Bruce Willis: ''If I hadn't done 'Die Hard,' I'd rip it off''
In the extended version of his chat in this week's issue of EW, the star of the best action film ever talks about becoming John McClane, his most explosive stunt, and living up to the film's legacy
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you made Die Hard in 1987, you were on a hit TV show, Moonlighting. How badly did you want to do movies?
BRUCE WILLIS: Things were happening so fast I didn’t have time to sit down and go, Here’s what I want to have happen this year, or next year, or in five years. I was never that guy anyway. I was never the guy that said, OK, in five years, I need to be here…all I knew was I got to act every day on TV. The show had become popular by 1988, I think I’d already read the script for Die Hard once, but had to pass because of the show. As it turns out, a miracle happened — Cybill Shepherd got pregnant and they shut down the show for 11 weeks — just the right amount of time for me to run around over at Nakatomi Tower.
So was there ever a point when you were shooting days on Moonlighting and then actually moonlighting at night on Die Hard?
I don’t think so. Maybe a day or two. I remember on the third one, Die Hard with a Vengeance, when we reshot the ending — which I predicted, not that I’m smart or anything, I just knew that the ending that we were going with wasn’t a Die Hard ending. It wouldn’t satisfy the audience when they said ‘One Year Later’ at the end — you never want to see that. I remember telling one of the producers on the film, ”Look, in six months I’m going to be doing Twelve Monkeys. I’m going to have a shaved head, tattoos all over my skull, and I’m going to have to put a wig on to look like John McClane and it isn’t going to be fun.” And it wasn’t.
You were the studio’s fifth choice to play John McClane…
Oh, I think I was the 50th choice! They went to everybody.
I’ve heard Richard Gere…
I heard that.
Stallone and Burt Reynolds…
[Laughs] Burt Reynolds? All of those guys probably would have been great John McClanes. As it turns out, if you think about John McClane now, you can’t imagine anybody doing it but me, right? The thing about the first film you have to understand is I was doing TV, I’d only been in L.A. for a couple of years, I was still really learning how to act, so most of what went into making John McClane from a character standpoint was the South Jersey Bruce Willis — that attitude and disrespect for authority, that gallows sense of humor, the reluctant hero. What I always say about John McClane is if he had the choice of someone else stepping up and doing what he had to do, he would let them do it. I remember right around that time, the script for Lethal Weapon came across my path and my girlfriend at the time read it and said it was way too violent. Thank God I didn’t do that one! [Laughs]
NEXT PAGE: Willis on reading the script, becoming the $5 million man — and ”Yippee-ki-yay, motherf—er”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you think of the Jeb Stuart script when you first read it, could you see the film in your head?
BRUCE WILLIS: I didn’t know that much about scripts and what went into a good script or a bad script…I remember that the script was in flux. It would change and they would rewrite scenes and we would come in and there’d be new scenes. I’ll give you an example. The second biggest line in Die Hard was ‘Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…’ That line was written while I was in this mock-up of a ventilator shaft, trapped in there, I couldn’t come out. In those days, a cell phone looked like a shoe box, they were enormous. And someone had to hand me a phone with Steven de Souza, the writer for the rewrites on Die Hard, and he’d tell me a line, they’d turn the camera on, we’d shoot it. We tried like six or seven lines…. I know that [Die Hard producer] Larry Gordon was instrumental in me getting the job. What’s that expression? Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan? Well, a lot of people take credit for my appearance in the first Die Hard, but Larry Gordon was really the guy. He lobbied for me. And then got them to give me an outrageous sum of money for acting in the film.
Do you remember what you were paid for Die Hard?
Five million dollars. It was an enormous amount of money at the time. And I was a TV actor! The day after I signed the deal, every actor in Hollywood’s salary went up to $5 million. It was nothing more than the fact that a film I’d done, Blind Date, had a good opening. A good opening weekend in those days was $7 million. Now, if it doesn’t make $100 million it’s a failure.
Where did the ”Yippee-ki-yay, motherf—er” line come from?
I don’t know if it was Jeb Stuart or Steven de Souza who wrote it. But we had a really adult conversation about what was the proper way to say it: Was it ”Yippee-ki-yay,” or ”Yippee-ti-yay?” I’m glad that I held on to ”Yippee-ki-yay.”
Was there a lot of ad-libbing on the film?
Not a lot of ad libbing, but there were a lot of last-minute pages that would come down. And because of my experience of working on Moonlighting where I was used to that, I was okay with it. I had the ability to learn lots of dialogue at the last minute…. At the time, I thought, Okay, this is how you make movies — come up with a cool line, say it, and it turns out really good. And then I went on to try a couple of different films according to that method and it doesn’t work out.
Was it hard for you to do the action stuff because Moonlighting was mainly screwball banter?
It’s a lot harder being funny than it is doing action. Action is just the grown-up equivalent of me saying to you, ”Let’s go jump off the roof of the house.”
