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The Writing Secrets That Made DIE HARD an Instant Classic

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2018 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Die Hard—arguably one of, if not the, best action films ever made—so much so that “Die Hard in a blank” became the go-to phrase to describe a whole subgenre of films for years.

It’s probably still used, actually.

To celebrate this momentous occasion and the film itself, I thought it’d be cool to dig into why Die Hard works as well as it does, and how so much of that comes right down to the film’s writing.

But first, and maybe you caught this in the movie’s credits, did you know Die Hard’s based on a book?

Nothing Lasts Forever


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Die Hard was released in 1988 and spawned a bevy of sequels, but it actually began life as a sequel itself to the 1968 film The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra and Lee Remick. That film was based on a 1966 novel of the same name by Roderick Thorp, and when the film became a hit, producers went back to Thorp and basically told him they’d pick up the film rights to a sequel if he ever wrote one.

To which Thorp, as any smart writer would and should, reportedly said, “I’m writing one now.” Which he wasn’t, but you’re damn right he started in on one.

He wrote other things between but word has it, when developing the sequel, Thorp was inspired by Richard Martin Stern’s 1973 novel The Tower, which was partly the inspiration for the 1974 disaster film The Towering Inferno, a film that apparently gave Thorp nightmares about being chased through a skyscraper by guys trying to shoot him.

And, you know, after watching the movie, I can totally see why it’d give you nightmares. Especially given OJ is in it. But nightmares—hey, they make for excellent author fuel, let me tell you. I mean, he turned his bad dream into a book that became Die Hard. It all works out.

Now, let me be straight here, that book, Nothing Lasts Forever, it’s not literary magic. I don’t want you thinking Die Hard owes everything that’s good about it to this novel. Because it’s almost the exact opposite. Nothing Last Forever, it’s the kind of book you pick up at the departure gate, put down by the time your plane hits the tarmac and go on to immediately forget about.

And it’s an ugly book. The main character, Joe Leland, is the hardest of hardasses who doesn’t give two licks about killing anyone—unless they’re female, and only that so much—and the rest of the characters, they’re not much better. Very few are redeeming, except maybe one sidenote of a nobody named Taco Bill—which is now one of my favorite character names ever, right up there with the likes of Buckaroo Banzai and Hannibal Lecter.

Even our cop friend Al Powell, played so lovingly by Family Matters’ Reginald VelJohnson in the film—in the book, he literally tosses another cop into the line of fire! And then says, oh—he died a hero. What?!

Really, it’s surprising just how pessimistic the whole thing is, and how, frankly, dated. It reeks of racism, sexism, and all sorts of other –isms, and I honestly don’t know how it ever made it to film, because outside the core idea of bad guys taking over a high-rise, it’s just not all that good.

But I guess that core idea, that’s all they really needed.

From Book to Film


Whenever a book’s adapted to film, the bulk of it’s going to be left on the cutting room floor. At least, if it’s a good adaptation. That’s simply because books have more space, more time to tell their story compared to a film, which, if you packed every detail in, would be impossibly long and get every theater owner pissed at the lower returns—for the record, Die Hard comes in at 2 hours and 12 minutes.

So, even supposing Nothing Lasts Forever was a great book, which I’d say it wasn’t, there’d still be stuff to cut. Like what?

Well, for instance, Nothing Lasts Forever is entirely told from a third-person perspective, so all you ever know is just what the lead, Joe Leland, sees or hears or does. Or thinks. And you just can’t do internal thoughts on film. Unless you want a voiceover, which is never a good idea—just ask Harrison Ford.

That means you show rather than tell, throw in great visuals rather than suffocating narratives or overbearing exposition. And when writing Die Hard’s script, Jeb Stuart and Steven E. DeSouza nailed this concept. Just check this minor example from the very start of the film:

Our hero, John, is sitting in the limo, giving his stone face, and our driver, Argyle, he’s doing what all drivers the world over always do: trying to get him to chat. Except John doesn’t want to. He especially doesn’t want to talk about his estranged wife.

And a conversation like that, it wouldn’t be good film anyway. At least, not good action film. Sitting there, talking about your marriage problems in an action flick? That’s a no-no.

But that information, it’s not superfluous. It’s an important drive for this particular film—it’s the motivation, the reason for the main character even being in this situation. So we, as viewers, we need this information. The workaround? A quip. Argyle says, “You thought she wasn’t gonna make it out here and she’d come crawling back to you, so why bother to pack, right?.”

