The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin, ho-ho-ho.
John: And this is a special episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
On this very special episode we are going to be looking at the 1988 film Die Hard, how it works on a story level. We’re going to focus on what screenwriters can learn from it and some of the mistaken lessons people have tried to learn from it. This is not going to be a detailed look at the history of the film or its place in cinematic canons, because we’re not that interested in that kind of stuff, are we?
Craig: Yeah. I don’t really care. I just want to know what about this works so well. You and I both started in the early ‘90s. And in the early ‘90s there were a few movies that you were lectured about over and over. And Die Hard was definitely one of them.
John: So, Craig, what is your first exposure to Die Hard? Do you remember seeing it the first time? What was it for you?
Craig: Yes I do. I was a perfect age for it. I was 17 years old. I saw it in the movie theaters. I don’t remember when it came out.
John: Summer of 1988.
Craig: Yeah, so it was a Christmas movie in Summer. Summer of 1988 I was 17. What a great time. And I remember thinking it was a blast. I mean, it was fun, and you got the sense that you had shown up for a dumb movie and gotten something that wasn’t dumb at all.
John: Yeah. So weirdly I don’t remember seeing Die Hard the first time, but I do remember the first exposure I ever had to Die Hard as a concept which was summer of 1988. I was over at my friend Ethan Diamond’s house. His older brother, Andrew, came back from seeing Die Hard in the theaters. And we were standing in Ethan’s kitchen and Andrew said like, “I saw the future of movies and it is Die Hard.”
Craig: That’s kind of crazy. I mean, I remember thinking that when I saw The Matrix. I don’t know if I thought that when I saw Die Hard. In fact, I remember thinking this is just a really good version of for instance I think around that time I remember going to see Commando in the theaters with Arnold Schwarzenegger who gets weirdly name-checked in Die Hard. And I thought like, oh my god, this is like the best version of Commando ever. Yeah.
John: So we just did a special live show and Kevin Feige actually mentioned Die Hard as being the first time he saw a “normal” movie that he really liked, so a thing that didn’t involve super heroes, or fantasy, or elves, or gnomes, or dwarves. It was just a really great action movie. And so I think it has had an influence on even things beyond the normal action movies. And I think you can’t look at a lot of modern action movies without having some sense of what Die Hard did.
Craig: I agree. Die Hard gave us a sense of action pacing that I don’t think we were used to. And it also had a very odd modernity. Now, when we look at it we’re going to look at it also through the lens of its time. It is one of the most Reagan era movies possible.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But the fact that it said we’re not going to be in space. We’re not going to be out in the open field. We’re not going to be doing car chases, running around. We’re going to dump all the things we normally do in a big cops and robbers movie and we’re just going to stick it inside a building and let the confined space and the weird specifics of that building work to our benefit. That was pretty revolutionary.
John: I would also say the comedy that’s consistent throughout the movie, and characters who show up very late but are given very specific character comedy bits, has had an influence on sort of how we think about all these kind of movies. There’s that sense that you kind of don’t make an action movie without some sense of what the comedy is going to be owes a debt to Die Hard.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you could say that all Ryan Reynolds movies should pay a little bit of money to Die Hard every time they happen, because Ryan Reynolds’ character is kind of the best evolution of the wise-cracking tough guy. So he’s in great shape, he can run, he can shoot, he can kill if he needs to. When it is time to punch and get serious he can. When he needs to be heartfelt and care about a person and a relationship he can. But a lot of the times while he’s doing it he’s just tossing out these sardonic one liners. And Bruce Willis kind of invented that.
John: I think so.
John: So today on the episode I want to talk through a couple different areas. We should talk about characters. How we set up characters. How we know who is who. The characters have arcs. They’re shallow but they’re there. And I want to talk through arcs. How you find the beats in those arcs, the motivation behind characters. And how we signal to the audience what the characters want, both in the very near term and long term. Sort of what their overall goals are. This is a great movie in talking about hero weakness and villain strength, because the relationship between hero and villain is very different in this movie than we might expect.
And it’s also a great example of something we want to show to other action stars about like this is how you can be an action star and not be perfect in every moment. And it’s his weakness that I think makes the John McClane character so endearing to the audience.
Craig: Absolutely. He repeatedly shows fear, which I think we generally like. Maybe some actors don’t understand that. But we in the audience really, really appreciate it.
John: Now, rewatching this movie for this segment I was really impressed by sort of how well-structured and plotted it is. It is a jeopardy machine. And we have come to expect that out of movies, but I was surprised that there were very few scenes where you say like, oh, you could cut that scene and it wouldn’t have any impact. Everything that is there is there and very necessary. And it is setting up and paying off stuff constantly. So as we go through the movie from top to bottom we’ll try to point out situations where they are setting this up really well and they are going to pay it off and they have a whole plan. I feel like if you were to put this movie up on the whiteboard you would see like, OK, this is a really tight film just on an outline level.
Craig: No question. It does a brilliant job of setting things up and paying them off. And I’d actually forgotten how some of these little tiny things – I mean, the movie begins with one of the strangest conversations ever. And that conversation actually becomes incredibly important.
Craig: It has repercussions throughout the film. You just don’t realize it then. But it kind of works. It’s pretty remarkable in that regard. They’re really good at that.
John: We won’t get a chance to single out every joke, but what we were saying about the comedy of the movie and the specificity of the characters is really important. These aren’t just types of characters going through roles. They are very specifically drawn, which is nice.
But, Craig, you did in your How to Write a Movie podcast, you talked about theme and central dramatic question. And my rewatching of this I didn’t feel like that was a primary unifying element behind how Die Hard holds itself together. Did you in rewatching it do you feel like there’s a central dramatic question it’s trying to ask and answer?
Craig: Barely. And it turns on the relationship and it’s very simply encapsulated by the beginning and end of John McClane’s interaction with his wife, or maybe ex-wife, separated wife Holly. He comes to visit her, but they’ve been separated. And he essentially says in so many words, “I’m more important than you are.” And by the end he understands, no, actually we together are more important than just me. My needs don’t matter. I want to be a good husband to you. Very simple. Very, very, very simple.
But, essential. If you don’t have it, it really just is a guy running around a building and you don’t care.
John: Yep. And I think that’s a lesson that was mislearned by a bunch of people who tried to be Die Hard in a blank is that they didn’t do that work of what is the emotional journey he’s trying to go through.
Craig: Yeah. I remember at the time somebody made the joke that they were going in and pitching Die Hard in a building. It was really funny. So we had a spade of Die Hard – Die Hard did Die Hard on a plane, and Die Hard in an airport. There was a Die Hard in an everything. And Die Hard in a spaceship. And it got really, really frustrating.
Well, I mean, look, the gender politics are incredibly regressive. I mean, we have to talk about for a second how brilliantly this movie encapsulates the Reagan era. So very briefly you have a story about a woman who dares to have her own career. And her husband doesn’t want to follow her to Los Angeles because he’s a New York cop. And bizarrely has a backlog of cases? That’s not how policing works. He can just go ahead and be a cop in LA if he wants to. He can join that police department, I’m sure.
