31 Things We Learned from John McTiernan's ‘Die Hard’ Commentary

'Die Hard' remains an all-time action classic. This commentary? Not so much.

Die Hard
Twentieth Century Fox

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Jeremy Kirk makes fists with his toes and heads out to the coast for one hell of a party while listening to John McTiernan’s commentary on 1988’s Die Hard.

And welcome back to Commentary Commentary, our weekly scouring of the DVD shelves and all the vast film knowledge held therein. It’s time once again to listen to a feature-length film commentary from one of our most beloved films and go over all the great pieces of information we learn from it.

This week, we’ve got another classic, a film that sparked a whole sub-genre of other films. And, before you pitch the idea of “Die Hard on a Film Blog,” know that Joel Silver probably has three screenplays in his office with that exact same pitch. That’s right. This week, we’re cracking open our copy of Die Hard and going through the commentary. So sit back, enjoy how not Christmas-y it is right now, and drink some eggnog anyway. Hey, it couldn’t hurt.

Die Hard (1988)

Commentators: John McTiernan (director), Jackson De Govia (production designer), the bombastic sounds of “Ode to Joy”

  • McTiernan’s first concern with Die Hard was with having the villains be terrorists. He felt terrorists were too mean and didn’t agree to do the film until it could be figured out how to put “some joy in it.” McTiernan wanted to find a way to make the film more suitable for “Summer entertainment.” This was also the case in the decision made not to get involved in the terrorists’ politics but make them thieves only looking for monetary gain.
  • Nakotomi Plaza is actually Fox Plaza in Century City. As production designer, it was De Govia’s idea to use the Fox building as what is often regarded as the main character of the movie. The building was under construction during filming, and the set of the unfinished floor McClane walks through used actual construction equipment. “The Fox Plaza will forever be the Die Hard building.” – Jackson De Govia.
  • The opening scene is actually filmed on an airplane that is being towed around in circles.
  • The 34th floor of the Nakatomi building, the floor where the party is being held, particularly the giant rock with water dripping from it, is a recreation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. De Govia’s backstory on this is that, at the time, Japanese corporations were buying up America and that the Nakatomi Corporation had bought Fallingwater and reassembled it in their own building.
  • A painted backing wrapped around the 34th floor set to create outside L.A. It was 380 feet long and featured animated lights and various lighting techniques to create day and night effects. It’s still in Fox’s inventory and is periodically used for other films.
  • The Nakotomi logo was designed by De Govia, and the first concept was a little too Swastika-like for McTiernan. The eventual design used in the film is reminiscent of a Samurai warrior’s helmet.
  • At the beginning of filming, Die Hard’s ending had not been decided upon. In fact, when the terrorists come out of the back of the truck, you can see it is impossible for an ambulance to fit inside. That’s because the concept of the ambulance hadn’t been thought up yet. This fact haunts De Govia to this day.
  • “It was important to set up this character, because he is the one victim of this story really.” – McTiernan about Takagi, played by James Shigeta. Right, no love for Ellis. The guy just wanted coke.
  • Pacific Courier, the name and logo on the side of the truck carrying the terrorists, means “messenger of peace.” DeGovia used the same name and graphic for Speed and Die Hard With a Vengeance, the truck that blows up at the beginning of the film.
  • In the script, John McClane is a tough-as-nails New York cop, but McTiernan and Bruce Willis didn’t really have the character sorted out until about halfway through shooting. It was then they figured out this was a guy who didn’t like himself very much, but who’s doing the best he could. The little moment of McClane banging his head against the door frame after fighting with Holly was a reshoot done after the character was figured out.
  • McTiernan had an idea of using bits of a specific classical piece of music throughout Michael Kamen’s score. He felt this piece of classical music would help bring out the sense of joy he wanted for Die Hard. It wasn’t until later that McTiernan learned the name of that piece of music was “Ode to Joy.”
  • McTiernan brought Jan De Bont in as cinematographer because of his work with Paul Verhoeven. McTiernan wanted to give Die Hard a European sense of camera movement and structuring. This is indicated by the many shots in the film that seem to move around a focal character, a “movement on emotion” rather than “movement on physical movement of the character.” McTiernan also liked to cut between two shots in two separate locations that shared a similar camera movement to create flow over the entire story.
  • “I love sets you can destroy.” – Jackson De Govia. De Govia also strives to put realism into the sets of action films he works on. He needed to know how everything would happen, particularly with the elevators, if they had to happen in the real world.
  • There’s backstory regarding Takagi serving in the Japanese Navy in World War II. He served on a ship called the Akagi, hence the password to the vault, which translated means Red Castle. This was De Govia’s idea.
  • Bruce Willis actually rode on top of a real elevator for certain shots.
  • McTiernan had tried to previously shoot Predator in anamorphic but was turned down by the studio due to costs. He sees shooting in anamorphic as the cheapest special effect possible, because it gives any film a much more expensive look.
  • The scene of McClane falling in the ventilation shaft and catching himself was a happy accident from an incident on set. A stuntman actually fell attempting to shoot the scene, and it was editor Frank Urioste’s decision to incorporate the fall into the final film. The shot of McClane falling is the actual accident on set.
  • McTiernan brings up a film making technique from old Hollywood known as zero point cinema, a style that doesn’t take into account the author’s expression. McTiernan says the technique has many rules similar to the Dogme movement in Denmark and a cinematographer and editor have to understand what the director is doing or else the collaboration won’t work. He explains how he was forced to fire an editor from 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, because the traditional editor could not conform to McTiernan’s nontraditional style.
  • There’s a stylistic reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari during scenes in the computer room. McTiernan utilizes a number of dutch angles during these scenes. Also, De Govia had this location set up and ready to be shot on before they even knew what they were going to use it for.
  • In the original script, the events in Die Hard took place over three days. Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was one of the works that convinced McTiernan to make it take place on during one night.
  • According to McTiernan, just the armored trucked knocking over the railing in front of Fox Tower took months of negotiations with Fox.
  • “I don’t like arc. Arc is modern.” – Jackson De Govia regarding story structure. Hey, the guy is a production designer, not a screenwriter.
  • McTiernan had Grand L. Bush as FBI Agent Johnson (a black man) say the line, “No relation.” because he felt if Robert Davi as FBI Agent Johnson (a white man) said it, it would come off as racist. Yeah, he’s probably right.
  • McTiernan was never fully satisfied with Alan Rickman’s American accent in the scenes where Hans Gruber is pretending to be a party guest. The director can still hear the actor’s British accent coming through.
  • “Bruce is most endearing when he’s being a smart-ass. That’s the essence of his stardom is somebody’s pointing a gun right between his eyes and he goes, ‘Oops.’ That irreverence is what we seem to love about him.” – John McTiernan. McTiernan also speculates it may have been Willis’s divorce that brought out the great actor we get in The Sixth Sense. What do you think? Is Willis happy or sad to hear this?
  • The helicopter flying around the building near the end of the film took six months of preparation and they only had two hours to film it. It took three runs and nine camera crews. Everyone within 500 feet of the line of flight had to be an employee.
  • The scene on the roof of the building was actually filmed on the roof of the Fox Tower. With all the actors included and helicopters flying overhead and in the wake of the horrible incident on The Twilight Zone, which McTiernan actually references, the director became scared that something tragic would happen. He called off the final two helicopter runs that night.
  • Jackson De Govia’s favorite moment in the film is near the end when the elevator explodes for no discernible reason. I have to say, I’m inclined to agree with him.
  • Bruce improvised the “Hi, honey” at the end of the film.
  • Alan Rickman actually dropped nearly 70 feet on a green screen set for Gruber’s big drop at the end of the film. The shot used was the first take, and the look of fear on Rickman’s face is genuine.
  • The score Kamen wrote for when Powell kills Karl didn’t fit right, and McTiernan decided to run with a piece of temp score that had been purchased. The score was actually an unused piece from James Horner that had been written for Aliens.

