The strange history of the Die Hard movies

Feature Ryan Lambie
11/24/2011 at 2:16PM

There's a unique story behind the writing of each one Die Hard movie...

As any action fanatic will tell you, Die Hard is among the best films of its type ever made. Tautly directed by John McTiernan, deceptively well shot by cinematographer Jan de Bont, and full of charismatic turns from Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia, it’s seldom been bettered, even by its sequels.

What’s notable about Die Hard and the movies that followed it, though, is that there’s an intriguing story behind the origins of each one. And if you ever thought, while sitting through the sequels, that they’re all very different in tone and style from each other, there’s a very good reason for that…

Die Hard

Written by Steven E de Souza and Jeb Stuart, the screenplay for Die Hard was based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. Thorp was inspired to write the novel, about German terrorists taking over a Los Angeles office block after watching The Towering Inferno, one of the most successful of Irwin Allen's star-laden disaster pictures.

Although Nothing Lasts Forever’s basic high-rise thriller concept was ported across to the movie Die Hard more or less intact, the characters were somewhat different in the novel. The protagonist in Thorp's story was a chap called Joseph Leland, a retired police officer who’s unhappily divorced. In the book, it’s his daughter rather than his wife who’s the hostage in the building, which belongs to the mythical Klaxon Oil rather than the Nakatomi Corporation in McTiernan’s film.

Interestingly, the character of Harry Ellis is remarkably similar to the one in the book; he’s a coke user, immediately disliked by the hero, and at one point colludes with the terrorists. And like Ellis in the movie, the one in the book comes to a fittingly sticky end.

When it was first optioned, Nothing Lasts Forever was going to be made as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra, who’d already starred in an adaptation of Thorp’s earlier novel, The Detective. Sinatra would have again played Joe Leland, an elder hero who’d probably spend far less time crawling through ducts and swinging from fire hoses.

When that production fell apart, Nothing Lasts Forever was reworked as another 80s action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, which would have served as a sequel to his 1985 hit, Commando. This would presumably have meant that Arnie would have played John Matrix again, this time heaving his rippling bulk into Fox Plaza lifts to rescue his daughter Jenny from terrorists. What a movie that would have been.

Instead, former TV actor Bruce Willis was brought on board, his character rewritten as a younger yet still cynical cop by the name of John McClane. The movie was retitled Die Hard, and the rest is action movie history.

Die Hard 2

Although written by one half of the first film’s writing duo (Steven E de Souza, with new partner Doug Richardson), the script for Die Hard 2 was taken from another novel – this one called 58 minutes by Walter Wager. First published in 1987, 58 minutes provided the basic spine of the film’s story: the hero has to take out a group of terrorists in an airport before the plane carrying his wife crashes. Richardson and de Souza reworked the story to include John McClane and his wife Holly, as well as William Atherton’s slime-bag journalist Dick Thorburg from the first movie.

Pub trivia fact: the French release of Die Hard 2 (sort of) retained the title of Walter Wager’s novel, since it was called 58 Minutes Pour Vivre, or 58 Minutes To Live.
Die Hard With A Vengeance

Like Die Hard and Die Hard 2, the third film in the series originally began life as another property entirely – and in fact, several screenplays were considered and rejected before its producers settled on the one filmed by John McTiernan in 1995.

The first screenplay considered was called Troubleshooter, and originally written on spec by one James Haggin. This would have seen McClane fight terrorists on a Caribbean cruise ship, but the idea was ditched when the producers learned that a film called Under Siege, then still in production, had a markedly similar plot. In a notable instance of Hollywood recycling, Troubleshooter’s story was later revived for the rather dire Speed 2: Cruise Control.

Later, writers including John Milius, Doug Richardson and John Fasano each had a crack at writing a Die Hard 3 story or script, but none passed muster with Bruce Willis. The problem, it seemed, was finding a scenario that hadn’t already been thought of – in the wake of Die Hard’s popularity, movies such as Cliffhanger and Executive Decision were billed respectively as Die Hard on a mountain or Die Hard on a plane, for example. 

Eventually, a script was found, written by Jonathan Hensleigh, who’d already cut his proverbial teeth on the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles before working on a spec script called Simon Says. Written with young action star Brandon Lee in mind, the script was picked up by Warner as a possible fourth Lethal Weapon movie, which would presumably have seen Murtaugh and Riggs head to New York to put a stop to Simon the terrorist’s bomb triggering antics.

Instead, the story was retooled as another McClane adventure, which would explain why the movie feels so different from the previous two movies. McClane’s fractious, fast-talking partnership with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver (whose character was actually female in one draft of the script) feels very much like Murtaugh and Riggs’, and the city-sprawling violence feels a world away from the towering claustrophobia of Die Hard or, to a lesser degree, Die Hard 2.
Die Hard 4.0

Once again continuing the tradition of looking far afield for Die Hard story ideas, Die Hard 4.0’s plot was loosely based on an article called A Farewell To Arms, written by John Carlin and published in Wired magazine. And once again, the script began life as something else entirely; this time, it was called, and was a high-tech thriller by David Marconi, who previously wrote Enemy Of The State.

Originally intended for release in the late 90s, was postponed following the 9/11 attacks. At one point, Luc Besson was slated to produce the movie on behalf of Fox for an intended release in 2002. Again, this never happened. Eventually, Doug Richardson took the script and reworked it for John McClane’s character, though other writers would become involved in subsequent rewrites, including Mark Bomback, Kevin Smith and an uncredited William Wisher.

Interestingly, there were two other potential Die Hard 4 scripts floating around at one point, both called Die Hardest, both written by Ben Trebilcook, and both rejected. One would have been set in Tokyo, where McClane’s son worked for the Nakatomi Corporation, while the other was set in the Caribbean, and would have seen McClane and his daughter fighting shipwreck looters.

Another weird yet true fact: the film’s original title was Die Hard: Tears Of The Sun. Bruce Willis later took the Tears title and attached it to the war film he made in 2003 with director Antoine Fuqua.

Die Hard 5

To the best of our knowledge, Die Hard 5, or A Good Day To Die Hard, is the first film in the series to be based on an original script not hooked in from elsewhere. Skip Woods, the writer behind such movies as Swordfish, The A-Team and G.I Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is responsible for it, and we know it’s set in Russia, where McClane will fight a group of villains with the help of his young son Jack, played by Jai Courtney.

With even the loose festive theme of the first two movies only hinted at in the third, and ditched altogether in four and five, the only remaining thread of continuity between these increasingly outlandish movies is Bruce Willis’ character – cynical, world-weary, and always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With Die Hard 5’s script apparently lacking the complicated history of its predecessors, we’re fascinated to see how it fits in with the rest of this long-running franchise.

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