There is nothing quite like the London Screenwriters’ Festival live script to screen sessions. To get to sit together as a community and watch our favourite films alongside their film legend creators is a treat indeed. When they tell us in person just how it was done it’s also a huge learning experience if one can suppress awe long enough to take it in.
Die Hard is an action movie that’s not only is a great film in and of itself but which defined the genre for so many films that came after and solidified careers with it’s enduring success. Now a veteran action screenwriter Jeb Stuart joined us to talk us through the evolution of this, his first action screenplay produced, and the writing choices that made it work so very well on screen.
Adaptation is Improvement
Die Hard was an adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever. A darkly cerebral book sequel, it featured a 65 year old protagonist and his 40 year old daughter both of whom die at the end and was proving too depressing for studios to green light. Under some financial pressure at the time Jeb had looked for some extra work to span a five week window of non-exclusivity in his then Disney employment contract and he was hired to try to breathe some life into the Fox property with a new draft. Finding it initially frustrating Jeb argued with his wife about having to go back to work at the studio one evening. He took off from home without apologising for being in the wrong before narrowly avoiding what could have been a fatal car accident when a fridge box fell out of a truck into his path. Fortunately it did not contain a fridge and a flattened box was the only collision, but it did give shaken Jeb an idea of how he could stay close to the source material while making the story more redemptive and heroic. Essentially it would be about a younger man, who didn’t apologise to his wife when he should have and then must save her from a bunch of ruthless terrorists to have any chance to make amends. Jeb wrote the first 40 pages that night and when he turned in the full draft in on a Friday it was green lit that weekend.
Work Your (real or imagined) Location
The Nakatomi Plaza location is actually the Fox Plaza building in Los Angeles, home of 20th Century Fox which stands adjacent to the Fox lot and at the time of writing was itself under construction. Knowing they were planning to use it as a set, Jeb made friends with the building manager who showed him things about the building and construction works that gave him lots of great ideas. He took pains to set out the location geography early in the script so that new locations weren’t introduced at the end purely for the convenience of finale aesthetics but were rooted and established within the story structure.
Suspense is Action. Character is Suspense.
Though lauded as a great action movie Jeb points out that there’s really more suspense in Die Hard with just a few action pieces. A key note is that suspense only works if you like the character. Without properly building a character the humour doesn’t work, suspense doesn’t work and how a character is built can affect who is cast in the role and the line delivery. If your characters don’t matter you’ll be fired and they’ll swiftly become another writer’s characters. Often Jeb writes a whole scene and lops off the first third leaving the actors to sell it from that point without flabbiness. Unnamed extras must also be characters that matter to some extent. Two nice moments in Die Hard are in a building assault scene where one SWAT guy scratches himself on a rose bush as they move in and a terrorist ducking into a lobby kiosk for concealed shooting vantage, idly reaches for a candy bar in the silence that awaits the attack. Tiny things you don’t pay attention to but subliminally show these generic characters are real people with cares and woes who may die in the coming action. Jeb tells us, you have to stagger tension, add humour and new information, create ledges for an audience to rest their anticipation before building it up again. Not every ledge works for every story, but when action films become comedic or terrifying you’ve invested an audience in your action.
When To Give It Up
When you give up your script, Jeb tells us, it becomes somebody else’s script. It becomes 120 professionals’ script and after the challenges of shooting can look very different to the story you’ve originally envisioned, but those professionals add huge value at every step. Initially screenplays are typically read by one important reader so you can’t allow plot holes that they won’t understand but when more voices get involved things can get malleable again. Moving into the third act there are all sorts of threads that get created and have to be wrapped up. One of the notes that came down on Die Hard was that if they were spending that much money on a movie then the top of the building had to blow up for an exciting visually dramatic finale that would draw sales both domestically and from non-English speaking markets overseas. Director John McTiernan thought with the financial element it should be a heist movie. The two notes led to the dramatic plot twist in the terrorists motivations which neither we nor the protagonist initially see coming. Letting go of the original plot plans allowed for this great development.
Why Die Hard IS a Christmas Movie (and why timing matters)
While the events of the novel take place at Christmas the adapted movie needn’t have and they debated whether it should. One thing decided them and that was that for plot reasons Jeb needed to empty the building of everyone except for those at the Nakatomi party. Christmas was unique and perfect timing for that circumstance to occur and so Die Hard committed itself to being a fully fledged Christmas Film and we have that from the writer’s mouth. The season fortunately also works well with the main emotional drive of the movie, that of family and reconciliation and yes, miracles!