To which our hero says, “Like I said Argyle, you’re fast.”

That’s all we need to know the marriage is on the rocks and get a feel for how it’s affecting our lead. That snappy, succinct dialogue. We don’t need a long monologue or flashbacks or anything else like that—things that work really well in a book—and are actually in the book. Stuart and DeSouza found a way to extract the information and tell us everything we’ll need as a foundation for the ensuing plot, all while also servicing our protagonist and his character development.

That wasn’t the only way they took what Thorp wrote and fine-tuned it for film. Nothing Lasts Forever is a constant barrage of upped stakes and problem-solving—which is also exactly what Die Hard is. Stuart and DeSouza repeatedly found clever ways to raise the stakes, from McClane’s feet getting destroyed, the FBI proving to only make his life harder, Hans figuring out Holly is McClane’s wife, and even at the end, McClane only having two bullets left.

Riveting.

Now, excising all that narrative fluff while constantly ratcheting the tension goes a long way, especially in an action film, but Die Hard isn’t just an action film. It’s a film with action.

I make this point because of another smart choice the writers took in actually adding scenes. And that’s something you sometimes have to do when adapting novels, especially after removing other information as in the previous step.

For instance, like I said earlier, the book is told from the main character’s perspective. So there’s a lot we don’t see in it. There’s nothing from the perspective of the cops, which you’ll know there’s plenty of in the film. There’s nothing there from the perspective of the baddies, either. Which, again, includes some of the film’s best scenes. And there’s nothing from the hostage’s perspective. So all those scenes with Holly, there’s no equivalent in the book.

They key, though, is to not just throw in a scene to throw in a scene and ensure actors have enough screen time. The scenes added to Die Hard, they’re important, they’re compelling, they push the story forward. They also ensure every character has something to do, some motivation. There aren’t any throwaway scenes or characters here. Even the reporter has motivation and affects the plot. And leads to one of the best ending scenes.

I think I’m making this sound way easier and more fundamental than it is. In the case of Die Hard, funny enough, all of those scenes—and the fact they worked—might all just be a happy accident because when they started filming, Bruce Willis was still starring in the TV show Moonlighting. Meaning he could basically only film at night and, every day he came to set, he’d already finished a 10-hour shoot.

De Souza explained it like this in an interview with SlashFilm:

“So after the first week, John McTiernan [the director] came to me and said, ‘We have at least another week of this overlap. Why don’t you go back into the script and see if you can find more stuff for all the other characters to do?’”

I think it’s safe to say adding those scenes in makes for a far more nuanced tale, and it adds a whole bevy of character development that’s just plain missing from the book due to its structure.

But there’s one major change from the book I think perfectly exemplifies how those making the film knew exactly what’s needed for a film to work, and it’s probably one of the main things that makes Die Hard so special and why we can watch it over and over again.

Remember what I said about Nothing Lasts Forever? That it was dark, joyless, etc.? The first draft scripts carried much of this over, including the book’s antagonists—terrorists. And it led to director John McTiernan turning down the role. More than once.

Because he wouldn’t agree to do the film until it had “some joy in it.”

He told Empire magazine in 2014:

“The original screenplay was a grim terrorist movie. On my second week working on it, I said, 'Guys, there's no part of terrorism that's fun. Robbers are fun bad guys. Let's make this a date movie.’”

There’s still a great nod to the original script and the book in that the “robbers,” as McTiernan calls them, masquerade as terrorists to cover their true intentions—multiple levels of deceit we’ll touch on again when we dig into the perfection that is Hans Gruber.

There were a few other changes from the book—like trimming the timeline from three days to one night, and switching the bad guys from Japanese to German—but it’s this one, switching up the antagonists’ motivations in such a dramatic fashion, that really strengthens the film and sets it apart from the book, where the terrorists do very little that’s truly noteworthy or memorable.

To show you what I mean, imagine if Die Hard’s baddie wasn’t Hans, but rather those guys from Air Force One. That was another great action flick, but I can’t for the life of me name a single one of the characters who take over the plane. Because they aren’t characters. They’re just names, plot devices.

And if the writers had taken what Nothing Lasts Forever had for baddies, if they had gone the way of some other action films of the era and hadn’t changed it up while simultaneously using everything that was great about the book, I likely wouldn’t be talking about Die Hard right this moment. And you wouldn’t have this lovely video to watch.

