37 Things We Learned from Steven E. de Souza’s ‘Die Hard’ Commentary

"The neighbors in Century City were not happy with this production."
Die Hard

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Die Hard, this time to listen as writer Steven E. de Souza shares his commentary.

We started this Commentary Commentary column way back in 2009, and with over four hundred entries so far it remains one of my favorite features here at Film School Rejects. Not all commentaries are created equal, and there are great ones, bad ones, and plenty of perfectly good ones. Having done a couple myself now, it’s not as simple as simply talking for the length of a movie — you need to be engaging and informative along the way.

That’s why the best commentary tracks typically come from the filmmakers themselves, whether the director, writer, actor, producer, and so on. We listened to John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) track back in 2011, and while we almost never repeat films here, I’m making an exception after stumbling across an awesome new podcast called Rogue Commentary. They welcome those very talents (or the occasional film critics/historians) to come provide commentary tracks for films, and one of their early episodes features writer Steven E. de Souza talking Die Hard.

Now keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Die Hard (1988)

Commentator: Steven E. de Souza (writer)

1. He can’t vouch for “the validity of fists with your toes.” It works for him, but he doesn’t know that it’s actually a thing.

2. “For any conspiracy theory people out there,” he says, the exchange between the passenger who says he’s been flying for nine years and John McClane (Bruce Willis) who replies that he’s been a cop for eleven years… “uh oh, 9/11, I’m sure that will keep some of you up all night.”

3. The big Teddy Bear that McClane is holding — the exact same bear — also appears in McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990). “I heard a rumor that McTiernan was sleeping with that Teddy Bear. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it would explain a lot.”

4. The lobby of the Nakatomi Building is actually a big set built at the 20th Century studio lot.

5. The film is based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, and the corporation is an American one. For the film, though, they “seized upon a paranoia in America about foreign ownership of American companies.” They felt it played better against the blue collar hero that is McClane.

6. Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is McClane’s wife in the film, but in the novel she was his daughter and named Stephanie. She was also in a relationship with the white knight, Ellis, and complicit in some of the company’s corporate shenanigans.

7. The novel is actually a sequel to 1960’s The Detective, also based on a Thorp novel, which stars Frank Sinatra in the lead role. When Fox moved forward on Die Hard they has to approach Sinatra and offered him the role. “He said ‘I’m too old and too rich to do this, and the chases in the building would have to be on Rascal scooters.'” The character names were all changed to sever that connection, and they also took the opportunity to age down the retired cop character to a younger, active police officer.

8. Sinatra was actually the first of many actors to decline the role. “You have to view this movie in the context of the time it was made. In the 1980s there had been all these action movies with these muscular, steroid, pumped up, roid rage heroes.” He adds that he played a role in that, “mea culpa,” as a reference to films like Commando (1985) and The Running Man (1987). The only one he mentions by title, though, is 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) — which he didn’t write. The point being that McClane spends a big chunk of the time trying to hide and call the cops, something action stars of the decade weren’t too keen on. “So in that context, this guy is a coward, he’s a pussy.”

9. Co-writer Jeb Stuart was initially hired to adapt the novel, and he was struggling for a way into the story. He got into a big fight with his wife and went for a drive to clear his head, but it got dangerous when a carton fell from a big truck and almost collided with his car. The light bulb went off as he thought “imagine if you wanted to make up with your wife, but you got killed” before having that chance. That gave him the emotional arc which de Souza ran with.

10. For those who enjoy errors in movies, “you’ll notice that Holly Gennaro’s name is spelled a couple different ways in this movie.”

11. Whenever there’s a list of names or charts in the film, it’s the film’s crew members adding in their own little cameos.

12. After Sinatra said no, Fox took the script to other stars, but they were turned down by “Arnold, then Sly, then Clint Eastwood, then Mel Gibson, then Richard Gere, then Don Johnson, then Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Kurt Russell, James Caan, and Burt Reynolds who was a Hail Mary call from our producer.” In desperation, the studio made the offer to Willis whose management was well aware of the film’s hard release date — and negotiated a killer deal as a result.

