So my friend Kevin was in town this weekend to talk about a project he’s putting together, which meant we spent a lot of time talking about narrative structure and the way character works and how to do a lot of effective storytelling without wasting too much time on things.
Die Hard, unfortunately, wasn’t in the list, but it’s amazing how much you start noticing when your reading of an episode/movie moves from the passive to the active. I do this kind of thing for fun, since I’m kinda obsessed with structure, and even I start noticing different things when I have to actively explain how things work to someone else.
What follows is a pretty close examination of the Die Hard‘s first act, which means we’re going to spend a whole bunch of words looking over what’s effectively just twenty minutes of film. This post will probably stand alone, but it builds on some of the things I mentioned last week. You may want to go back and review if you haven’t read part one of this series.
This is also going to be a longish post, ’cause First Acts are generally packed to the gills with information. You may want to get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit or two.
You’ll also want a copy of Die Hard handy, ’cause if you can get to the end of this post without wanting to re-watch the movie, you’re a better man than I.
THE FIRST ACT – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE
So you’re going to need to know the basics of how first acts work if the following is going to make any sense, but that’s generally a good thing for writers to understand anyway. People who aren’t writers frequently rhapsodize about how awesome it must be to be “creative” for a living, but the truth is that narrative is actually a highly structured system of conveying information. A writer’s job, especially in film and television, is usually to write to that structure and find interesting twists on the individual components.
This sounds terrible, I know, but it’s not. A strong understanding of how narrative arcs work makes your job extremely easy as a writer.
The vast majority of long-form story-telling will follow something that vaguely represents the three-act structure I’m using as the basis for breaking down Die Hard. They’ll call it different things, they’ll focus on slightly different components, but they all largely revolve around a familiar series of beats or movements. The best part is, you already know them on some subconscious level. You’ve been seeing them in movies for so long that they’re an ingrained part of how we watch and understand stories, so things feel wrong when the structure is messed with.
I largely picked up my understanding of it from reading books about screenplays/structure (I recommend The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray and pretty much any book on writing screenplays), too much Joseph Campbell at uni, and a lot of time breaking narratives that don’t work down when teaching creative writing.
What you need to know about the first act of a story is this: it’s generally there to create context for the action that follows by setting the stakes of the story. It will tell you what the emotional arc of the narrative is, it’ll set up the physical conflict that’s going to give people something to focus on (since internal changes are hard to map), and it’ll introduce you to many of the major players and the major metaphors associated with them.
In narrative/screenwriting terms, this is usually done by breaking the process down into several key moments:
- Establishing the World
- Introducing the Narrative Conflict
- Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
- Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
- Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang
One of the reasons I’m doing this with Die Hard? It’s one of those stories that is so tightly written and subtle that you almost don’t notice when it’s hitting these key traits, ’cause almost none of them involve terrorists.
The argument that I made last week about Die Hard being about John McClane setting aside his pride/masculinity to accept his wife? I can make that with confidence, because that’s what all the set-up for this story is about. It sets up the inner conflict, the major symbols that will be serving as the metaphor of those conflicts, and then lets the terrorists loose as a complicating factor while our protagonist undergoes a profound transformation.
I’m going to take these movements within the first act one by one, calling out the interesting things that are happening within the movie. It’s worth stressing that these movements always happen in order, but will frequently involve hitting the same beat multiple times, particularly when establishing a bunch of characters. To make things easier, I’ve marked out the time-codes from my copy of the film, which gives you a chance to see when/where I see the breaks happening as we move from phase to phase.
MOVEMENT ONE: ESTABLISHING THE WORLD
PART ONE: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WIFE AND THE GUN (Time Code: 0:00 to 2:00)
The very first images we get in Die Hard are loaded with metaphorical meaning. There’s ten seconds of a plan landing against a backdrop of orange sunset – a colour that calls to mind the kind of cinematography associated with the Western genre that the film is going to reference a time or two more before we’re done. This is a classic Western opening – a stranger riding into town – only this time the horse is a seven-four-seven.
When we cut to the interior of the plan, there’s another focused shot: a close-up of McClane’s hand, gripping the arm-rest tight, wedding band in plain view. We pan up, never seeing John McClane’s face, to the guy in the next seat. He’s a business man, a comfortable flyer, and he notices John’s distress.
“You don’t like flying, do you?” he asks, and immediately we’re on John’s side. It’s a quiet, subtle way of setting up the protagonist, but it works immensely well. We’ve all been stuck on public transport and had someone try to strike up a conversation. We all know how awkward it can be, especially when the question isn’t wanted. John doesn’t want the question to be asked – he’s a man so reserved we haven’t even seen his face yet – and no matter how well-intentioned his neighbor may be, he’s butting into someone’s life. Even John’s non-committal response to the question isn’t enough to shut up the neighbor eager to assert his authority, based on nine years of air travel.
