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AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIC LICHTENFELD
Eric Lichtenfeld is the author of the book Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, an authoritative and entertaining study of the action film genre. In addition, he has written about film, interviewed filmmakers, and moderated panel discussions for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Cinematheque, Slate, The Hollywood Reporter, and more. He has taught film to students at Loyola Marymount University, UCLA, Wesleyan University, and the Harvard School of Law. He is also a communications and film industry professional whose specialties include motion picture advertising, speechwriting, and others. Eric has also contributed supplemental material for several DVD and Blu-ray releases, including Speed, Predator, and Die Hard. He produced the Text Commentary found on the Die Hard Blu-ray Disc. That feature, labeled on the jacket as “Subtitle Commentary by Various Cast and Crew,” was originally produced for the Five Star Collection DVD issued in 2001. Eric and I recently met over lunch to discuss the greatness, enduring appeal and legacy of Die Hard.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Die Hard worthy of celebration on the 25th anniversary of its original release?
Eric Lichtenfeld: It’s one of the movies that has endured. It’s probably the best action movie ever made, and because of the quality of the filmmaking, Die Hard escapes the datedness that some of its contemporaries – even very good ones – never quite could. Except for the occasional hair style or business suit – and the price of gas – there isn't that much that screams the ’80s. At least not visually. The movie does capture its moment in time – especially by giving expression to American anxiety over the rise of Japanese corporate culture and power – but without clobbering you over the head with it. So Die Hard is a movie that is of its time but also timeless. It's easy to be one, and harder to be the other, but harder still to be both at once.
Coate: How is Die Hard significant within the action genre?
Lichtenfeld: Die Hard is one of the few movies that transformed its genre. Bruce Willis’s John McClane helped inaugurate the everyman hero. McClane was a real counterpoint to the more superheroic heroes the genre had seen to that point. And then there’s the format: the hero fighting terrorists who’ve laid siege to a specific space. After all, the genre had seen terrorists before, but it was Die Hard that became the model and point of reference. I mean, Speed was Die Hard on a Bus, but it’s not like Die Hard was Black Sunday in a Building.
So for the nine years after Die Hard came out, if your action movie was not a big budget spectacle like Independence Day or Terminator 2, it was probably Die Hard on a Something. And there really are very few movies within the action genre, or really any genre, that can claim that kind of a distinction. In my view the first modern action movie was Dirty Harry. After that, the genre spent about ten years sort of figuring itself out. It cohered around the model of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Chuck Norris superhero and I think that probably happened really with First Blood. And with First Blood and the arrival of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger hero, the model was pretty much locked for most of the decade until Die Hard.
Coate: In a genre that frequently is generic and derivative, how is it that Die Hard managed to be a great movie?
Lichtenfeld: Three things. Again, the format of the confined space was something new. You also have Bruce Willis and what he brought to the role that other action stars could not have. And then there’s the high level of filmmaking: the cinematography the editing, the art direction, the sound design – the building blocks of a movie, the things we consider to be cinematic. And, of course, an excellent script and cast. What makes Die Hard so rare for the genre is that it’s a great movie before it’s a great action movie.
Coate: Why is the filmmaking of such an unusually high quality?
Lichtenfeld: As an historian and a scholar, I want to give you a very detailed and analytical answer to why it happened the way it happened. As a fan and as someone who knows a little bit about what happened, I also want to tell you it was serendipity. What Jack DeGovia said to me is that in every career there are creative high points and low points. Die Hard happened at a moment when all of those department heads were at a high point.
And not only did they have the right people, but they had the right people making the movie fast. It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes movies made with less time, less money, and under more pressure turn out better than movies where time and money are in abundance. In those cases, the constraint can force people to either think more creatively or just go with their creative instincts. I think that with the right people, that pressure can yield more inventive solutions to various creative problems that would come up in the production of any movie. I think that was the case with Die Hard.