So this is the root of their marriage problems. She has dropped his name and is using her own. At the end, the way he saves her ultimately is by getting rid of this token of her success, which is the Rolex watch.
John: The Rolex watch.
Craig: She earned because she’s really good at her job. That has to go. And also she takes his name again because she must resume being his property, fully more. And this is really where I love Die Hard for being so Reagan era and honestly Trumpian in this regard, too. The ethos of the movie is that the people in charge of stuff like the bureaucrats in charge of law enforcement and the FBI, they don’t know anything. They’re stupid and incompetent. The media elites are terrible, unethical liars who don’t care about anything. The only people that can save you in the end – oh, and Europeans are trash.
Craig: The only people who can save you in the end are just good old American men.
John: Working class men.
Craig: Working class men who are constantly rolling their eyes at the stupidity of those pencil neck “experts.” The insanity of the way that these police go about their job, not the police man we’re rooting for, but the police in charge. So like we’re procedure junkies now. We were not in 1988. So we watch this movie and we’re like, huh, I guess that’s how the police might. So there’s a cop car that’s been riddled with bullets, and a body also riddled with bullets has fallen out of a building onto the cop car. But the deputy chief of police is like, meh, I’m sure it’s nothing. OK, I buy it. No.
John: No. All right, but let’s talk about the gender politics for one second before we get into this, because looking at Bruce Willis’s character arc which is shallow but it is there, McClane does say, “Tell my wife I’ve been a jerk. I should have been more supportive.” He does have that epiphany as it comes through it. So I would say that they’ve drawn that relationship in a way that is meaningful within the course of the movie as presented. And I did like that it didn’t go out of its way to punish Holly’s character for being successful and being ambitious. They try to acknowledge that she should be able to do these things. The movie as a whole, everything gets destroyed, but I didn’t feel like they were trying to single her out.
And even though she is the woman who is being rescued, it didn’t have the very classic rescue princess tropes. She didn’t feel helpless through a lot of it. She was never screaming or panicked.
John: She was incredibly competent.
Craig: But in the end they damseled her.
John: They did damsel her.
Craig: And it’s definitely a movie about a man rescuing a woman. She’s perfect. She has no flaws.
Craig: Except for her weird insistence on being successful. [laughs] And a good mom. The Rolex thing is sort of startling. And the fact that at the end she’s like, “I am – no, my name is Holly McClane.” Look, it was 1988. I mean, she actually was a terrific character up until the kind of inevitable damseling. But I love the scene, and we’ll get to it, where she confronts Hans Gruber just in terms of you put me in charge. It was very well done. And Bonnie Bedelia.
Craig: A spectacular job. And this is a great place for us to stop and mention the writers that we’re talking about.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about the background of all of this. This is a 1988 movie released by Fox. Directed by John McTiernan. Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. We’ll put a link in the show notes to the PDFs we have of it. Also we’ll have it up in Weekend Read. The script that we’re going to be talking about is a pretty close approximation of what the final movie is. So as we’re talking through this today we’re going to be talking in terms of like minutes in the movie, but the screenplay actually matches up pretty closely. The script I looked at was 127 pages and that feels about right to what the movie is.
Craig: It’s about a two-hour, ten-minute movie or so.
John: It’s based on a book by Roderick Thorp called Nothing Lasts Forever. I have not read the book, but I have read up some background on the book and I was surprised to see that the book actually has a lot more of the movie Die Hard in it than I would have guessed. Some of the stuff that’s in the 1979 book, so a retired NYC police detective, Joe Leland, is visiting the 40-story office tower headquarters of the Klaxon Oil Corporation, that changed, on Christmas Eve, where his daughter, Stephani Gennaro works. While he’s waiting for his daughter’s Christmas party to end a group of German Autumn terrorists take over the skyscraper, led by the brutal Anton Gruber.
Craig: Their gang name is Autumn-Era? So cool.
John: Joe had known about Gruber through a counterterrorism he attended years before. Barefoot, Leland slips away and manages to remain undetected in the giant office complex. Aided only by Los Angeles police sergeant Al Powell and armed only with his police issue pistol Leland fights off the terrorists one-by-one in an attempt to save 74 hostages and grandchildren. So that’s a Wikipedia summary, but there’s a lot of Die Hard in that summary. And so some of the things that are apparently in the book is McClane going through the air ducts, which is also a big pet peeve of mine.
John: The C-4 bomb down the elevator shaft. Jumping off the exploding roof with a fire hose attached to his waist and then shooting through a window to gain reentry, which still feels like such a movie moment, but apparently was in the book. Taping his gun to his back in the climax. The book was apparently inspired by The Towering Inferno, which is obviously a clear prior to all of this.
Interesting piece of trivia. So Frank Sinatra starred in the first book in this series called The Detective and so he was offered the role of John McClane, but he would have been 70 when this–
Craig: I would love to see that.
John: It would be amazing.
Craig: Hey Hans–
John: You can really see him going through all the physical activity.
Craig: Absolutely. Well, I mean, the fact that the character of John McClane is running around. He’s a smoker. Looks like he’s, you know, getting close to 40. He’s a smoker. And he has incredible cardiovascular fitness.
Craig: By the way, this is back when you could smoke in a car, smoke in an airport, and you could bring a gun on a plane.
John: A gun on a plane.
Craig: Gun on a plane. Yeah, no big deal.
John: All right. Let’s talk about the movie. Let’s start at the top and we’ll be going through it. From the very start we need to setup John McClane. We need to know that he’s a cop. That he’s from NYC. That his wife works here now. We need to establish that he’s still interested in women, so we see him making eyes at another woman on a plane.
Craig: Classic. Yeah, so his character is family man, trying to get his wife back, but still, you know, he’s hot-blooded American. And he makes eyes with the, well, they were stewardesses then. It was 1988. But before all of that he has the weirdest exchange with this guy.
John: Tell me about it.
Craig: So like normally speaking you don’t want to start a movie with a long conversation about nonsense with a day player. But that’s exactly what Die Hard does. It begins with John McClane having a conversation on the plane with his seatmate. John McClane is clearly scared to fly. It’s a great opening shot. He’s white-knuckling, literally. And the guy next to him is like, uh, you’re not a good flyer. And he says something that literally makes no sense. It’s a non-sequitur. He goes from “You’re not a good flyer” to “I’ve figured out how to – what you do when you land.” Which doesn’t make any sense. “To get accustomed after you travel you take your shoes and your socks off and you walk around on the carpet in your bare feet and you make little fists with your feet.”
And I’m thinking what cocaine-fueled nonsense is this? But it makes sense later.
John: It is incredibly useful later on. And I feel like as the movie starts you’re kind of free to do anything. So you can put in that nonsense business at the very top of the movie because no one has any expectation about what’s supposed to happen.
John: So you can just do it. Yes, it is sort of nonsense-y, but it totally works. And of course it’s setting up that he’s going to be barefoot through a lot of the movie. And so his barefoot-ness becomes a huge crucial plot point.
Craig: A huge crucial plot point.
John: All right. So we’ve established that John McClane is arriving in Los Angeles. Now we need to setup his not quite ex-wife, Holly. We need to see her at her office. We need to establish that they have kids. The kids are with the nanny.
