Hart Bochner interview: Ellis in Die Hard, directing, and more

Interview Simon Brew 7 Nov 2012 - 06:50

We track down Ellis from Die Hard, Mr Hart Bochner, to talk about acting, directing and his environmental work. Plus: his teeth…

The two most quotable lines in Die Hard? There’s Alan Rickman, chewing over “now I have a machine gun”. And then there’s the slimey Ellis, the finest bearded supporting character in movie history.

The man who played Ellis is Hart Bochner, and his career has been a varied one, having directed several features too. He spared us some time for a chat, so we could find out more. We also discovered just why his performance as Ellis nearly never made it to the screen…

We’re going to come to Die Hard shortly, yet it’s one small role in a wide-ranging career for you. Is it true you were discovered by Patton director Franklin Schaffner? I wondered if your father, who was an actor, got you into the business in the first place?

No, no. What happened was I wanted to be a director from the time I was around ten years old, because my baseball coach was a guy named Jerry Paris, who used to direct. He did Happy Days.

He did a Police Academy movie too?

Yeah, he did a couple. Jerry and I used to hang out all the time, so he used to take me to the Dick Van Dyke set and the Happy Days set when I was a teenager, and it just seemed like a great way to make a living. To choreograph all that energy. Jerry had this kind of infectious energy.

I was a freshman in college at the University of California in San Diego, and I wanted to go to film school. I was studying film making. I came home for the weekend and went to an open house at the American Film Institute, and if I recall, a woman came up and asked me my name.

I thought nothing of it, and then about a month later, I got a call from Paramount saying someone gave us your name and we want to meet you. I thought it was a mistake, but I drove up to LA and I went onto the Paramount lot and walked into this casting office, and there were all these little boys. Little boys with baseball gloves, all with their mothers.

I walked up to the receptionist and she said “have a seat, we’ll be with you in a minute”. And I said, well, I think you should know that I’m 18. And she said “yeah”. So I said is this for the same role? And she told me they were there for Bad News Bears!

So anyway I go in, and I meet this casting director, a woman named Jane Feinberg, who put me in a lot of movies. She said “yeah, someone gave us your name, we’re doing this movie, what are you doing in the fall?”. I thought on my feet and I said I don’t know, I might take a semester off from school. She said “that’s a good idea, I shouldn’t tell you this but you’re going to get this part”.

My response was literally, yeah right. And over the course of the next five months, I had to go in and audition. I really didn’t know what I was doing, a toddler into the deep end of the swimming pool. It was all instinct.

The next thing I knew I was on the set of this movie [Islands In The Stream], playing George C Scott’s son. And one day I was sitting around with Franklin Schaffner [the director], and he said “you know how all this came about, right?”. And I said not really, no. He said “well, my wife was the one at AFI who introduced herself to you”.

I took a semester off from college, then I went back, graduated, and then literally the day after I graduated, I was offered my second film, which was Breaking Away. Then I just started working.

But all the while, I never really wanted to be an actor. I always had this love-hate relationship with it. I started setting my sights on how I would transition into directing. About 20 years ago I wrote and directed a short film for my buddy Jon Lovitz. 

The Buzz?

Yeah. And that got me my first feature at Fox. And that got me in the directing game.

You seem to have a couple of turns in fate in quick succession, though, that seemed to knock you away from what you most wanted to do?

Yeah. I think if I hadn’t met that woman that day, I probably would have transferred to film school and never set my sights on acting. But in all actuality, acting was the best preparation for directing. As a director, you certainly need to have to understand an actor’s psyche, and how to create a safety net for actors, how to motivate them. It really was the best preparation. In a perfect world, I would have stopped acting when I started directing. I found myself doing these two studio movies, first for Fox and then for Sony. I found myself in movie jail. The first one that I did for Fox…

PCU?

Yeah. It’s become a huge cult film, which is I guess kind of flattering, given that it was the first one. But I wanted to be a film maker, I didn’t necessarily want to be a gun for hire. Not directing studio programmed films, that if they don’t hit a certain box office number it dents your career.

