Originality Is Overrated: Die Hard’s Recipe For Successful Action Films
“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…” Die Hard (1988)
To know why Hollywood loves remakes, sequels, and similar stories see Part 1 of this series here.
Die Hard is one of the greatest and most influential action movies ever made (and a Christmas classic, but that’s for another article). It established a simple recipe that has become the standard for a slew of action movies. This recipe has been used over and over again in Hollywood. Just take a look at how many different versions of Die Hard there are (I stopped at a dozen, but there are more).
The Many Incarnations of Die Hard (1988)
This constant re-telling of a similar story didn’t start or end with Die Hard, or even Hollywood in general. We see the same echoing of stories on television (Family Guy is a retelling of The Flintstones which was a retelling of The Honeymooners), in theater (West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo&Juliet), and in books (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is heavily structured after the The New Testament Gospels). In his book on screenwriting “Save The Cat”, Blake Snyder goes even further and says that all movies can fit into one of ten genres. The core stories being told harken back to ancient tales. “Jaws is just a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur or even the dragon-slayer tales of the Middle Ages. Superman is just a modern Hercules. Road Trip is just an update of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales”
“You can’t tell me any idea that isn’t like one, or dozens, found in the movie canon. Trust me, your movie falls into a category. And that category has rules that you need to know. Because to explode the clichés, to give us the same thing…only different, you have to know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists that avoid pat elements. If you can do that, you have a better chance to sell. And, by the way, everyone, and I mean everyone in Hollywood, already does this.” — Save The Cat, Blake Snyder Page 22–23
Following tried-and-true storytelling recipes isn’t an act of laziness or plagiarism, it’s part of the human storytelling tradition. Using a story’s framework, that has stood the test of time, in order to tell a new story gives viewers a familiar structure to enjoy new content. Working from a familiar storytelling recipe, the story will be clearer to the filmmakers and to those who will eventually opt to watch the movie. This makes the overall filmmaking process smoother because everyone knows what the end product should be which will make getting the attention of sales agents, distributors, and viewers easier, resulting in a more profitable film.
“Invoking the name of a film that has MADE A TON OF MONEY in your pitch is never a bad thing in Hollywood. For example: “It’s Die Hard meets Home Alone — set at a Chuck E. Cheese. PG. But instead of Bruce Willis to the rescue, it’s an eight-year-old. And Hans Gruber is an animatronic raccoon gone haywire.” ~Writing Movies for Profit, Robert Garant & Thomas Lennon, Page 18
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in Black Water (2018)
What is the magical recipe that has been used repeatedly to create a multitude of successful action movies?
Step One: Get a good guy (or girl), preferably an off-duty cop, special agent or retired soldier,
The protagonist should be relatable to the audience, often acts in a non-professional capacity, and possesses a background that justifies how they can stand up to the professional villain. John McClane was dealing with marital issues, attending a Christmas party, and was a New York police officer. John Wick was struggling with the death of his wife (and dog), sought personal vengeance, and had the ability because he was a former assassin. Liam Neeson in Taken was a worried father, chasing down his daughter’s kidnappers outside of the system, and ex-CIA agent, as he said “If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you.”
The hero is the person who is constantly and unexpectedly dealing with the plans and machinations of the villain who tries to throw the proverbial “monkey wrench” into the works. In many ways they are the victim of the circumstance in which they are thrust, reacting to the events that unfold due to the antagonist.
The protagonist is going to carry the weight of the movie, often with the most screen time which requires the most time on set especially during complicated action sequences. Because of this, it is often not feasible for an independent film to bring in top talent to fill this role. This isn’t a deal breaker for an independent film. There are plenty of talented actors who can do great work as the main protagonist. They can do the heavy lifting of the film without necessarily bringing the star power of a big name actor. Filmmakers can frequently get a lot more out of these talented lesser known actors, and focus on bigger named actors for smaller and more affordable roles.
Step Two: Get a bad guy (or girl)
Roger Ebert said “Each film is only as good as its villain”. This is logical because while it appears that the hero/protagonist appears to do all the heavy lifting, it’s the villain/antagonist who creates the conflict and therefore drives the story. Some of the best roles and characters in all of film have been the villain who end up stealing the show. What would Silence of the Lambs be without Hannibal Lecter? Would Skyfall be anything more than another Bond film without Raoul Silva? And would Die Hard have become the classic it is without Hans Gruber? (And to further see how the villain can steal the screen, look at Alan Rickman’s performance of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman didn’t stand a chance)
The role/use of the villain is almost criminally underutilized in most independent films. The villain drives the plot, is one of the most interesting characters, and often has disproportionately less screen time. This means that a well written antagonist role can be offered to a better actor without paying the hefty price tag to have them as the hero for the entirety of filming. Actors are also often more attracted to playing the antagonist. As actor Michael Emerson said “[I]t seems obvious to me that playing a villain is more fun and more interesting than playing a good guy.”
