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.
Using Shots to Tell the Story
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.
Avert Your Eyes
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.
Zoom Goes the Dynamite
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.
Let's Go Dutch
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.