Book Excerpt: Inside the Making of ‘Die Hard’ 30 Years Later

'Die Hard' Book Goes Inside Making Of the Hit Series
20th Century Fox

Yippie-ki-yay! Fans of the “Die Hard” movies can geek out with a new book that goes inside the entire saga with exclusive interviews with the cast and crew and and rare and unseen imagery including set photographs and concept art. Written by Variety senior producer David S. Cohen and James Mottram, “Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History” is available on Nov. 13 from Insight Editions.

In the first chapter, screenwriter Jeb Stuart tells how a fight with his wife helped him crack the central character of the story.


“Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the a–.” —JOHN MCCLANE


Jeb Stuart needed a paycheck.

Things shouldn’t have been this tight. He was a writer on the rise. After five years of graduate school, he’d written a hot spec script that had landed at Columbia Pictures with Robert Duvall attached to star, and he had a new four-script deal at Disney. He should have been the envy of young screenwriters and flush with cash.

But in that first half of 1987, Columbia had dropped his “hot” script just before it was to go into production. He was broke. With a young kid and a pregnant wife at home, the pressure was on. Stuart remembers telling his agent, Jeremy Zimmer, “I can’t get paid at Disney, I gotta do something.” There was one thing going in his favor: He was about to deliver his first Disney script, and that opened a six-week window where he could work for another studio. So Stuart’s agent put in a call to Lloyd Levin, the head of development for Lawrence “Larry” Gordon over at Twentieth Century Fox.

Gordon was already a seasoned producer, who had cut his teeth working with director Walter Hill on a series of films, including The Warriors (1979), The Driver (1978), and 48 Hrs. (1982). After a two-year stint as president of Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment Group, he resigned in 1986, though he remained a producer there with Lawrence Gordon Productions and the Gordon Company, formed with his brother Charles.

A New Jersey native, Lloyd Levin was Gordon’s eyes and ears, seeking out potential projects. “Larry trusted Lloyd implicitly,” says Stuart. Among the projects Levin was trying to get off the ground was a novel adaptation that had been languishing at Fox. Written by Roderick Thorp, Nothing Lasts Forever was a sequel to Thorp’s book The Detective, which Fox had made into a 1968 film starring Frank Sinatra. Stuart jumped at the chance to write the script. “If it had been the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he admits, “I would have taken the deal and written it.”

The Detective, which features Sinatra as the titular lawman, Joe Leland, was considered somewhat groundbreaking at the time. It took a more adult view of the life of a policeman than most Hollywood films, touching on infidelity and homosexuality, the latter of which had been mostly taboo in studio films. Fox had acquired the rights to the still unwritten sequel long ago. (Thorp, undoubtedly embellishing the story, later suggested that when Levin showed Larry Gordon a copy of the finished novel, with a helicopter and burning building on the cover, Gordon instantly demanded: “I don’t need to read it. Buy it.”)

The author hadn’t actually written Nothing Lasts Forever until 1979, although the idea had been on his mind for some time before that. The basic concept was the result of a dream Thorp had in which a man was being chased through a building by gun-wielding assailants. Tellingly, he experienced the dream on the very night he saw the 1974 disaster film The Towering Inferno.

In Nothing Lasts Forever, Joe Leland, now in his sixties, is divorced from the unfaithful wife who plagued him in The Detective and has retired from the NYPD to become a security consultant. He flies to Los Angeles to visit his daughter Stephanie Gennaro, an executive at foreign-owned Klaxon Oil. He has some chemistry with a flight attendant on the plane, Kathi, and gets her phone number, but parts ways with her at the airport to go meet his daughter. Once he arrives at the Klaxon Oil Christmas party, held at the company’s skyscraper, he realizes Stephanie is involved in shady business deals. Another disappointment for the world-weary Leland.