Best in Commentary

“It’s okay to think this is ridiculous, because the storytellers thinks it’s ridiculous.” – John McTiernan

“Die Hard is successful because everyone in it is really cool, and real things happen to them.” – Jackson De Govia

Die Hard is not unique in that it doesn’t date. Fred Astaire doesn’t date. John Ford doesn’t date. In time, this is going to look like a wonderful period movie like those films we loved that we all grew up watching on TV.” – Jackson De Govia.

Final Thought

All in all, the Die Hard commentary gives a lot of insight into John McTiernan as a director and Jackson De Govia as a production designer. There are a lot of instances where each commentator goes back to a well one too many times. Mctiernan’s keeps bringing up the idea of including joy in the film, and De Govia’s insistence on making everything appear real are somewhat tedious. In fact, one instance of De Govia going on and on about comparing the opening of the vault and the FBI’s involvement in that to breaking through to the heart of the audience scratched the needles across the record a bit. It’s such a meandering train of thought that goes on and on, it isn’t hard to zone out.

Likewise, it is obvious from the word “Go” that the two commentators are not in same room. This brings up a odd juxtaposition between what is being said by one or the other and what is actually going on in the film at that time. Also, this allows for certain stretches of dead air that leaves you wondering whether or not you accidentally turned the feature off. Nonetheless, there is a lot of talk about style and technique throughout the Die Hard commentary, much more so than on-set stories that don’t give much comprehension on the film making process. McTiernan’s grasp of filmmaking knowledge and camera movement and composition is incredible, which makes you really wonder where the Roller Ball remake came from.

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