Unfortunately, the two studio features that I directed [High School High was the second] didn’t really do much for me. And I had to go back to the drawing board and get back into acting as a means to make a living while I was trying to get my own projects off the ground.

A few years ago I wrote and directed this indie that Sony bought called Just Add Water, with Danny De Vito and Jonah Hill.

Is Just Add Water the purest of the things you’ve created yourself? The film you’re happiest with?

Well, it’s really very very difficult to ever feel satisfied with anything, certainly that I’ve done. You have tendency to look at not what’s positive. I made that movie on a shoestring, a little indie movie for $700,000. Initially my budget was $5.5m. But because I’m not the Coen brothers, the creative mind was very attracted to the material, but the business mind didn’t understand it, because it wasn’t down the middle. I said to them, using the Coen Brothers as a template, it’s more Fargo than Raising Arizona. Raising Arizona is broader. Fargo, while it has comedic elements to it, is structurally a drama. And I said that’s more along the lines, tonally, of what I’m trying to do.

The financing kept falling in and out, and finally I joined forces with, initially, Danny DeVito’s company. God love Danny, he attached to the movie as well. And it’s tough to make a quirky little movie for a decent enough figure that affords enough dignity for your cast and crew, to pay them a decent salary. Initially, I had 45 days on my schedule, and I ended up shooting it in 23 to accommodate the budget. That was using every trick in the book that I had developed as a director.

So when you say to me is that the one that feels closest to realising my vision as a film maker, in a way yes. But because I had so little time to do it, it’s very difficult.

As an actor, I never go back and look at my work anyway. The satisfaction comes in the doing. Certainly as an actor, half of your work is not going to end up on the screen anyway, because in the editorial process, they need to cut to the other actor in the scene. Very often, your best work ends up on the cutting room floor, because it just doesn’t work with the overall narrative drive of the story. The next thing you know, you’re going to the premiere, and wondering where that scene was you did.

Now that you’ve got a film on the screen where you’ve written and directed the material, even accepting the compromises you’ve just talked about, I wonder if that’s the way forward you want to go? Or perhaps to direct other forms of media instead?

I think it’s both. There’s something very satisfying about executing your own vision, and not being a gun for fire. It’s easier also to interpret your own material. But I love directing more than anything in the world, and I love being in the editing room. I love cutting. When I’m shooting, I cut it in my head anyway. That’s not to say that it always turns out that way, but you have a sense when you’re composing a sequence or a scene how you want it to look anyway.

It’s funny, I’ve been trying to crack episodic directing for a while. I’ve had it in my acting deals, but the response I get when I put myself out there to direct television is “well, you can make a feature schedule, how do we know you can meet a television schedule”. But as a film maker, I’ll speak for myself. You do what’s required.

But also, I haven’t had an experience where people are waiting for me. You’re waiting for the crew to set up. You want to create enough time for the actors so you get what you need. But it’s always a question of doing what’s required. My first film I had 45 days, my second I had 58. My third, I had 23.

The last one, I had to design it in a very simple way. We settled on Fargo and The Last Picture Show. Peter Bogdanovich created a story with a real simplicity of composition there. I had to do that anyway to make my schedule. I had to pare it to the bone to get enough coverage to tell the story. But you do what’s required in the time you have.

I read that you were in the running at one point to replace David Duchovny in The X-Files. Was that the case? How close did you get?

Well, yeah. They hired Robert Patrick instead. That’s just one of those things. Duchovny’s a friend of mine, maybe the producers thought we were too similar, I don’t know. I truly haven’t thought about it since it was in discussion. I can’t even remember how long ago that was!

The interesting thing that happened to me with acting was after I gave it up to direct. I gave it up for about eight years, voluntary retirement. And in the interim, there’s something about being a young man and having to prove yourself, and having grown into your body and feeling you don’t have to do very much, because your feet are firmly planted on the ground. There was something very interesting about coming back, maybe because it wasn’t my primary focus any more, it was very liberating. Now, when I do act, I feel that I do some of the best acting in my career. 

Do you enjoy acting more now, then?