Craig: All right. Let’s talk about race in this movie for a second. Let’s get the tough stuff out of the way. This movie has some very strange racial stuff going on, not surprising for 1988. Holly has a housekeeper/nanny. She is meant to be Latin-American of some kind. She is Latina. Her accent is bizarre. I get the feeling that that actor may not actually have had that accent. Also, they did a thing that movies used to do with people like that. Characters who were from another country would insist on speaking back – they can understand English clearly. So Holly speaks to her in English. And the nanny answers back in half-English/half-Spanish pointlessly. Like for instance she’ll use the word Si instead of Yes. Just pointlessly as if to say, see, I’m from another country, but I’m nice.
John: But let’s talk about why that character exists. It’s because they want to establish that they have kids, but the kids are not going to be in the movie. Until they kind of very late in the story are in the movie. But that they’re not going to be a crucial factor in this. They’re not in jeopardy.
Craig: Correct. And if that character and those kids never came back again it would feel a bit cheap, like fake stakes. But they do interestingly enough in kind of a key scene later. So, again, the screenwriters here are doing an excellent job of making sure that they’re setting up pins. And I like it when movies setup pins and I don’t understand that they’re pins. I just think that they’re things. And then later I go, ooh, OK. I get it. I get it now.
John: So once we’ve established that Holly and John McClane have kids, that they’re with the nanny, we meet Argyle, who is to me a very problematic character in this story.
John: He was a good idea who has like three or four beats. None of the beats where Argyle is by himself work especially well. This initial scene where he’s sort of welcoming John McClane to Los Angeles is probably the best of his beats.
Craig: I mean, it’s the only one really where he gets to be kind of vaguely human. I mean, look, Argyle is a regressive racial stereotype. And that’s not any offense to the actor playing him. That guy did his job, right. He was paid to do a job. He was an actor. And this is reality. This is why Robert Townsend made Hollywood Shuffle. I mean, this was the deal back then.
But it is kind of this kind of over smiley stereotype. And in fact when John McClane realizes that Argyle, even the name alone feels regressive, when Argyle is going to be his chauffeur he looks at him like, uh, really. They sent me a black guy as a driver? You feel like he’s a racist in that moment. Like all right I’ll give you a chance, kid. I mean, it’s weird. It’s weird. Argyle’s insistence on being super friendly to John McClane is weird. It doesn’t…ugh.
John: Yeah. So I think of all the subplots this is a subplot you could entirely take out and the movie would survive well. Because Argyle does nothing especially important throughout the rest of it.
So John McClane could take a taxi to the building and the same conversation could have been happening with the taxi driver.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, honestly Argyle weirdly seems like he’s there to close one of the strangest plot loops ever, which is the two black guys in the movie have to like – one black guy has to knock the other one out. You can only defeat a black man with another black man. It’s the weirdest – it’s 1988. It’s, oof. Yeah. Not great in that regard.
John: So here’s a moment that I really enjoyed as I watched it again was that once John McClane gets to the iconic–
Craig: Nakatomi Building.
John: Nakatomi Plaza Tower. So if you are coming to Los Angeles you will see the Nakatomi Plaza Tower because it is still kind of by itself. It is at the edge of the Fox Studio lot. If you’re parking there you will often park in this parking structure where Argyle parks.
Craig: It is not actually the Nakatomi Building. It is the Fox Building.
John: It is the Fox Building. And it is nearly as empty now as it was during the time of this because everyone has moved out of Fox.
Craig: I have never been in that building.
John: Oh I’ve been there.
Craig: Who is in that building?
John: Well, different stuff is in there at different times. And it’s not entirely Fox stuff that’s in there. I think it was business affairs-y kinds of things would be in the Fox Building.
Craig: Business affairs-y kind of things.
John: Yeah. So he arrives at this building and in singing in he has to use a computer screen which felt like very impressive for sort of the time.
John: And it’s just there to establish that his wife is not using his last name. And that is both a character moment but it becomes a very crucial plot moment because it’s why Gruber does not recognize that Holly is McClane’s wife.
Craig: And this is something this movie does really well over and over and over. It’s not content with a very simple linear I’m going to show you a thing because it means one thing. They’re really good at multi-purpose use of things. And we love that as an audience. When we think we know why something is in a movie and then the audience says, oh no, no, no, no, there’s another reason why. It gets us very excited.
John: And so that front desk will also become a recurring set because they will be putting in their own fake person at that front desk who Al will be interfacing with. So that becomes useful later on.
Craig: At this point in the movie I think we’ve met Hart Bochner playing Harry Ellis.
John: We have met Hart Bochner. So this is another like only in the ‘80s kind of character we could find.
John: So Hart Bochner as an actor, great, whatever, loving it. But like as a character I would say a smart choice to make somebody that you actually hate more than the terrorists, who you really want to see die.
Craig: Yeah, he was an incredibly broad comic character. I mean, someone said we want you to play – so again, 1988 politics. America was obsessed with Yuppies. So children, gather around. A Yuppie was a young, urban professional. Back in those days people were angry that there were people who were young, urban professionals. They hated them. They hated them for things like eating quiche. Quiche is delicious.
Craig: It’s eggs and cheese. If you have scrambled eggs and cheese, then you’re a perfectly fine He-Man trucker. If you eat cheese, then you’re no good. You’re Yuppie scum. And so they said to Hart Bochner we want you to play the scummiest, skeeviest Yuppie ever. And he probably showed them a version of it and they said, no, bigger. And then he’s like, OK. And then they were like, no, bigger. Snort coke. Say bubby. Be a total jerk. Bigger. Bigger!
And he did it. He hit the mark.
John: That’s what an actor does.
Craig: Listen, he followed his direction. Hat’s off. It’s not his fault.
John: So when he ultimately meets his fate we’re not that sad.
Craig: No. But I don’t remember necessarily feeling like thrilled either, because he just didn’t seem like a human being.
John: That is true.
Craig: He seemed so ridiculous. Whereas Bill Atherton, who made a wonderful career in the ‘80s of playing dickheads – “Yes, it’s true, this man has no dick” – from Ghostbusters. He’s playing the exact same character from Ghostbusters. A vicious prick. And he manages to seem real.
John: Yeah. A fine line. All right, so John McClane reaches the party. So to me it feels a little bit weird that you go to the party and not go to see your kids, but anyway he goes to the party.
Craig: I know.
John: But I buy it. At the start of this movie where I’m just learning the rules I bought that he’s going there first. And I do like that he’s seeing his wife. And it also feels like they might be getting – things might be going OK. And then they fall into their old patterns. And I thought those scenes were well handled.
Craig: I mean, there really is a scene. I mean, they have a scene. So he’s in her office which is more like a hotel room than an office. It just makes no sense.
John: Well, an executive bathroom.
Craig: Right. But then she says she’s really envious of Hart Bochner’s executive bathroom, which makes no sense because she’s technically his boss. I don’t understand any of it. And also she has a bathroom. It looks really nice. By the way, this is one of those movies that is simply impossible in the age of cell phones. But let’s put that aside.