Thank You, Shane Black


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All these great changes, this excellence on paper—none of it matters if 1.) you don’t get the actual filming right and 2) you don’t have the right title.

Well, they somehow magically managed to get both right, but, since I’m not a film major and can’t for the life of me comment on the true value of Dutch tilts or low angles, let’s talk number 2 for a second. Because, it might surprise you to know the very first draft of what would inevitably be Die Hard, when it was submitted June 24, 1987, it was with the title—you guessed it—Nothing Lasts Forever. After all, if you’re basing a script on a book, why not stick with the book’s title, right?

Well, the second version, submitted October 2, 1987, had the new title on it. So, why the change? What happened in those four or so months?

I mean, Thorp’s first novel, The Detective, which Nothing Lasts Forever serves as a sequel to, didn’t get switched up when it went to film, so why did this one? Nothing Lasts Forever, if maybe not a roll-off-the-tongue name or anything that truly stands out compared to the badassery of something like Die Hard, it seems a perfectly fine title, no?

Well, for one, there was likely a push, even a mild one, to distance the film from The Detective and the idea it’s a sequel, which we’ll dig into further when talking John McClane as a character, but the bigger, and dare I say, funnier reason? One of the film’s producers, Larry Gordon, apparently thought Nothing Lasts Forever sounded more like a romance novel than an action movie. I guess I can see that.

But Joel Silver, another producer on the film and a name you probably recognize, he knew the exact title he needed. Only problem, it was on another script. One written by Shane Black, another name you might recognize—and if you don’t, you really should.

Story goes Joel Silver called up Shane Black and told him he needed the Die Hard title. However the conversation went, and I can only imagine, Shane Black eventually agreed, retitled his screenplay, and Nothing Lasts Forever officially became Die Hard.

And it truly is a fitting title, as John McClane is certainly a man who dies hard.

Or, you know, doesn’t.

Oh, and that screenplay? That was renamed The Last Boy Scout. Which was known at the time for being the highest paid script in film history. A wee unfortunate given it was kind of a bomb. Though I personally blame that on the film’s garbage truck of a theatrical trailer.

But speaking of changing names….

John McClane v. Joe Leland


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I mentioned earlier that Nothing Lasts Forever, the book Die Hard’s based on, was a sequel to The Detective, which was adapted into a 1968 Frank Sinatra film. Well, when Sinatra was working on that film, he apparently liked the script so much he had language added to his contract giving him the option to play Joe Leland, the lead character, in any future films.

Meaning that, when Die Hard went into production, based on Nothing Lasts Forever, Sinatra actually had the right to first refusal to star in it.

Yeah.

Sinatra was 73 the year production started, which would’ve fit the novel given Joe Leland is meant to be an older, more grizzled detective with years of combat experience under his belt—but it also would’ve made for an entirely different sort of movie than we ended up getting.

Well, as you could figure, he inevitably, though reportedly gracefully, turned the film down, and eventually Clint Eastwood picked up the film rights, considering the role for himself—he was about 50 at the time—but nothing came of that, either.

The role then got shopped around a bit, including potentially reworking the film so it’d act as a sequel to the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando, though that seems like it might only be a rumor, and pretty much every leading man of the time was attached or considered to star at one point or another: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Al Pacino, Richard Gere, James Caan and even Harrison Ford.

This is about the point when the role drastically changed and we lost the original Joe Leland and ended up with, apparently, John Ford—no, not the director, but the original name for who would become John McClane.

A quick note on that: I reached out to one of Die Hard’s writers, Steven E. de Souza, to ask if he remembered where the name John McClane originated, and he sent me an article. That was in Spanish. I translated it, and that bit about John Ford was the only thing about the name I could find. Not entirely useful, but something I hadn’t heard before. So, I had to include it.

Now, with this younger protagonist, this John Ford that’d be John McClane when they realized just how loaded a last name Ford truly is, with him in mind, the studio eventually narrowed the pool, after everyone else in it jumped out, to Bruce Willis, who’d been in just two mediocre movies and, at the time, was starring in the TV dramedy Moonlighting.

It was a huge payday for Willis and of course a major shift in his career, but what makes his casting important to the film and its legacy is that he was, at the time, a relative unknown. As such, he could be the embodiment of the everyman that is John McClane, this flawed New York street cop thrown into an impossible, dire situation who steps up to the plate but barely makes it out with his life—though I guess he luckily got himself life lesson or two along the way.

