Never Say Die

Two decades with John McClane

It takes Bruce Willis a while to get warmed up. He's always just a bit below room temperature — a cool brother, dig, dating back to his Moonlighting days as a private dick belting out "Tighten Up" while going undercover as a man of the cloth in Wayfarer shades. He's been on the personal appearance tour for a few days before he sits down in an upscale Dallas hotel room to talk about the new Die Hard movie — the fourth, Live Free or Die Hard, which is more like parts one through three added up and multiplied by a few hundred million. Dressed in gray suit and white shirt, he's crisp but also a little frayed, running two hours late for this sit-down.

He starts by talking in sound bites — sentences about how doing sequels is like doing weekly TV ("It's another episode in a film you've already seen . . . the audience comes into the theater already knowing a lot about the character") and how he hadn't really considered playing NYPD detective John McClane again and how hard it is to roll with the concrete punches at age 52 and on and on and on, the standard ho-hum stuff you do when you're on the road selling a sequel. Not that he doesn't care, but this is just another part for Bruce Willis: pitchman for a film about which people are skeptical enough as it is. Another Die Hard? Try hard? Why hard? Lie hard? Can you get hard? Seriously. Not again.

But, see, this is interesting territory for Willis because it's back to the beginning for him. Rewind the tape to 1988 and his first $5 million paycheck and first big movie (can't count Blind Date, shouldn't count Sunset). It made him who he is today — the smirking action hero, the Jersey boy who proved wrong the studio bosses who didn't believe him capable of saving the Nakatomi Building. Save a building, launch a franchise, make a career — fairy tales can come true, as that other kid from Jersey sang way back when.

Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman on the set of Live Free or Die Hard
Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman on the set of Live Free or Die Hard

Twenty-some years ago, it could have gone any number of directions for Willis, who, in 1984, turned in perhaps the most memorable villainous performance on any Miami Vice episode when he played a wife-beating gangster. The guy could play cruel. And comic, too: Moonlighting, at least during its first two seasons, was as Hepburn-Tracy as TV had ever been. Then came Die Hard, followed by a dozen movies kinda like it, if not exactly like it. He does quiet as well as anyone, as evidenced by The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, especially. But mostly he does loud, louder and loudest, and Live Free or Die Hard is a big fucking bang when it works — and even when it doesn't. So, Bruce Willis, what's it all mean?

There’s a line in the beginning of the new movie in which someone asks you if you’ve done this a lot. And you say something like, "Kill people? Not in a long time." The way McClane says it indicates this guy’s got a lot of baggage. Did you ever think, What’s John McClane been up to the last 12 years, since Die Hard with a Vengeance?

Do I think about it as Bruce Willis? Not very often. In my travels around the world for other films or on my own for vacations or stuff, everywhere I went, somebody would come up and go, "When are you gonna do another Die Hard?" And for a long time, I thought that was just something people said to say hi and tell me they liked the Die Hard films. But it wasn't till we started shooting that I actually realized that there was more of a wanna-see for another installment of Die Hard than I thought.

You resisted it for a long time, though.

It was the story. It's one of the things I've learned in the last 20 years: If you don't start with a good story, then it's really difficult to get an audience to come see it, because what you're really asking an audience to do is leave their house, get in the car, hire a babysitter, park somewhere, [and] go in a theater. And people can watch a movie on their big flat-screen and get the same experience.

But isn’t it also the character? You’ve always said you need to live a life before you can play certain characters. McClane seems to have a weight on him now that he didn’t have before. I assume there’s something about him you wanted to explore, too.

It's John McClane at 52, which is different than when I played him at 42 or 33. The idea of doing the fourth installment in this franchise started to make a lot more sense after a good friend of mine, a writer named Jason Smilovic, who wrote Lucky Number Slevin, started talking about the mythology of Die Hard and the fact that if you're in a film that's the fourth installment in a franchise that spans 20 years, there's a certain expectation the audience comes in with and wants to see how the character's held up and changed. Someone had suggested earlier on — or it was talked about, anyway — whether I should try to play him younger or whether I should try to play him at his own age, and it just seemed to make more sense and to be more fun to see the guy at 52 years old and then to go back when you have that four-disc set to go back and see me at 33 in 1988 and see me now at the ripe old age of 52.

