RISKY BUSINESS: Die Hard
How “Die Hard” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
“Die Hard” changed the careers of nearly everyone involved in its production.
- Bruce Willis went from a comedic tv actor to action hero and movie star.
- Before “Die Hard,” Director John McTiernan was known as a horror director; after, he became one of the best action directors in Hollywood.
- DP Jan de Bont became an in-demand cinematographer and eventually big-budget movie director.
- “Die Hard” took Alan Rickman from little-known British actor to one of cinema’s most reliable villains, which, in his later years, Rickman used to his advantage by playing against type.
“Die Hard” is roundly considered one of the best – if not the best – action movie ever made. Film lovers and lay-people alike enjoy debating its Christmas movie status. This is a movie that still entertains today, despite being over three decades old. In short, when “Die Hard” joined the zeitgeist back in 1988 it joined permanently.
It also permanently injured its star, Bruce Willis. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
One of the few action movies that sees a working-class hero pitted against upper-class greed, “Die Hard” is a focused film that continually ratchets up the stakes, the tension, and the action. It builds to an explosive and – still to this day – jaw dropping finale that leaves an audience breathless and wanting more (and more we got — to the tune of four sequels and counting).
All that action comes with risks. Let’s take a look at the risky business of 1988’s “Die Hard.”
Welcome to the Party Pal: Safety Issues on Set
The safety issues on “Die Hard” come from two very common production choices:
- Script Not Complete
- “Exaggerated Realism”
As production risk managers we see these two issues, in some fashion, on almost every project. These are such common safety problems that we have written about aspects of these issues in several other articles in this series.
Here we are going to focus on how these issues affected the workplace environment and the wellbeing of the performers.
Let’s begin by looking at how an incomplete screenplay adds risks to the production.
Script Not Complete
Practically everyone involved in “Die Hard” has, over the last thirty years, admitted that the script was being rewritten every day. In fact, both McTiernan and Willis didn’t figure out the character of John McClane until halfway through production.
This is one of the riskiest – and yet most common – production issues we encounter in our risk management work.
Oftentimes, movies go into production without a completed, locked script because the release schedule dictates that the film must start shooting on a certain date. Major studios secure release dates for movies years in advance and then work backwards to determine when to begin production.
Other times, the financiers will backout if production doesn’t begin by a certain date (why financiers fund films without completed screenplays is the subject of another, much longer essay). And still more productions begin shooting with an incomplete script because an over-eager production team wants to get started as soon as possible.
Whatever the reason a particular production has for shooting without a locked script, it is still a risky course of action. A script is the blueprint for a movie. Like building a skyscraper, you need detailed plans to make sure every story is secure and well supported. Without a blueprint, you will not only be wasting money and time, but you will also put many people at risk of injury or worse.
“Die Hard” got off on a risky foot by not spending a little more time on pre-production to lock the script before shooting. This decision to push forward without a screenplay laid the foundation for an unsafe production.
To make matters worse – much worse – director John McTiernan wanted “exaggerated realism.”
Again and again in this series, we return to one of the fundamental safety issues of risky productions: an unnecessary drive toward realism instead of believability.
Films are not real. Films are fake. What we are in the business of doing is creating elaborate illusions using the tricks of light, lens, angle, blocking, and performance. The goal should not be realism. The goal should be believability.
Realism takes productions down a very risky path that leads them to take dangerous actions in order to capture them with a camera. This path also tends to make filmmakers forget all the wonderful tools at their disposal, like, say, post-production effects and editing.
In effect, filmmakers who strive for realism become gonzo documentarians, forcing themselves, their cast, and their crew to endure real dangers for the sake of the film.
Believability, on the other hand, guides a production toward a greater reliance on the tools of the trade. Toward thinking like a filmmaker.
It boils down to this: Realism is risky. Believability is safer.
“Die Hard” director John McTiernan wasn’t just aiming for realism though, he wanted something even riskier: “exaggerated realism.” This goal led McTiernan to convince the prop and firearms department to create guns that were far louder than actual, real-world guns with far brighter and bigger muzzle flashes.
This decision created production issues before they injured anyone. The guns were so loud and the flashes so bright that Alan Rickman kept flinching when he fired his gun. This forced the production team to edit around his flinching in post to keep Rickman’s Hans Gruber a menacing presence in the film.
But the real tragedy of this “exaggerated realism” is that it permanently injured star Bruce Willis.
How Exaggerated Realism Made Bruce Willis Permanently Lose His Hearing
This is the scene that did it:
John McClane is trapped under the conference table, nowhere left to run, bad guy bearing down on him. When the bad guy stops to reload, McClane fires up through the table killing his assailant just in time.