I do. I think every actor should direct at least once and vice versa. What happened when I became a director is that you understand what a director has to go through. It’s your job as an actor to execute the vision that’s put forward by the film maker. It’s very freeing now to come at it from that point of view. I know how hard it is to direct, and I just want to help this person executive their vision.

I just went in and did a part in the new Carrie movie.

Really?

Yeah, it was a cameo. It was an interesting scene. The producer had been my executive at Tri-Star when I made my second picture. It came to me, and I thought the director, Kimberly Peirce, was an interesting choice. And I had such a nice experience. She’s very gifted, obviously. She’s very highly regarded, obviously. And it’s just about having a nice time. There’s something very freeing about that.

Also, when you’re working with someone you respect who’s very gifted, you know you’re in good times. She creates the right atmosphere, she casts is just so, and she makes great notes. And suddenly something comes alive.

We have to get to Die Hard, of course. It’s really rare in an action film such as that for a part that I can’t imagine took more than two to three weeks to film, to be so striking and impactful 20-odd years later.

A couple of months ago, I did the 25th anniversary DVD commentary. Isn’t that crazy? 1988.

But you’re right on the button. It was three weeks of shooting. Initially it was two, and then they went over.

And we basically shot my part in sequence, that never happens. It was a run of things that helps, because it becomes a linear experience. The only other time I did that was on my first film with Schaffner, which I guess helped me a lot.

I heard the part of Ellis came to you through a friendship you had with producer Joel Silver. Is that right?

Well, I knew Joel, yeah. And I had never discussed the role with [John] McTiernan [the director]. McTiernan hated what I was doing. He loathed it, he loathed it.

The first day that I worked, we hadn’t discussed it. I showed up, and I had the beard. And my take on Ellis was that I always feel that when you’re playing a bad guy, you look for their insecurity, which drives their behaviour. While the character was a bad guy, he was certainly ridiculously obnoxious, and a fly in everyone’s ointment. So I came it at it from it’s coke behaviour, and the coke masks his insecurity.

So it’s Christmas Eve, it’s the party, he’s all alone, and he just wants somebody, so he hits on Bruce Willis’ wife. And I was doing it very much fast and loose and a bit hyper in the rehearsals.

McTiernan came up to me and said “I don’t know what you’re doing. I hate it. It’s not what I envisaged for this character. I want smooth. I want Cary Grant”. And I said to him I know we haven’t discussed this, but I feel the character’s behaviour really has to come from insecurity and coke”. He said to me “you know what, that’s bullshit. Get rid of it. I hate it. Calm down”.

I stuck to my guns. 

Thank you.

He was not happy. He rolled his eyes that first day. The second day was the sequence where Bruce Willis and company come in, and I’m swiping coke off the desk, and I was doing the same thing. And he came at me during rehearsals and he said, [raised voice] “look man, what did I tell you yesterday? I hate…”

And then he stopped and he looked at Joel Silver and Larry Gordon looking at the monitor, looking at playback. And they were laughing. And he said “hold on a minute”.

He walked over to them, they had a little conflab, and he came back to me and said “you know what man, you do whatever you want to do”. And from that point on it was great, he let me go, and we had a great time. But it’s interesting: sometimes the film making process is best when you just let things evolve on their own level, and in their own way. You just never know what you’re going to end up with sometimes.

I never thought that that movie was going to resonate. And I certainly didn’t think that my character was going to resonate, until I was at the premiere and I got a rousing applause when my head got shot off! [laughs]

It’s weird. When we set out, there was no expectation for that movie. Bruce was not a box office commodity, and the word from my agents at the time was not good on the movie. It just struck a nerve, and those kind of action films with a bit of lightness of foot hadn’t really been made. It played all summer, and became iconic. Again, you just never know.

I have to ask where the line came from: “Hans, bubby, I’m your white knight”.

I ad-libbed it.

Can I just clarify – it is bubby, isn’t it?

Bubby, yeah. It’s a Yiddish endearment.

I was on the set, and I was improvising quite a bit. And I said to Joel Silver during rehearsals, what do you like, do you like bubby? “I like the bubby, do the bubby”, he said. So all that stuff, the Rolex, I just kind of winged it. And they used what they felt worked, and didn’t use what they didn’t like.