Looking at this scene twenty-odd years later, it’s easy to lose track of how revolutionary and smart this opening is. Keep in mind that Die Hard was released at the tail end of the eighties, at a time when the protagonists of action films were generally named Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and showing any kind of vulnerability was either verboten or a narrative throw-away before the explosions started. Those were narratives about super-men, massively-muscled and nigh indestructible. John McClane is woefully, painfully human, afflicted with the most basic of fears: flying.
Having established his vulnerability, the film immediately turns towards establishing McClane’s credibility as a hero. The plane lands. He goes to collect his overhead luggage, and the annoying exec spots John’s gun.
“It’s okay,” McClane says. “I’m a cop. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 11 years.” He takes a little pleasure at the nervousness the businessman displays here, which is impressive – there are very few people who can make the smirk an endearing facial expression, and Bruce Willis can do it.
In one smooth movement, less than 2 minutes into the film, we’ve set up the core of who John is: he’s defined by his job, and his job is represented by the gun he keeps at his side. The gun is John’s object, the thing that defines his character, but it’s at odds with who he really is – that’s why the first thing we see is his wedding band. These two metaphors are going to be put into conflict again and again throughout the film, since they represent the two halves of John’s personality.
For now, it’s the handgun that gets the majority of the attention, the thing that’s called out in dialogue. That’s because they’re setting McClane up as the new-age sheriff, willing to keep the law in the unruly Western frontier (if you just had a “holy shit, this is why the film is set in LA” epiphany, give yourself a gold star. If you didn’t…well, think about it. Figuring out why that’s a little-but-significant thing is a step towards realising why this film is so smart).
PART 2: A MOM ON THE MOVE (Time Code: 2:18 to 5:00)
We go from the airport to Nakatomi towers, where we meet John’s other half for this film (both literally and metaphorically).
There’s a party going on, a CEO making a speech from the balcony. This takes up the foreground, but it isn’t what we notice. What we notice is Holly, who is the only person moving and continuing to work while the rest of the office stops to listen. This is only a few seconds, but it tells us a lot: 1) she’s important enough to keep working while the boss talks, without fear of censure; 2) she’s invested enough in her job that she’s willing to work while everyone else is celebrating Christmas.
The scene progresses: Holly’s propositioned by Harry Ellis (played by the inimitable Hart Bochner) and fends him off with images off Christmas: eggnog, chestnuts, Rudolf and Frosty. She may be a woman invested in her job, but family remains important to her. Christmas remains important to her. Any fear we have that she gets lost in her job is eradicated when she sends her pregnant assistant out to join the party – Holly may be invested in what she does, but she’s not demanding everyone work with her. She’s a good boss, a good person, a good mother. We like her.
She calls her family, talks to her kids. Asks the nanny if John McClane has called (he hasn’t), and suggests that the spare bed gets made up in case John comes to stay for the weekend. It’s a nice gesture, an overture to the story the film is really telling, but we get a clue that all is not right in the world when she turns the family photograph on her desk face down. She may be willing to let John visit, but all is not well in their world. Shit has gone down, although we don’t yet know what.
With that, we hit the five minute mark, and our set-up is done. We know who these characters are now, we’ve got a hint of the stakes they’re fighting for. We don’t yet know what conflict is going to crash into their lives and change them forever, but we know that it’s coming.
MOVEMENT TWO: SETTING UP THE CONFLICT
PART ONE: ARGYLE (Time Code: 5:00 to 8:30)
Having established our main characters, Die Hard lights a slow-burning fuse that will eventually push these two to breaking point (and, were it not for the timely intervention of some faux-terrorists, probably push them apart forever; this, too, is important, ’cause it means the “terrorists” are a necessary part of changing these two forever rather than a throw-away plot element).
We cut back to the airport. John is following a line of people away from the baggage claim, but in one of those tiny moments that you barely notice, he’s the only person looking around and trying to get his bearings. Everyone else is powering forward, straight ahead, going where they’re going. John McClane is the only person here feeling a little lost.
He notices a young couple greeting one another, the young lady leaping into her paramours arms. “California,” John says, like it’s the state’s fault, when really he’s just covering the thing that’s really bothering him – there’s no Holly here to meet him. He’s on his own. For the rest of the first act, “fucking California,” become’s John’s code for “I hate this place/job/person that has taken away my wife.”
Then Argyle appears, a limo driver among a row of drivers, holding a sign with John’s name on it and the Nakatomi logo.