Tired from his flight, he takes a stranger’s advice to remove his shoes, wash his feet, and walk around barefoot to fight jet lag. Then, terrorists burst in and take over the office. Peeking out into the hall, Leland recognizes the German-born Anton Gruber, aka Antonino Rojas, “Little Tony the Red,” a dangerous international terrorist leader he’d recently been briefed on. He sees Anton kill the top Klaxon executive in cold blood. Barefoot, armed with only a pistol, Leland slips away. Alone and exhausted, he takes out the terrorists one by one during the night, battling them across the building’s unoccupied upper floors. At times he escapes by crawling through ventilation tunnels or climbing up and down elevator shafts. Though the fight is grueling and he accrues a series of injuries, he has hours alone with his thoughts during the night—time to daydream about Kathi, to think back to his unfaithful wife, to ponder that his own daughter, too, has been tainted by the world’s corruption.

Joe tries to get help using a radio, eventually connecting with a citizens band (CB) radio enthusiast in the Hollywood Hills who lends a little support, and with a young cop on the ground, Al Powell, who becomes his confidante. When Joe finally confronts the terrorist leader, the criminal grabs Stephanie. For a moment, Anton and Stephanie dangle out the window, with Anton holding on to her watchband. Leland is unable to save her, and both the terrorist and Stephanie fall to their deaths. Just when everything seems to be over, a surviving terrorist, Karl, bursts through a staircase door with a Kalashnikov to try to kill Leland. Al Powell shoots Karl dead, saving Joe’s life, although the officious police captain Dwayne Robinson takes a fatal bullet during the shootout.

The action in Nothing Lasts Forever takes place over just one day, and the story is steeped in noir overtones, thanks to Thorp’s sparse but punchy, hard-boiled prose. Describing the moment Klaxon’s CEO, Mr. Rivers, is shot dead, Thorp writes, “Gruber put the muzzle of the Walther on Rivers’s lapel and pulled the trigger. Rivers had a split-second of incredulous horror as the shot was fired, and then he was dead, sitting down and sprawling back with a little bounce, like a load of wash.”

Thorp’s high-rise setting is compellingly drawn. “With the elevators disabled, it was better than a medieval castle,” the author writes. “Not even assault troops could retake the place.” He casts it as a claustrophobic prison in the clouds, a hissing, creaking, humming building with grimy elevator shafts, labyrinthine stairwells, and dimly lit corridors.

This atmospheric backdrop feeds into the sour, grim tone of Thorp’s novel. Leland is cynical and a little bitter about, well, pretty much everything. “It seemed too sad for me,” says Stuart, who also felt that having an action hero in his sixties didn’t make much sense. Whilst suggesting that the book had the makings of a big action movie, Levin gave Stuart creative freedom. There was one suggestion though: “Lloyd always wanted it to snow,” Stuart recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a movie where it snows in LA.’” While Los Angeles is not exactly prone to such conditions, it left Stuart determined to keep the Christmas setting.

Stuart struggled with Thorp’s book. “I was living in Pasadena, my office was down at the Disney lot in Burbank, and I would come home at night, tuck my two little children in to bed, have dinner with my wife, and then go back to the studio and work all night.” Looking back, he says, the eighteen-hour days and financial pressure aren’t unusual for young people trying to break into the business. But the long hours and the stress put him on edge. “I got into a huge, knock-down, drag-out fight with my wife over probably something completely incidental,” he remembers. “She was completely right, I was completely wrong. And, instead of apologizing on the spot, I got back into the car angry, got on the freeway, and took off from Pasadena back down to Burbank at about seven o’clock in the evening.”

He sped through the usual obstacle course of aggressive Los Angeles drivers, trying to figure out a way to apologize to his wife. Cars wove in and out of lanes around him. Then, just ahead, he saw a huge refrigerator box in his lane. “I couldn’t go right or left, and I went right through it at about sixty-five miles an hour.” Luckily for Stuart, the box was empty. “I pulled over to the side of the freeway, and my heart was pounding and I thought: I know what Nothing Lasts Forever is. It’s not about a sixty-year-old man who drops his daughter off of a building, it’s about a thirty-year-old who should have said he’s sorry to his wife and something really bad happens.” His fight with his wife and the collision with a piece of freeway debris had helped him crack the biggest problem with the story.

“Up to that point I didn’t have a character,” says Stuart. There was no John McClane, the hero of Die Hard, just Joe Leland. “But to have a guy who is stubborn enough that he would come all the way out to LA to apologize and then not do it when he had that wonderful opportunity—that was sort of where I was at that particular moment.”

