For a movie originally marketed as “40 stories of sheer adventure,” what better way to see John McTiernan’s seminal 1988 actioner “Die Hard” than in the shadow of Nakatomi Tower itself?
That’s just how 20th Century Fox celebrated the film’s 30th anniversary Saturday night, with an outdoor screening at the foot of Fox Plaza in Century City, which stood in for the famed fictional tower. Hundreds gathered on the roof of an adjacent parking garage at dusk as the gleaming structure provided a picturesque backdrop and the most movie-Mecca-like filmgoing experience this side of Devils Tower and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“It was kind of the star of the movie,” Bonnie Bedelia, one of the film’s (other) stars, told Variety just before the screening. She and co-star Reginald VelJohnson were on hand to introduce the film for the fans in attendance, many of whom wore T-shirts emblazoned with a few of the movie’s unforgettable lines.
“I love to meet intense fans,” VelJohnson said. “They always come up to you and say their favorite thing in the movie, and I’ll have to think a minute to remember what they’re talking about! But I watch it and I see things I didn’t even know were there before. It’s the kind of movie that always surprises you when you watch it.”
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Neither actor was looking for a project like “Die Hard” when it came around. For Bedelia, it just didn’t fit into her filmography at the time, which she admits she was somewhat precious about maintaining. It was actually Bruce Willis who turned producers onto her as a possibility.
“I was not looking to do an action movie,” she said. “I said, ‘That’s not me. That’s Sharon Stone or something. I’m just a gal.’ They didn’t want a glamour puss. They wanted someone who was pretty and could look like a leading lady, but had gravitas and you could believe was at a high level at a corporation, and yet could also look like she’d be married to a cop in New York. They were having a hard time casting it.”
Producer Joel Silver ultimately convinced her to take it on. “He said to me, ‘You’re a wonderful actress and you’ve done wonderful work but more people will see you in this movie than the rest of your filmography put together.'”
VelJohnson, meanwhile, was looking to get out of the game altogether. He had been in New York auditioning and performing in plays and was getting tired of the rat race.
“I had an interview at an advertising agency writing copy, and I was going to do the interview the next week,” he recalled. “Then when they called me for this role, I completely forgot about that and said, ‘I’m going to go out to California and do this.’ It was my last chance, so to speak.”
From there his career took off as he landed a starring role in the ABC sitcom “Family Matters,” which would air for the next decade.
Earlier in the day, select press were given a tour of the building by Fox Plaza’s chief engineer, who requested he not be named or directly quoted in any coverage. But he might be the film’s biggest fan, largely because of how awed he was by the fact that the entire movie, outside of the Christmas party scenes, was shot on the premises.
The engineer told Variety‘s tour group he was stunned when he learned this fact, because watching the movie before, he thought there was no way a building like Nakatomi Tower could actually exist. Surely “Die Hard” must have wielded a wealth of movie magic to convince the audience otherwise. But that wasn’t the case. When he took the job, he was dumbfounded at the number of redundancies scattered throughout the building, which led him to a pet theory that Fox Plaza was constructed, in part, as a massive prop for film production purposes.
(An example: The presence of four massive water chillers in the bowels of the building for the air conditioning system. He said he never needs more than one, and that level of backup is unheard of in his business. But the room — which is laid out in an unusually spacious fashion — sure looks great on film!)
Suffice it to say, the engineer would make a fascinating profile subject alone. As he led the group through the structure, he would hold up a tablet to showcase whatever scene was shot in that particular space, from the lobby still sporting the same pink marble facade 30 years later, to the stairwell where villain Karl Vreski met his (near) fate in a makeshift chain noose, to the ill-fated rooftop helipad that provides stunning views of Los Angeles. He even roped in Fox Plaza’s head of security and the building’s elevator technician, among others, for a truly interactive experience fit with John McClane barking on walkie-talkies, a stand-in for limo driver Argyle parked in the loading dock and much, much more. It was a truly unusual and immersive movie tour experience.
Getting back to the screening, “Die Hard” — which was ultimately Oscar-nominated for editing, sound and visual effects — obviously still holds up or it wouldn’t generate this kind of ongoing fandom. Thanks to elegant photography from cinematographer Jan De Bont and McTiernan’s captivating film language that inspires to this day, not to mention a cracking action script from Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, it’s more timeless classic than aging relic. Compliments don’t come much higher in popular cinema.
“That’s the highest accolade you could give a movie, that it holds up to the extent that it feels like it could have been made yesterday,” Bedelia said.
The 30th anniversary edition of “Die Hard” is now available on 4K, Blu-ray and digital.