This, too, is a smart moment in the movie. Argyle is new to his job – John’s his first customer – and he’s nervous as hell about things. He doesn’t know how to act yet, unlike the stoic limo drivers picking up people who aren’t the protagonist of this film. “It’s my first time driving a limo,” he says.
“It’s my first time riding in one,” John says, and they two men strike a kind of affinity for one another.
A stoic limo driver would have been a disaster in this sequence, a false note. We’re going to learn that John really doesn’t like his wife’s job or her company, and a stoic driver would have been a symbol of the faceless corporation that took her away from him. Quiet authority, unwilling to engage. Argyle, nervous and unsure, isn’t a threat to John or his masculinity, so they bond.
All of this takes less than a minute, by which times we’re in the limo and we get another glimpse into who John McClane is: he’s seated in the front seat, putting himself on equal footing with Argyle. Two ordinary guys, unassuming and uncomfortable with wealth. Even as Argyle tries to sell John on the limo, talking up it’s features, John is unwilling to engage. He yawns. Ignores the spiel.
Because they’ve bonded, Argyle gets to asks a whole bunch of questions that the audience is eager to know about John and Holly’s relationship, and because they’ve bonded, John gives honest, albeit reluctant, answers: they’re married; Holly moved out West for work six months ago; he stayed in New York; they’re officially separated. Why aren’t things working out?
“She had a good job that turned into a great career.” John didn’t come along because he’s a New York cop with a six month backlog of New York scum bags he’s still trying to put behind bars. He can’t just pull up stakes and leave.
And because Argyle is the comic relief character, the court jester of this film, he gets to speak truth to power: “In other words, you thought she wasn’t going to make it out here, and she’d come crawling back to you, so why bother to pack, right?”
Almost immediately afterwards, Argyle puts on a rap track (it is still 1988 here). “Don’t you have any Christmas music?” John asks, echoing Holly’s response to Ellis a few minutes earlier. For all their differences, Holly and John are still united in what they really want. Christmas. Family. Each other. If only they could work their shit out.
PART TWO: NAKATOMI TOWERS (Time Code: 8:31 to 13:30)
Having dumped a whole bunch of back-story on us in the preceding three minutes, the film starts really putting the screws into John. He walks into Nakatomi, heads over to the front desk. “I’m here to see Holly McClane,” he tells the guard on duty.
“Just type it in there,” the guard says, pointing to a computer. “Cute toy,” John says, and he searches for his wife’s name under M, doesn’t find it. Searches for her name under Gennaro. It’s totally there.Shit.
Sheer fucking brilliance packed into less than twenty seconds.
The key thing we’re meant to take away from this scene is that Holly is operating under her maiden name, a point that will stick in John’s craw and become a key point in the next phase of the movie. We could learn exactly the same thing by having a human guard check a ledger, which is how most movies at the time would handle it, but the computer does so much more. Consider the following:
- The fact that so much of this building is computer controlled is an important plot point, so establishing it early is important. The genius of Die Hard is how seamlessly it ties this sort of thing to other aspects of the narrative, setting something up while simultaneously distracting you with the emotional kick of the scene.
- It reinforces that John isn’t part of his wife’s world. She lives in a place where these computers are common, he isn’t impressed by them any more than he’s impressed by the limo. He’s a cowboy, a maverick, built to handle the frontier. Technology isn’t his thing. Hell, passenger jets aren’t his thing. He’s a simple man, all about the face-to-face. A throwback to an earlier time.
- It means the security guard gets to be sympathetic in the few moments he’s got on screen, empathising with John’s loathing of technology. Since we already like John, we feel for the man whose on his side, even if the guard is stuck working with the hated machine. Considering this nameless security guard isn’t long for this world, having him even mildly sympathetic means there’s something at stake when he gets shot a few minutes from now.
John heads upstairs. Notices the cameras, the observation, the omnipresent security. He doesn’t like it.
He likes it even less when he hits the party upstairs, plunging into the Christmas celebration Holly worked through earlier in the film. There’s violins, waiters serving cocktails, people in suits. Not John’s place at all, and he’s ignored by everyone.
Everyone except Holly’s boss, who spots John and welcomes him. A friend John doesn’t want, but is willing to accept in the face of the chaotic party. We learn that Takagi sent the limo, is a nice guy who speaks well of his careers.
We transition to Holly’s office, where John and Takagi run into Ellis snorting cocaine. It’s a key scene for John, since he needs to stamp down on his nature – he’s a New York cop, adverse to scum bags, and Hart Bochner is a master of inserting a little extra scum bag into every scene he’s in as Ellis. He’s arrogant, he’s drugged up, and he boasts about his achievements. He’s everything John dislikes about the corporation, everything John fears Holly will become, distilled into one character. John doesn’t like him. Neither do we, the viewers.