I also believe that the movie as a whole benefited from the creative tension between what director John McTiernan represents and what producer Joel Silver represents, with McTiernan always wanting to ground things in logic and believability and Joel Silver always wanting things to be bigger. When you put those two together, when each is pulling on the other, you can end up somewhere in the middle – giving the audience this incredible experience that is larger than life but emotionally and logically grounded.
Coate: What was your reaction to seeing Die Hard the first time?
Lichtenfeld: The first time I saw Die Hard was one of the most taut and exciting experiences I'd ever had seeing a movie – and I was already a fan of the genre. My most vivid memory of that first showing – which was on opening day – was how the audience clapped and cheered when McClane fires his last two shots and delivered his “Happy trails, Hans” one-liner. I think I'd seen audiences applaud at the end of movies, but never during one.
Coate: Why are you such a big fan of Die Hard?
Lichtenfeld: Not only is Die Hard so engaging, but it's also the most intelligent and elegant action movie ever made. The filmmaking and storytelling are both very sophisticated, and their intricacies can be very subtle – which makes them so rewarding to discover. And while it's not a “message” movie by any stretch, I think it does say something about being American and about American pop culture and mythology: that through these bigger stories that endure, we can endure. I think that idea has a lot of resonance – especially in a culture such as ours, where pop culture is so prevalent.
Coate: A number of big-name stars turned down the John McClane role. Would Die Hard have been as good had it featured some other ’80s action star, such as Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris?
Lichtenfeld: To me the question is not: Would Die Hard have been as good ? To me the question is: Would Die Hard have been Die Hard? The relatability of Bruce Willis was such a counterpoint to what was happening in the genre at the time that you have a fundamentally different experience. It’s more than a spectacle. Despite what the newspaper ads suggested, you don’t just get blown back in your seat, you also lean forward; you’re involved.
Coate: Alan Rickman's performance as Hans Gruber, the head of the terrorist group, was singled out by numerous critics and even made the American Film Institute's Best All-Time Heroes & Villains list. What did you think of Rickman's performance, and where does it rank among great movie villains in general and action-movie villains in particular?
Lichtenfeld: The combination of Rickman's performance and the screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza put Hans Gruber in the pantheon of movie villains. What makes him unique is how enjoyable he is – not in the sense that we love to hate him, but in the sense that we love to love him. He's fun. At the time, many action movie villains were defined by their racial, ethnic, or national other-ness, but Hans, while definitely foreign, was so shrewdly written and finely performed that he exists as something more than just a type.
Coate: Can you discuss the effectiveness of the film's music, especially the incorporation of classical music into the score?
Lichtenfeld: The use of Beethoven's 9th Symphony goes a long way toward accomplishing one of John McTiernan's big goals with Die Hard: to keep the joy in it. Through the movie, we experience a lot of different things – suspense, excitement, darkness, pathos – but the movie always comes back to joy. McTiernan wanted to make sure the audience never got too far from that, and the “Ode to Joy” makes sure we don’t. Especially by being the music that's linked not to our hero, but to the bad guys. That's an interesting facet of it, too. While McClane does have his own musical motif, the movie's main theme is associated with the villains. I can't think of too many other movies that have done that.
Coate: How did the Die Hard Text Commentary come about and what is the value of such a supplemental feature?
Lichtenfeld: I was writing a booklet that was to be part of the packaging for the Five Star Edition. The booklet was to include my own analysis of the movie and my interviews with about ten members of the cast and crew. I had just gotten back from interviewing Steven E. de Souza when the DVD's producer, David Prior, told me that he and Fox wanted me to change the booklet into a text commentary. I wasn't familiar with any other text commentaries at the time, so once I figured out a few technical things (timings, etc.), I got really excited about what this could be: a chance for the viewer to “hear” from people who aren't often represented on DVDs (at least not back then): the editors, the sound editors, the stunt coordinators, and so on. And also to give the viewer my own critical analysis of sequences and images while they were happening on screen.
