Ode to John: The Joy of McTiernan

Die Hard (1988)

This is both a nod, and an apology to John McTiernan. Not that he’ll ever know (or care), but at film school, I was cagey and downright secretive about how much I loved his work. His movies weren’t deemed “avant-garde a clue” enough for me to get away with stating I worshipped Predator, or regarded Die Hard as a true cinematic masterpiece. Back then, I copped out, and now’s my chance to put it right. Turns out every great film does not need to be a Tarkovsky, or a Bergman.

Pockmarked, ever so slightly effeminate, and grumpy as you like; undercover theatre guy, and self-appointed liker of actors, Albany, New York’s own, John McTiernan isn’t a filmmaker people often discuss. In fact, I seldom hear his name at all. Yet, his 1988 action movie bible, Die Hard, remains one of the most monumental movies ever, the foremost staple of its genre, and a guaranteed jingle-belter every year at Christmastime.

Even for a die-hard 😉 McTiernan car-waxer like myself, it was illogical to list him among my top tier of favourite directors, purely because he’s only made two movies that really knocked my socks off, as opposed to perhaps seven from Scorsese, or around twelve by Spielberg. Nevertheless, I absolutely adore his ’87-’88 one-two punch of Predator and Die Hard – every flashy frame of them, which I’ve absorbed countless times, and have now been assimilated into my consciousness, part of my persona, forever burned into my cinematic memory. Much like the manner in which McTiernan’s American Film Institute mentor, the filmmaker, Ján Kadár, once instructed him to, “Learn that movie! Where is the camera for that shot? What kind of lens was it? What was the camera doing?” John’s memorised, shot-for-shot remakes ranged from Fellini’s to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Much like a world-class instrumentalist, storing up hours upon hours of music in their mind, McTiernan squirreled away the “classics of the profession,” and learned their “visual melodies” frame-by-frame – off by heart. McTiernan once said of Kadár, “He made me learn to think of movies as a chain of images. Just like a music student could hold a concerto in his mind, you should hold the movie in your mind; the images – never mind the words, the images.”

“I watched Truffaut’s Day for Night for three days straight, eight hours at a time. I got past the story so I could study what it was that I was really watching. Film is a chain that’s really linear, yet when it’s all strung together, it feels like an experience. It takes a while to be able to deconstruct that experience – to figure out what you really saw.”

John McTiernan

Peculiarly, for me, the subsequent movies in McTiernan’s filmography remain vague to this day. Once upon a time, they called out from the colourful, promising VHS rental shelves of my youth, although I was far too immature to have acquired an aptitude for classifying movies based on their directors, systematically exploring filmographies, or even being conscious that the same bloke who made Predator and Die Hard, also did The Hunt for Red October and Medicine Man. Speaking of which, my mate Dave (who is now known as a mythic, legendary figure on our Rewind Movie Podcast episodes – along with his three older brothers, for acting out scenes from films throughout my childhood, including such diverse titles as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Action Force: The Movie, and Schindler’s List) lent me a pirate copy of McTiernan’s Medicine Man, which I barely recall watching, although I do remember Dave, aged about twelve, when asked if it was an appropriate film for me, unwisely performing a one-man show of a key scene for my safeguarding mum, in which Sean Connery declares he has, “Found a cure for the fucking plague of the 20th century!”

McTiernan’s lesser-known debut, Nomads (with friend of the show, Pierce Brosnan), impressed Arnold Schwarzenegger to such a degree that he hired the director to helm Predator – a film that would become a number one box office smash and eventually lead to the duo’s reunion on the Arnie vehicle, Last Action Hero. McTiernan’s ’87-’90 heyday remains credible and intact with audiences and critics alike. The thoroughly entertaining, second best Die Hard of the bunch – Die Hard with a Vengeance, is a personal McTiernan highlight. A cluster of one-watch wonders, including The 13th Warrior, half-decent redos of The Thomas Crown Affair, and Rollerball (a notorious box office bomb), and the maligned 2003 action thriller, Basic, starring John Travolta, rounded out John’s directorial efforts (to date).

From the cartoony, kinetic “force” of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, and the cocaine frenzy of Marty’s GoodFellas, to the ludicrous extremes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, camera movement was always exhilarating, exciting, and a somewhat rebellious act to me, as every filmmaking institution I attended from college to postgraduate film school, ignorantly disregarded it as show-offy, unnecessary, and an embellishment that rarely served the story. McTiernan was experiencing the same attitude from film editors to junior executives in 1988. John’s editor on Red October, in spite of being a talented enough chap, was actually “let go,” as he simply didn’t understand McTiernan’s vision to montage moving camera coverage. Shots can be cut together, regardless of whether the camera is in motion, or not – they should play as notes in the same key. Why a mobile camera is so evocative to me – particularly in Die Hard, is difficult to fathom. Perhaps it equates to the way David Lynch describes his experience with a moving painting. I am often moved by a pitch-perfect tracking shot, and a boom down-tilt up-track in can be enough to send chills through me if deployed correctly.