They have one scene. And in that once scene you get the sense that she still loves him, which is important for us in the audience to know. That there’s hope. And then he has to be a dick about it because of the name thing. And when she marches out of there angry – oh, and I should say he’s washing up and in doing so he has removed his shirt to have his wife beater tee underneath. Did that cause any feelings for you as a young man?
John: Oh yeah. I think there’s a whole conversation to be had about sort of the wardrobe, but really Bruce Willis’s body which is sort of a central thing that changes so much over the course of the movie. He keeps stripping down to less, and less, and less.
Craig: But I didn’t remember that – in my mind I think he just flew out to Los Angeles in his wife beater tee-shirt. I forgot that he was wearing clothes and he just happened to have taken them off when things go down. So that’s such a – as a kid watching it I must have just thought, OK, he’s running around. Now I watch it and go, oh my god, there must have been so many meetings. And Bruce Willis was like, no, this is the one.
Craig: This one makes me look great.
John: And also if you look at sort of the wardrobe department and also makeup, having to figure out like how dirty he is at every moment.
Craig: Continuity. Good lord.
John: The continuity of that would be so tough. Because his tee-shirt goes through at least 17 shades of brown and gray.
Craig: I mean, I’ll say this much at least. For a movie that costs, I think it was like $25 million which was quite a bit back then, it couldn’t have been all blown on his wardrobe. You can get 1,000 of those tee-shirts to have 1,000 different stages of distress and you’ll be fine.
John: Yep. He arrives at the party. A guy kisses him. He freaks out about that.
Craig: He goes, “California.” But what he’s really is like, “Gay.” I mean, the whole thing, it’s so clear he’s just like, “New York is straight and California is gay. Argh.” Yeah.
John: And then suddenly we are in plot. We’re in a heist plot. And so this is 20 minutes in. We have the first hero shot of Rickman. We’ve taken out the security guard. And we’re starting to establish this misdirect that they are some kind of idealistic terrorists and quickly we’ll learn that they are just actually thieves.
Craig: No in today’s era because of our – in a weird way Die Hard is one of the movies that starts to accelerate first acts. Because the first act is rather short here. If you want to call it acts. I mean, one of the nice things about watching Die Hard is you never feel an act ever. It just sort of proceeds. Today people might say to you, “We need to start with these terrorists doing something terrible so we know who they are before we meet our guy.” No. This is a much better way. And in so many ways this movie is special and works because of an actor that we were introduced to, the late, great Alan Rickman, who seems like he has parachuted in from an entirely other genre.
Craig: He’s like a Bond villain almost. He’s brilliant. He’s so well spoken. And fascinating. And small in his behaviors. And we’d never had villains like that. Traditionally in these movies we have psychos or we have steroid freaks.
John: Yeah. And so if he were the Bond villain then we would have a James Bond opposite him. So to have like an ordinary guy opposite him is fascinating. The other thing I think works so well about Alan Rickman’s character is from his perspective he’s Danny Ocean and this is Ocean’s 11.
John: And so, yes, he’s willing to kill some people to do it, but like killing people and doing evil is not his goal at all. His goal is the $640 million of bearers bonds. He has a plan for how he’s going to do that. And he is methodical. He has assembled a team. You could have a whole other movie which is just about him putting the script together and planning this heist.
Craig: Yeah. And what’s really interesting about his whole the villain is the hero of his own movie essence is that while we have a very simple motivation which we need, we’re certainly clear about what he wants. He makes it clear to Takagi, “Who said we were terrorists?” So that’s the first big twist. Like, oh, they’re not terrorists, they’re thieves, which was great. But later you also learn that he was a terrorist. He was part of a terrorist movement. And they kicked him out theoretically because he actually was just more interested in being a thief. That’s a fascinating guy.
I’m not as interested in zealots as I am in calculating people who are just one millimeter away from the reality of what our hero is like. A man of purpose, as it were.
John: So thinking about him as the Danny Ocean of this movie, he has a plan and a timeline and they lay out the timeline very clearly. So, it’s going to take two hours to break this code, then 2.5 hours to break through these different locks. So, you know, we very explicitly put out the exposition of this is what’s going to need to happen. You’re giving the audience a road map for these are the things that are going to have to happen for this to progress so we know that, OK, the movie cannot be over until all these things have happened.
Craig: Yeah. It’s perfect. Of all the mechanisms to provide an audience with a sense of structure. When we talk about structure we’re saying something is holding all of this up. There’s a spine. And to say here’s this big ass vault and it has seven locks. And it’s going to take me a few hours to get through one through six. But I’ve already told you I don’t know how to get through seven. And Alan Rickman says, “Don’t worry, I’ll handle number seven.” We know that there is a countdown of locks. Literally a number. And we can watch them as they go. It’s not a ticking clock at the end. The whole thing has a clock to it and that’s gorgeous.
John: Yeah. Once they start shooting up the party and once things start going down, John McClane has escaped from there. He’s running through the hallways. He’s going up the stairs. And he starts to do what I think is appropriate. What is the best thing for me to do right now? And he doesn’t just charge in to try to save everybody. He’s like I need to get help and he works on trying to get help, which is a good, natural response, and not a movie hero response, but is actually what a real person would try to do. How do I get somebody to show up here?
Craig: Right. And there’s a line that Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza have in here. He is present but hiding when he sees Mr. Takagi murdered by Alan Rickman. And he runs away. They hear him. They chase after him. But they don’t see him. He escapes. And when we see him next he is by himself and he is saying, “Why didn’t you do something, you idiot?” And then he goes, “Because you would have been as dead as he is.” So in his mind he’s talking it through so that we know – and this is important – you can feel the note on this. So is he a coward? No, he’s not a coward. He literally says out loud, “I’m not a coward. I’m smart.”
John: His plan is to contact the police and get police out there and get this handled. He tries to do it and this is the first of many classic examples of just like he has a plan and it falls apart because of this obstacle, things he couldn’t anticipate.
The police just don’t take him seriously.
Craig: Right. This is the beginning of incompetent police work. But before we get to the police we have another relationship that we learn about, for a very fleeting moment, but it is perfectly efficient. It is the relationship between Karl and his brother. These are two German brothers, although one of them is a Russian in real life. A ballet dancer at that. And they are both criminals, obviously as part of this gang. Karl seems to be a bit of a hot head. His brother is a bit more methodical and careful. And that’s all we know. That’s all we need to know. Because what’s going to happen is Karl’s brother will be the first terrorist that dies, not because McClane murders him, importantly because they fight. He doesn’t murder him. They fight and they fall down the stairs and Karl’s brother breaks his neck.
Craig: Smart choice. And now we know that Karl, hot head that he is, has become essentially the nemesis here, which is really smart. Hans Gruber is the brain. He’s the real villain. But Karl is like nature. And you can’t stop Karl. Wonderful. We do have gratuitous nudity as well, very classic 1980s. Classic.
John: Yes. Hard to fit into a modern movie than before.
Craig: Wouldn’t do it.
John: We’re fast forwarding through the movie as we look at this. One of the things I will say is that I was impressed by the photography overall in Die Hard. A thing you definitely notice about 1980 that was hard to do is big wide night shots. We just didn’t have the technology to make those look great. And so there are moments where the helicopter gunships are coming and it’s OK as long as they’re in the city space. But there’s just not enough light to sort of light the city of Los Angeles. And some of the big nighttime shots are really dark.