Over time, I sometimes heard people refer to the Text Commentary as “the Trivia Track,” and I have to admit, I would always bristle at that. I saw this content as much more than “trivia,” but as something much more in-depth. Because the high level of filmmaking was so unusual for the genre, my hope was to give the viewer a deeper understanding not only of how Die Hard was made, but also of how and why it all works the way it does – from the movie as a whole to individual moments and shots. This was especially important to me because as much as people genuinely love Die Hard, it's not a movie that they think of as working on so many other levels. After all, Die Hard is an action movie, a genre movie, and it can be easy to miss what we assume isn't there.
Coate: What was the objective in writing your book Action Speaks Louder?
Lichtenfeld: To give a detailed history and analysis of how the modern action movie evolved as a genre, and also of specific movies that were significant – either because they were milestones or because they represented a particular trend. It was important to me that the book be accessible, and not weighed down by theory or jargon; I wanted it to be smart, of course, but also energetic, even fun. To this day, the best compliment I get is not when someone says, “I liked what you said about x, y, or z,” but when they say, “You made me want to see x again.”
I also wanted to really get into the guts of how American culture influenced those movies and how the movies influenced the culture. For example, I found so much interesting research about the weaponry used in the movies and how the films’ publicity materials used them to try to hook potential moviegoers. That said a lot to me about the mentality the ’80s action audience had (or was assumed to have), and it was really fun bringing all of that out.
Coate: What did the original Die Hard do well that its sequels and imitators did not?
Lichtenfeld: Die Hard has many strengths that many – though not all – of its sequels and imitators didn't equal. One of the most important is its approach to geography, to space. The art direction and cinematography of Die Hard help us to really learn the environment. That clarity is important for any action movie, but especially one in which the space is such a key part of the story. And we end up not only understanding the building and how its spaces relate to one another, but also caring about it. As the production designer, Jack DeGovia, says in his audio commentary, “It's not about blowing up a building; it's about blowing up a building that matters.”
Coate: Where does Die Hard rank among director John McTiernan's body of work?
Lichtenfeld: Die Hard may well be John McTiernan's masterpiece – at least to date. It's true that every time I see The Hunt for Red October, I spend the next few days wondering if Die Hard has a challenger, but in the end, I always give the distinction back to Die Hard.
Coate: What is the legacy of Die Hard?
Lichtenfeld: It depends on whether we’re talking about Die Hard as a movie or as a franchise. As a movie, it gave us a new kind of action film and a new standard of filmmaking within the genre, even if that standard has rarely if ever been lived up to. And, of course, John McClane and the defiant everyman hero he represents. As for the legacy of Die Hard as a franchise? McClane is also part of that; Bruce Willis is one of only a handful of actors to have played the same character in four consecutive decades. But even more, I think the series has come to represent a kind of over-the-top sensibility and a scale that – ironically – the original doesn’t. And so the sequels (most of which do have their moments) have made it easy to lose sight of the genuine greatness of the first, even though people do love it. It’s similar with the Rambo and Rocky films. The broad brush people often use to paint these series can obscure what was so special – and so important – about the original.
And now, on to some historical information and data...
A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES
“Alan Rickman, a British stage actor, in his movie debut as the chief terrorist, creates a classic villain.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune
“Die Hard is dynamite.” — Joel Siegel, Good Morning America
“[Bruce] Willis has found the perfect vehicle to careen wildly onto the crowded L.A. freeway of Lethal Weapons and Beverly Hills Cops. And he keeps a respectable grip on the wheel, his only acting requirements being to shift that Moonlighting glibspeak into R-rated high-drive and fire his Beretta 92 to heart’s content.” — Desson Howe, The Washington Post
“This summer’s action movie to see.” — Mike Clark, USA Today
“For sheer roller-coaster thrills, the pick of the crop is Die Hard.” — David Ansen, Newsweek
“See it in 70mm and kick back; it’s a party of a movie.” — Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle
“Die Hard has audiences rising to their feet and screaming at the screen! You’ll have a whale of a time.” — Mike McGrady, Newsday
“Thumbs Up.” — Gene Siskel, Siskel & Ebert
“Thumbs Down.” — Roger Ebert, Siskel & Ebert
“Die Hard is exceedingly stupid, but escapist fun.” — Caryn James, The New York Times
“Die Hard is the archetypal big-deal Hollywood exploitation picture. It’s like a giant war toy, a triumph of well-oiled mechanical precision that performs miracles of destruction. As a grand flourish of cinematic technique, it is awesome; as a human drama, it is disgusting and silly, a mindless depiction of carnage on an epic scale.” — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
FACTOIDS AND TRIVIA
The world premiere of Die Hard was held on July 12, 1988, at the Avco Center Cinema in Los Angeles, California. An invitational preview was held on July 7, 1988, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California.
