The First Ten Pages: Die Hard (1988)

Screenplay by: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza

Bruce Willis stars in this action adventure film that rewrote the genre and made Willis, who plays an ordinary New York cop trapped in a skyscraper taken over by terrorists, a household name. Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza wrote the screenplay based on a novel entitled “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp.

CHARACTER INTRODUCTION

The main character, Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), is a New York cop, estranged from his wife who has moved to Los Angeles with their children. The first page of the screenplay describes the protagonist’s plane landing at an airport in Los Angeles. McClane is the hero of the film, the good guy, a man who will ultimately battle and outwit ruthless terrorists to save a group of hostages. Yet our first glimpse of McClane shows him vulnerable. He’s afraid of flying, and his fear is noticeable to the man sitting next to him.

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This scene is wonderful because it contrasts McClane’s heroic efforts later in the screenplay with the character’s own fears. He’s human, and this introductory scene makes the story appealing. He’s an ordinary guy who must later act in an extraordinary situation. This helps the audience identify with the character and engages them as they see this situation could happen to any one of them.

We also get a preview of his wise-cracking personality as he retorts, “I’ve been doing it for eleven”, referring to being a cop, after the salesman tells him he’s been making fists with his toes for nine years. Past page 10, we’ll see McClane gaining the upper hand and making similar quips to the terrorists he fights, with the stakes being much higher than what we see in this simple expository scene.

TONE/GENRE

Die Hard is an unusual action-adventure film because the first bit of action doesn’t come until well beyond the tenth page of the screenplay. And that’s what makes it so good. The first gunshot is fired on page 20 and the first death, of the character Mr. Takagi, doesn’t happen until page 27. But Stuart and de Souza wisely drop a subtle hint that this is an action film by mentioning McClane’s baretta pistol on page 1. So what else can we ascertain from the first 10 pages if we want to determine what the tone of this film is?

Since the screenplay for Die Hard is 126 pages long,  Stuart and de Souza use the first 10 pages to develop the human interest story. They show two people separated, both in their location – she is at a Christmas party and he is at an airport – as well as in their respective mindsets. We see Holly, McClane’s estranged wife, talking to one of her colleagues, who clearly has something else on his mind, at the party…

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Meanwhile, on his way to meet Holly, McClane talks to his limousine driver about his marriage…

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These two scenes emphasize separation. We see two lonely people struggling to reconcile their circumstance. When Holly is taken hostage, it will only deepen the chasm between her and McClane and will give his heroic efforts context as he tries to rescue her and her colleagues.

DRAMATIC SITUATION

The dramatic situation in the film occurs on page 20, when the terrorists burst into the Christmas party and start shooting their guns. This sets the Second Act into motion and gives the screenplay a new direction. McClane will spend the next 100 pages trying to save himself, and the hostages taken by the terrorists, which include his estranged wife.

But within the first 10 pages, none of this is seen or suggested. So what dramatic situation does the first 10 pages address? The answer lies in this excerpt on page 9…

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Again, the focus is on Holly and her husband’s crippled marriage. This is the dramatic situation the first 10 pages deal with but the real dramatic situation will be discovered in the subsequent pages. Die Hard makes a bold decision to delay the action scenes until after a solid foundation has been established with the main characters.

WORLD OF THE STORY

The world of story in Die Hard is introduced in the first paragraph…

Our protagonist is a New York cop, yet Stuart and de Souza choose the orange grid of sun-baked Los Angeles as the setting to begin the screenplay. By not showing us where he has come from, and beginning with where he is going to, the writers emphasize the fish out of water aspect of Die Hard.

Here is another excerpt where McClane realizes where he is which subtly underscores the contrast between this place and the world he knows.

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THEME

If someone were to read the entire Die Hard screenplay, they could conclude its theme is Man vs. Man. The protagonist McClane and the antagonist Hans Gruber, who is not introduced until page 18, are clearly established; and the screenplay is peppered with gunfights and explosions. But if we only read the first 10 pages, are we able to discern a theme? Can we understand what the story is about, even if the only hint we are given that this will be an action-packed film is a brief glimpse of McClane’s gun under his jacket.

The answer is yes, if we look closely. The scene where McClane sees that his wife is registered under her maiden name offers a clue. Stuart and de Souza show us a man who is out of his element. On the verge of divorce from his wife, McClane is struggling to make sense of and fit into an unfamiliar place. He wants to save his marriage, so the writers take this character, beautifully developed within the first 10 pages, and plunge him into a situation where he will be forced to become familiar with the building he is trapped in and to save the hostages, including his wife.

The theme suggested here is an ordinary man’s troubles can be resolved if that man rises to the occasion in an extraordinary situation. The action in the film is not just a byproduct of McClane’s decisions, it is a rite of passage for the character, something that will transform him into a hero. His reward? A reconciliation with his wife. McClane will become the man he SHOULD have been on page 1, and this is what he wife needed him to be in order to repair their broken marriage.

In conclusion, Die Hard is a groundbreaking screenplay in the action genre. The first 10 pages, even though they are devoid of action, quietly inform us how to humanize a story defined by physical exploits. Ironically, the quiet moments in Die Hard contribute as much to its success as the thrilling action sequences do.