In Money Plane, the main antagonist is Darius Grouch III, AKA “The Rumble” portrayed by Kelsey Grammer. All of the scenes for this role were able to be shot in significantly less time than the scenes of the protagonist yet they are the most powerful in the entire film. The gravitas and commanding performance that can be brought to a movie by a talented actor a villain role cannot be understated, even if they are not the official “star”. (In a previous article I discussed getting big named talent for in independent films, you can read that here. )
Step Three: Get some type of bomb, some hostages, and an impending deadline,
Experts agree that if you are ever taken hostage, the safest thing to do is be submissive and obey your captors. The last thing they suggest is attempting to be a hero, and our protagonist with a background that allows them to stand up to the villain knows this. The smart hero knows that the safest thing for themselves and the other hostages is to sit and wait for the cavalry (police/military/etc.) to arrive, so we need to introduce a reason why this isn’t an option.
For some reason in our movie there has to be a reason why it is better for the hero to act themselves than to wait for well equipped, on-duty professionals to handle it. In Under Siege, the majority of the crew that are taken hostage comply with the captors. When one sailor attempts to be a hero, it not only gets him and the man next to him killed. So, why should Steven Seagal’s character risk his life and the lives of the other hostages? In this case it’s because no cavalry is coming, the Navy doesn’t know that the battleship has been taken over by terrorists. The same is true at the beginning of Die Hard. John McClane needs to act because the authorities don’t know that hostages have been taken. In some cases, the protagonist is the on-duty professional and there are no other options, such as Nicolas Cage’s role in The Rock.
The time pressure for action creates a sense of urgency in the film. This justifies the protagonist’s choice to act instead of waiting for reinforcements. This sense of urgency and immediacy adds to the tension and pace of the film, increasing the excitement and enjoyment for the viewers. It also aids the independent filmmaker by giving a story based justification for a smaller cast with less equipment. This story choice dictates that the heroics be driven by the protagonist in a spartan fashion.
Step Four: Throw them all in a contained area or vehicle,
Similar to the hostages and the impending deadline, setting the majority of the film within a contained location has benefits both to the story and the filmmaking process. Depending on the area or vehicle chosen, it can play a key role in the story and marketing. A film taking place on an airplane (Passenger 57) or a mountain (Cliffhanger) already has an exciting angle that can grab the audience’s attention.
Trailer for Altitude (2017)
Having the majority of the film take place in a contained area or vehicle creates suspense and forces interaction between the protagonist and the antagonists. The contained area does not allow for one group to escape or retreat. They must confront each other. This limited area to move, and the impending deadline from earlier force a steady stream of action throughout the movie that comes across as more natural and not a forced series of coincidental interactions. The contained area or vehicle can also create a claustrophobic tension and act as a key plot element. It is common to see action movies set on planes or submarines because in addition to the containment these vehicles provide, there are also lots of events that characters can realistically cause to further the plot (i.e. turning an airplane hard will cause people to lose their balance) or limitations to what the characters can do (i.e. explosives within a submarine would kill everyone)
The contained location of the story also has the benefit of being easier and less expensive to film. A large studio action film, like any of the James Bond movies, will have the story spread out across multiple locations, possibly across multiple continents. This requires multiple crews, large travel budgets, and a long shooting schedule. By focusing the majority of the story to all take place within an enclosed environment, the filmmakers can use a single set in a single location, drastically cutting down the costs of locations and travel while also streamlining the scheduling process. Under Siege and a number of other ship based films completed the majority of their filming in a single location aboard the USS Alabama in Mobile, Alabama.
Step Five: Throw in some witty one-liners
“Yippie-Ki-Yay…” is one of the most famous one-liners in movie history and is forever linked with Bruce Willis and Die Hard. Famous lines are common across movie genres, but Eric Lichtenfeld of Slate holds that they have a special place in action movies, saying “Whether a quip, catchphrase, or callback to an earlier installment in a franchise, one-liners, even at their corniest, provoke the same glee as the most pyrotastic action sequences.”
Peppering your story with one-liners may seem cliched, but it is a familiar part of the genre that audiences look for and serves as a hook of their interest. Even if they are few and far between, some memorable lines should be included for the audience to grab onto. These lines will help lend that comfort and familiarity that audiences look for, and can serve as key lines in the trailer which will drive the demand for the film.
It is often these one-liners (no matter how bad they are) that audiences remember; most of Road House is a forgettable 1980s action film full of bar brawls and movie tropes, but who can forget Patrick Swayze saying “Pain don’t hurt”. The cheesy line has outshone the movie that contained it. The overall tone of the language and lines used should and will be adjusted based on the story, but ensuring that your key characters have lines that will illicit positive responses from goes far in creating audience demand. And unlike so much else in the filmmaking process, words are relatively inexpensive.
Mix it up and “Ta Da!”, An action movie.
Never Underestimate the Power of an Iconic Action Shot, Wolverine (2009)
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