How John McTiernan Filmed Die Hard With A Vengeance's Explosive Opening Scene

Not to be outdone by previous films, "Die Hard with a Vengeance" immediately raises the stakes within the first few minutes. The film opens with the detonation of a Bonwit Teller department store that wreaks catastrophe on a busy street in downtown New York. Eventually, it's revealed that the bomb is the work of Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), as part of his elaborate plan to exact revenge upon John McClane (Bruce Willis) for the death of Simon's brother Hans. 

While Simon and his team of German mercenaries claim responsibility for the formidable explosion in the movie, you have to wonder how exactly the production team filmed the attack — not to mention the other eye-popping stunts that have become a staple of the "Die Hard" series.

John McTiernan's army

Behind-the-scenes footage of "Die Hard with a Vengeance," as well as interviews with the crew, reveal the monumental task it was to create the department store explosion. Initially, the film crew appeared to have luck on their side. In fact, apart from a misunderstanding with the FBI, things went off without a hitch. Director John McTiernan states in the behind-the-scenes clip that they had no trouble with the city securing the street space to film and stage the stunt. Still, he stresses just how massive of an undertaking it is to film a major explosion on location:

"It's particularly difficult if you're staging in a city environment. Anybody around the stunt has to be an employee. Well if you have a stunt in what should be the middle of New York City, on a business day, with 10,000 people on a block — that becomes a little like handling an army."

One of McTiernan's right-hand men in leading this army was stunt coordinator Terry J. Leonard, who himself ran a team of 30 stunt people on set. When Leonard explains the full extent of the explosion, it's hard not to appreciate the monumental effort that was required to safely film the practical effect while making it look as believable as possible:

"We had to blow the front of the building out with soft explosives because we didn't want to break the building windows around it. You have to go inside the building, take structural engineers, and they figure out if the building will sustain the concussion.

... To substantiate the fact that it is a big explosion, we blew three cars in the air and then had to stage a few wrecks out there in front of the building. Obviously, if you put real live dynamite in there you wouldn't have to worry about staging it — it would all happen for real. So you dial back from that extreme and come back to where it's safe for everybody around, safe for the camera people, safe for all the businesses around."

Given how massive the explosion looks in "Die Hard with a Vengeance," it's hard to accept that the force didn't shatter every window nearby — let having been safe enough for people to be standing right there. But that's the magic of the movies. Especially for films like "Die Hard" where the spectacles of destruction need to be delivered with minimal real-world damage. (And then you have movies like "Tenet" where they go and blow up a real plane.)

Stunt workers: the unsung heroes

Do you know who else deserves credit? The stunt people who had to actually place the explosives. One of them, Brian Burrows, even seemed eerily cool in the behind-the-scenes footage, discussing his role on the team and the placement of bombs a few feet away from his "safe spot":

"There's going to be three cars going up in the air around nine feet. And we've also got 10-12 bombs set along this walkway here that'll be projected out through the window. These balconies will all come down about eight feet ... Where you're standing there will be my spot to drop as soon as these bombs go off."

Moments like this reveal the stark reality of those stunt workers nearest to the explosion. There's even a moment in the clip in which Leonard warns the extras to not rub their eyes if debris from the explosion irritates them, and to instead raise their arms for medical help. Watching it unfold, with McTiernan's "army" of brave movie-makers gritting their teeth in preparation for the concussive event, the tension is palpable. As skilled as everyone involved could've hoped to be –- from special effects to the stunt workers to those responsible for even catching the shot -– the feat is miraculous. According to a lot of the people involved, that success was owed to the focused vision of McTiernan.

Praise for McTiernan's leadership

Willis might not feature in the opening shot, but his character becomes intimately familiar with plenty of explosives in the course of the film. If anyone was convinced of McTiernan's ability to wrangle into existence his ambitious vision for "Die Hard With a Vengeance," it was Willis. The two worked together on the first "Die Hard" – a film well-known for its own incredible stunt work and big explosions. In the behind-the-scenes clip, Willis had nothing but glowing praise for McTiernan's ability at assembling these jaw-dropping moments in his films:

"John McTiernan shoots the film in his head first so he knows what he wants. He's already seen it in his mind, very prepared. And he uses the camera I think more than anyone I've ever worked with to tell the story as well. Which is like having another character in the film."

McTiernan's singular vision is clear in the clip; you can see his process at work, the multiple angles he uses, the various cameras set up to capture them, and the need to stagger the explosions so he can capture it all in one go. You feel the weight of expectation and necessity to nail it on the first try –- just imagine the financial headache they would've faced had they missed it. One of the reasons they succeed is owed to McTiernan's trust in his crew's abilities, something Leonard praises: "He's mechanical, he understands what you're trying to accomplish. He understands when you come up against a certain rigging why it won't work."

McTiernan might've been the right man to lead this army, but in his own words, creating the opening shot for "Die Hard With a Vengeance" is the sum of more than just one man's effort. What's even more impressive is that this scene is not the only large-scale stunt in the film. One can only imagine the effort that went into devising the subway bombing, the aqueduct flooding, or the film's explosive finale as well! It's clear that the blood, sweat, and tears of not just McTiernan, but also everyone else on the stunt crew, went into making this spectacular action film.