It’s the most wonderful time of the year – for Die Hard fans.
While there may be a little less festive cheer to go around this December, one thing remains constant during the holiday season: the debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
And one man who probably knows better than most is screenwriter Doug Richardson. Besides Bruce Willis himself, Richardson has had a hand in more Die Hard films than almost anyone out there, starting with the similarly festive follow-up Die Hard 2: Die Harder.
While Willis is firmly in the “no” camp on the question of whether Die Hard and its sequel are Christmas movies, Richardson disagrees.
“It is a Christmas movie,” he tells Den of Geek.
“At this time of year, the internet starts to erupt over whether it’s a Christmas movie. It’s very amusing. But I think it fits the movie and if people gather to watch it at this time of year it’s a Christmas movie whether it’s Die Hard or Predator. The argument that comes up is ‘What makes a Christmas movie? Does a Christmas movie have to have Santa Claus in it?’ Suddenly you are defining what a Christmas film is. If it involves Christmas and if it is screened as a perennial every year by streaming services and broadcasters it’s a Christmas movie.”
Richardson points to fans who have specifically told him how the Die Hard films have become part of their holiday celebrations.
“People tell me it has become their Christmas tradition to watch either Die Hard or Die Hard 2 or both of them with a meal in the middle,” he says. “That’s terrific. Maybe I’ll try that sometime.”
Still, Richardson acknowledges that the first film “wasn’t written as a Christmas movie” but rather “written in mind that it’s Christmas time.”
In the case of Die Hard 2, the snowbound airport-based sequel to the Nakatomi Tower-based original, it wasn’t even written as Die Hard 2 to begin with.
Richardson made history in 1990 as the first Hollywood writer to sell a spec script for a million dollars and would go on to work on the script for the wildly successful Bad Boys.
But back in the late 1980s, when Die Hard first hit multiplexes, he was just starting out as a screenwriter.
“I was, what you would call in Hollywood at the time a baby writer, as in unproduced, cheap but getting a lot of attention,” he explains. “Die Hard had been out for about three weeks and I had already seen it twice. I got a call from [Die Hard producer] Lawrence Gordon, and he and another producer Lloyd Levin invited me in for what I thought was just a general meeting. They wanted to know what I thought of Die Hard. So, I said a whole bunch of nice things about it and they said ‘Well, here’s the thing…’”
Richardson describes what followed as “one of the smartest things I had ever seen anyone do in Hollywood” as Gordon laid out his scheme.
“Leonard Goldberg, who was the President of production at Fox, wasn’t yet ready to put Die Hard 2 into development. He was being cautious,” Richardson says. “But Lawrence was insistent they were going to want Die Hard 2 and he kind of explained to me the process of doing the sequel. It’s a process that can be overwhelming for producers because as soon as you announce there is going to be a sequel every agency in town starts asking you to meet with their writers or hire this guy or hire that guy and … They didn’t want to have to deal with any of that.”
There was another reason why the producers were keen to avoid such fanfare: Joel Silver, the infamous producer who, according to Richardson, someone compared working with to a “heart attack.”
“Once it was called Die Hard, once they used that in the sequel, that was when Silver’s contract to come in and produce kicked in,” Richardson explains. “To work with Silver on development of this big sequel was not going to be fun.”
The plan was ingenious in its simplicity. The studio had recently acquired the rights to Walter Wager’s 1987 thriller novel 58 Minutes, and they wanted this to form the basis for Die Hard 2, much like how Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever was adapted into the first film.
“The point was that they were not going to call it Die Hard 2. Because if they called it that, everything just described would avalanche over everybody,” Richardson says.
58 Minutes told the story of Frank Malone, a divorced NYPD cop who, while waiting for his daughter at JFK airport, must foil a plot involving a mysterious man calling himself “Number 1.” The menace is threatening to cut the power to the runway lights unless his demands are met.
“I actually only read it once, in a day, and caught the drift of it. It’s Die Hard at an airport,” Richardson says. “It’s going to be John McClane at an airport. That was the deal. So from the moment I read it I was reading it as Die Hard. I was adapting it in my head the entire time. It was very unfaithful. No disrespect to Walter Wager, but the job was Die Hard so you had to keep it to Die Hard.”
While the idea of writing a follow-up to one of the most iconic action movies of all time might be daunting today, the timing and secrecy of Richardson’s work meant the pressure was off.
“Die Hard was just a film that was getting attention,” he says. “It wasn’t a big hit yet. Back in those days, movies played in theaters a lot longer so it took a while with word of mouth to turn it into a hit. My main concern was I had never written an action movie before. They had read a script I had written called Honor Bright that was almost made like four different times. They really liked it. There was some action in it but it wasn’t an action film but they had faith that I could pull it off. I was still this unknown writer and I was lucky to be working and happy to be working. I was getting paid to write another movie. It was awesome.”
Die Hard in an Airport
Though Richardson’s script was adapted from Wager’s book, he still did his homework on the nuts and bolts of a major international airport.
“I sat in the tower at JFK for three days learning about how planes fly,” he says. “I asked about a few different scenarios: one involving terrorism and another involving whether some planes actually fly with relatively little fuel at some point.”
Richardson submitted his script to Gordon and Levin who were impressed. His timing was perfect.
“Pretty much almost to the day, I’m not kidding, Joe Roth takes over from Goldberg at Fox and says ‘I need Die Hard 2. Where’s Die Hard 2?’ and Lawrence says ‘funny you should ask…’ And then of course the rest happened.”
Though he was warned of what to expect once Silver got involved, it was still difficult to accept.
