Every young filmmaker has at least one favorite film they want to try to capture in their own work, but watching Len Wiseman’s work on Underworld or its sequel Underworld: Evolution wouldn’t make you think that he was a big fan of Bruce Willis’ quintessential action hero John McClane of the “Die Hard” movies. Apparently, the first movie was a huge influence on the 34year-old director that when he got the call to helm the fourth installment Live Free or Die Hard, it really was a dream come true.
Although we can’t post a review just yet, Wiseman did a damn good job of it, too, bringing McClane into the present day with a story involving cyber-terrorists trying to send the United States back to the Stone Age by taking advantage of flaws in the country’s security systems, putting McClane into some of the most precarious situations of his career.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to speak with Wiseman at the Fox offices in New York, overlooking the mad throng of diehard fans lining up for the movie’s premiere at Radio City Music Hall later that night.
(As a special bonus, we’ve included a very funny audio interview with Justin Long talking about how he got the part in the movie and getting to hang with Bruce and his pals one night. You can listen to that here — you may have to right-click and download.)
ComingSoon.net: What’s it like to get the call to be the person reviving the “Die Hard” franchise after 12 years?
Len Wiseman: I was completely excited when I first heard about it, because I’m such a geek fan about the franchise, especially the first one, which was such a groundbreaking movie as well as an important movie for me. I was in high school at the time, and it was one that I watched over and over and over, and it became kind of a benchmark and one of the films that got me even more interested in directing in the first place. When I got this callit was less of a call and more that Fox sent me a FedEx and said, “We’ve got a script that we want you to take a look at.” It was all top secret, didn’t tell me what it was, and I showed up at the office and saw that it was “Die Hard.” It was strange, but first reaction was just the 15-year-old reaction of it that was pure excitement, and then all the pressure and stress and reality came in very shortly after that.
CS: I heard that you did much more than just watch it, but actually shot your own version in your backyard.
Wiseman: Oh, God, yeah. You know, I’m slightly regretting now that I revealed that to Bruce. About halfway through the shoot, I forgot what happened on set and I revealed to him that I had shot my own “Die Hard” movie when I was in high school. Pathetic, trying to get my friends to do McClane and everything [Maggie Q would later reveal that it was Len trying to be McClane himself!] but yeah, we shot a movie in the backyard. Knowing that I wanted to direct since I was in junior high school, so by that time, I thought I was experienced enough to tackle a “Die Hard” film. At the time, my father actually builthe was an engineer, fixer-up, mechanic typeand he had built like the squib hits [used to depict being shot in the movies]. He had hooked up to a car battery some cables that went to a firecracker with an igniter that we put in with the blood packs and strapped it up, and he put a switcher to it, so I had my first squib machine that was high-end for us at the time. So “Die Hard: Backyard Version” had the first bullet squibs of my career.
CS: Will we be seeing this on the DVD?
Wiseman: No chance in hell.
CS: Bruce has been telling everyone that we would.
Wiseman: Bruce, he’s trying to twist my arm to put it on the DVD, and I would be highly embarrassed and horrified. I think my mother would be proud and that’s about it. I would show it some friends oh, who knows? I don’t even know where the copy is. I’m sure my mother would find it in a heartbeat and put it out there.
CS: When scripts get sent to you, do you wonder what about your past work made them think of you?
Wiseman: I gotta say this one, I was surprised and thrilled at the same time, because the only movies I’d done so far had been the “Underworld” films. It’s such a different kind of movie, so I was glad that somebody was able to take the leap and see that I might possibly be interested in other types of films, which I absolutely am. It just happened that “Underworld” has a certain feel. I wanted that to feel like a comic book and exist in a fantasy world, to just buy those kinds of characters in a world, but it’s not the sum of my interests or I feel my ability as a director. I found out very quickly that it’s a hard thing to overcome with just a couple films out there. You’re immediately typecast to “that’s the kind of film that guy does.” It was great. I actually sat down with Bruce, and I’d asked him kind of the same question, and he said that he watched “Underworld” and though it’s a completely different kind of film, he could see that there’s a vision behind it, that somebody was absolutely steering the ship, that it never deviated from its own world, that it stayed within that world. And that’s all he’s looking for. He just wants somebody that he knows is steering the ship, that’s in control, that knows what he wants, so I figured those are the kinds of guys I want to work with.
CS: So there’s a “Die Hard” world in a way, too, isn’t it?
Wiseman: Oh, for sure it is. A lot of movies like this, you have to create some kind of world and then everything fits within that, whether it’s the tone, the rules, the vibe, everything. Like I said, I’m a huge fan, especially of the original film, and I had a script, the first script that I read, it was a much broader scale, but I wanted to try and bring in elements and tones, feelings, of what I liked about “Die Hard 1.” Just the claustrophobic, sort of contained nature of the action, so I tried to design enough sequences in this film that felt still contained and claustrophobic, even though I knew that the threat was nationwide on such a bigger scale, but I didn’t want to lose that claustrophobic energy that I always loved about the first one.
CS: Speaking of the world of “Die Hard,” I remember after 9/11 happened, everyone was really worried about having movies like that, because it was like something out of a “Die Hard” movie, and there was a period where it didn’t seem like Bruce would do another one. For this one, you incorporated some of those post-9/11 fears from the real world into the movie and played up on them. Can you talk about how far you wanted to go with that?
Wiseman: Yeah, we were careful not to not disrespect everything that’s happened, but at the same time, I do consider that it’s so much of the franchise itself is always this juggle of “Is it really terrorists or is there another hidden agenda behind it?” It’s a “Die Hard” film. It may sound horrible of me, but there was no political message I was really trying to get across. It’s much more that I was making a “Die Hard” movie that I felt was true to the franchise and felt in tone with those. We don’t really capitalize on it in a way that’s any different I feel then just what kind of fits with the franchise itself.
