Today is the 25th anniversary of "Die Hard," a movie that forever changed the landscape of American action filmmaking. Director John McTiernan brought in European sensibilities and fluid camera movements that were unheard of at the time, adding an artistic edge and much-needed stylistic flourishes to a genre largely defined by hulking he-men and an almost complete lack of aesthetic embroidery (seriously — look at other action movies from 1988 and try not to fall asleep). It was as much a game changer as "Avatar," but never heralded as such; instead it was quietly acknowledged as an admirable achievement while its artistic merits went largely unheralded.
In honor of the film's anniversary, we thought we'd run down ten things that you probably don't know about "Die Hard," a movie whose legendary status was recently cemented when an entire wall of the Fox lot was painted up to resemble the sequence where Bruce Willis' John McClane is crawling through an air duct. As this year's "A Good Day to Die Hard" proved, countless sequels of diminishing returns can't even keep "Die Hard" down.
It should also be noted that McTiernan is currently serving a year-long prison sentence for lying to a federal officer, a case that tangentially stems from the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping scandal. It's a tragedy that terribly few people know about, so that would be the 10th-and-a-half thing you don't know about "Die Hard" — that its groundbreaking director is sitting in a prison cell for a year on trumped-up, dubious charges.
1. It Was Alan Rickman's First Film
That's right, folks: the man immortalized in countless movies (who else could play the Sheriff of Nottingham, Professor Snape and Colonel Brandon?) got his big break as Hans Gruber, the terrorist-cum-bank robber. The movie's original production notes recount how McTiernan and producer Joel Silver went and saw "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" on Broadway in the spring of 1987 (Rickman originated the part of Valmont). By the end of the play, both agreed that they had found their Hans Gruber. Earlier thus year, Total Film Magazine listed Hans Gruber at #8 in a list of the 100 Greatest Movie Heroes & Villains. Rickman said: "I'm not the villain. I'm just somebody who wants certain things, makes certain choices, and goes after them." And he's right — in a lot of ways Gruber is the protagonist, since he has a clearly defined set of goals and sets out to achieve them. John McClane is really the antagonist since he sets about disrupting those goals and, as he's described, is a constant "fly in the ointment."
2. It's Based On a Book
Although often cited for its blazing originality, especially since it created a whole action movie subgenre usually referred to as "'Die Hard'-in-a-[fill in the blank]," the film is actually based on preexisting material. That material was "Nothing Lasts Forever," a 1979 novel by American crime novelist Robert Thorp reportedly inspired by a dream the author had after he saw "The Towering Inferno," a dream that involved a man being chased around a skyscraper by mysterious forces with guns. The book is glaringly different than the movie, featuring an older, retired NYPD Detective named Joe Leland who is visiting his daughter, Stephanie Leland Gennero, at the oil company where she works. It's there on Christmas Eve that Cold War-era German terrorists led by Anton 'Little Tony' Gruber show up, planning on exposing the oil company's shady dealings in South America. Perhaps most bizarrely, it's revealed that Joe and Anton knew each other from World War II. All right.
3. It's Kind of a Sequel ...
Maybe even weirder than its novelistic origins is the fact that "Die Hard" is sort of a sequel. Thorp's original novel is a sequel to his 1966 novel "The Detective," which also featured the Joe Leland character and a mystery involving a shadowy figure from his World War II past (a lot of stuff happened during World War II, huh?). In 1968, the novel was made into a movie of the same name, with Frank Sinatra in the title role and a supporting cast that featured Lee Remick and Jacqueline Bisset (plus a memorable score by Jerry Goldsmith). 20th Century Fox made "The Detective" and was contractually obligated to give Sinatra first shot at the role in the "sequel," even though he was nearly 80 at the time.
4. ... And It Was Almost An Entirely Different Sequel
After Sinatra expressed disinterest in reprising his role, Fox executives demanded that the script be rewritten and that any connection to "The Detective" (or, seemingly, "Nothing Lasts Forever") be deleted. They initially planned on it being a sequel to "Commando," the successful Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Fox had produced in 1985 (it, like "Die Hard," was produced by action impresario Joel Silver and at least partially written by Steven E. de Souza). After Schwarzenegger passed, the script was reengineered but never came back together.
5. There Was No Script ...
On the commentary track for the film, production designer Jackson De Govia notes that the movie was "made up on the spot." On the same commentary track, McTiernan notes that they didn't even know who the John McClane character was until halfway through the shoot (they shot in order). "In the script he was just a heavy duty New York cop. We figured out that the essence of his character was he didn’t really like himself very much and he was doing the best he could," McTiernan said. "And you’ll see it shows up all the way through the story later on. There’s the confessional in the bathroom with the glass and stuff. But I think we went back and shot that little business where he banged his head and said, 'Very good, John. Good move.'"
Huge moments in "Die Hard," like the scene where McClane meets Gruber and Gruber tries to disguise himself as one of the hostages, was spun out of thin air. As part of the text commentary, Steven E. de Souza says he came up with the scene after overhearing Rickman do an American accent. "McTiernan, who likes to plan meticulously and does not like last-minute changes, started to brood," de Souza recounted. "He said, 'It'll never work because he's seen Gruber kill Takagi. We're shooting that tomorrow. I'm not gonna inflict pink and yellow and blue pages on the actors.' And I said, 'Let me just try it.' So I went off to the nearest typewriter, which was a real pain in the ass, because I'd long since switched to computers. I spent an hour and a half on this three-page scene and I took it to the set and showed it to John and the producers, and they liked it. They said, 'What about tomorrow's work?’ I said, 'Bruce is hiding. He's lurking. There's got to be a way that Bruce can see the guy's getting killed and not see the trigger man, not see his face.' We went to the set for the next day's shoot and John said, 'If we just move this table, like, six feet, I'll put Bruce here. It's perfect.'"