He wrote thirty-five script pages that night, a prodigious evening’s work. “Unfortunately, I still had to go back in the morning and apologize to my wife,” he says, “but that was very instructive for the start of Die Hard.”

Cracking McClane’s character gave Stuart a starting point, but there was no clear roadmap before him. Having abandoned the name Joe Leland, Stuart was going to call his hero John Ford, but Levin told him that film director John Ford was too important a name in the history of Fox to use for an action-movie character. “I promptly ran through fifty last names,” Stuart says. He eventually hit on the right one, swayed by his own Celtic roots. “McClane I always heard was a good strong Scottish name, and that’s what I wanted to put in there.”

Although Levin was initially unsure how Stuart should approach the adaptation, the producer’s input would be invaluable throughout the process of writing the script. “Lloyd was my connection to the book,” says Stuart, who believes Levin to be the unsung hero of Die Hard. “As Harrison Ford always says, the secret to success is working with people smarter than you,” says Stuart, “and Lloyd was really terrific.”

Stuart had no experience writing action films, but he had written thrillers. So he decided to follow the old saying “write what you know”—in more ways than one. First, he knew what sells a thriller. “Thrillers don’t work unless you really love the character,” he says. “I really want to be invested in this guy, and I really want him to get together with his wife. And I really want the family to kind of work.”

By making his hero younger, Stuart had made him one of his own peers, at least in age, and that too provided some guidance. Many of the writer’s friends were going through marital struggles. Some were divorcing. Some would vent to him about how their wives had changed back to their maiden names before their divorce was final. Stuart drew on their resentments in ways large and small, from McClane’s conflicted attitude toward his wife, Holly, to the anger he feels when he sees her maiden name, Gennaro, in the office-building directory.

Stuart wrote McClane as a man who knows he has made mistakes in his family life but is determined to make his wife understand, somehow, that he loves her and needs her back. But at the same time, he also wrote his hero as a man who can be exasperating, especially to his wife. In one of the key scenes Stuart wrote, the terrorist Karl throws things around in a rage after failing to kill McClane. “Everybody’s terrified except Holly,” says Stuart. “[She] smiles and says, ‘He’s still alive.’” When another captive asks how she knows, Holly simply replies: “Only John can drive somebody that crazy.”

McClane is a flawed, angry hero, a man learning a life lesson in the hardest way possible. “And he does,” says Stuart. “He manages to become a better person through the movie”—but not an entirely different person. “At the end of the movie, he’s still who he is.”

Despite support from Levin, Stuart still had to take his unfinished first draft and pitch it to Lawrence Gordon and assorted Fox executives in a boardroom on the Fox lot. “I’d never pitched before,” he remembers, believing at the time that he was expected to perform a detailed description of the entire story. “About fifteen minutes into this excruciating pitch,” he recounts, “Larry, who was sitting at the end of the table, said, ‘Where are you from?’

“And I said, ‘I’m from North Carolina.’

“And he said, ‘Well, I’m from Mississippi.’ And we did a little southern geography, because my father was from Mississippi, and he said, ‘Look, you’re supposed to be pretty good. Just go write it.’ I remember Larry walking out of the door, and all of these Fox executives and Gordon Company executives just kind of staring at me like, ‘That doesn’t happen.’ I got up and ran for the hills.” Stuart finished his first draft in just five and a half weeks.

During his research period, Stuart realized he needed to intimately get to know the inner workings of a tall building. Coincidentally, Twentieth Century Fox had a new office tower of its own, Fox Plaza, in the Century City office development adjacent to its lot. Stuart went over and made friends with the construction superintendent, who took him for a ride in the high-speed elevator and allowed him to stand on the wire grate over the ventilation system. As his knees buckled with vertigo, he began to think. “How can you take a building and integrate it into a story so it becomes another character in the movie?”

In the evolution from Thorp’s book to Stuart’s first draft, Stuart made several smart changes for the screen, notably in the way he used the supporting characters. “There’s more importance to them in the screenplay than in the novel,” he says. Much of the novel was internalized, in Leland’s head, but Stuart decided to use Thorp’s characters to give McClane more people to interact with. Thus, McClane’s relationship with Al Powell became more prominent; Powell’s film character was written older, with an expectant wife back home, giving father-of-two McClane someone to relate to.