13. The Pacific Courier truck was made up for the film, but cinematographer Jan de Bont added it into his film Speed (1994) as well, meaning that all five Die Hard films and both Speed movies occur in a shared universe. Additionally, the newscaster Gail Wallens (Mary Ellen Trainor) also appears in Ricochet (1991) making that film part of the same universe too. But wait, there’s more. Die Hard 2 (1990) features a character who’s the former dictator of the fictional South American country of Val Verde, and that’s where much of the film Commando takes place. Marvel, eat your heart out.

14. The terrorists/robbers exit the truck at 18:44, and it’s clear there is no ambulance in there with them. “We had, in fact, not come up with their getaway play at this point.” It was mentioned, but as they were assembling the film they realized a shot of it was necessary. This scene originally concluded with Gruber telling everyone to synchronize their watches, but McTiernan had it cut because it made the lack of an ambulance too obvious.

15. This was Alan Rickman‘s first feature film, and it was offered to him after being in Hollywood for just a single week. He wasn’t sure if an action movie was right for him, but his reps told him it was too good of an opportunity — and one that most actors could only dream about after such a short time in Los Angeles.

16. The baddies were written to be clad in military-like outfits, but Rickman “balked” at the image saying that he would look ridiculous next to all these big, buff dudes. He added that he was meant to be management after all. Costume designer Marilyn Vance took the idea and landed on dressing them in well-tailored outfits instead. That, in turn, led them to shift McClane more and more blue collar as a contrast.

17. Willis was still working on his television show, Moonlighting. during the first two weeks of filming. He would do the TV show during the day then film for the movie at night. McTiernan eventually came to de Souza and asked if there was more they could be doing with side characters in order to give Willis a lighter schedule during those two weeks, and “this gave me a license to develop more scenes for Holly, to keep Argyle (De’voreaux White) alive in the movie much longer, and to develop the annoying newscaster further.”

18. The topless woman was added at the request of Joel Silver who said “we’re going to get an R-rating for violence, so we mine as well have some nudity.”

19. John Phillips is a fictional tailor, so don’t go looking for his suits in London.

20. He and Silver see many of their collaborations (48 Hrs., 1982; Commando; Ricochet) as “hate stories” between a good guy and a villain, and they see the two meet, face-off, meet again, and so on until the ending. Here, though, McClane was so outnumbered that they couldn’t see a way to bring him and Hans Gruber (Rickman) together before the end. The problem found its resolution when de Souza overheard Rickman doing a California accent during a conversation by the craft table. He brought the actor to Silver, had him repeat it, and then they all realized the opportunity before them.

21. Silver had another big action movie hit set at Christmas with Lethal Weapon (1987), and de Souza asked him if the holiday was his go-to thing now. The producer replied that he does it, in part, because it increased the odds that one of the three networks — this was the 80s, don’t forget — would play the film around Christmas which would lead to bigger residual checks.

22. Years later, Ronald Reagan rented the building’s top floor as his office after retiring from politics — “well officially, mentally he retired I think a little before he was out of office” — and when the Secret Service swept the place beforehand they were alarmed to find bullet casings. They suspected foul play before someone realized they were leftover from this film shoot.

23. McClane slipping and falling in the elevator shaft was actually an accident with the stunt man who wasn’t supposed to fall. They liked it, though, so kept the shot and just reworked the beats around it.

24. The air shafts that McClane crawls through are actual size, but they were meant to be enlarged as seen in most films. Silver was furious and called de Souza to complain that they needed more dialogue because it was taking Willis forever to crawl through the shaft. The writer stood below the shaft with a walkie talkie feeding Willis numerous ad-libs.

25. Regarding the dumb annual debate as to whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, de Souza points out that Gruber’s plan only works at Christmas. From the party gathering with high-ranking executives to the otherwise empty (and therefore more manageable) building, this is the only time the film can unfold. Plus there are several Christmas songs, the finale sees “snow” in the form of paper falling from the sky, and so on. So yeah, it’s a fucking Christmas movie.