“I was told that the minute it was announced as Die Hard 2 and Joel’s contract would kick in and he would do what he did on Die Hard which was fire Jeb Stuart [the original writer] and hire Steven E. de Souza and that’s also exactly what happened.”
A prolific screenwriter and script doctor brought in to rewrite and inject more action and humor into pre-existing screenplays, De Souza’s other credits included Commando, 48 Hours, and The Running Man.
He was, and still is, as big as they come but that didn’t make it any easier for Richardson.
“It was a difficult thing to accept that you got a movie greenlit and your reward for having done good work is to get fired,” he says. “Joel’s line to me, which was pretty prophetic, was ‘What are you complaining about? You just wrote a hit movie. Don’t complain, let me do what I do.’”
One of de Souza’s most notable contributions to the script came with Franco Nero’s General Ramon Esperanza, the military dictator of Val Verde, a fictional central or South American country created for the purposes of the film. There was no denying the obvious subtext of General Esperanza’s backstory though with de Souza borrowing heavily from America’s real-life involvement in the controversial Iran-Contra affair.
But while that change served the sequel effectively other tweaks have not aged as well.
In the film, William Sadler’s villainous Colonel Stuart recalibrates the instrument landing system at Dulles, impersonating an air traffic controller to deliberately crash a British jetliner, killing all 235 people onboard.
According to Richardson there was “a little bit of slap back” over the sequence when the movie came out and he too acknowledges it goes against “the poppy, hyper-action tenor and tone of the movie.”
Richardson’s original script featured a far more palatable alternative.
“I didn’t want to kill a plane load of people so I crashed a FedEx or UPS aircraft where just the pilots and crew died,” he says. “I did not feel comfortable with that level of terrorism. The whole point of it was to prove what they can do as terrorists. It was meant to be like ‘this is what we can do, don’t mess with us or the next one will be full of people.’ I think de Souza and or Silver or whoever made those decisions at that point.”
The crash could have had even more serious consequences for 20th Century Fox too after one major behind-the-scenes blunder.
“Ed Trudeau was the tower manager at JFK when I visited. He was a well-regarded air force veteran who spent a lot of time with me during my research,” Richardson says. “I put his name in the script as a placeholder for the airport traffic control tower manager but somehow they ended up keeping his actual name in the movie. I didn’t find out until three months before it came out. They had locked me out of the process by then which wasn’t fun. I eventually got a copy of the final shooting script and saw they had used Trudeau’s name. I had to call him and tell him that the tower manager in the film had the same name as him and that a plane crashes and over 200 people die. I wasn’t sure if that was something he would want to have been associated with. The studio should have picked that up before but because I had been frozen out of the process they hadn’t checked with me.”
Fortunately, Trudeau was a good sport, and only wanted to know if the movie was “going to be any good.”
On balance, Richardson is happy with the contribution he made to Die Hard 2 even if there are some elements of the finished film and his experience on it that irk him slightly – like the fact de Souza took the film to arbitration, claiming sole writing credit.
“I would say it was pretty much my film until the snowmobile sequence, which was where it felt like a James Bond movie all of a sudden,” Richardson says. “That was where it turned more into what de Souza was doing with it. There were bits and pieces of my work all the way through though. De Souza decided he wanted sole credit which was ludicrous and I told him it was ludicrous for him to try. I can’t complain though. Joel was right: I got to write a hit movie and I am very grateful to Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin for being so damn smart.”
Die Hard 3 is NOT a Christmas Movie
Richardson would return a few years later to lend a hand in developing Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Though Jonathan Hensleigh’s script titled Simon Sez formed the basis of Die Hard with a Vengeance, Richardson made a few major contributions – including ditching the Christmas setting.
“My version of Die Hard 3, which there is very little of in the film, was definitely not set at Christmas,” he says. “‘Let’s not do Christmas again’ I remember that was my initial pitch and Bruce was like ‘sounds good to me’. This was when we were up in his place in Sun Valley in the snow in winter. I just said ‘let’s change it to the middle of summer and have it be hot’.”
Richardson’s other main contribution came with the plot point that saw Jeremy Irons’ Simon Gruber rob the Federal Reserve.
By then Richardson had struck up a good working relationship with Willis, even if he does dispel the notion that the star ad-libbed his way through Die Hard in the way Eddie Murphy did with Beverly Hills Cop.
“I know he ad-libbed Yippee-ki-yay but the movie wasn’t as improvised as some people like to think,” he says. “A few lines of dialogue. Except for an aside or a tagline or two they really never were. I don’t think Bruce is the greatest ad-libber in the world. Sometimes I have had to go in and say ‘that’s not good, let’s not do that.’”
Die Hard 4.0
Richardson’s good working relationship with Willis proved to be a blessing and a curse when it came to Die Hard 4.0, a film he says he became involved in after making the mistake of reading a script Willis gave him and offering feedback. Suddenly there was a meeting and suddenly he was writing the movie.
“Die Hard 4 was rough,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure working on Die Hard with a Vengeance but Die Hard 4.0 was ridiculous stupidity. You ended up writing the movie you swore you would never write with the actor who swore he would never be in it anyway.”
The sequence in which McClane essentially fires a car at a helicopter is regularly cited as the moment the franchise jumped the shark – but it was nearly much worse.
“I did in one version of the script have him use a motorcycle to jump on a train. I remember when I wrote it I thought ‘okay this is a little nuts.’ I did eventually get rid of it.”
With the studio setting a release date long before work had begun on the film and Willis still far from convinced with any of the scripts being sent his way, Richardson endured a difficult time on the project – but it hasn’t put him off Die Hard movies or Willis, who he remains on good terms with.
“I love the franchise,” he says. “How many franchises go that far without jumping the shark a bit? It’s hard not to.”