Other characters morphed. Thorp’s Klaxon employee Harry Ellis is Stephanie’s sleazy boyfriend, whose cocaine habit disgusts Leland. Stuart retained Ellis and his drug use, although Holly—Stuart’s replacement for Stephanie—has no romantic links with him. Also kept was Dwayne Robinson, the LAPD police captain, who is on the ground during the hostage crisis. Stuart dropped the CB enthusiast, Taco Bill, but created Richard Thornburg, the unscrupulous newshound who discovers the identity of McClane when he’s holed up in the building fighting the terrorists and tracks down Holly and John’s children.

The unnamed chauffeur who picks McClane up from the airport in Thorp’s book was also given an expanded role and a name: William. Stuart even had McClane nickname him Taco Bill, in a nod to Thorp’s character. In Stuart’s draft, William uses his own CB radio to warn McClane about an imminent ambush and then jams Gruber’s communication by blasting rap music on the terrorists’ chosen radio channel.

Many scenes were taken straight from the book and tweaked as needed. McClane still removes his shoes and socks to fight jet lag, although Stuart changed the advice to curling up your feet into little balls. He got the idea from his days working as a quality-assurance spy for Pacific Southwest Airlines, when a fellow traveler informed him of this very trick.

In Stuart’s script, once the film’s terrorists arrive to take hostages, McClane hides and starts to cause havoc, picking them off one by one. Just like Leland, he throws one foe off the building to attract police attention. But the result is different; shot by McClane during a shootout in a boardroom, terrorist Marco’s corpse lands on the hood of Sgt. Powell’s cop car, causing him to manically hit reverse in fright. McClane also puts the body of another fallen terrorist, Tony, in an elevator with a note saying, NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN (in the book it’s NOW WE HAVE A MACHINE GUN, a possible attempt by Leland to fool the gang into believing they have multiple opponents). As in Thorp’s book, in Stuart’s story the terrorists are armed with explosives and detonators, which McClane steals. Just like Leland, McClane also drops a C-4 bomb strapped to a chair down an elevator shaft, causing a huge explosion on a lower floor. Thorp’s book also features helicopters blown from the skies by the terrorists. Stuart further developed this idea, having Karl take out the choppers with stinger missiles.

He didn’t follow the pattern of Thorp’s bleak ending, however. In Stuart’s draft, Holly

(Stephanie’s replacement) survives, and so does Dwayne Robinson. Recalls Stuart, “I remember in a conversation with Larry’s team, someone saying, ‘It doesn’t sound as dark as the book,’ and I said it can’t be as dark as the book. If I’m going to put you through two hours of suspense, you have to know that it’s not going to end darkly. It was never intended to be a noirish story.”

A fan of John Wayne, Stuart also began to develop a Western theme that would run through the story, suggesting McClane as a latter-day cowboy. In the original draft, Al Powell calls McClane “partner,” and McClane has lines like, “I ain’t the cavalry, fella,” and, “I should have taken scalps.” Stuart also invented two new characters, FBI agents Johnson and Johnson, and came up with a scene where the barefoot McClane accidentally steps on discarded fluorescent lightbulbs. Injured, he has a rather novel way of stopping the blood spilling from his feet, using maxi pads he finds in a drawer.

Stuart was happy with his script but nervous nevertheless. After all, the screenplay that was supposed to launch his career had stalled at Columbia. So he delivered his Nothing Lasts Forever script on a Friday in June and decided to get away from it all, packing his family into the car and driving up the coast to Carmel for a weekend getaway. He returned home Sunday to find his voicemail full. “They had read it and green-lit it on Saturday and we were going forward with the movie,” he recalls. As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better for the project. It was a “one in a million situation,” says Stuart: Fox needed a big-event movie for summer 1988 but had nothing lined up at the time.

There was just enough time to rush the project through, although it would be tight. “That was really exciting for me,” says Stuart. “Every writer should have one of those wonderful moments where it just gets done that quickl