Aussie cinematographer, Don McAlpine, shot Predator, and by all accounts protected McTiernan throughout its arduous shoot, seemingly a willing collaborator in terms of utilising unconventional, European-style coverage. Movement of camera was McTiernan’s preoccupation at the time, and that explains why I tend to zero in on this particular era of his career. Jan “Yanni” de Bont, who shot The Fourth Man, and RoboCop for Paul Verhoeven, was ingeniously recruited by John for Die Hard. The progression is palpable, with everything from dolly-ins, lens flares, and jump cuts honed, perfected, and all in service of the visual storytelling. This is not some Michael Bay hotshot with twelve cameras whizzing around meaninglessly, trying to impress a lingerie model. McTiernan’s camera moves precisely where the audience’s eyes want to (and need to) go. Sadly, since the MTV era, shallow, unmotivated moves became the trend, and the photographic grammar of the action film was never quite the same.

The oblique, “Dutch” Dr. Caligari angles – I’m picturing the canted Hans as Bill Clay (my favourite scene from Die Hard), where something is off about the fella, and we know it. The question is, does McClane? All in collaborative cohesion are Jackson DeGovia’s complimentary horizontal lines running across the frame – a designer on precisely the same wavelength as McTiernan and de Bont. Die Hard‘s cuts compliment one another. Just as McTiernan, via Kadár, says – they’re in the same key. They fit like a jigsaw puzzle, with a thoughtful flow – cutting with a purpose, not for the sake of “coverage,” which is a dead giveaway of a capable director versus an exceptional one.

Taking a dim view of multiple camera coverage – another tired, easy fix, mediocre directors tend to wheel out, that should really be abolished and saved for cheapo telly, McTiernan warns that the master, medium, close-up, method of shooting is akin to churning out fast-food. It’s a machine-like production line process reserved for second-rate filmmakers, who, having failed to prepare, instead cover themselves from every angle and end up failing to express anything at all by conveyor-belting the same old generic junk into our eyes. McTiernan advises, “Telling a story is not a random access activity. There is a particular word, and order. There’s the right shot. If you have any nerve, you have to figure out what that shot is.” I also subscribe to his hypothesis that, if you don’t know what you want, or what you’re doing with your cutting, setting a few cameras rolling and hoping you capture what you need can be a disastrous “solution” artistically, and without walking that “right shot” tightrope, and consciously attempting to express your vision, you, by default, relegate yourself to a lesser form of filmmaking.

The borderline pretentious, typically cryptic McTiernan can grouchily flit from inflated, allegorical fast-food rants, to equating his, and the (in the loop) crew of Die Hard’s filmmaking approach, to Jacques-Louis David’s work as an 18th century royal portrait artist with ties to the French Revolution, who etched his own expressive undercover flourishes onto the scratched tombs of kings. They too, were sneaking out their takes by sneaking in personal details for the working classes, by concealing meaningful messages in their mainstream contemporary art, using the powerful “nobles” at 20th Century Fox, and the silver screen canvas of 1988. This is Die Hard – McTiernan, working within the broadest, most appealing genre to hand, and like an incendiary, profane (literally) Blue Peter, smuggling in his own personal expression and political leanings, disguised behind the violent, American cultural obsessions of exploding helicopters and Steyr AUG machine gun fire.

Quickly addressing what has become somewhat of an inane elephant in the room, Die Hard is absolutely, unequivocally a Christmas film. Why? Because the author, John McTiernan, says so. Never mind what the egocentric laughing stock, Bruce Willis, ignorantly declared at the end of his cheap Comedy Central roasting. Die Hard wasn’t intended to be a Christmas movie, but the joyful exuberance it delivered turned it into one. The irony here, is that McTiernan rarely cracks a grin unless it’s a wry one. He’s a miserable bugger, but surprisingly, he was the key instigator in terms of wrangling humor into Die Hard. He just couldn’t make another Dirty Harry. The only time I saw him giggle in any of his interviews was as he relayed an anecdote about annoying “the lawyer downstairs” inside Fox Plaza with deafening explosions during the Die Hard shoot, and with his history, I wonder if he always hated lawyers – it’s clear he despises authority, and often laments the runaway, unchecked greed and aggression of the USA.

Die Hard is a subversive, anti-authoritarian masterpiece. That’s the message. That’s what that toad, Roger Ebert, didn’t understand when he used his entire two telly minutes to denigrate the Dwayne T. Robinson character – one of many incompetent incarnations of authority, designed by McTiernan, with a rebellious agenda, to ridicule the establishment. Our working class hero, John McClane, is a real human being, and with the exception of Al Powell, the governmental figures surrounding him are intentionally painted as fools.