NEXT PAGE: ”I said, ‘What’s this for?’ And they said, ‘That’s so you don’t catch on fire…”’
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read somewhere that you recommended Bonnie Bedelia for the role of your wife in the movie?
BRUCE WILLIS: No, Bonnie had already had some hits so I don’t think I was responsible for that.
And what about John McTiernan? Did you get along with him? He’s a notoriously cranky guy…
He’s a great storyteller, a great filmmaker. He was doing stuff with the camera that I had no idea why he was doing it until I saw the movie. And when I did finally see it I thought ”Holy Christ! That is unbelievable!” I’ll tell you another story. There’s a scene in Die Hard where you see me jumping off the roof of what’s supposed to be Nakatomi Plaza. But what I really did was jump off the garage — a five-story garage. And that was the first shot that I did on the first night. And I’m up there on the roof and they’re strapping the firehose around my waist and they’re slathering me up with this stuff and I said, ”What’s this for?” And they said, ”That’s so you don’t catch on fire. See those big plastic bags of gasoline over there? We’re gonna blow them up when you jump!” When I jumped, the force of the explosion blew me out to the very edge of the air bag I was supposed to land on. And when I landed everyone came running over to me and I thought they were going to say, ”Great job! Attaboy!” And what they were doing is seeing if I’m alive because I almost missed the bag. Finally, I was like, ”Why would you shoot this scene first?” And they were like, ”If you were killed at the end of the movie it would cost us a lot more money because we’d have to reshoot the whole thing with another actor.” [Laughs]
Alan Rickman is amazing as the villain, Hans Gruber. What’s the importance of a great villain in these kinds of movies?
It makes the movie smart. Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy. And Alan Rickman is the best example of that. That was his first film! He’s awesome in that. When he says, ”Unfortunately, Mr. Takagi will not be joining us for the rest of his life,” it’s such a throwaway delivery, it’s so good. That really kind of snobbish thing that the Brits do so well in film.
Do you have a favorite scene from the first Die Hard?
Yeah, there was some discussion about whether or not McClane should cry or get choked up when he’s talking about saying good-bye to his wife. And I remember we did one take without and one with, and everybody liked the one where I got a bit choked up. I thought that was an interesting scene.
Did you have any idea it was going to be such a big hit?
None. You know what, I started to get an idea when they started to show me cut footage of four or five scenes together.
What affect did it have on your career?
[Laughs] I didn’t have to do TV anymore.
NEXT PAGE: A Die Hard 5? ” Yeah! I think we already did it but it was called 16 Blocks.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You did Die Hard 2 pretty quickly after the first one…
BRUCE WILLIS: At the time, the sequel business wasn’t what it is today. They were still kind of finding their way. So Die Hard 2 kind of suffered a little bit in the effort to get it out there quickly and capitalize on the success of the first one.
I dig the second one…totally underrated.
I do too. I just think that it’s difficult to compete with the components of the first film. Even the new one, Live Free or Die Hard — if I was going to make an action movie today and I hadn’t done Die Hard, I would totally rip it off. The claustrophobic building, the good guys, the bad guys, the hostages, everybody’s trapped in this building, you put John McClane in all of these tight little spaces, you have him kill or beat the s— out of everybody else, and save his wife — it’s really hard to compete with that first film. All the Die Hards will be judged against the first one.
Speaking of the new film, what is it about this character that keeps pulling you back?
It’s not so much the character as much as, with the luxury of hindsight, I can look back at all three films and say, What did I like about this one or that one…the first one was always my favorite, and I always wanted to go back and make a movie that tried to live up to the first one — to make an old-school Die Hard with old-school stunts that had also been brought into the 21st century, and that was able to talk about terrorism in a post-9/11 time and not be afraid to say the word ”terrorist,” and at the same time not dishonor the memory of the people who lost their lives on 9/11. In the first three films, we say ”they’re terrorists!”…but it didn’t hit that inflamed nerve people have when it comes to terrorism now.
How has McClane changed from the first one?
He’s older. He bounces off the concrete with a little less zing. He’s like a tennis ball that you’ve had for too long. But he’s still got that same South Jersey attitude. I think the world of technology has kind of passed him by — that was what got me to say yes to this film, the story of an analog cop in a digital world. I thought that would be an interesting arena to put John McClane into and see what he can do with it.
Any chance of a Die Hard 5?
Yeah! I think we already did it but it was called 16 Blocks. Yeah, I’d do another one as long as they come up with a good story — that was why I waited so long to do this one. I’d seen so many scripts that were knockoffs of the original Die Hard and they even got made and you’ve seen them and you know the ones I’m talking about. It got to the point where someone once pitched me the idea ‘It’s Die Hard in a building!’…Uhhh, I think we did that already.
Almost 20 years later, what goes through your mind when you drive past Nakatomi Tower [a Fox office building]?
Lots and lots of money [laughs].
Live Free or Die Hard