Craig: Yeah. They do a great job here. They also use so many different environments in this building. You feel like they devoured this building and used every possible piece. You have cinderblock environments. You have construction areas. And they even set up the fact that the building is not complete. Takagi says, “It’s still a work in progress.” And you can see that. So that’s explained.
You’re in elevator shafts. You’re in ducts. You’re in these beautiful offices. You’re in an atrium. They really do use everything, every part of this building. And then that great roof. I never – and I still don’t – understand exactly how a building like this is put together. It seems like it has been put together for the purposes of a movie. There’s all these cool railings and grills and fans and things. But it never crosses the line into what I would call Michael Bay-ville where everything seems art directed. It doesn’t. It actually seems real even though it’s not.
John: In terms of talking about the physical spaces, watching this again I noticed that there’s a pinup poster on one wall. And we come back to it a second time. He notices it the first time and he comes back to it again. And it’s a very useful way of reestablishing, OK, we’re back on that same floor. Because things would otherwise be very confusing.
Craig: Again, using gratuitous nudity.
John: But it helps you remember that you’ve seen that thing before and we’re back in that same place.
Craig: I remembered it.
John: Otherwise rooms could look the same.
Craig: No, exactly. And this was another way that they could answer these questions. And these are the kinds of questions that you and I get all the time. I remember when I turned the first script in for the first Chernobyl. One of the questions was, “How are we going to tell all these people apart? We don’t know the actors. We don’t know their names. And they’re all wearing the exact same thing.” And we were like I guess we’re going to have to cast carefully. But the truth is these are the things you’ve got to worry about.
John: You do.
Craig: I could see in Die Hard like how are we going to know what floor we’re on. Well, most of the times you don’t. But some of the times – there was a computer room. That was its own thing.
John: I had no sense of where that computer room was in the building. It does not matter at all.
Craig: Doesn’t matter.
John: I know the lobby is on the ground floor. I know the party is up high. The reason why we needed that pinup is because the fact that we’ve been there before means he has a knowledge of how to get out of that floor, which is very important.
John: All right. So finally he gets up to the roof. He uses the radio. He calls the police. They don’t believe him. But ultimately they say, “OK, we’ll send a car to do a drive by.”
Craig: It’s insane. So in this world the Los Angeles police department their special thing that they monitor, they’re all in some kind of weird Death Star environment. It’s this dark room with blinking lights. And they don’t believe anybody who calls them about anything.
Craig: There’s even gunshots in the radio. They don’t care. And John McClane bizarrely – oh, well, he doesn’t identify himself as a police officer in part because he knows that they’re listening. And then you get this other relationship in the movie which frankly for me as a kid was the relationship I felt, more than his relationship with Holly.
John: Well let’s talk about Al Powell. So Al Powell is the guy who shows up. When we first meet Al Powell he is buying Twinkies at a convenient store. It’s not an amazing scene. It establishes him as an ordinary Joe. Again, a working class man.
Craig: You know–
John: He’s not eating the fancy pastries. He’s eating Twinkies.
Craig: If you watch this movie one thing you will notice is that everything that happens that’s funny happens when Alan Rickman is doing it, or when Bruce Willis is doing it. If those guys aren’t in the scene and funny things are happening they are not funny.
John: They’re meant to be funny, but they don’t really work.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t think John McTiernan was necessarily the funniest director. So, your choice there is he’s an overweight cop and he’s buying Twinkies, but he has him buying like 12? Who can eat 12 Twinkie boxes?
John: They’re talking about his wife being pregnant. It didn’t make sense.
Craig: None of it works. None of it works. Similarly when Hart Bochner is giving his whole, “Hey, bubby, I’m going to…” Doesn’t work. It’s just not funny. Rickman is funny and Willis is funny. But, Al Powell is instantly likeable.
John: That’s what you needed.
Craig: He is a sweetheart. He lets the 7-11 guy kind of push him around even, you know. And he’s smart, clearly. And we’re immediately on his side. We feel good about this. We’re just a little worried that maybe he doesn’t fit the action hero vibe. So if this is the only friend that our action hero has, what does that mean for our story?
John: The other crucial thing about the Al Powell/John McClane relationship is that McClane can’t be honest with him about certain things because other people are listening in.
John: So it’s that challenge of how you establish a relationship with somebody you don’t know and who cannot be fully honest with you. And so that starts the whole cowboy discussion. And call me Roy. All the stuff that they’re doing, they can talk about some things, but there’s a limit to it. And that’s a great obstacle to put in front of your characters.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, Al Powell literally says to his awful boss, who was the awful teacher from Breakfast Club, “I think he’s a cop, because I basically have a hunch.” Meaning we’re talking guy talk to each other. Like we’re men. We’re having a man conversation. Again, you pencil neck twerps would never understand. But that is the bond they have. They’re two regular guys.
And that eventually will blossom into something really meaningful when they have this kind of – one of the more famous “my brother fell into a lake” stories in any movie ever. Which is the story of what happened to Al Powell.
John: Yeah. So when we get to one hour, one minute into the film we introduce a brand new obstacle, brand new character, which is the news reporter who wants the scoop. And so this conversation that has been happening on the radio, they get word of it. They get word that there’s an incident happening at this tower. The news reporter is obsessed with getting the scoop and getting there. It’s late to establish new characters, but one of the things I love about this movie is that this movie is not afraid to introduce new characters late and just create new problems and new obstacles. So this is a character who has a three or four beat arc and it mostly works.
Craig: It mostly works. Look, one of the beautiful things about casting is sometimes that solves your screenwriting problem. If you cast William Atherton in 1988 and you put him in that suit and that tie you know he’s a problem. He’s a jerk who cares only about himself. He’s going to be arrogant. And he’s going to screw things up in a way that makes the audience go, “No, you idiot!” That’s what he does. You don’t need a lot of explanation.
But all these pins have been lined up. We know that this marriage is in trouble. We know that Holly knows that John’s running around the building because only John can make people that upset.
Craig: We know that Karl is a hot head who now has a reason to hate John McClane irrationally. We know that Hans Gruber is a cold, calculating man. We know that there’s a guy out there who understands what’s going on but he himself is limited. He seems scared and timid. All these things are all set up and the pins will fall.
John: Yes. And consider the studio note saying like, “Oh, can we set up the news reporter earlier?” The answer is no. Because if we set up the news reporter earlier we would expect to have an arc or more important stuff and you would need to be checking in with that character again. And we’d really have the same problem that we have with Argyle in the limo which is like there’s not enough for him to do, and so we have to sort of keep checking in and giving him BS stuff to sort of remind you that he exists.
Craig: Yeah. It would be cut. You don’t need – I’m sure that they looked at Ghostbusters and said, yeah, they didn’t need to set up the EPA guy either. Just being him in. Announce that he’s EPA and have him start being a dick.
John: That’s all you need.
Craig: That’s all you need.