Compare that to the Joe Leland of Nothing Lasts Forever—he’s experienced, he knows the bad guy, can predict his moves—and he’s as jaded as a Jade Scorpion. His character doesn’t grow. What more, he’s pretty destroyed over the course of the plot—I mean, his daughter’s killed, he’s pushed way beyond his general moral compass, and he’s downright physically ruined by the end. He might not even have actually survived the end.

But Willis’ McClane? He’s more complicated, more complex. More faulty. More rebellious even. And he gets scared. He cries. He feels like… a human.

And the writers did even more for him, and for us as viewers, by adding to this sense of relatability. How? By marrying the insane, external conflict brewing in Nakatomi Plaza with McClane’s own personal, internal conflict. Both of which are solved through the same series of events.

That is, he and his wife Holly are on the ropes because he can’t accept her as a career woman—again, covered thanks to Argyle.

Before we dive into that, let’s talk Holly for a moment, not just because she’s so integral to the movie, but because she’s so different than what exists in the book.

Don’t get me wrong, the basis is still there: the commitment to the job. But in Nothing Lasts Forever, the daughter only has a few scenes at best, is framed as being overly dispassionate and driven only to succeed, has a much more explicit relationship with drug-snorting Ellis, is never fully redeemed and… well, falls out the window with the baddie. And dies.

With Holly, we don’t just get that great, metaphorical, transformative scene where her watch is unclasped—you might think I’m reaching there, but I assure you, I am not—we also get to see her as a no-nonsense, strong, independent character. And, in a time, an era of at-best slightly shrouded yet still oh-so-blatant sexism, there’s no blame put on Holly for this rift in her marriage, she’s not villainized for wanting a career, and it’s even highlighted that she’s a good mom. She even stands up to Hans more than once!

What’s so perfect about how Holly’s written, at least in this film—let’s not even get started on the sequels—is that she’s treated as equal, if not better than, McClane—who, let me remind you, says he stayed in New York because of paperwork. And his own machismo attitude.

It’s worth noting, McClane’s an LA cop come Die Hard 2. He took his lessons to heart it seems.

So, back to McClane—while getting together with Holly to celebrate Christmas with his family after the six months or so separation and trying to make nice with her, McClane gets pushed into this, gets thrown to the wolves, and it’s only after he conquers that internal conflict separating them, only after he accepts Holly’s position and strengths, and he grows as a character, that he realizes what’s going on, and that he’s capable of pulling himself together and winning the day.

It’s the bathroom scene I’m talking about here. Where things look super doom and gloom and McClane realizes he might not be able to save his wife and might not make it out of this. And he gives this great monologue through the walkie-talkie to our buddy cop Powell:

“I want you to find my wife,” he says.

“I want you to tell her something.

“Tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I've been. But that when things started to pan out for her, I should have been more supportive, and I just should have been behind her more. Tell her that she is the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She's heard me say "I love you" a thousand times. She never heard me say "I'm sorry." And I want you to tell her that, Al, I want you to tell her that John said that he was sorry.”

To which Powell responds:

"You can tell her yourself. Just watch your ass and you'll make it."

And we get, and here’s the clinch:

“I hope so. But that's up to the guy upstairs.

“Upstairs... Hans, you bastard...what were you doing?"

See, it’s through this doubt, this fear, this reconciliation that he’s able to move forward, to conquer, to think clearly. So, if it hadn’t been for that external conflict, he never would’ve found that solution to his internal conflict. And if he didn’t solve his internal conflict, the external conflict wouldn’t have been solved. Every plot intersects, every bit of the story’s organically woven together in this complex narrative that never seems anywhere near so complex.

I mean, even the catchphrase is woven in.

That Line


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When I say that line regarding Die Hard, you definitely know the one I’m talking about.

Now, the yippee ki yay part, as you might have gleamed from the film, it’s a reference to Roy Rogers, probably a few songs of his actually, like “Git Along Little Dogies” and “The Ballad of Pecos Bill.”

Basically, it’s just a variation of a cowboy call of sorts that has more to do with the general sound than the words themselves, which are sort of interchangeable. For instance, in Die Hard’s script, the line’s written as “yippee YI yay.” Director John McTiernan apparently wanted to use “yippee TY yay.” And Bruce Willis argued for the KI. From what I gather, they filmed versions of both TY yay and KY yay with KY yay winning out.