You’re not aware of the mythology or cosmology of the franchise during the time off, though, are you?

Not during the time off, no. I don't think about it that much. I had taken a break from action films because I felt like the genre needed to reinvent itself. The two templates that had been invented by John McTiernan and Dick Donner with Die Hard and Lethal Weapon had both kind of run their courses — the ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and the two buddy cops facing overwhelming odds. A lot of other films had been made from those films, and I just wanted to wait and see what was gonna happen with it and wait and see if someone could reinvent that, and I think Len Wiseman did that with Live Free or Die Hard.

In the mid-1980s, in a very quick period of time, you showed you had a pretty extraordinary range between Miami Vice, Moonlighting and Die Hard. You could do menacing, action and comedy. When you do the fourth one now, do you reflect upon how you got here in the first place?

I reflected upon what I didn't want to do, what I felt were directions I had gone in the second and third installments of the Die Hard films and the things I wanted to take from those films and didn't want to include from those films. John McClane loves his country and his family. He will not allow innocent people to be hurt or harmed if he can help it, and, apparently, you can't kill him. He won't die.

Did you watch the movies before you did this one?

Yeah, I looked at 'em all. It was a pretty simple exercise: That works, that works, that doesn't work, that doesn't work. It would be difficult for any of these films to compete with the first one because that was such a unique action movie, in that it was so claustrophobic and so contained in that one building, in Nakatomi Plaza. The good guy was in the building; the bad guys were in the building; the hostages were in the building, which was about to blow up. The second one was out in the world and kind of all over the place, and someone had the idea to set it in the wintertime, and that was the year it didn't snow. The third one had some interesting elements: It was set in New York City, and we were fortunate enough to have Sam Jackson and Jeremy Irons in it, which raised the stakes. And the idea that John McClane was at one of the lowest points in his life — beat up, drunk, kicked off the police force and dragged back into it.

Was that the mythology you talk about? The set pieces are fun moments, but for you, when you go back and watch them, do you have to piece together the smaller moments of his life and who he is? I mean, explosions are explosions.

The small moments are some of my favorite things in this film and all the films, actually. The scene with Bonnie Bedelia in the bathroom before it jumps off in the first film is one of my favorite moments. The small moments are just as important as the big moments, jumping off the building with a fire hose wrapped around myself or jumping onto the wing of a moving jet or jumping off a big ship and almost losing my life in real life. In this film, there are huge things — fighting a Harrier jet — but it's part of the mythology of Die Hard.

But the quiet moments are as important — and they carry over into the other movies you’ve done, like Unbreakable, which reinvented the comic-book genre as much as Die Hard reinvented the action genre. Do they get harder to find?

They're only as hard to find as the amount of help you get or don't get from the director. When I worked with Night Shyamalan on Unbreakable and Sixth Sense, I had a great deal of help. He knew what he wanted from the character. In Unbreakable, I showed up and said, "I'll do whatever you want me to do. I'll say whatever you want me to say. I'll play the character however you see it." And that's what's onscreen.

But are you aware of that gravitas contained within those moments? Because going back to that period in the mid-1980s, when did you realize you were good at them — because that’s now how people pegged you early on.

I probably realized that just a couple of weeks ago. All these things only make sense in retrospect. It's hard to know what yore feeling or what's right when you're in the actual moment. Being able to look back at 20 years of work in film. I can see where my work was successful and where it was less than successful. I like the small moments in film, the quiet moment, the still moments. A steady diet of that would be just as boring as watching things exploding continually, but a mixture, I think, is an interesting thing to watch, and that's the job — to be entertaining, to tell an interesting story.

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