Once again, its important to note that the scene needs Takagi and Ellis. The former needs to come off as a nice guy, someone John can like, ’cause John both needs a means to connect to the office if he’s ever going to understand Holly’s job, and because Takagi is going to be die in the opening minutes of the second act and we need to like him for that death to have an impact. It’s the same trick they pulled with the computer a few minutes earlier, just writ a little larger.
Ellis needs to be a scum bag because we need the conflict – someone for John to but heads with. If John had met Takagi and liked him, its a step towards reconciling with Holly and her work. This would be great for the characters, but it’s not great for the plot. We’re in the first act. We want them ready to fight, ready to deny their true wants and desires in favour of the things that distract them.
This is where the film really starts to hit boiling point, since we’ve brought John right into the heart of Holly’s domain. She’s not there, not quite yet, but John’s been confronted by machines, ostentatious displays of wealth, a throw-away two-second scene where he’s kissed on the cheek by a guy who wishes him a Merry Christmas, and a scumbag like Ellis that John can’t arrest. People may say bad things about Bruce Willis’s acting chops, but he totally fucking nails it here. We have no doubt exactly how much John hates all this.
And then Holly appears, twelve minutes and fifty seconds into the film, still holding files and working through the party. She pauses, whispers John’s name; it’s the first thing that’s made her pause in the entire film. This is significant. John McClane is something important enough to stop her in her tracks, the woman who doesn’t stop for parties or bosses or anything else. You can see the hope that the two will reconcile right there, in that moment, but everything goes wrong. Her boss says something, bringing her work up when they least want it. She crosses the room and greets John, kisses him on the cheek. It’s awkward, but not impossible to imagine that things will get better.
Then Ellis is there, just to fuck things up for everyone. “Show him the watch,” he says, alerting both John and the audience to the object that will stand in for Holly’s core narrative choice in this film. “It’s a Rolex.”
That does the trick. John’s first instinct when faced with his wife’s success is retreat, and he lapses back into that now. “I’m sure I’ll see it later,” he says. “Is there a place I can wash up?”
The man is out of there, fast as he can be, ’cause he isn’t willing to face the choice between his ring or his gun yet.
MOVEMENT THREE: FAILURE TO ENGAGE
THE BATHROOM SCENE (Time Code: 13:31 to 16:17)
So I first got interested in writing this series when I was talking about narrative structure to a friend of mine, and mentioned that the primary role of the protagonist is to run the hell away from the plot for the majority of the first act. This is the core of what makes a protagonist interesting – that they sense the great chances coming their way and avoid going through it.
Audiences are sadists. We much prefer seeing our heroes reluctant and in pain.
“What about Die Hard?” my friend said. “When does John run away?”
I didn’t have an answer for her, not at that moment, so I sat down and started blocking out the movie scene by scene. And when I was done, I adored the movie even more than I did when I started.
This process starts thirteen minutes and thirty seconds into the film. There’s a few seconds where we see the exterior of the building and the terrorists showing up.
And then we cut the bathroom. McClane is washing up, Holly is right there. They talk about how good it is to see each other. Holly asks where he’s staying. “Things happened so fast,” she says. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you on the phone.”
McClane tells her about a former captain – a tie to his job. He’s retired out here, offered John a place to stay.
“He lives in the middle of nowhere,” Holly says. “Why don’t you stay with me?”
The eventually build up to the point where she asks him to stay in her spare room and see the kids’ they both agree it’d be nice. It’s a feel-good moment for the audience, a hint that perhaps Ellis hasn’t ruined everything. There is still common ground these two people can find.
And then a random couple burst into the room from the Christmas party, break the mood, and exit again.
And immediately afterwards Holly says “I missed you,” and McClane responds with “I guess you didn’t miss my name, though, huh? Except when you were signing cheques.” Even the body language changes here: hands in his pockets, belligerent, not at all interested in reconciling if it means giving in and admitting she may be his equal.
And the argument begins. Another interruption – this time by Holly’s pregnant assistant, calls Holly back to the part where she has to be an important member of the Nakatomi team (if this post wasn’t three thousand words long already, I’d spend some time theorizing on the importance of having a pregnant woman make this announcement, but my inner lit-theorist is probably showing badly enough for one post).
Holly excuses herself, goes out to work. John beats himself up for being an idiot.
And with that, we’ve set up characters and primed them for the story to come. They aren’t ready to change yet, not without a catalyst that sets things off, but fortunately that’s about to start.