John: All right. So then we get to another big action sequence. Send in the tank. Which is the first idea – send in the car which is really this tank which is going to charge up. It’s the first time we see that – this is also very 1980s. Very sort of like bring in the military, like bring in the big power stuff. And we also see that the bad guys have [unintelligible] grenades and they were prepared for this.
Craig: Just like John McClane warned them. But because they are elitists, probably globalists, they don’t care. They are too self-assured. And through one of the strangest exercises of chain and command ever they make one of the dumbest possible decisions that no police department – I mean, police must have been so frustrated watching these things back then. But regardless, it goes poorly for them.
And this is important because what the movie continually reinforces for us is that the only way this is going to be fixed is by one guy in that building. Not only is the cavalry not going to help. They’re going to make things worse over and over and over. And they’re going to make things worse in a beautiful way.
When the cops finally do arrive Hans Gruber says to his men, “OK, calm down, it’s a little earlier than we thought. But it was inevitable. It was going to happen no matter what. And in some ways it needed to happen.” Well that’s an interesting bit. And I definitely didn’t pick up on that as a kid as being somehow foreshadowing in any way, shape, or form. But you got the sense that that wasn’t normal. Like this guy really is in remarkable control.
One more screenwriting note that I love. John McClane makes his presence known to the terrorists by after he kills Karl’s brother he duct tapes him to a chair. He writes, “Now I have a machine gun, Ho-Ho-Ho,” on his shirt, which is the greatest thing of all time.
John: Writes it on a [crosstalk].
Craig: And he sends him down the elevator. Alan Rickman is explaining to the hostages that there’s nothing they can do. They have thought of everything. Nothing has been left to chance. And then the elevator door opens and there’s one of their guys murdered. It’s really funny. And it makes us appreciate the whole thing. That little bit of kind of counterpoint was I thought really well done. And again Alan Rickman makes it funny.
John: Yes. All right. So the tank did not go well. Basically we see the police fail again and again, because they are not doing what John McClane would have them do. John McClane has limited ability to influence what they can do and he doesn’t want to reveal who he actually is.
John: Yes. These are obstacles. These are all good things. Now, Ellis, who is another person we know is going to be a problem, because we set him up from the start that–
Craig: He loves cocaine and he wants to sleep with Holly.
John: And he wants to intervene. He wants to prove that he’s the person who can solve the situation. He goes in to negotiate.
Craig: More great Alan Rickman stuff. Because Hart Bochner is like, “You know, the way I see it you guys are…” And Alan Rickman just goes, “Amazing. You figured it all out.” He’s just so great. He’s so funny. And as that’s happening you’re like, oh man, Hart Bochner. You’re going to die. I can’t even get excited about you dying. You’re so definitely going to die.
John: But what surprised me watching this again is I assumed that the Ellis character was going to give up Holly. And instead he tries to play this thing that they’re old friends. And for a moment you’re like, oh, you’re not as dumb as I thought you were. This could work out. And you have little moments of hope. And then it doesn’t go well and McClane says like don’t believe this guy.
Craig: He’s trying to save him. And this is a classic hero moment. Great thing for screenwriters to do. When your hero attempts – is such a good person, despite the many killings that they are doing, that they’re even trying to help somebody that’s trying to betray and hurt them.
John: Yes. Ellis does not survive this discussion.
John: Nope. And a good escalation. After Ellis has been killed, Rickman takes the radio, holds it out to the crowd so that McClane can hear everyone screaming. Making it clear to McClane and to the police outside this has ratchet up a notch.
Craig: And now you get the sense that Hans Gruber is punching back. Also incredibly important. So one of the things that I talked about in How to Make a Movie is when your character is kind of doing well, you have to punish them for it. Because you need to feel that what they eventually have to do has to be really hard. You just don’t want to give them too many wins. You want to make it hurt as much as you can. So in the theory that you’re an angry god punishing your hero, Die Hard does a great job.
John: Absolutely. Rickman asks for some prisoner releases. He wants these terrorists released from prison. Again, it’s a misdirection. And at this point we fully know that it’s not real. But it starts things scrambling. And it’s also going to be a way to involve the FBI because it goes beyond what the local police could do. And we realize that Gruber actually wanted a certain plan to be put into place.
Craig: It’s a great plot twist. The FBI is even stupider than the Los Angeles Police Department, which again – note, again, when Rickman or Willis are not on screen the jokes are not great jokes. The whole like we’re two FBI agents with the same names, it just–
John: Actually I kind of liked that.
Craig: It’s fine, but it’s not ha-ha funny.
John: Here’s what it was. I liked that they showed up and they were given some line and some bit of business to let me know – some sense that they did exist before they walked onto that screen.
John: There’s also a moment in the helicopter where they say, you know, “It reminds me of Saigon.” I was in Junior High. There is a tension there before this all happens.
Craig: Sure. Yeah. It’s just broad.
John: It’s broad.
Craig: It’s broad. I mean, that’s the thing. When you look at what – I mean, Alan Rickman, who I didn’t know Alan Rickman before Die Hard. He walks over and he looks at that shirt and he says in his accent, which is barely German-tinged, but mostly just Alan Rickman, “Now I have a machine gun.” And they were so smart to smush up the shirt so he has to push it down. “Ho-Ho-Ho.” It’s so great. He’s so funny. Ah, the best. I miss him.
John: So an hour and 28 in. We go back to the newsroom and this is a scene that no one remembers, but they have an expert on terrorism there who has written a book about terrorism. And they’re interviewing him and they say like Helsinki, and then he goes Sweden, no Finland, just to show that they’re buffoons.
Craig: Experts are stupid and bad. And only the average Joe on the street can solve a problem.
John: Looking at this I was trying to decide why it stayed in the movie and I think it’s actually just to provide a little space between some other beats. I feel like this scene could be dropped, but you look at what’s before and after they needed just a tiny breath and this little scene with this terrorism guy gives you a tiny breath. And reminds you that the news people are going to be in this movie.
Craig: Yeah. It does. It may also be the result of personal ax-grinding. I mean, sometimes when things stay in movies it’s because somebody goes, “Yeah.” Like maybe Joel Silver was like, “Yeah, screw you experts. I love it. It’s staying in.” You never know with these things.
John: Now, one hour, 31 minutes into the film a surprising moment happens which is a face-to-face meeting between Gruber and McClane, which is completely unexpected and it’s not set up. It’s suddenly just happening. Gruber is for some reason looking at the detonators that are on the ceiling. We don’t know what they’re there for. Is it a bit of a stretch that he’s doing this himself? Sure. But most of his men are dead, so OK. But it’s one of the sort of signature moments that happens in this film which is that you have the two characters together. They don’t know who each other is. And we see that Gruber is really smart in the moment and is playing himself as a hostage who escaped.
Craig: It is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a movie because until it happens you don’t even realize it was possible. You’re so surprised by it. It’s not like you’re sitting around going, you know, they haven’t seen each other’s faces. He doesn’t know what Hans Gruber looks like. What if he runs into Hans Gruber? Will he know? Because they’re in a building. I mean, Nakatomi Corporation apparently is a business corporation that does business. We don’t know what they do.
Craig: But they’re all in suits and ties. And so is Hans Gruber.
