The Strange History of the Die Hard Movies

The Die Hard series may be quiet at the moment, but there's a unique story behind the writing of each one…

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.

The key to the first film’s success, and the sequels in their best moments, is hero John McClane. Tough, sarcastic but ultimately human, he cuts a very different figure from the beefed-up, larger-than-life heroes of 1980s and 90s action cinema. When John McClane gets shot or injured, he actually feels pain. It’s something we were keenly aware of in the 1988 original, but gradually ebbed away as the Die Hard franchise drifted from thriller territory and into the realms of pure action.

It’s important to remember, though, that the Die Hard series hails from an era before the carefully-planned cinematic universes we see today. The original Die Hard could have been a very different film, and the sequels also have some interesting stories behind them.

Let’s take a closer look…

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Die Hard (1988)

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 Forevers 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 named Joseph Leland, a retired police officer who’s unhappily divorced. Further, 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 movie.

Interestingly, the character of Harry Ellis is remarkably similar to the one in the film; he’s a smug cocaine user, immediately disliked by the hero, and at one point colludes with the terrorists. And like Ellis in the movie (memorably played by Hart Bochner), the one in the book comes to a fittingly sticky end.

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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 probably wouldn’t have spent quite as much time crawling through ducts and swinging from fire hoses.

For many years, there was a story circulating that Nothing Lasts Forever was going to be retooled as a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 action opus, Commando. Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza, who also wrote the screenplay for Commando, firmly laid that rumor to rest in an interview with us in 2013. “None of that is true,” he said. “Let’s put that rumor to bed right now, as there was no connection between those movies!”

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De Souza went on to explain that his real, never-used screenplay for Commando 2 had more in common with the recent Schwarzenegger-Stallone flick, Escape Plan: Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix becomes a security specialist, and has to rescue his daughter from some bad guys holed up in a building he himself designed. It’s possible that the common factor of an action thriller set in a building may have led some readers to make a connection with Nothing Lasts Forever, and thus a new urban legend was born.

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At any rate, de Souza and Jeb Stuart adapted Nothing Lasts Forever as Die Hard, with the central character written as a younger yet still cynical cop by the name of John McClane. Bruce Willis was signed up for a princely $5 million, and the rest is action movie history.

Die Hard 2 (1990)

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.

read more: Why Die Hard 2 Was Sued by Black and Decker

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. It’s arguable, however, that John McTiernan’s absence was keenly felt. In the hands of director Renny Harlin, Die Hard 2 became bigger, louder, more violent, and considerably more expensive: with a budget of $70 million, it cost more than twice as much to make as the original.

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Trivia: 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 (1995)

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 a returning 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 similar plot. In a notable instance of Hollywood recycling, Troubleshooters story was later revived for the rather dire Speed 2: Cruise Control.

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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. We have a whole catalogue of movies that are “Die Hard on a…” right here.

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Eventually, a script was found, written by Jonathan Hensleigh, who’d already cut his 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 somewhat 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’ love-hate patter, and while it’s highly entertaining (and well put together by McTiernan) the city-sprawling violence is a world away from the towering claustrophobia of Die Hard.

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Once again continuing the tradition of looking far afield for Die Hard story ideas, Live Free or Die Hards 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.

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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, writer of Terminator 2.

Interestingly, there were two other potential Die Hard 4 scripts floating around at one point, both called Die Hardest, both written on spec 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.

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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.

A Good Day To Die Hard (2013)

Now we come to the most recent and gloomy chapter of the Die Hard saga. The first in the series to be based on an original script and not a story hooked in from elsewhere, A Good Day To Die Hard took John McClane to Moscow for an adventure with his son, Jack. It’s probably fair to say that just about everything that distinguished the previous Die Hard installments from other action films was checked in at Domodedovo airport and never seen again.

The fifth Die Hard was directed by John Moore, whose previous films included the remake of The Omen and videogame Max Payne. Screenwriter Skip Woods, meanwhile, was the pensmith behind Swordfish, Hitman, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. According to an interview with Crave Online, Woods’ first brush with the Die Hard franchise actually came a few years earlier, where he was hired to do a bit of uncredited dialogue work.

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Bruce Willis and Woods hit it off during the shoot, and it was Willis who called the screenwriter up about writing the fifth film. “So when he had this idea for [Die Hard 5], he actually called me up sand said, ‘I have this idea about his son, rescuing his son.’ That was his whole idea, and I kind of went back and forth on it and it just sprang to life.”

The idea of John McClane teaming up with his son had emerged during the days of Die Hard 4, so it’s probably unsurprising that it would resurface a few years later. Early drafts of Woods’ script were, however, much darker than the story that eventually emerged in 2013. In it, McClane’s son is killed, and McClane heads to Moscow (or Afghanistan in one version of the script) to find out who the culprit was. Might we have been in for something quite bleak, like a Russia-set Get Carter?

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Sadly, we’ll never know, because it was ultimately decided that killing Jack McClane was “too dark.” This wouldn’t be the first time the Die Hard series would flirt with harshness, only to recoil at the last moment: Die Hard With A Vengeance originally had a far more brutal and abrupt ending, which was famously replaced with something more crowd-pleasing.

From Woods’ perspective, it seems that Willis had a considerable amount of sway over Die Hard 5s story details and dialogue, with the star offering plenty of suggestions as to what McClane should say and when. John Moore seems to back this up; in an interview with Empire, he said, “People say was Bruce difficult to work with… it’s another D word. It’s demanding. The thing about this guy is he’s the fucking dog at the gate in terms of what’s appropriate for Die Hard. Cute self-reference and things like that, he’s fucking lethal. No third Gruber, no second cousins, no cute in-jokes.”

Widely panned by critics, A Good Day To Die Hard was by some distance the shortest film in the franchise to date; the previous entries were all over two hours long. A Good Day To Die Hard ran for just 97 minutes, much of it full of explosions and outlandish stunts. While the 12A version released in UK cinemas trimmed around the bloodier moments of excess, most of the things that make for a great Die Hard film were sorely lacking in the first place.

Die Hard 6?

Before Die Hard 5 came out, Willis seemed enthusiastic about making a sixth and final film in the franchise. Assuming it ever actually happens, the new film is called McClane and it will be directed by Len Wiseman. The movie will see Bruce Willis serve in a bookend sequence, with a younger actor taking over the role to tell of the character’s early days. It’s not clear if they’ll look to spin off a new chapter in the franchise after this, but first, let’s see if Die Hard 6 ever actually gets made.