Steven E de Souza on set

Steven E. de Souza Die Hard Interview

Next, I spoke with screenwriter Steven E. de Souza (far right in the photo above), who was hired to apply his signature style of blending action and comedy to a rewrite of the existing script. He cleared up a persistent myth about the movie, explained how Bruce Willis was pulling a Michael J. Fox (filming a TV show during the day and the film at night), and recounted how one of Die Hard‘s best scenes came about because of one crew member’s offhanded request to hear Alan Rickman’s American accent.

/Film: When the crew was filming Argyle driving John McClane to Nakatomi Tower in the beginning, nobody knew how he was going to factor in at the end of the plot. I tend to think about movies that start filming before they have answers like that as more of a modern thing, like a production trying to hit a pre-planned release date, so it’s interesting that Die Hard had those same issues.

Steven E. de Souza: I think in this case, because there was a scramble to get the star – you know the story of how they went to Frank Sinatra first. There are a lot of mysteries and rumors. Even though I’ve had interview after interview, there’s this fantasy, this myth that Die Hard was the Commando sequel script recycled. That’s not true. Were you going to ask me that one?

No, but I’m glad to have you confirm once and for all that it’s not true.

OK. Anyway, just because it happened so quickly, that may have been why it happened. At that time, the character didn’t have anything else to do. He just got trapped in the garage. The ambulance idea, you know about that? That came late. Once, out of desperation, we went to the ambulance idea, that created an opportunity for Argyle to participate in the heroics because we were down to the last 10 days of filming, and it was the only place we could insert the idea. We were looking for places to put in the dialogue that they were going to escape in their own fake rescue vehicle, but it seemed so clunky to have Alan Rickman say it when he has his gun on Holly. So if we just showed it, we didn’t have to explain it. The audience could figure it out. Of course, to show you how late that idea came to the picture, when the villains first step off the truck, there’s no ambulance [hidden] in the truck.

Why do you think Die Hard holds up so well after thirty years?

First of all, it ticks several genre boxes. I know people say it’s an action movie, but there’s a lot of suspense in it. It’s as much a thriller as it is an action movie. When you think about it, the limited landscape almost fights the idea of it being an action movie, which usually has wide open spaces, a lot of running around, car chases, so on and so forth. There’s also a love story, there’s a lot of humor in it. In the Venn diagram of popular film genres, it covers several.

Die Hard is a prime example of a movie everyone cites when they’re talking about films that actually take the time and care to establish the geography of the action. How did that translate in the script?

I would say that with John McTiernan and Spielberg and some other directors, you know exactly where everybody is, so when chaos breaks out, you know which end is up. Is this hero in danger? Are the villains getting close? What’s interesting about Die Hard, John McTiernan and I and the stunt team walked throughout the entire building. So we had reality printed on our minds. There was a draft of the script that was written without any knowledge of where the building would be, which was Jeb Stuart’s draft, but he was never in the real estate to really finesse what happened. I had a blueprint of the building that I was given. You know how Hans Gruber is always looking at the map of the building and talking to his guys? We really did that with the blueprint of the building. What happens is, because we go through a lot of the real estate repeatedly, after a while, the audience gets a sense of the geography of the building.

Another things that I think enriches the movie is all of the subplots. That is a direct result of the picture starting so late that they could not organize Bruce’s schedule to become completely free of the TV show Moonlighting. When the movie started, he was still on Moonlighting. Remember, a lot of the movie is filmed in the actual building at night. The exception is the main room where the party is and the office when the sun is going down in the background – that’s a set. But the rest of the picture, it’s the real building at night. So Bruce is filming Moonlighting in the day time with a ten hour shoot, and then he’s filming this thing. So after the first week, John McTiernan came to me and said, ‘We have at least another week of this overlap. Why don’t you go back into the script and see if you can find more stuff for all the other characters to do?’

That led to more scenes at the house with the housekeeper, it led to building up the idiot newscaster, and it led to some of the great scenes between Holly and Hans Gruber. I just invented her coming to the fore to protect her people. The instigation for that scene was not, ‘Let’s really develop this character,’ it was, ‘We’re killing Bruce Willis!’ [laughs] Powell was always in there, but under that direction, I ended up giving him more interaction with the cops on the ground, and there was some comedy that came out of that. But any time it’s night time and Bruce is not in the shot? He was home sleeping. He was not on the set. We gave him time to recover.

Die Hard Hans McClane

One of my favorite scenes is when McClane encounters Gruber upstairs and Gruber pretends to be an American. I’ve heard that scene was your idea – is that true?

[Here are] Joel Silver’s three rules of action movies. Number three is: we’re going to get an R rating anyway, so let’s see some hot babes. Number two is: shoot as much comedy as you can. If it’s too much, you can cut it out later. And number one is: these movies are hate movies. They’re like romance movies, only they’re hate movies. In a romantic picture, a boy and a girl have a meet cute, they have several dates, and they go off together. In a hate movie, they have a meet cute, they have several dates, and one kills the other. The problem with this picture was, how can we get them together where Bruce doesn’t die, because the other guy has a dozen people with him and complete control of the real estate?

One day on the set, we took a break in the afternoon while they were moving the camera. Someone said to Alan Rickman, apropos of nothing, ‘Alan, a lot of UK actors do American accents.’ This was his first movie, remember, so nobody really knew him. ‘Do you do an American accent?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know if I do an American accent, per se, but I do a California one.’ And he did one like the skit from Saturday Night Live, “The Californians.” So I dropped my sandwich and said, ‘Oh my God.’ I ran over and found Joel on the set, and brought him back and said, ‘Do that again.’ Rickman does it again, and Joel says to me, ‘Yeah, so?’ And I’m like, ‘So?’ and before I could explain it, he says, ‘Oh! Oh! You’re right! You’re right! Get McTiernan!’

So we got him and asked Alan to do it again, and he said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ And I said, ‘If McClane only knows Hans as this disembodied voice on the walkie talkie, if Hans can do this, they can meet. If we can contrive a way for them to them to meet, he can mind-fuck him!’ John [thought about it], and said, ‘No, McClane saw Gruber kill Takagi.’ I said, ‘Did you shoot that yet?’ The first assistant director said they were going to shoot it the next day. [So they came up with] a way to shoot that scene so that McClane didn’t see Alan Rickman pull the trigger, so they could meet later.

[That scene where they meet] ended up being in place of a scene where McClane met and killed Theo, the computer guy. That’s another thing we did – as the picture was proceeding, based on the performances we were getting, we decided to keep certain people alive longer. The actors brought more fun to them. We said, ‘OK, we’ve gotta kill somebody every ten or fifteen minutes, but let’s kill this guy instead of that guy.’ Anyway, we already had the feet bloody scene, so instead of meeting and killing Theo, [McClane met Gruber].

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