Craig: In fact, he makes a point of saying that he’s dressed like them. That he has suits just like Mr. Takagi. Ah, it’s gorgeous. When that happens it is so shocking, it is so delightful, and it’s also terrifying. Because your hero that you root for has never been more vulnerable. The movie actually becomes a horror film at that point. And it is awesome.
John: So let’s talk about who has access to what information, because that becomes a crucial thing throughout all of Die Hard is that as the audience we tend to have more information than any of the characters do. We’re largely omniscient. We get to see everyone’s point of view. So, we know a lot of things that McClane doesn’t know. We know things that Gruber doesn’t know. That’s all really helpful.
In this one small tiny moment the delicious agony is that we know that McClane is in great danger and McClane does not know that he’s in great danger. And we are terrified that something bad is going to happen to him. And the movie has to make the decision about are we going to show to the audience that McClane has caught on or not. And I bet they went back and forth 100 times over that.
Craig: It also does this incredible service to the ending, because what you don’t want is for them to come face-to-face at the end and go, oh, that’s what you look like. And now let us have our final. This creates an additional level of relationship between the two of them. There is a formidability to this back and forth. And if you are looking at Die Hard as a celebration of the common man against the snobby thinkers of the world, the so-called smart people, this is what you would do. This is where the common man may take a step back because that smart guy is plotting and scheming the way that smart people do. They can manipulate. They can fool you. But in the end you’ll beat them with your heart and muscle.
Craig: But it’s a great moment. And I think that there’s a moment where he realizes that Hans Gruber is not–
John: Watching it again, it doesn’t telegraph itself too big or too loud that he really is ahead of him. It’s not until you actually hear the click-click that the gun is empty that you realize that McClane was onto him or at least was suspicious.
Craig: Right. There’s apparently a scene that was cut, or a moment that was cut where, a bunch of moments, where every time McClane would kill one of these guys, when he first kills Karl’s brother he–
John: Takes off the watch.
Craig: Yeah. He checks his shirt and goes, OK, they’re dressed in fancy Euro clothes. But, yes, he looks at the watch and apparently he was supposed to look, and there’s footage of him, looking at all their watches. Because they all sync their watches in a scene that was also cut. So when he notices Hans Gruber’s watch that’s when he apparently in the cut version, the cut scene, that’s when he actually put it all together on screen.
John: Following this moment is another iconic Shoot the Glass.
Craig: Shoot the Glass.
John: Basically there’s a lot of automatic weapon fire happening. Somehow desks are able to withstand a tremendous amount of bullets.
Craig: Yep. [Unintelligible] armor.
John: But by shooting at the glass he sees that McClane is barefoot. We’ve established that Gruber knows that McClane is barefoot and he tells them shoot at that glass because it will hurt him.
Craig: One of the best and strangest moments in film history. A German man says to another German man, “Shoot the glass,” in German. And the other German man just looks at him like, what?
John: [Speaks in German].
Craig: And he repeats it in English and that’s what the German guy understands. Shoot the glass. It is so odd. I have been laughing about this since 1988. But I love it. What can I say?
John: So if this wasn’t bad enough, at one hour and 38 minutes the news reporters have discovered John McClane’s home address. And so we know that’s a thing that’s going to happen.
Craig: Oh, William Atherton. So this accelerates the ending. So this is what’s pouring fuel on the ending. And now we know that there’s a real ticking clock. So we have the ticking clock of the vault being opened. But the ticking clock for John McClane isn’t enough like we’ll kill you. The real ticking clock is we know who you are, so we know who Holly is, so now she’s in jeopardy.
John: Yep. She’s in individual jeopardy.
John: As he’s picking glass out of his feet we have this scene which I think you referred to earlier on which is the Al scene of “I shot a kid.” Talk to me about that.
Craig: Correct. So we sometimes talk about this about “my brother drowned” scene. A character will tell a sob story about their past. It usually involves somebody dying that they couldn’t save but wanted to. And in this case it’s a variation of that. Al Powell shot a kid and it was a mistake. It was justified. They craft the story very carefully so that you understand he wasn’t like some hot head jerk cop. He really did think his life was in danger. He just was wrong. And he’s been beating himself up over it ever since. And therefore can’t get back on the horse. He’s not suitable really to be a real cop because as we know from these movies real cops shoot people.
John: They do.
Craig: That’s what they do. They’re constantly plugging people and they don’t hesitate. So that’s his damage is that he actually feels bad about murdering someone, which is amazing. But, it is the kind of hetero male bonding that was allowable in 1988.
John: Absolutely. I think it’s an important moment. It gives Bruce Willis something to do other than just pick the glass out of his feet. Bruce Willis is doing a great job of acting the pain of that. And it’s a gruesome moment. But if he hadn’t had a conversation during that time you would never have been able to stay in that scene as long as you did.
Craig: This is the last break you get. And it’s important to give people a break. Actually it prepares them. Because what’s going to happen from this point forward is a relentless race to an explosive end, and then another explosive end. It’s going to be exciting. They need a breather. And they need some context. And they need to feel something, especially because this is going to set up the ending for Al Powell.
John: So once the news report happens Gruber realizes that Holly is McClane’s wife. A great line I loved here, she says that, “He’s a common thief.” “I’m an exceptional thief. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.”
Craig: Right. And the way he says these things is just so great.
John: And the FBI of course is going to accelerate things in stupid, dumb ways. So first off they want to cut the power. That was always part of the plan because the electromagnetic locks–
Craig: He says in the beginning, their hacker safe cracker says, “The problem with the seven is it’s an electromagnetic lock. And the power cannot be turned off locally. It has to be the whole grid.”
John: Does that make any sense? No. But it doesn’t have to.
Craig: Doesn’t have to. Makes no sense. But Hans Gruber, he knows that the FBI as a matter of protocol will shut the power off on the grid. Which again, OK, fine, not sure about that either. And he says something that has been rattling around in my brain for all these many 32 years. And that is, “You ask for a miracle, I give you the F. B. I.” And now musically, there’s been little hints of Ode to Joy throughout this whole thing, and weirdly usually presented with Hans Gruber in a kind of weird creepy style. And now the full Ode to Joy begins. And, again, this is a smart again.
John: Yeah. Again, this is the Ocean’s 11 part of it. He’s Danny Ocean. He had a secret special plan. This is also around the time where a van backs out of this truck, or an ambulance backs out of the truck which is meant to be their getaway thing.
John: It doesn’t really pay off right. And in reading about that it looks like there was a different thing that sort of got cut and moved about that. But we’re seeing their whole plan and it does look like their plan is going to work out properly.
Craig: Precisely. And you want that. You want to believe that they have many more tricks up their sleeves. You want to feel like your hero is behind the eight ball here because the only way they’re going to succeed, the only way that John McClane is going to save his wife and defeat Hans Gruber and these kidnappers and save all these hostages is by doing something we can’t foresee. Something that is going to require him to do things he didn’t even know he could do.
John: Yep. Including defeat the giant Russian guy in a fist fight.
Craig: Correct. And that is something that we’ve been waiting for the whole movie. We’ve been waiting for this beast, this uncontrollable irrational beast that even Hans Gruber can’t control to face off with John McClane because, well, he feels like death is coming for you. He’s huge and he’s angry. But, you know, the good guy always wins.
