Bruce Willis talks 'Die Hard,' McClane and film No. 5
Posted February 13, 2013
CENTURY CITY, Calif. - For John McClane, it all started at Nakatomi Plaza.
Twenty-five years ago, Bruce Willis' action character wisecracked his way through a hostage siege at the fictional office building in 1988'sDie Hard. McClane lost his shoes, and his white T-shirt turned black from the many bomb blasts and fireballs he encountered. But in the end, the good guy prevailed and a blockbuster action franchise exploded into pop culture.
"It all started over here," says Willis, looking up at Fox Plaza, the building that filled in for Nakatomi Plaza during the shoots in this L.A. suburb. "It was cold out like now. And I spent a lot of time on that roof."
He recalls that "the filming went by so quickly, not unlike the last 25 years. "We made a great movie out of a building. And there are about seven more (structures) that have been built around it since then."
Much more than the upscale office park neighborhood has changed. Willis, now 57, no longer has the black hair that the younger McClane sported. His fully shaved head now shows small growths of white.
He also has shoes, sporting perfectly shined Pradas along with an immaculately tailored dark suit. But the sense of amazement over what took place after Die Hard wrapped never changed.
"I never gave it much thought. I thought, 'Well, that happened,' " says Willis. "But no one ever knows when a film is going to take off. No one could predict this."
Fueled in part by Willis' instant catchphrase "yippee ki-yay,'' the John McTiernan-directedDie Hard earned $140.8 million worldwide and spawned a franchise that has tallied $1.1 billion. The fifth installment, A Good Day to Die Hard, opens Thursday and features McClane traveling to Russia to aid his grown, estranged son (Jai Courtney) who happens to be a CIA operative.
"Did I think at the time that 25 years later I would still be making these films?" says Willis. "You should call the president of the United States and ask him what's going to happen 25 years from now. No one has any idea."
Fox Studios executives have been so overwhelmed by the Die Hard success that on Jan. 31 they unveiled a fitting anniversary present: a 50-foot-high permanent mural on Stage 8 of the movie lot featuring McClane crawling through the air ducts of Nakatomi Plaza.
As his A Good Day to Die Hard co-stars and two of his daughters with ex-wife Demi Moore - Tallulah Belle, 19, and Rumer, 24 (they have a sister, Scout, 21) - looked on, Willis hit a detonation button that dropped the mural curtain and set off enough fireworks to trigger a symphony of car alarms in the studio's parking garage.
A Good Day to Die Hard director John Moore still stands in awe of the groundbreaking action film.
"Die Hard is in a league all of its own," says Moore. "Bruce was born to be John McClane, and the combination with McTiernan is hall of fame. We're honored to be mentioned in the same paragraph."
Two days later while sitting on a lawn chair at the Four Seasons Hotel, Willis goes from joking about his need for a garden hose to quench his thirst after polishing off a glazed doughnut, to instantly being reflective about the honor.
"I'm sure years from now we'll have a much clearer idea of what you should say," says Willis. "It's just awesome."
Willis also laughs that he had to endure some ribbing from his daughters, who had a number of questions about the mural. "They were cracking up, saying that my eyes are not blue. And they don't remember me with hair. And they were saying, 'You're making that up, right, about the billion dollars?' But they were very nice about it."
The size of the mural is such that "they say you can see it from outer space,'' he says. "The guys in the shuttle are going to be like, 'Is that John McClane down there?' It's like that thing that came from another world."
Willis was very much in another world in 1987 when he and McTiernan shot the movie. At the time, he was the wisecracking star of ABC's private detective comedy Moonlighting alongside Cybill Shepherd, but he found an 11-week window to make his foray into action films.
Willis seamlessly made the transition, bringing his Moonlighting smart talk to the big screen. He insists his "yippee ki-yay'' line was an ad-lib reaction to phone taunting by archvillain Hans Gruber (played with wicked relish by British actor Alan Rickman).
"That was me," says Willis. "I gave my take on Alan Rickman calling me Mr. American Cowboy."
The film immediately established several themes that would continue throughout the franchise - lots of explosions, strong yet dysfunctional family dynamics (starting with McClane's estranged wife being one of the Nakatomi hostages), and a lack of outward emotion, even when it came to leaving a message for his wife in the face of certain peril.