6. ... Which Explains the Magically Appearing Ambulance
The biggest evidence of "Die Hard"'s written-on-a-whim nature is the ambulance that appears at the end of the movie, ostensibly as a getaway vehicle for the Gruber and his gang after they've blown up the hostages (and, seemingly, themselves). Earlier in the movie, when Gruber and the goons arrive at Nakatomi Plaza, you can see into the van and it's pretty much empty, aside from some equipment and other gear. At the end of the movie, after some of the more dramatic narrative kinks had been worked out of the in-progress script, the bad guys need to escape. Thus an ambulance appears, as if my magic, in the back of the van. Most big Hollywood movies merely feel like they've been cobbled together on the fly; in "Die Hard" you can actually witness it.
7. It's Based in Part on 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
McTiernan did much to loosen up what he felt was an overtly gloomy and self-serious initial concept, which carried over from the original novel – most notably (in his words, again from the DVD commentary), having John McClane turned into a "basic American guy instead of being the strong-jawed, latter-day Dirty Harry and turning the terrorist story into a robbery. People can have fun with a robbery. A terrorist story is by definition dark and unhappy. But with a good caper, you can appreciate the bad guys, too." One of his guiding principles was William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which used as a kind of tonal bible throughout the film's production. "My own notion was that it was 'Midsummer Night's Dream' — it's the story that happens on a festival night and it's something that changes all the princes to asses and all the asses to princes," McTiernan explained. "And everybody goes home feeling better for what happened that night. I sort of used that as the guide to the plot. I think in the original script it happened over three days, and I physically moved it to one day. And it dictated things like 'Don't make the cops too serious here.'"
8. 'Singin' in the Rain' is Written Into the Score
One of McTiernan's heroes is Stanley Kubrick, and two key pieces of Michael Kamen's score point to this directly. The first is the use of elements of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was employed by McTiernan to both lighten the mood and because it harkens back to "A Clockwork Orange." "Remember what I said earlier about in essence what I was trying to introduce was a sense of joy," McTiernan says on the commentary. "And I had this piece of music in my head for a long time and started saying okay we gotta play this thing that's in ... I remembered it from 'A Clockwork Orange' and I knew it was in the Ninth Symphony. But it was like a couple of months later that I learned that the title of the damn piece of music is 'Ode to Joy.' And it was so dead-on as to the expression of these guys. Michael Kamen was the composer and he did a great job feathering it through as a thematic idea, right through the rest of the score and set it up so we play it full-on at the climax later on."
This compositional decision also plays into the idea that the terrorists are the good guys, since they're the ones that get the triumphant musical motif, while McClane is too busy slogging it. But there was one other Kubrickian shout-out that Kamen and McTiernan cooked up together: "I told McTiernan that if he was going to use Beethoven, he also had to license 'Singin' in the Rain,' which was the other theme from 'A Clockwork Orange,'" Kamen says on the text commentary. "I had great fun winding 'Singin' in the Rain' around Beethoven."
9. There's a Recurring Visual Motif Involving Triangles
We're getting into some "Room 237"-type sh** here but hang tight: according to Eric Lichtenfeld, author of the academic text "Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie," there's a strong recurring visual motif of triangles. As he states on the movie's text commentary track: "There's a triangle motif in the production design. The triangle motif is also part of the composition of the frames and of the photography itself," Lichtenfeld notes. (We're through the looking glass, people!) "Inside the building, McTiernan and [cinematographer Jan] De Bont stage the actors in triangular formations – most notably, the terrorists. The camera movements themselves can suggest a triangle when McT and De Bont combine pans and tilts. In these shots, the camera starts on one point, moves to a second, and moves again to a third. What's more, for filmmakers, as painters and theatre directors have often shown, triangles can be forceful elements of an image."
This idea is reinforced by the production design, which is made up almost entirely of strong angles (like the giant power table that McClane hides underneath, the long square van that the thieves utilize or the desk that Ellis snorts coke off of), most of them comprised of squares (two triangles) or triangles.
There is, of course, one very notable exception: the vault. A smooth, cylindrical vault, it's the thing that Gruber and his cronies are trying to get to for the whole movie, and, when opened, gives us that wonderful musical moment discussed earlier.
10. People Booed Bruce Willis
John McClane was a surprisingly hard role to fill. There was an article earlier this year on Yahoo! about all the actors who turned down the role, which ranged from Harrison Ford to Don Johnson and Richard Gere (!). Even after Willis was cast, people balked. The star was payed a huge fee of $5 million and many thought that he couldn't be taken seriously, coming off of the hit comedy series "Moonlighting." An L.A.Herald-Examiner article from May 6, 1988 read simply: "Boy, has the public turned on Bruce Willis: the trailer for his next feature, 'Die Hard,' was resoundingly booed the other day by an audience at the Cineplex Odeon." Ouch.
Later that summer an article in the Los Angeles Times discussed Fox's decision to move the marketing away from previous advertisements that heavily featured Willis. In the article a rep for a major theater chain said that he yanked the "Die Hard" trailers "because [the audience] groaned and moaned so much when Willis came on." Fox's distribution/marketing president Tom Sherak acknowledged the audience's displeasure but tried to rationalize the shift by saying that everyone at the studio realized they had an action epic on their hands and that "the building was a star, too."
Oh. Right. A building. Way better than Bruce Willis.