26. Reginald VelJohnson actually drove the car backwards off that ledge himself.

27. De Souza gives screenwriting seminars sometimes, and more than once he’s gotten disgruntled grumbles when he tells them that in the first conversation between McClane and Gruber, McClane is the antagonist and Gruber is the protagonist. He explains that the terrorists arriving kicks things off, and they’re hit by counter moves from McClane who’s literally antagonizing them.

28. He references both William Atherton and Paul Gleason as the guys you get “when you want an asshole in your movie.”

29. The scene where Holly first confronts Gruber was the first that de Souza wrote after coming aboard the film. They were wanting to cast those two characters so he prioritized it to give the actors pages.

30. The great Al Leong improvised his character’s spontaneous need for a candy bar, “which Michael Kamen decided to give a music cue.”

31. The late 80s were a more innocent time before police departments became so militarized, so Los Angeles didn’t actually have an armored tank-like vehicle. The production provided it instead.

32. McClane appears frequently on the right side of the screen in the first half signifying a more passive character, but a shift occurs around the time of the tank being rocketed that sees him become more aggressive, more take-charge, and move to the “more powerful” left side of the screen.

33. Remember the deleted scene of the terrorists synchronizing their watches that showed how they all have identical watches? People often ask de Souza how McClane knows that Gruber, while pretending to be an American employee named Clay, is actually a bad guy. The answer is that he sees the same watch on Gruber’s wrist. Unfortunately, all references to that were snipped out after the loss of the aforementioned scene, meaning viewers are left to assume that McClane is simply a very intuitive cop.

34. The production promised Los Angeles officials that the two helicopters would be flying no lower than four to five stories high. Oops. “We heard about it the next day from the city council, angry neighbors.”

35. He begged the editors to snip the shot at 1:55:26 because it shows Karl (Alexander Godunov) still hanging there in the chains. “It reminds you that he’s dead, and reminds you that he’s been strangled for, like, fifteen minutes,” and that makes his reappearance alive at the end a bit silly.

36. Dennis Hayden plays the second-to-last terrorist standing, Eddie, and the character originally died much earlier in the film. Hayden was apparently interviewing with publicists in the lead up to Die Hard, and one of them was named de Souza. He asked if she was related to Steven de Souza, and it turns out she was his sister-in-law, so Hayden said he’d sign with her immediately if she could get Steven to let his character live a lot longer.

37. The piece of score playing as Karl is shot is an unused element from James Horner’s score from Aliens (1986).

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“For some of my younger viewers, let me explain that 20th Century Fox was a motion picture studio that started in 1935 and lasted around eighty-three years making motion pictures on film — it’s a mechanical chemical process long forgotten — and the motion picture studio has now disappeared somewhere, I forget exactly where, it’s been absorbed, swallowed by a giant mouse.”

“Ah, smoking in an airport, we all remember those days.”

“I’m going to pause in awe at my own credit here.”

“Unlike a lot of screenwriters, I’m always welcome on sets because I know how to behave on set.”

“A lot of what makes this movie work is the practical effects, the practical locations.”

“The neighbors in Century City were not happy with this production.”

“If you pay close attention, you can see that Bruce has fake feet on top of his feet.”

“Al’s monologue about he shot a child was, sort of, fictional at the time this was written, but has happened way too many times in real life.”

“This is where we hate the FBI.”

“‘We’re gonna need more FBI guys’ is an ad-lib from Paul Gleason, which I hate.”

“This has been Die Hard in a Rogue Commentary.”

Final Thoughts on the Die Hard Commentary

There may be a handful of gaps during this commentary, but the anecdotes and details that Steven E. de Souza shares from his time on Die Hard more than make up for it. It’s a fun, informative track that benefits from being recorded more than thirty years after the film was made, and it’s arguably a better listen than McTiernan’s official commentary on the physical discs. Do yourself a favor and check out Rogue Commentary for more commentary tracks from filmmakers and critics for some of your favorite movies.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.