There is a reason that ear protection is mandatory on firing ranges: Guns are loud. And those are real world, un-augmented firearms. The team behind “Die Hard” made sure the guns in the film were significantly louder then real guns. But their risky behavior doesn’t end there.
In this scene, they confine Willis under a table. This contains the soundwaves and increases the volume of the gun shots. But we are still not done making this risky.
Next, the creative team enclosed Willis in plexiglass to protect the crew, the camera, and the set from the hot muzzle flashes. This pushed the noise to an incredibly dangerous level. That enclosure stopped the noise of those gunshots from dissipating and instead contained them and ricocheted them back at Willis – over and over again.
During the very take that is in the final cut of the film, Willis’s left eardrum ruptured, causing permanent hearing loss for the actor. For the rest of his career, Bruce Willis had to wear a hearing aid. All because of exaggerated realism.
Thanks for the Advice: How Risk Management Could Increase Safety
Without the power to shut down production – which we never have on a film – risk management cannot force a production team to do anything, even something as essential as locking the script. Powerless to stop the production from filming without a completed screenplay, we want to focus on how we could help the “Die Hard” team keep their star safe.
To do this, we will highlight four areas:
- The weapon
- The shot
- The actor
- The answer
Our first course of action would be to address the risk of the weapon itself. Fixing the weapons in “Die Hard” would have the greatest impact on safety.
As we talked about in our coverage of the first ever reported firearm death in cinema history on the set of “The Captive,” we strongly suggest that productions avoid operational firearms.
Guns that do not cycle when the trigger is pressed, that can’t fire blanks, are often called “holster stuffers.” These hunks of metal (or rubber) are little more than elaborately designed and convincingly made toy guns.
Once you introduce operational weaponry to your production, however, you invite all manner of risk and a litany of safety regulations. Using fake, non-operational weapons is not only safer, it also saves time and money.
If we couldn’t convince the production to use truly fake guns, we would stress to McTiernan and company that sound is one of those aspects of filmmaking that can be seamlessly and beautifully augmented in post-production. Hell, some of the most famous scenes in cinema history had their sound added in post.
There is absolutely no reason – zero – to have loud firearms on set. A great foley artist can give McTiernan a bespoke post-production gunshot sound for every single firearm in the film.
Our next goal would be to make the shot itself safer. By attempting to protect the crew and the equipment, the production actually ended up endangering – and injuring – the actor in the scene. The plexiglass enclosure has to go.
To eliminate it, we would suggest that the creative team rethink the framing of this shot. The shot contains the floor, the table, chairs, McClane, his gun, and the muzzle flashes. This is a medium close shot. Including all of those elements helps to orient the audience and create a claustrophobic, trapped feeling.
A common – and far safer – way to create that same feeling is to push in and allow the edges of the frame to trap our lead character. By adjusting this shot from a medium close to a close, we can – depending on the framing – cut out the table, the floor, the gun, or the muzzle.
Any framing that cuts out one of these elements would allow production to build a space that doesn’t contain and confine the sound waves from the gun. This would help to reduce the impact of the noise and reduce the risk to Willis’s eardrum.
If we could pick the framing, we would frame out the muzzle of the gun so that, with creative use of off-screen flashes of light, we could fake the gunshots altogether. No loud noise, no dangerous muzzle flash.
At a minimum, the production team should have protected the actor. Hearing protection should be mandatory when firing operational weapons on set, especially when said weapons are louder than real ones.
Bruce Willis should have been wearing earplugs. This one simple move would have saved his hearing and, truth be told, changed the rest of Willis’s life for the better. Hearing loss is a serious disability, one that is uniquely hard to live with. A movie shouldn’t give anyone hearing loss.
To avoid seeing the earplugs in the shot, the team could have adjusted the framing so that Willis’s ear was out of the shot or adjusted the angle so that the camera was not looking into his ear.
This was preventable. Earplugs are cheap and they work.
To this end, we think the best option that maximizes the safety of this moment in the film is to eliminate the redundancy in the shots.
If you look at the scene again, you will see that McClane’s shots are repeated. They first appear in the bad-guy’s wide shot – the bullets shooting up through the table. Then, the film cuts back – and back in time a few milliseconds – to McClane under the table fire those very bullets we just saw come through the table.
This repetition is a common feature of good action direction. It allows the audience to better understand what is going on because, sometimes, things happen too fast to register unless the film repeats them. Tony Zhou over at Every Frame a Painting has a great video essay on this very topic if you want to know more.
