Thursday, February 3, 2011

10 Things You Can Learn From The Greatest Contained Action Thriller Of All Time

Die Hard. Some people say Jaws changed the way movies were made. Others say Star Wars. But an argument can be made that Die Hard had just as much of an influence on movies as both of those films, maybe not so much culturally, but definitely in how studios approached the tent pole film. The irony, of course, is that those same studios used Die Hard as their action template without realizing what made it great. Yeah, it has splosions. Yeah, Bruce Willis was perfect casting. Yeah, the action scenes were great. But the reason Die Hard is so awesome is because of its script.

So I decided to go back to the granddaddy of contained (action) thrillers and see if I couldn’t learn a few things from it. It didn’t take long. Die Hard is chock full of screenwriting tips if you pay attention, and I’m happy to highlight ten of them for you here.

Every action movie should have a ticking time bomb. But that doesn’t mean incorporating one of those cheap digital timers with a big flashing “120 minutes” on it. Instead – just like every element in your screenplay – you should look for a fresh alternative. Here, the ticking time bomb is the seven locks to the safe the computer expert is hacking. It’s a clever countdown device we’ve never quite seen before (or since) and that’s why it works so well.

Most action writers think that the blood-soaked testosterone-fueled action genre gives them license to unload exposition onto the page like a garbage truck does garbage. “The audience won’t care,” they argue. “They just want to see explosions.” Errrr…wrong! Bad exposition eliminates suspension of disbelief, which in turn makes all those “explosion” scenes less exciting. So don’t fall into this trap. Be smooth in the way you unveil exposition. Take the scene in Die Hard where McClane is in the limo. We have to get some key exposition out about John’s on-the-rocks marriage before we get to the building. A lazy writer might’ve had an unprovoked McClane start rambling on about his broken marriage. Instead, the Die Hard writers make McClane resistant, practically “forced” into giving up details to his overly nosey limo driver. In fact, the limo driver is revealing (with his guesses) almost as much about McClane’s marriage as McClane is. “You mean you thought she wouldn't make it out here and she'd come crawling on back, so why bother to pack?.” “Like I said Argyle, you’re fast.” It’s little details like this that elevate an action script.

Ahhh, the snappy action one-liner. An 80s film staple. But no film has ever approached Die Hard in this category. In fact, 95% of one-liners you hear in action movies these days are groan-worthy. So how does Die Hard still hold up? Simple. McClane’s one-liners stem from his situation, NOT from a writer wanting to add a funny line. When you watch Die Hard and hear McClane say, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” you genuinely get the sense that he’s trying to add levity to the situation. He’s using humor to deflect the seriousness of his predicament. In other words, he’s not a mouthpiece for a clever line thought up by a writer, which is what every single one of these one-liners has been since Die Hard came out (please see The Expendables for numerous examples).

Hans is one of the greatest bad guys of all time. How can we learn from him to make our own bad guys memorable? The key to Hans working is that he’s a worthy adversary to John McClane. He isn’t some paint-by-the-numbers thug. Die Hard is one of the few action films I can remember where they made the villain as smart as the hero. Not just on paper. But you actually SEE IT. We see the FBI cutting the last lock to the safe, the only lock Hans didn’t have access to – all part of his plan. We see Hans pretending to be a hostage when he runs into McClane. By doing this, the audience has real doubts about whether our hero can outsmart this guy, which in turn pulls us in even more.

Ideally, especially in an action movie, you’d want to introduce your main character with some sort of action scene that gives us insight into who they are. Unfortunately, the direction of the story may not afford you this opportunity. In Die Hard, a lot of the key things we learn about McClane early on are through dialogue. On the plane with the other passenger, in the limo with Argyle, on his conversation with his wife when he gets there. Sure, it would have been nicer if we could’ve *shown* these things instead of been *told* about them. But the situation is what it is. You need to get your main character to the building and you need the audience to know some things before he gets there. If a similar setup is required in your movie, embrace it and do the best you can with the situation. Forced to tell something through dialogue? Make it as seamless and interesting as you possibly can and move on.

In 110 pages of story, it’s easy to forget what your hero is fighting for. In this case, McClane is trying to save his wife. If, then, we don’t see his wife for sixty minutes, we start to forget what his ultimate motivation is. In Die Hard, around the mid-point, Holly goes to Hans and asks him if she can get a couch for her pregnant friend and bathroom breaks for the rest of the hostages. It’s a small and seemingly insignificant scene, but it reminds us and reignites our passion for why John McClane must succeed.

One might argue that the most memorable scene in Die Hard is when Hans pretends to be a hostage. Part of the reason we love this scene so much is because it’s such a clever move by our villain. But this is actually a setup for a scene that works almost every time you use it in a screenplay: We the audience know something that our main character doesn’t - that he’s in danger - and there’s nothing we can do to help him. The tension this creates in a scene – the helplessness we feel - works on an audience almost every time, so if you have the opportunity to use it, do so. Just make sure we like your hero. Obviously, if we don’t, we won’t be too worried when he’s seconds away from getting a bullet in the chest.

There are numerous character goals in Die Hard driving the story. That’s why, even though this is just a contained action film, it feels a lot more complicated and elaborate. McClane is trying to save his wife. McClane is trying to contact the police. Hans is trying to open the safe. Hans is trying to kill McClane. Hans is trying to find the detonators. The reporter’s trying to get the story. The FBI is trying to stop the terrorists. Al is trying to help McClane get out alive. Everybody’s got something to do in this movie and whenever they achieve what they’re trying to do, the writers give them something new to do. If too many characters run out of pressing things to do in an action script, put a fork in your screenplay, cause it’s done.

In every action script, you want it to get tougher on your hero the closer he gets to the finish line. McClane’s feet are heavily cut, making it difficult for him to walk. Hans figures out that Holly is John’s wife and takes her hostage, making it more difficult to save her. In the final confrontation, McClane’s only got two bullets left, making his escape unlikely. Keep stacking the odds against your hero as he gets closer to achieving his goal.

I’ve been slurping the Die Hard kool-aid all article. In parting, I have to take one shot at the film. There’s a famous line in a Kenny Rogers song that goes, “Know when to fold’em.” At a certain point, you’ve gotten everything you’ve needed out of your screenplay. When that happens, it’s time to say “The End.” In Die Hard, there’s a really cheesy forced moment in the final scene where Terrorist #1 bursts out of the building and Sergeant Al shoots him. It was one beat too many and almost ruined an extremely satisfying ending. You always want to leave your audience wanting more. Resist that “one last unnecessary moment” and type “The End” instead.

And that’s that. Now before I leave, I want to pose a question to you guys, cause the truth is, I’m not sure what the answer is. Die Hard has one of the most cliché moments in all of action films in its finale. Bruce Willis points a gun at our villain who’s pointing a gun at our damsel in distress. Could you ask for a more obvious final scenario? And yet, I was riveted. I was terrified for Holly and I was scared that Willis wouldn’t be able to save her. Outside of the obvious, “We liked the characters,” can you explain why this moment, despite being the very definition of cliché, still worked?

And tune in next Thursday where I break down Die Hard 2 and give you 10 examples of what NOT to do in an action film.