Yippee yi yay, yippee ki yay, yippee ty yay. I don’t think it really makes all that big a difference. But what do I know?

Now, the line does more than just address the “Mr. Cowboy” nickname with cheer-worthy badassery: it also manages a neat little feat in that it also pairs the traditional, archetypal hero with the modern action star. It evokes the Roy Rogerses, the John Wayneses, but also the Arnold Schwarzeneggers, the Sylvester Stallones, and drops Bruce Willis’ John McClane right alongside their most beloved and memorable characters. Remember, this is Bruce Willis’ breakout role. This line, this is his “I’ll be back.” But even more unique.

It’s an understandably iconic, surprisingly perfect, realistically vulgar line... and there’s a little debate about who exactly came up with it.

Steven E. DeSouza says it was from him in an interview he did with Creative Screenwriting. But in a 2013 interview with Ryan Seacrest, Bruce Willis claimed it was his idea. He said,

“It was a throwaway. I was just trying to crack up the crew and I never thought it was going to be allowed to stay in the film."

Whatever the truth is, the line would go on to be used in various ways the rest of the Die Hard series, it’d be voted one of the best lines of all time, and it’d become pop culture history. And not even just for this actual version, but for all the great ways TV censored it as well, like the one that namedropped the still mysterious villain, Mr. Falcon.

Hans vs. John


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You can be witty, relatable and badass, but a hero is still only ever just as memorable as their strongest adversary. Thankfully, Die Hard features a fantastically iconic villain: Hans Gruber, brought to life by the late great Alan Rickman in, get this, his very first motion picture role.

There’re a bunch of reasons Hans works as well as he does as McClane’s foil, as a person we’re not entirely sure can be beaten---but who we want to see beaten oh so badly—and a lot of those reasons boil down to his character: he’s obviously classy, both in his tastes and education, he’s sophisticated, and most importantly, he’s smart. And what’s important is we’re not just told this—we’re shown this. Repeatedly.

It’s subtle, in many ways. The way he calls out the John Philips suit, that Alexander speech, how he pieces things together or comes up with a strategy like “shoot the glass!” But the big one comes about three-quarters into Die Hard, when we get that turn, that moment when the FBI think they’re going to one-up and terrify Hans by cutting the power and you realize, as a viewer, that his plan was entirely counting on that. That is how advanced his plan is, how cunning, how brilliant.

But if that were it, it probably still wouldn’t be enough for Hans to be considered one of cinema’s greatest villains. Oh cool, he’s a good planner, whatever. But then, we get… When Hans Met McClane – a scene missing from the original screenplay and only added after producers heard Alan Rickman’s American accent—and, well, because they wanted a way for the two characters to meet before the climax.

But just like that, Hans sees the bare, bloody feet and immediately pretends to be an escaped hostage. We know who he is, we know McClane’s in danger, but with that American accent, McClane doesn’t. Or, at the least, seems not to. And we’re helpless as an audience, doomed to just sit and watch as McClane gives Hans a gun.

Of course, if you’re watching this video, you probably know the gun has no bullets. And if you didn’t… well, spoilers. But why doesn’t the gun have bullets? Why would McClane give someone he thinks is an escaped hostage, a potential ally, a useless weapon?

It’s not a mistake. It’s not a coincidence, and it’s not just chance happenstance planning. Because McClane knows he’s lying. He knows Hans is one of them. Let me explain.

When Die Hard started shooting, the ending wasn’t set in stone. So the script was being shot as written, and in one early scene, a scene just before Hans and his men enter the building, the whole lot of them synchronize their watches. This is key, because in that scene, we get clued to the fact they’re all wearing the same Tag Heuer watch.

So, the movie progresses, stuff goes down, and inevitably McClane kills his first terrorist, one of Hans’ men—the one that delivers the lovely Christmas message. But McClane searches the body and, in a sort of clever callback to the fact Holly was given a timepiece by Ellis for her business prowess, he notices the watch, and keeps seeing the watch throughout the movie whenever he’s dealing with the baddies.

And when the characters meet, you know what Hans is wearing, right? Yeah, you bet.

So, despite his smarts, despite the fact he comes off as this high-society super villain, Hans was outsmarted by an everyday, everyman street cop with a penchant for noticing the small things—all thanks to the fact someone didn’t bother with a watch variety pack.