MOVEMENT FOUR: MENTOR FIGURES
MENTOR FIGURE ONE: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED IS A WHOLE BUNCH OF TERRORISTS (Time Code: 16:18 to 20:10)
In romantic comedies the mentor figure – the person who exists to guide the protagonist through the confusing world they find themselves in – is usually a best friend figure. In epic fantasies, it’s usually a literal mentor, with a white beard and wizard robes.
In Die Hard, our mentor is a squad of terrorists who invade Nakatomi towers and kill the security guards on the ground floor, taking over their role.
They get a nice, long introduction here, a necessary extravagance given that they haven’t really had a presence in the film thus far, and their competence is immediately apparent. They do their job fast. One character makes jokes as they kill. They’re not sweating a damn thing as they go through the motions. These guys may be scum, but they’re scum that have their shit together.
The we see the kind of our mentors: Hans. Walking at the forefront of the armed “terrorists” as they ease their way into the film and lock the place down.
Holly and John aren’t in this scene, but there’s no doubt that it changes things. This story, which has been all about two people who can’t live together anymore, is about to veer off in a very different direction. And because the film has primed us for this moment, through its title (Die Hard) and the trailer focusing on explosions and the poster advertising 40 stories of terror, our interest kicks up a notch.
Think this is insignificant? It’s not. Our expectations for how a plot works are set from the moment we engage with these things, and keep developing throughout the first act. If you’d titled Die Hard something like The California Reconciliation, the arrival of the terrorists would feel jarring.
Despite what your mother told you, we do read books by their cover. It’s why there are all sorts of conventions that separate fantasy covers from romance covers from thriller covers from literary covers, to prime the reader for the kind of novel they’re about to read. Films do the same thing. Covers matter. Trailers matter. Titles matter.
And once you know this, and start paying attention to it, you can play with the expectations these things generate. Which is why Die Hard can get away with leaving its “terrorist” take over of the tower as something of a secondary plot, ’cause we’ve been waiting for this moment since the first time we saw the movie poster.
MENTOR FIGURE TWO: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS STRIP OFF YOUR SHOES AND SOCKS (Time Code: 20:11 to approximately 23:00)
Of course, terrorists alone aren’t going to cut it in terms of pushing the film forward. John McClane can learn a lot by liberating machine guns and explosives off people, but he isn’t meant to be indestructible. We need him vulnerable in every way we can imagine, so we cut to a shot of him seated in the bathroom, barefoot and creating fists with his toes on the rug.
And once again a make a little squeal of excitement as I realise exactly how smart this film is. Not just because they’ve made our protagonist barefoot, which will prove to be the ultimate sign of vulnerability as the film goes on, a thing that separates McClane from both his enemies and the legion of army-boot wearing heroes that dominated the eighties.
Everyone notices that. The film goes out of its way to highlight the physical vulnerability being barefoot represents.
What’s far more significant is this: John McClane, the man who loathes his wife’s job and the limo, the man who took smug satisfaction in the nerves of the businessman who sat next to him on the flight over when said businessmen saw John’s gun…
…that guy has taken the businessman’s advice, and realises that it seems to work. He’s found a moment where he can connect with the business world his wife exists in, even if it’s in a small and seemingly insignificant way.
The moment immediately leads to John flipping open his wallet to get Argyle’s card, letting the limo driver know that he may end up staying with Holly. It’s a chance for us to see how much family means to John when we spot a photograph of his wife and kids in his wallet.
And because he’s on the phone, John gets some advanced warning that something’s gone horribly wrong when the siege begins and Hans’ crew cuts the phone lines with a chainsaw.
John’s going to pay and pay hard for taking that businessmen’s advice from the opening minutes of the film.
But it’s also going to save his life, in more ways than one.
We get a shot of Hans and his boys walking into the party, machines guns at the ready. John is puzzling over the phone as the first shorts are fired. There’s an attack going on, Holly’s caught in the middle of it. John escapes to the upper levels, barefoot and barely armed, courtesy of his advanced warning.
The film is off to the races, and our first act is done. We have hit the event that breaks the protagonist out of their I don’t wanna engage with this fugue and forced them to engage with their internal conflict. Thus we hit the all-important:
END OF ACT ONE
God fucking damn I love this film.
At this point you’ve stuck with me for about four thousand words of explanatory stuff about the first act (and trust me, I’ve been relatively restrained here), so I’m going to cut things short. Next week’s post will probably be towards the end of the week instead of Tuesday, as I’m heading to the RWA conference in Perth this weekend.
When it does get posted, we’ll be looking at the first half of the second act, where a lot of the meat of the story happens. See you all then.