's character didn't get sussed out until Bruce Willis was about halfway through filming, and they went back and reshot details to play up his idea of John McClane as someone who's doing the best he can, despite the fact that he's not exactly proud of his life decisions. And the movie's ending? Yeah, that didn't get figured out until late in the game.
Director John McTiernan also stepped out of the director's chair to play a big role in some scripting decisions. He was the one who decided to make the movie take place over the course of one night, rather than three days, which was the original plan. His inspiration? A Midsummer Night's Dream, of course. And he pushed the screenwriters away from making Hans Gruber and his cronies terrorists, thinking that having them turn out to be common thieves would make for better summer blockbuster fare.
While Willis admits that there wasn't a lot of ad-libbing going on on set, he did improvise McClane's hilarious "Hi, honey," when he enters the movie's final showdown, bloody, bruised, shirtless, and limping to find his estranged wife captured by the seemingly invincible Hans. We'll give you that one, Bruce. It was pretty brilliant.
Meet the juggernaut: 20th Century Fox.
Known for producing major film franchises like Star Wars, X-Men, and Alien, the company has more than cemented its action movie brand. But frankly, they do everything, including television. Since its beginnings in the early '30s, 20th Century Fox has dominated the film industry, and we're betting you've seen more than a few movies that begin a little something like this.
While 20th Century Fox has the name recognition, it was mainly responsible for the distribution of the film, while Die Hard was actually produced by Silver Pictures, a small but mighty production company founded by famous producer Joel Silver in 1985. Known for a slew of action movies, Silver Pictures also produced Die Hard's first sequel.
Luckily for them, 20th Century Fox had the rights to Die Hard pretty much sewn up from the get-go. The movie is based on a 1979 novel by Roderick Thorp called Nothing Lasts Forever. This novel was a sequel of Thorp's previous work, The Detective, which Fox had made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. As the legend goes, a producer at Fox needed only to see the book cover, with a picture of a high-rise aflame and a circling helicopter, before deciding on the spot to buy the rights. For more on this, see "Screenwriter."
While we're sure they did tons of work marketing the movie and the like, we here at Shmoop think that 20th Century Fox's biggest contribution to Die Hard is Nakatomi Plaza itself. That's right: Nakatomi Plaza is, in fact, the real-life corporate headquarters of 20th Century Fox, and just so happened to be under construction at the time of Die Hard's filming.
Many, if not most, of the interior and exterior scenes were shot in and around the building, making for some tricky legal negotiations with Fox's army of lawyers and the movie's stunt-production team. After all, the building was a shining beacon of Fox's industry success, and the moviemakers wanted to rip it to shreds on the silver screen. For more on this, see "Setting."
Since Fox was the distributor for the film, they had a hand in Die Hard's less-than-blockbusting initial release. It may be hard to believe, but back then, Bruce Willis's star was not on the rise. He was mainly known for playing a wisecracking private eye in the TV rom-com Moonlighting and hadn't exactly established his action movie street cred. In his personal life, he had cultivated a bit of a bad boy reputation, so Fox attempted to downplay his role in their marketing campaign, airing TV ads that deemphasized his central role.
They ate their words soon enough. Many credit Willis's turn as the iconic John McClane as one of the many keys to the movie's success. And while Willis may not have been an action star before Die Hard, afterwards the genre became his bread and butter, and we now consider him one of the icons of the genre.
Ah, those halcyon days of non-digital film production. Die Hard came out in 1988, before George Lucas ushered in the digital revolution with The Phantom Menace. That means that all those effects you see—the explosions, fights, and fires—they're all real. Yep, Die Hard was shot in good old-fashioned Panavision.
And because it's pre-digital, much of Die Hard was also shot right on location—at the brand-spanking-new Fox Plaza in Century City, Los Angeles. Much as the movie would suggest, they used the building's upper floors, and it was a bit of a legal nightmare to get Fox to agree to all the shenanigans they intended to pull. Yeah, we'd say that's a bit different from just paying a pasty techie to create the roof explosion on his laptop.
To create a believable background of the skyscraper's sweeping view of L.A., the production designers created a 380-foot wraparound mural with "animated lights and various lighting techniques to create day and night effects" to surround the set. So while the movie was shot on location, those production designers had more than a few tricks up their sleeves, including a green screen and scale models. You didn't think they'd really let Alan Rickman fall from the top of a 35-floor building did you?
For more on how the movie's on-location production affects Die Hard's story, check out our "Setting" section.
Fun fact: After production on Die Hard wrapped, former President Ronald Reagan moved into Fox Plaza's 34th floor suite. Apparently, when his chief of staff first scoped out the space, there were still bullets littering the floor.
We bet you weren't expecting to hear Beethoven in a blockbuster (for that matter, we don't think Beethoven was either). But there he is—playing at the cocktail party as Hans and his henchmen emerge from the elevator to wreak havoc. "Ode to Joy" is used in-scene here—it's being played by a string quartet at the party—and Michael Kamen, Die Hard's screenwriter, echoes the melody from Beethoven's 9th Symphony in other key scenes on the soundtrack.