You remember all this from the movie, right? No? Huh.

Well, that’s because this wasn’t in the final film. It was all cut due to a last minute idea from writer Steven E. DeSouza to have Hans and his group plan to escape in an ambulance, which shows up late in the movie. Even though the truck they all came in was too small to fit the ambulance inside it—a fact which apparently still haunts production designer Jackson De Govia to this day.

But the other problem with the ambulance thing: there was no ambulance in the “synchronize your watches” scene. Which meant that scene needed to be cut for the ending to work. Leaving an awkward little plot hole fans would obsess over for years in its wake.

Why they couldn’t just reshoot the scene is beyond me, but you can see, in that glance McClane gives Hans’ wrist, the original intent.

Oh, I should note, this whole Hans meets John scene, it wasn’t rehearsed before filming. Director John McTiernan wanted it to feel more “spontaneous.” Kind of cool, right?

Anyway, all that watch information, it all came out years after the movie was released, and it’s all according to DeSouza. I mean, he obviously knows a thing or two about the film’s writing, but I just want to qualify it a bit.

DeSouza also put forward another interesting nugget about the script: he wrote it as if Hans were the protagonist.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the hero. McClane is, clearly, our hero. But, in this context, it means Hans was, in a way, the main character, the driving force. As DeSouza told Creative Screenwriting, “It’s Hans Gruber who plans the robbery. If he had not planned the robbery and put it together, Bruce Willis would have just gone to the party and reconciled or not with his wife.”

So Hans is the reason we have a movie, and he’s the reason McClane’s perspective evolves. And when you have such an enigmatic character actor as Alan Rickman—again, this was his first feature film, despite how masterfully he portrays Hans—you just go with it. Certainly they got what they paid for and more—keep in mind, he probably came pretty cheap—I mean, just look at the way Rickman conveyed both raw sophistication and downright brutality.

And he also has probably one of the best acted deaths on film. Probably because he wasn’t really acting so much. John McTiernan actually had Rickman dropped earlier than he expected just to get the look right. And they nailed it with that very first take. Yeah, I’d be scared, too.

And coupling it with that brilliant line from Paul Gleason’s Dwayne T. Robinson, that “Oh, I hope that’s not a hostage.”—utter perfection.

Which makes it something of a shame that isn’t the final confrontation, as it’s a bit marred by Karl’s sudden reappearance at the very end, even if that does give Powell a nice character beat. Couldn’t we have just let Karl stay dangling upstairs? Probably one of the only flaws, and a minor one at that, in an otherwise impeccable film.

The Other Star


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So we’ve got the hero, we’ve got the villain, we’ve got the catchphrase. The final ingredient? The other, true star of this movie? Well, no story’s complete without a setting, right? And for Die Hard, we get a truly iconic one: the now infamous Nakatomi Plaza.

If you think I’m being a little overdramatic in calling it the third star, let me just point you to the screenplay, which includes this little excerpt:

“TILT DOWN FROM one of the stars of this film, the well-lit, impressive and spanking-new NAKATOMI BUILDING.”

And how about we take another look at the original movie poster? Hm. Front and center. It’s even more prominent on the Japanese poster. And what’s the five-film Die Hard Bluray collection look like? Oh, wow, look at that.

Now, the setting in the book Nothing Lasts Forever, the one Die Hard’s based on, is nowhere near the star. It’s called the Klaxon building, named after the fictitious company of the book, Klaxon Oil, and described only like this: “a forty-story vertical column on Wilshire Boulevard.”

Quite generic, right? Well, we couldn’t have just any skyscraper be the setting for the film, so Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza? It was actually the recently completed Fox Plaza, a 35-story glass and granite skyscraper in Century City—a business district in LA. It was designed by architects Scott Johnson and Bill Fain under the guidance of architect William Pereira—it was actually the last building Pereira worked on before his death. And it’d go on to be home of Ronald Reagan’s office after he left the White House. Cool little note, they were filming Die Hard when Reagan’s chief of staff Fred Ryan toured the building, so there were bullet shells and broken glass everywhere.

A Secret Service agent reportedly joked about it, saying, "Great, you just picked a building where there's been a movie made about how terrorists can blow it up."

Yeah, I don’t know if I would’ve picked it after that. But for the movie, it makes sense, and it was actually production designer Jackson De Govia’s idea to use the Fox building.