John: The good guy is going to win.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. He chokes him with a chain.
John: With a chain. So by being smarter and more wily he’s going to beat him. Because he’s not going to beat him through–
Craig: You can’t punch that guy out.
John: So the plan was to blow up the roof when the helicopters land because it will create such chaos. It won’t be clear who lived and who died. The roof does blow up. John McClane does jump off the building with the hose. It really is an amazing–
Craig: It’s awesome.
John: Amazing idea. Amazing moment. Really well shot. It works great.
Craig: It’s great.
John: And I loved that the second beat of like shooting through the window, getting in, and getting dragged back out by the weight of things. Just remembering that gravity exists. Terrific.
Craig: The physics of it are great. It was beautifully directed. I mean, John McTiernan did an incredible job there. Yeah, no, love it.
John: Cool. Finally, we get the final showdown. So Holly is now a full damsel hostage. We have Gruber and one guy who is still left alive.
John: And we get to the moment of John McClane only has two bullets. There’s no way he’s going to be able to make this thing happen. We don’t know exactly what he’s going to do, but we see him looking at some wrapping people and such.
Craig: Because it’s a Christmas movie.
John: Because it’s a Christmas movie. It’s fundamentally a Christmas movie. He ends up when told to drop his weapon he drops his weapon. Of course he has the gun taped to his back.
Craig: His police gun.
John: His police gun. His real gun.
Craig: The only gun you really need as a cop.
John: Absolutely. Because only terrorists use–
Craig: Only terrorists. That stuff, it’s like poison. No, a man uses a gun that fits in his hand.
John: And then with two amazing perfect shots, because he’s apparently an amazing shot.
Craig: Of course.
John: Even though no one tends to get hit by actual bullets in this movie, he is able to hit two people in precisely a single shot.
Craig: Storm Trooper rules at work.
John: Absolutely. Gruber goes through the window, still holding on to Holly.
John: The watch has to be removed.
Craig: The watch needs to be removed because honestly, you know, she needs to come back home. It’s regressive. But regardless at least it was set up. And Hans Gruber falls to his death with this great look on his face of like how did this happen. Like this is not how this is supposed to end. He seemed so confused.
I also like the fact that honestly, so 1988 green screen was still kind of, you know, it had been used for about a decade or more, but it was still a little funky. And I kind of like that it’s funky. It made things special back then. Now I just feel like, oh yeah, it looks so real that it’s fake.
John: So the legend is that they actually dropped Rickman before they said they were going to drop him and that’s why he has that expression that he has. They said we’ll drop you on three and they dropped him on two.
Craig: Oh, I like that. That’s cool. I mean, he definitely looks scared.
John: He does look scared. Let’s do the Lindsay Doran, making sure that we’re talking about what the real victory is in the movie versus the fake victory. Because Alan Rickman’s death is not the victory of the movie. The victory of the movie is getting back with Holly. And it is walking out of the building with the wife. You’re both wearing your first responder jackets over your ruined clothes.
Craig: As you should in these movies. You always have to wear a blanket or a jacket because saving the world makes you cold. We know this for a fact. But in the end there are two relationships we care about. John McClane and Holly. And John McClane and Al Powell. And both of those relationships are how this movie ends. That’s how a movie should end. Karl rises from the near dead–
John: Classic Fatal Attraction. You have to.
Craig: Classic Fatal Attraction. But who kills him? Al Powell, who has regained the courage to murder people. [laughs] I assume he gets a promotion because of that.
John: Absolutely. It’s like a Christmas Carol in a very messed up way.
Craig: I can kill people. [laughs]
John: The miracle of Christmas.
Craig: Yes, Merry Christmas everyone.
John: Oh, and then Argyle drives them home.
Craig: And then Argyle.
John: And gets the last line of the movie.
Craig: What is the last line of the movie?
John: Last line of the movie is, “If this is their idea of Christmas, I got to be there for New Year’s.”
Craig: Well there you go. There’s your sequel setup. That also feels like Joel Silver.
John: It does. And so watching the movie I was like, oh my god, like the last line of Go is almost the same line.
Craig: What is it?
John: I had no idea. “So, what are we doing for New Year’s?”
Craig: It’s also the last line of Chernobyl. [laughs]
John: It’s a great last line. It makes sense. To me the going home with Argyle in the limo, fine, whatever.
Craig: It’s full circle.
John: It’s full circle. It is full circle.
Craig: They’re together. They’ve solved all their problems. And they’ll never have another problem again. Now, of course, Bruce Willis does have many more problems. There’s been a Die Hard 2, 3, 4, possibly 5?
John: I think there’s only four.
Craig: Four. One of the problems, sequels are really, really, really hard. And one of the problems is that the movie that happens in 1988 is of its time. As the years go on this guy isn’t really of his time. So, you know, it was harder and harder. I mean, I didn’t mind the sequels. Just, you know, this was special.
John: Well, also coincidences can happen once. And so–
Craig: It’s a little Murder She Wrote. Like maybe you’re the terrorist.
John: Yeah, maybe you’re the problem.
Craig: Maybe just stay home.
John: So let’s wrap this up by talking about what lessons we should be taking from Die Hard and which lessons we should not be taking from Die Hard. My lessons are that it is important to really be thinking about who is the central character in this story and not it’s this genre in a blank. And sort of like don’t just create the environment. You actually have to create who is the fascinating character in this environment who you want to follow through it.
Craig: Yeah. I would say that the big screenwriting lesson that I draw from Die Hard is if you want something to happen that solves a problem in a cool way in your script, that’s great, now go back and set it up. And don’t set it up in a way that’s obvious. Set it up in a way that will make the eventual emergence of this thing surprising and fun. Gives the audience a sense that there was an intelligence working behind the scenes that they weren’t aware of.
John: Yeah. The bad versions of this movie that I’ve seen since then, they do things in the setup that feel like, oh god, that’s so clearly a setup that’s going to payoff later on. And so when you can hide the setup that is so smart. So like the computer system with Holly’s name. That is a hide the setup kind of thing. And that’s what works.
Craig: Correct. One of the great terrible setups of all time is in a movie I love. Real Genius. I love Real Genius. William Atherton is in Real Genius.
Craig: Playing a dick. And early on in the movie he says to Val Kilmer, “I hate the smell of popcorn.” [laughs] Val Kilmer is eating popcorn. He goes, “What is that? I hate that smell. I hate the smell of popcorn. It’s disgusting.” Which is weird. And then at the end of the movie the big comeuppance is that they fill his house with popcorn. It’s just – when you see it you’re like there’s literally no reason for this to be here except to set something up later. So, yeah, don’t be obvious with the setups. They’re really good about this. And I also think there’s no wasted energy in this movie. Everything feels like it’s needed and necessary. And every scene propels to the next one.
John: Which is very crucial. Craig, thank you for this deep dive Die Hard. Merry Christmas.
Craig: Merry Christmas, John. And you know what?
Craig: If this is your idea of Christmas, I can’t wait to see what you do on New Year’s.
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- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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