Die Hard was released initially in only 21 theaters in 20 North American markets on Friday, July 15, 1988, all exclusively presenting the movie in 70mm (see list below). One week later, on Wednesday, July 20, the film was released (in 35mm) in 1,255 additional theaters.
Die Hard is based upon the 1979 book Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp.
Die Hard was among twelve first-run movies released with 70mm prints during 1988.
The Nakatomi Plaza featured in the film is the Fox Plaza, the west coast corporate offices of 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, located in the Century City neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Bruce Willis received a reported $5 million salary for his acting services, a huge sum at the time, despite having starred in only two (unsuccessful) feature films and having no track record in the action-adventure genre.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds and Richard Gere all reportedly passed on playing the role of John McClane.
Awards… Die Hard was nominated for four Academy Awards: Film Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects. The film won a BMI Film Music award for Michael Kamen’s original score and a Hocho Eiga Sho (“Best Foreign Picture for 1989”) from the Japanese newspaper Hochi Shimbun. The Motion Picture Sound Editors awarded Richard Shorr a Golden Reel for sound editing. In 2001, David Prior was nominated for a Video Premiere Award for producing the supplements for the Five Star Collection DVD. In 2003 the American Film Institute ranked Hans Gruber the 46th greatest movie villain of all time in their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list. In 2007 Entertainment Weekly voted Die Hard the best action movie of all time.
Die Hard spawned four sequels – Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) – plus several video games and comic books.
Die Hard inspired the high-concept story-idea expression: Die Hard on a ______.
Tracked music from Aliens (1986, composer James Horner) and Man on Fire (1987, composer John Scott) can be heard in Die Hard. In addition, composer Kamen incorporated into his score pieces from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Singin’ in the Rain.
Some translated international release titles included Hard to Kill (Latin America), The Glass Jungle (Spain), Big Building Fight (Thailand), Operation Skyscraper (Scandinavia), Die Slowly (Germany), The Crystal Trap (France and Italy), and A Hard Nut to Crack (Russia).
The first international/foreign-language release of Die Hard was in Puerto Rico beginning August 25, 1988.
The “Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension” used to open Die Hard was the same recording used in John McTiernan’s Predator (1987). On the original film prints (and some home-video editions), a spherical version of the Fox snipe was used resulting in a stretched out image when projected with an anamorphic lens. As well, John McTiernan was the first director to use the Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension entirely over the Fox logo whereas previous renditions featured the CinemaScope Extension portion played over “A CinemaScope Picture” title card or a production company credit. McTiernan’s Predator was the first spherical (i.e. non-scope) production to feature the full Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension.
Die Hard’s first home-video release was in January 1989 (priced for rental). The LaserDisc release from 1989 marked the first time Fox issued a scope movie in letterbox on a film’s initial home-video release. The film was first issued on DVD during March 1999. It was first released on Blu-ray in November 2007.
THE ORIGINAL THEATRICAL ENGAGEMENTS
The following is a list of the markets and theaters that opened Die Hard during its exclusive, limited-market release on July 15, 1988, one week ahead of its nationwide release. These initial engagements were shown in the high-quality 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo format, which, arguably, was the best way to experience Die Hard. These large-format prints were struck at a cost of approximately $12,000 each (compared with about $1,500 for a 35mm print).