In the case of this moment in “Die Hard,” we think the repetition is not necessary. The moment would be more impactful if we stayed with the cocky terrorist as he reloads and is then surprised by the bullets. Once he has died and fallen down on the conference table, then, we could cut back to McClane, smoke emanating from the barrel of his gun, as he says his line “thanks for the advice.”
Yippee Ki Yay: Bottom Line
“Die Hard” is an action classic, the epitome of the genre. The practical effects, believable hero, great stakes, and satisfying ending allow this film to hold up thirty years later. Our hope is that by examining the risky behavior of mega-blockbusters like this, we can help current productions better identify their own blind spots and help make their sets safer.
The safest way to begin a production is to have a solid, locked, finished screenplay. This one, single step will allow for increased safety because it puts everyone, literally, on the same page.
By shooting without a script, McTiernan and company created an atmosphere that flirted with risk at nearly every turn. Adding to even more risk, the creative team also aimed for “exaggerated realism.” These twin choices put everyone in unnecessary risk and it led the production toward riskier decisions like tricking actors during stunts, using real explosives, and, of course, using hyper-loud guns.
If we were hired to provide risk management services on “Die Hard,” we would encourage production to on-board us during pre-production so that we could evaluate the production mindset before filming began. And hopefully, help the team lock the screenplay before rolling.
We would help guide the team toward believability and offer them several options to keep Bruce Willis safe. By eliminating the shot of him firing from under the table, we could maximize the safety of that scene and keep Bruce Willis’s hearing intact.
“Yippee Ki Yay” might be a great, cowboy attitude for an off-duty New York cop trapped in an LA skyscraper during a hostage situation, but it is not the best attitude for making a movie, at least not a safe one.
Cinematographer Jan De Bont – already featured once in this series – went on to work with McTiernan again on the classic “The Hunt for Red October.” He was the cinematographer of such hits as “Lethal Weapon 3,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Minority Report.” He also became a respected director in his own right, helming such hits has “Twister” and the classic Die-Hard-on-a-bus actioner “Speed.” Jan de Bont hasn’t worked on a movie since he directed the 2003, Angelina Jolie action sequel “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life.” He will turn 80 years old this year.
Despite directing such bonafide classics as “Predator,” “Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October,” and 1999’s “Thomas Crowne Affair,” John McTiernan hasn’t worked in Hollywood for nearly twenty years. His last completed feature film was the 2003 John Travolta military thriller “Basic.” McTiernan’s absence is due, in part, to the fact that he spent time in federal prison. McTiernan pled guilty to perjury and lying to an FBI investigator as part of the Anthony Pellicano wire-tapping case. That case is far too complicated to dissect here, but as a result of his involvement in that case, McTiernan was labeled one of the industry’s most “despised” people by the Hollywood Reporter. He hasn’t directed a film since. He is 71 years old.
Alan Rickman had a rich and varied career after “Die Hard.” He played the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” Marston in “Quigley Down Under” and Harry in “Love Actually.” But his most famous role was as Hogwarts’ potions master Professor Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Rickman died of cancer in 2016. He was 69 years old.
Bruce Willis was never the same after “Die Hard.” For the rest of his life, Willis was (and is) partially deaf. As a result of the “exaggerated realism” on the set of “Die Hard,” Willis required a hearing aid to approximate normal hearing.
On March 30, 2022, Bruce Willis’s family announced that the actor had aphasia. Willis spent much of his late career performing in direct to video projects. It is unclear whether his handlers were exploiting a mentally disabled man for profit – as Matt Zoller Seitz over at New York contends – or if Willis was attempting to stockpile money for his family knowing that his acting days were rapidly coming to an end.
As Dan Kois says for Slate, Willis’s recent diagnosis and his direct-to-video status of late both make his career hard to wrap your mind around. Willis was a reluctant movie star. He was one of the last leading men to willingly go bald and age in front of the world. Like many movie stars before him, he fell into certain acting habits that he tried to break, to varying results.
After “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis went on to star in “The Last Boy Scout,” “Pulp Fiction,” “12 Monkeys,” “Fifth Element,” “Armageddon,” and the “Sixth Sense” all in the 1990s. During this heyday period, Willis was also one of many big names behind the attempted celebrity restaurant venture Planet Hollywood.
Willis never again reached his late 20th century heights. The 21st century saw his career decline despite starring in two “Die Hard” sequels during that time. Notable late-career exceptions to this decline would have to include 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Looper,” which both saw Willis play supporting roles.
Along with the announcement of Willis’s diagnosis, Willis’s family also announced his retirement from acting. Aphasia will eventually rob Willis of his ability to speak and to comprehend language at all.
Interestingly, aphasia can be caused by head trauma to the left side of the brain. The very same side where Willis lost his ability to hear on the set of “Die Hard” over thirty years ago.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.