Director John McTiernan has helmed some of the best American action films of the 1980s and 1990s, including Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October. Die Hard’s stunts and special-effects-driven set pieces are especially iconic, thanks to McTiernan and his collaborators’ dedication to realism: They shot most of the film on existing locations (mostly at Fox Plaza in Los Angeles, but also at a nearby construction site), used real guns (picked by Predator’s weapons specialists), and filmed actors (and stuntmen) falling from real heights (and often without the enhancement of green-screen technology). In time for the impending release of Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History, Vulture asked McTiernan to break down John McClane’s climactic drop from the Nakatomi Plaza’s roof — as well as Hans Gruber’s fatal plunge.
On John McClane’s Rooftop Jump:
First of all, for the explosions, we built these crazy machines that had a great deal of propane in them. They were mortarlike devices driven around with forklifts or something. We used them to put fire exactly where we wanted to throughout the movie. They would make a great deal of fire for about a five-second burst, as most special effects shots, or stunt shots, are actually quite short. For instance, there’s a shot in that scene where Bruce jumps off the [Fox Plaza] roof. Putting the fire behind Bruce in a more traditional way would have been an enormous waste of time.
It would take about 5 to 15 minutes to build a fire, and then the firemen would have to put it out. It would take a lot of time to set up and take down. And they would always be damaged, since we were working around a lot of people on a real building. Fire stunts work fine if you’re working in a parking lot, out in the desert, or on the ground somewhere where you don’t have to worry about trees. But we were working around a real building, so that was pretty tricky. Personally, I found that to be very frustrating. It seemed crazy to spend 15 minutes building a real fire to get five seconds of the fire.
Now that sequence in general, if I remember correctly, the camera goes past Bruce, and he looks down. Which makes it clear to the audience: Hey, we actually filmed this on top of a building. This is not a movie set; we’re all up here on the top of a real building. Then later, when we started playing tricks, the audience doesn’t notice it as much because we already showed them that we’re on a real roof. Special-effects movies are filled with benevolent lies to the audience.
So we did that, and then we cut to some things that we shot on sets. Like when he swings into the building’s window, that was on a soundstage. It looks real because we attached a piece of scenery onto the side of the building, so there’s a backdrop with city lights and that sort of thing. That was a high-ceiling stage, so Bruce could swing back and forth pretty freely. That’s where he swings out and shoots out the window.
There was also another set for when he breaks through the window, gets into the room, and then the fire-hose reel drops behind him. That was another set, and I think, actually, there is a background there where the hose reel drops. I think we shot that separately. I don’t think we used a traditional green-screen, but it was faked in some way. Just outside the window, there were four or five stuntmen pulling on Bruce to drag him outside, out of the window again. You’ve got to use stuntmen to control your actor’s fall; you can’t use a machine to hoist an actor or anything. So if there’s a problem, and the drop halts suddenly, the stuntmen can protect the actor or the stuntman. I think Bruce probably would’ve fallen about 15 feet had he actually gone out the window again. But Bruce knew what he was doing; he’d done those sorts of shots a lot. And the cameramen knew how to do it, as did the stuntpeople.
We used a stunt window, and those things are literally made out of sugar, so that you can shoot them, and break them, and crash through them, and not get cut to hell. The problem with the windows is that they’re very delicate and very time-consuming to install. So we’d do one take, and then it’d take, like, two hours before we could do a second take. We didn’t do a lot of takes for that reason. I never liked those sorts of assignments. It’s the sort of scene where everybody goes back to their trailers and waits for a while. That’s boring as hell. So I usually try to film those scenes once we’re halfway into a shoot, so that we already know what the hell we’re doing. I think that shot of Bruce coming through the window was probably done in one take. Bruce, by then, was pretty confident about the athletic stuff. He was having no trouble.
On Pre–Die Hard Hollywood Stuntwork:
The film industry changed a lot because of what happened with The Twilight Zone movie (actors Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen died during the filming of a dangerous helicopter stunt). Everyone suddenly said to themselves: Wait a minute, this is an industry. This is a manufacturing industry. It’s really no different than building cars or making buildings. There is no moral excuse for doing something in a way that could get people hurt here. You wouldn’t allow it, or do it, or participate in something so dangerous if you were building cars. So why would you do it when you’re making movies?
Before that, there was a general attitude of Movies are really important! We just really got to do this! That changed shortly before Die Hard, when I was coming out of grad school. We still took chances, but if we failed, we could fix things, and keep going without anybody getting seriously hurt. If a stunt failed, we just didn’t get the shot.
The Elevator Story:
Have you heard the story about the elevator that broke?
We had just taken a lunch break after doing a stunt that required a large crew upstairs, at the top of the Fox Plaza building. We had sent most of the crew down, except me, [director of photography] Jan de Bont, and, I think, [first assistant director Benjamin Rosenberg]. Suddenly, our elevator breaks down in between floors. They had to call up an adjacent elevator and park it next to ours. And — I’m serious — we had to climb up 30 floors in the air, out of the emergency escape hatch in the roof of the elevator we were in. Then we stepped over to the second elevator and climbed through the door in that elevator’s roof. Then we took that elevator down. We were stuck in that first elevator for about half an hour.
Mind you, we were three older guys, not, you know, young 20-year-olds. I remember being really cool and relaxed, but the people on the radio were speculating that the cables had gotten broken or that we might be about to take a death plunge, or some crazy shit. Thankfully, we had stuntmen on staff, a core of really experienced guys. So we arranged, in effect, a movie stunt. Four stuntmen came up in the second elevator in safety harnesses and deployed themselves out over the roof of our elevator. One stuntman stood on either side of us, meaning me, Jan, and Ben. The stuntmen helped each of us to get to the other side; then they un-deployed, came back into the new elevator with us, and we all went down to lunch.
On Filming Hans Gruber’s Deadly Fall:
We used a very fast camera for that shot. The camera’s lens had to be pretty wide open, so we didn’t have a lot of depth of field. Also, the camera’s focus had to stay on [Alan Rickman’s] eyes. We knew that his eyes were going to drop at the speed of him falling, roughly 32 feet per second. There’s no way that a human being could control the camera’s focus for such a fast drop, so we had a computer try to match the camera’s focus on the actor’s fall. That wasn’t a foolproof stunt. We used every frame we had. I would have loved to have another ten shots, but after the first take, the computer lost focus on Alan’s eyes. That’s why that shot cuts where it cuts. I think we used the take where the focus lasted the longest, because the actual fall was only 1.5 seconds or something.
I demonstrated the scene to Alan first. I got up there and dropped onto some boxes below. It felt instantaneous; I let go and the next thing I heard was a loud noise as I hit the bag. It seemed so fast, I almost had no time to say, “Oh, I’m falling.” It’s just BANG.
We also counted Alan down from one to three, and then dropped him before we got to three. That’s a standard thing when you want to catch the look of surprise on an actor’s face. His facial expression changed in a way that I never could have gotten without him actually falling. There’s just no way he could fake that.