- Atlanta – Lenox Square
- Boston – Cinema 57
- Chicago – Woodfield
- Cincinnati – Kenwood
- Dallas – Northpark
- Denver – Continental
- Houston – Spectrum
- Los Angeles – Avco Center
- Miami – Dadeland
- Minneapolis – Southtown
- Montreal – Place Alexis-Nihon
- New York – Baronet
- New York – Criterion Center
- Philadelphia – SamEric
- St. Louis – Esquire
- San Francisco – Coronet
- San Jose – Town & Country
- Seattle – Cinema 150
- Toronto – Pantages
- Vancouver – Granville
- Washington – Wisconsin Avenue
0 = Number of weekends Die Hard was North America’s top-grossing movie
4 = Number of sequels
5 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1988 (calendar year)
6 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
7 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1988 (legacy)
21 = Number of 70mm prints in North America
21 = Number of theaters showing the movie during opening weekend
1,276 = Number of theaters showing the movie upon wide release (week #2)
1,713 = Peak number of theaters showing the movie (week of Aug 12-18; week #5)
$601,851 = Opening-weekend box-office gross (limited release, week #1)
$5.0 million = Bruce Willis’ salary
$7.1 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (wide release, week #2)
$28.0 million = Production cost
$37.1 million = Box-office rental (% of gross paid to distributor) of original release
$53.5 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
$57.8 million = International box-office gross
$83.1 million = Domestic box-office gross
$140.9 million = Worldwide box-office gross
$158.8 million = Domestic box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
$269.2 million = Worldwide box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
$1.4 billion = Cumulative box-office gross for Die Hard franchise
$1.9 billion = Cumulative box-office gross for Die Hard franchise (adjusted for inflation)
John McClane – Bruce Willis
Holly Gennaro-McClane – Bonnie Bedelia
Sgt. Al Powell – Reginald Veljohnson
Dwayne T. Robinson – Paul Gleason
Argyle – De’voreaux White
Thornburg – William Atherton
Ellis – Hart Bochner
Hans Gruber – Alan Rickman
Karl – Alexander Godunov
Theo – Clarence Gilyard, Jr.
Joe Takagi – James Shigeta
Franco – Bruno Doyon
Tony – Andres Wisniewski
Uli – Al Leong
Special Agent Johnson – Robert Davi
Agent Johnson – Grand L. Bush
Director – John McTiernan
Producers – Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver
Screenplay – Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (screenplay), Roderick Thorp (novel)
Executive Producer – Charles Gordon
Director of Photography – Jan de Bont
Production Designer – Jackson DeGovia
Film Editors – Frank J. Urioste, ACE and John F. Link
Visual Effects Producer – Richard Edlund, ASC
Costume Designer – Marilyn Vance-Straker
Casting – Jackie Burch
Music – Michael Kamen
Production Sound Mixer – Al Overton
Sound Effects – Stephen H. Flick, MPSE and Richard Shorr, MPSE
Sound Re-Recording Mixers – Don Bassman, Kevin F. Cleary, Richard Overton
Distributor – 20th Century Fox
Production Company – Gordon Company/Silver Pictures
Release Date – July 15, 1988
Running Time – 132 minutes
Projection/Sound Format – Scope/Dolby Stereo
MPAA Rating – R
Numerous newspaper articles, film reviews, theater advertisements, and the motion picture Die Hard (20th Century Fox, 1988).
Neil S. Bulk, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Eric Lichtenfeld.
Don Bassman (re-recording mixer), 1927-1993
Alexander Godunov (“Karl”), 1949-1995
Roderick Thorp (novelist), 1936-1999
Bobby Bass (special weapons trainer), 1936-2001
Michael Kamen (composer), 1948-2003
Paul Gleason (“Dwayne T. Robinson”), 1939-2006
Al Di Sarro (special effects coordinator), 1951-2011
- Michael Coate