“Authoritarians are low status, angry men, who have gone to rich people and said, ‘If you give us power, we’ll make sure nobody takes your stuff.’ That’s the essence of authoritarianism, and their obsessions with guns, and boots, and uniforms, and squad cars, are meant to scare us, and meant to shut us up so we don’t kick them to the side of the road and let decent people get on with building the future.”

John McTiernan, American Film Institute Interview, 2020

Even when McTiernan, as gruff as he may seem, and as hyperbolic as he can be, gets into his declamations and tirades, it’s clear that his filmmaking manifesto still rings true. He gets it. It’s a visual medium – and although a collaborative one, a director’s medium (theatre for actors, television for producers, cinema for directors), and as the singular conductor, he coordinates his orchestra – whether it’s cinematographer, Jan de Bont, designer, Jackson DeGovia, editors, Frank J. Urioste and John F. Link, composer, Michael Kamen, or star, Bruce Willis, in order to play the audience, as only the finest directors are capable of doing.

The Julliard, and AFI Conservatory graduate, McTiernan, once posed the question, “How do you get language out of a movie?” He views film in a musical form – more like opera. Imagine shots in a sequence as notes in the same key. The pace, lens length, and style of a shot can dictate that key. Book-based ideas, or “print logic,” doesn’t automatically apply to cinema. The emotion in Die Hard is played like music, and as a result, for fans like myself, watching (and rewatching) the film, is as pleasurable and rewarding as listening to your favourite song on repeat – perhaps even more so.

What do people really mean, or think, when they speak? Speech is merely translating emotion into noise. The technique of using words as an extension of the movie’s musical score, rather than to actively over-explain your story, is a crucial one when dissecting McTiernan’s work. The sound of the dialogue is more important than the words themselves. However, the feeling still comes across. Spielberg is another master when it comes to this approach. For example, there are an abundance of unsubtitled foreign languages in the Indy saga, and much like McTiernan, Spielberg is a director among the first to be cited as a filmmaker whose movies you can view with no sound, and still grasp the story – the cadence, inflections, and delivery of the dialogue is again, more important than the words themselves – they’re simply used to colour scenes, rather than acting as blunt, clunky exposition. It’s the intent in the intonation of his characters, whether we speak their language or not, we understand. We follow. I didn’t know what half the words from my favourite films meant when I was a lad, but I got the gist of the story. This is a true testament to the filmmakers.

For instance, in Die Hard, the terrorists – excuse me, the “exceptional thieves,” are crackin’ jokes when Powell rocks up, and there are no subtitles whatsoever. McTiernan doesn’t need them, and nor do we. All that matters is, we know these guys aren’t concerned about the cops’ presence – in fact, they anticipate, and require it to successfully complete their heist. What we understand is what we feel; the mood, and the audible articulation of a feeling is paramount, not the specificity of a sentence.

Much like Francis Coppola’s (hopefully prophetic) interview coda in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, McTiernan also believes, with words to the effect of, “In a dream, an image has nuance. You don’t know the meaning, but you feel it. Text and words won’t even come into it. Music can be dramatic on its own. So can images,” that one day there will be a kid (or as Coppola poses, “Some little fat girl in Ohio”) who is a Mozart of movies – someone who can articulate purely and perfectly through the visual medium of film.

“Who said we were terrorists?”

Hans Gruber, Die Hard

IRS tax debts, lawsuits, perjury, a wiretapping scandal, and the 328-day incarceration aftermath, sadly bankrupted McTiernan, marring his later career, and forcing the liquidation of his assets, making another directorial outing unlikely. The Hollywood Reporter harshly, and I believe, inaccurately, labelled McTiernan, “One of Hollywood’s most ‘despised’ people.” I prefer to label him a subversive, smart, and rebellious artist, who redefined the action film genre. The reverberations of his late eighties work are still being ripped off, and riffed on, to this day.

What I stumbled upon back then, and came to appreciate fully now, is a thoughtful, considerate storyteller, and a proficient filmmaker, supplying his audience with the exact information, in the precise order they require it, to enjoy the narrative to the greatest degree possible. It’s the gift of exposition – not a bag dropped clumsily at your feet. McTiernan cares, and the geography of his scenes is painstakingly well-established. He is not a self-serving director; he’s a generous one, with the viewer’s best interests at heart. He holds our hands. He understands that it’s harder to tell a simple story well than it is to baffle your audience with a mystery, and hide behind abstraction and vagueness.

Personal slip ups aside, McTiernan’s name should be forever etched alongside the greats. I owe this man. For the countless hours of joy. Whether it was sat alone in my living room as a child, wowed, watching the tops of skyscrapers detonate, or at a primary school sleepover, hooting and hollering in horror, as an alien warrior skins soldiers alive. These are the initial, early film-watching beats that made me fall in love with cinema in the first place, and still keep me coming back for more.

In the immortal words of John McTiernan – Merry Christmas, and I hope we have a better year.