"There was one scene where I thought I'd show just a little whisper of emotion," explains Willis, "and John McTiernan said, 'I don't want that.' "
It all worked, despite some fundamental confusion from the leading man ("I never knew what 'die hard' meant anyways - was it that I was hard-headed?" says Willis). And he has some regrets about the first film, like Gruber falling to his death from the building at the end.
"We shouldn't have killed him off," says Willis. "He was the best bad guy I have ever seen in my life."
But the film's place as an action classic was set immediately, and the box-office hits kept coming. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990, with $240 million worldwide) featured Willis trying to save his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) from a terrorist hijacking in Washington, D.C. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995, with $366 million) had Willis and Samuel L. Jackson trying to stop a bomber in New York City. Live Free or Die Hard (2007, with $383 million) featured Willis fighting Internet terrorists while protecting his grown daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Willis was sure the fourth was the final film and said as much. He shakes his head at the thought.
"I was just probably scared or something. I cannot imagine not coming back," says Willis. "You get in these press conferences and it's like OK, here's something I should say, 'I'm never going to do another of these things.' "
He signed onto A Good Day to Die Hard despite, once again, confusion over the meaning of the title.
"I certainly don't understand the title," says Willis deadpanning. "It sounds very Cheyenne Indian. It seems like they have married a few cultures in there. But you can't question. You can't pick it apart too much."
His nonchalance belies a real care for the iconic character. Director Moore says Willis' reputation as being difficult on a set stems from his desire to protect McClane.
"A lot of people want to create mythology about people's difficulty. It's a Hollywood thing. It's prophesied to you about how difficult something is going to be," says Moore. "Bruce is the 'd' word, but it's not 'difficult,' it's 'demanding.' As it should be. When you are Bruce Willis and everything you say can be immediately turned into a T-shirt, he has to be hyper-vigilant."
"This is his legacy. He's difficult in that he works your butt off," says producer Wyck Godfrey. "You gotta respect where it's coming from: It started with him and it's going to end with him. I needed my thick skin on the day I landed in Budapest for the filming.''
While Willis took a jump from a parking structure to an air bag (followed by a real fireball) in the Die Hard original, those days are gone. With 58 approaching next month, Willis admits he leaves much of the dangerous onset stuff to the stuntmen.
"It's a very big science now. It's big business," says Willis. "They always keep it safe, even if it always doesn't look like it's safe."
That's fine by Moore: "We don't ask him to drive the catering truck, either. We ask the stunt guys to play their parts. "
But the sideways smirk is ever-present and the quips are almost as numerous as the explosions in the new film as Willis and Courtney try to intercept a nuclear weapons shipment.
"There always has to be various elements of mayhem, explosions, and it has to be fraught with peril," says Willis.
Recently, the genre itself has been perilous, as ventures by '80s action stars have seen weak box office. Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand (which opened ninth in January with $6.3 million) and Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head (a $4.5 million opening weekend) both tanked. But Godfrey insists that Willis has a distinct advantage: his famous character.
"It's John McClane," he says. "My kids and I have both grown up on John McClane. It's different when you are dealing with a character that is known and loved like this."
Godfrey says he has no concerns, insisting that confidential studio pre-release tracking shows the action movie will do "phenomenally well.''
"Trust me, we ain't worrying about Die Hard," says Godfrey.
While the absentee-father McClane still has his own family issues that include an angry grown son, Willis relishes being a father, especially to 10-month-old Mabel Ray Willis (to second wife Emma Heming). The action star even insists he takes on diaper duty ("I hold the record for speed changing - I'm under seven seconds").
Willis says he lives to entertain Mabel.
"It's like how can I make this child laugh today. I act out all of my parts. And the goofier I do, the better. ... It's all I want to do. Acting is so far down the road as compared to any time hanging out with my kids."
But the jobs will continue and will stay loud for a while. Willis will reprise his role as Gen. Joe Colton in GI Joe: Retaliation (out March 29), and he'll appear alongside Helen Mirren and John Malkovich in the aging-assassin sequel Red 2 (out Aug. 2).
And Willis has dropped the idea of telling interviewers that he's not going to do another Die Hard, out of respect for his character.
"I don't think we should kill him. I've certainly been shot a few times. And winged and dinged," says Willis. "But I don't want to see John McClane shot (dead) just yet."
Besides, there are years of potential box-office glory and maybe more title confusion ahead.
"I think we should get more and more cryptic with the titles," he muses with his trademark smirk. "A Most Unusual Day to Die Hard and No Explanation for Why Today Is a Day to Die Hard. I think we should keep the audience guessing."
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