Even after thirty years in the business, Bruce Willis continues to make a splash. He began with small roles on shows like Miami Vice and the 80s version of The Twilight Zone before striking gold opposite Cybill Shepherd in the iconic romantic comedy series Moonlighting. It’s hard to believe now, but the show branded him primarily as a light comic… a stereotype he utterly torpedoed with the smash success of Die Hard in 1987. His career has since undergone its share of ups (Pulp Fiction, Twelve Monkeys) and downs (The Bonfire of the Vanities), but he always returns to Die Hard, as he does this week with the fifth entry in the franchise. He sat down during the film’s press day to talk about the endurance of John McClane and how making these movies changes as he gets older.
Question: What’s the difference between doing the first Die Hard and now, with twenty-five years’ of road between the two?
Bruce Willis: There’s not a tremendous difference, or rather, there’s a very simple difference: I get up a little slower after something’s knocked me over. Moscow was a new experience. It’s really built for a fish-out-of-water story, where McClane doesn’t speak the language and can’t quite figure it all out.
Q: It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since the last Die Hard film. What’s the secret to keeping them going this long and keeping them fresh?
BW: We only do a Die Hard film when we can come up with a really complicated title that nobody understands. [Laughter.] People were just starting to figure out Live Free or Die Hard, so we have to baffle them with another one.
Seriously, it’s always about the script. We don’t do one unless the story and the script really work. If we didn’t do that, these films would have burned themselves out fifteen years ago.
Over the past twenty-five years, there has been so much goodwill visited upon these films and the characters. People root for you, people want to see your character succeed. I think part of it is because everyone knows someone like John McClane. Somebody who thinks he has everything figured out and actually doesn’t have anything figured out. No one has anything figured out, and it’s fun to watch those figures try to get out of their own way.
Everyone says that movies like these are roller coasters, and it’s a cliché but it’s a really good one. You know you’re not going to get hurt on the roller coaster. You know everything’s going to be okay. But while you’re taking the ride, some part of you is saying “it’s not going to be okay,” and that controlled excitement can really be a blast. That’s what we shoot for in each of these movies, and I hope that’s what we keep delivering.
Q: What’s the origin of the catch phrase?
BW: It was an ad lib. Alan Rickman was such a good bad guy in the first film. He was constantly picking on me when we were ad libbing, really getting me going. He said something to me, something about a cowboy, and the phrase just popped out. It became part of the fabric of the film. It’s amazing to me that it’s lasted this long. Kids say it to me on the street. Grandmas. It’s a little awkward sometimes... but I’m always happy and amazed that they say it.
Q: You use it in every film; how hard is it to work the timing out, the point where you need to say it?
BW: In this film, the director initially wanted to use it early on, in some kind of surprising way, just to get it out and keep people from anticipating it. But it always has to come in moments of high danger, when things look their worst. That’s when the energy is right.
Q: Twenty-five years really gives you an arc to work with on this character. You don’t get a chance to move through a character’s life, and his problems, and the ups and downs with his family, the way you do here…
BW: That stretch of time is a pretty large one. I remember every film and everything that we did. It’s a life in itself; I have great memories of making these movies. Being a father helps. I have four daughters now, and they’re a captive audience. They can’t run away if they don’t like the jokes. You can draw on that for the character, and draw on the ways they grow and change throughout their life. I didn’t know until they got older that I was having any impact on them. It’s a wonderful revelation.
This film was much more germane to the franchise, which goes back to family and family conflict. In this case I’m fighting with my son. There’s a scene – and I’m not sure why it’s not in the film, but it ended up getting cut – that deals with the source of our conflicted relationship. When he was fifteen years old, he set South Philadelphia on fire. It’s a great scene, and it’s fun setting up that kind of relationship. Thinking that you’ve failed, but still loving him and going to help him and setting the story into motion that way. That’s what keeps the Die Hard movies going. This guy saves the world, but his family life is a bit of a mess. He keeps picking himself up and keeps trying to do right, first by his wife and later by his children. People respond to that more than they do the car chases and explosions. I think it’s what’s made the character so special.