When Hans Gruber exits the Pacific Courier truck and enters Nakatomi Plaza, we hear the notes played on some rather menacing strings. Then, as the scene unfolds and the "terrorists" begin their well-coordinated takeover of Nakatomi Plaza, the score melds phrases of "Winter Wonderland," "Singin' in the Rain" (which Theo also happens to whistle as he takes control of the building's tech hub), and "Ode to Joy" together, to lend the movements of the baddies a sense of jaunty grace.
Known for his action scores (the Die Hard franchise and the Lethal Weapon franchise, to name a few), Michael Kamen uses these pop cultural musical allusions to imbue the score with a levity that director John McTiernan requested. Not wanting the summer blockbuster to be too much of a violent bummer, he thought that strategic use of well-known classical music might help lighten the mood. He continues this pattern throughout Die Hard. Though it's subtle, you can hear these musical phrases again and again if you know what to listen for.
He also deftly twists those musical phrases to fit the mood of the scene. When Hans and Theo first look at the vault, we hear "Ode to Joy" in an ominous, slow tone. But later, when they finally open the vault, we hear the original arrangement of the tune—triumphant, fast, and of course joyful.
Apart from the score, Die Hard also makes use of songs-in-scene—in other words, songs the characters can hear just as well as we can. We get most of these courtesy of Argyle's limo radio, and they make for several moments of comic relief. When Argyle first pops in a tape, it's Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas in Hollis." "Don't you got any Christmas music?" McClane asks skeptically. "This is Christmas music," Argyle replies.
Later, Argyle's car radio is used for even greater comedic effect. Argyle spends much of the first half of the movie in ignorant bliss, jamming to Stevie Wonder's "Skeletons" in the backseat with McClane's teddy bear. Even when Al Powell goes speeding by in the rearview, getting shot up by a machine gun and screaming bloody murder, Argyle's just too into the song to notice. This is made all the more hilarious by the fact that earlier, as he watches Powell circle the building's driveway in a police cruiser, McClane asks, "Who's driving this car, Stevie Wonder?"
It's Christmas in July, and the folks behind Die Hard are not about to let you forget it. From the sleigh bells that pepper the soundtrack to John McClane whistling a few bars of "Jingle Bells" as he enters Nakatomi Plaza, to Al Powell singing "Let it Snow" as he fills his arms with Twinkies, the notes of Christmas are everywhere in this movie.
Die Hard saves the most memorable use of Christmas music for the final scene. As Holly and John pile into the back of Argyle's limo and drive off into the… middle of the night, we hear Vaughn Monroe's version of "Let it Snow," and the credits roll. Of course, it doesn't snow in L.A., so they'll have to make do with all the paper drifting down from the rubble of Nakatomi Plaza. How cozy.
Fun fact: When Al Powell shoots Karl, taking the villain down for once and for all, the score that plays in the background is actually an unused bit from Aliens.
Die Hard's fans are what we'd call die hards, which is a painful pun, but very fitting. Since the first movie premiered in 1988, the franchise has had a loyal fan base who doesn't seem to mind dropping a lot of dough on however many sequels 20th Century Fox churns out.
Much of that fan base is, of course, centered on the character of John McClane, whose cowboyish irreverence, barefoot-underdog status, and penchant for the wise crack have cemented him in the action hero league of legends. He makes just about every list of "Favorite Movie Characters" or "Best Action Heroes" that we can think of, and his reluctant hero schtick has become a trope definer.
It's all in the one-liners, we think. John McClane delivers them like nobody's business:
And that list doesn't even include the sequels. He may be a man of few words for the most part (he's too busy strapping C-4 to desk chairs), but McClane's one-liners are the stuff of bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and endless lists and YouTube videos. They're quoted anywhere and everywhere—good for all occasions. That eminent quotability is part of Die Hard's staying power. When your hero can deliver a catchphrase, you know you've got box office gold.
It may seem strange that a summer blockbuster takes place during Christmas, but Die Hard's holiday cheer is definitely one of the major factors fueling its fandom to this day. Now that the movie is nearly thirty years old, it's pretty far removed from its release date, and it's become known more as a Christmas movie than a hot-weather tentpole flick. Plenty of people out there—Shmoop included—have an annual holiday viewing. It ranks high on many an Internet list of the best Christmas movies, like this one. In fact, despite a few naysayers, there are plenty of folks out there who think it's the best Christmas movie of all time.
It's worth noting, too, that Die Hard has become an iconic flick in the action movie genre. It's the subject of serious scholarship, analyzed the world over for its storytelling techniques, stunt work, and, yes, scripting (however haphazard). It had a huge influence on the action movies that followed, leading to a slew of copycats and inspired-bys, all of which were slapped (perhaps unfairly) with the Die Hard on a [Insert Location Here] label.
It's one of those movies that manages to bridge the gap between mass appeal and academic worthiness, and anyone who wants to sound like they know what they're talking about when it comes to action movies, blockbusters, tent-poles, and tough guys had better know Die Hard backwards and forwards.
Like, say, Shmoop.