Again, it’s an actor’s job to present options to the powers that be. I just came up with it. I thought how insane is it that I’m negotiating with a murderer, and I’m treating it like he’s my cousin!

It’s a great scene. Also, the way Alan Rickman plays against it, too.

Oh, fantastic. Fantastic.

The first Die Hard always gives the impression of a happy production. We’re seeing big films now, including the new Die Hard film, where people are filming location shoots with camera phones, and you can’t have footage shot outdoors that’s not in the public eye it seems. With Die Hard, though, you could find it all behind closed doors.

Yeah. What did John Huston say: 90% of a film’s success is casting the right actors? And we did have a good time. In some ways, we were respectfully left to our own devices. McTiernan’s a smart guy, and created a great atmosphere. It was fun. The movie is fun, and I think by virtue of the tone of the film, everybody had a really good time. 

Do you still have such white teeth and facial hair, then?

[Laughs]

You have amazing teeth in that film! Since they’ve done it on Blu-ray, they’re gleaming!

[Laughs] I don’t know! I just used tons of toothpaste! I don’t know what to tell ya!

No facial hair?

No. As soon as I finished Die Hard, I went off to do a movie with Colin Firth called Apartment Zero. I don’t think I’ve had a beard since.

Moving to now, you’re heavily involved in an organisation called the Environmental Media Association. What have you been doing?

Well, I’ve sort of being a greenie since I was a kid, because I grew in Santa Monica, and I went to school 45 minutes away in the valley. And in those days the air was so bad in LA – there was leaded gasoline, and no emissions control – I would come home every day wheezing. I was acutely aware of the fact that we were slowly but surely poisoning ourselves.

I became involved in the environmental movement in earnest in the 80s, and then EMA was started in the late 80s. I started a competing organisation, and it was my inclination for us to merge, but the woman I was running it with didn’t want to. So I resigned from the board and then several years later got involved with EMA to reconceive the organisation. It was all about content and messaging in feature production. So if you could get a writer to slip in a sequence or some dialogue about saving the dolphins, or climate change, or energy efficiency.

I also thought we could grow the organisation through deeds as well. I came up with something in 2004 called the Green Seal. Debbie Levin, who is the president of the organisation, and Billy Gerber, who used to be head of production at Warner Bros, the three of us run it. And I come up with programmes. I’m not the only one, but this Green Seal idea I had, I said we need a good housekeeping seal of approval that we can stamp on productions that hit certain criteria. For green sets, and environmentally responsible practices on set.

Now, every year, we have hundreds of productions that hit our targets, and we’re pleased with that.

It’s not the kind of thing I want recognition for, because when you do something you’re deeply passionate about… I’m only interested in enlightening people, and in doing so, you can create real change. Self-promotion doesn’t interest me, because that’s so small in comparison to the issues we’re facing.

Finally, what are you up to at the moment?

I’ve been writing quite a bit, and I’m trying to get my next movie going. My representatives have wanted me to write more commercial stuff, so I’m doing that. And there’s a couple of TV projects that I wrote. I’ve got a feature now that I’ve just done a first draft and got notes from a producer. It’s whatever it takes!

Do you keep them under wraps until they’re a bit further down the line?

Yeah, I keep them under wraps until they’re real. Firstly, everyone’s working on something, it’s the first question you get when you run into someone. ‘What are you working on?’. For lack of a less crude term, it’s all dick measuring. It’s a company town, so everybody’s always putting a spin on things in order to sound more productive than they actually are. I just go under the radar until I’m on a set!

So are you coming to England soon?

Well I was coming this summer. I was there last year and the year before. I’ve got a bunch of friends over there – Colin Firth is a really good friend. I worked in England quite a bit in the 80s and 90s. I love Europe. I was coming this summer, but was away working.

If you find an excuse for me, I’ll come over. Even if it’s to show you that my teeth are still white!

Hart Bochner, thank you very much.

Find more on the Environmental Media Association at www.ema-online.org.

The Die Hard Quadrilogy is available on Blu-ray now.

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