“There was this perfectly lovely tower,” he said later in an interview with L.A. Taco, “quite striking, isolated enough; it wasn’t lost in a ‘forest’. It was new, it was up-to-date, it looked exotic, and there were a lot of empty floors because it wasn’t completely inhabited yet.”

Though from what I gather using Fox Plaza didn’t save much on production costs. The studio actually charged itself rent. And it wasn’t easy filming in what was an actual, working building that was about 75 percent occupied at the time.

You can just imagine what filming in the building’s elevator shaft—which they really did!—would mean for businesses in a skyscraper, and even with filming in the middle of the night, McTiernan had to apologize to a bunch of people working in the building. I can see how gunshots and explosions would be a bit distracting.

And apparently that armored truck scene outside the building took “months of negotiations” with Fox to make happen.

But it was a smart decision to use the building because 1) anything real always looks better on camera, and 2) the interiors were still under construction during the filming, so we get these great unfinished floors for McClane to run around in that are practically movie-ready. I mean, that’s actual construction equipment in the backgrounds, and seeing the building’s steel skeleton exposed and naked immediately sets those floors apart.

That’s carried throughout the film, with every area given its own sense of character, from the empty floors to the executive offices to even the lobby.

The environmental storytelling here is phenomenal to an almost absurd degree, especially the ties to Nakatomi being a Japanese corporation. Takagi’s office is obviously embellished with a plethora of Japanese motifs and artifacts, the Nakatomi logo was inspired by the helmets of samurai armor, and the reception desk is meant to suggest a Japanese military architectural technique called ogi kobai, or “fan sloping.”

My personal favorite is the atrium, where the party’s at. This wasn’t actually built into the building, but was a set inside Fox’s Stage 15, one of Hollywood’s largest soundstages. If it looks a little familiar, it might be because it’s meant to evoke the implications of Japanese corporations buying up America one piece at a time: in this case, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

As put by De Govia in the film’s audio commentary, "We posited that ... Nakatomi Corporation bought Fallingwater, disassembled it, and reassembled it in the atrium, like a trophy."

Don’t worry, Fallingwater is still right where it should be. And despite looking like they blew up half of it, so is Nakatomi Plaza, or, rather, Fox Plaza. You can go check it out yourself, as some members of the press recently did, realizing a lot of it is still exactly the same, or look for it in other films, including Airheads, Fight Club, Speed, No Man’s Land, Lethal Weapon 2, Motorama, and Tommy Boy. And I think it was in Brooklyn 99 recently. At least, Reginald VelJohnson was.

A Few More Fun Facts


  • McClane falling down that elevator shaft was actually a mistake. The stuntman was supposed to grab the first vent, which is what’s in the script, but slipped and kept falling. They edited it so it looks like McClane grabs the next vent.
  • Because McTiernan wanted “hyper-realism” for the movie, extra loud blanks were used in the guns. This not only caused Rickman to flinch every time he shot a gun, but also gave Bruce Willis permanent hearing loss in his left ear
  • Sam Niell, probably best known for Jurassic Park, was originally considered for Hans Gruber, but he turned the role down.
  • Joseph Takagi has a backstory! The character, who’s the senior VP of Sales for Nakatomi, served in the Japanese Navy in World War II on the Akagi, which is the vault password to the vault and means “Red Castle.”
  • Grand L. Bush is the one to say the “No relation.” line when the FBI agents are introduced as Johnson and Johnson because McTiernan felt if Robert Davi said it, it’d come off as racist. It’s a good point.
  • And finally, Bruce Willis apparently had a knack for improvisation on the set, coming out with the “Hi, honey” at the end of the film, as well as a few lines during the scene where he’s pulling glass out of his foot. This helped him net his starring role in 12 Monkeys.

I want to cover one last thing in this Dissection before I call it quits for the day. Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Nothing Lasts Forever certainly could be called a Christmas book, I guess.

But Bruce Willis doesn’t seem to think so, based on comments he made during his Comedy Central roast.

Steven E. de Souza, though? He thinks it is. We’ve got a children’s book, “A Die Hard Christmas” that seems to agree, but the internet seems a bit torn on it.

Me? Well, let me ask you this: is Home Alone a Christmas movie? And without going on about it and comparing the two, doesn’t Die Hard seem kinda sorta an adult version of Home Alone?

That’s my answer.

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