CS: True, but in that sense, it could have been dated since the other movies were pre-9/11, but it felt like you were bringing McClane into today’s world. The statement was meant as a compliment that you were able to pull it off.
Wiseman: Oh, I thought you meant if that was something we wanted to do because of saying, “We’re going to be the film that actually tackles the issue once and for all” because there was a lot of talk of it and honestly, it feels like a true “Die Hard” threat and there’s deceit, and a bit of “look over here while we’re doing this over here” so that kind of all fit in for us. I think because I’ve been asked the question so many times of like “So why did you do a movie that even mentions terrorism?”
CS: “Die Hard” is very much set in the real world with real places and objects like cars, so when coming up with the action sequences, do you put a limit on your imagination to avoid using CG or do you come up with them and figure out how to do them later?
Wiseman: No, I think how I’m going to do it as I develop it. I can’t do it the other way. I like to try to pull off everything in camera as much as I possibly can. It’s just my personal taste. I do like the practical stunts much more, especially since with this franchise, if it was too heavy CGI visual effects, to me it wouldn’t feel the same as what this franchise is. I think it feels like it’s a down and dirty, real stunts, real cars, real stuff going on. I exhaust my production team, because I approach everything even the jet sequence at the end has much more CG than some of my other films, but that said, a lot of the jet sequence itself is a half-scale miniature that’s comped into plates with the truck that I’d shot and a jet that’s half the size of this room that we shot on green screen. It’s still a bit of an old-school style compared to going full CG, but believe me, there was a time when I exhausted everything else. I had these drawings of a full scale jet that we did build and putting it on a flatbed truck, on a gimble, driving it through the streets of L.A. so it can bank and go back and forth and chase down the truck and the missiles and the whole bit, and then I’d just paint out the truck and erase the flatbed. We went that route for a long time, and it was just going to be impossible getting the permits. Shutting down the freeway was impossible as it was, and it became a nightmare. I’ve always said, and I don’t necessarily knock CG, I just love the experience and I think it does make a different to audiences if they’re watching even if it’s a really cool visual effect or really great CG. At best, you can go “Wow, that’s an awesome effect” but still it’s an effect, then just going “Oh my God!” because you really feel like it’s happening. There’s that and then there’s the control issue of I guess every director, that “If it’s real I’m doing it and if it doesn’t go right, then I do it again. If the model doesn’t look right, I change the lens, I put more smoke in” and I can get away on the day of thinking “Okay, I somehow made it look real” whereas a visual effect or CG specifically, you wait way down the road, and you hand it over to another company. Some of the biggest “Wow” moments in your movie, you hand to someone else and say, “Good luck” and they come back to you, always way too late, always past the deadline, and then you get to make your notes and do whatever you do, but I can’t go into a CGI shot and tweak all the equipment and flags and lights and elements, and I just feel like it separates me too much from what I’d like to.
CS: How many takes did you get on projectile-launching a car through a helicopter?
Wiseman: One. That was one take. It was a hell of a lot of practice out on a parking lot, and we had hungwe didn’t hang a helicopter, we hung a station wagonand just launched a bunch of different cars we had gotten, and the first test that they would show meI can imagine what they didn’t show methis thing hanging, and (diagrams a car whizzing through the air and missing its target) and then that car’s wasted, and then you get another one. So we had to line it up perfectly to hit, and I also didn’t want the back-end to hit. I wanted to slice through as much as possible, and to create a bit of a train wreck and not just it hits and explodes right away. I want to see it crunch and have pieces fall, so we scored the helicopter so that the tail-end and everything would fall apart when it got hit. But it was only one take.
CS: How exciting is that day when you know you’re going to blow up a helicopter?
Wiseman: It’s great. It’s funny. We all kind of sit around and after it happens, you think, “Why is blowing up sh*t really fun?” It just is. Everybody gets riled up and excited and then when it comes out really well, it’s just fun, because there’s so much other stuff that’s not fun to put a film together, so those moments are pretty cool.
CS: When you’re watching a movie expecting audiences to suspend disbelief, how much are you able to suspend disbelief yourself?
Wiseman: No, I don’t. This is a “Die Hard” so it’s been 12 years, so when I first saw “Die Hard 1”, it’s kind of our biggest action franchise, and action often has to just get you to the edge and not jump all the way over. When I saw “Die Hard 1” back in its time.. in fact, when I was talking to the guys about the movie and what level of action and how over the top it should be, I said there was this movie where he takes a hose and wraps it around his waist and he jumps off of a building as the building lights up and explodes and he swings through a plate glass window, lands on a carpet and gets slid back. At that time, “Die Hard 1” was really over the top in terms of when we see “Lethal Weapon” vs. “Die Hard.” And for me, the limit I put on it as well was that I’m okay with watching something that’s really kind of over-the-top and exciting if the character pays the prices for what he’s done. I made a point of doing that. I think that John McClane is somebody that he’s the most jacked-up hero that we have. Towards the end, he’s just bloody, dirty, beat-up and if he were to jump off of a train or a truck or whatever, hits the ground, rolls, dusts himself off and keeps running, then he’s Neo (from “The Matrix”). Whereas McClane hits the ground, gets busted up and cut up and sits there bitching and screaming and throwing sh*t around and then he’ll get up and keep going. And that’s fine.
CS: How do you top something like this? Do you go back and do the “Underworld” prequel you’ve been talking about or do you do something new and you’re like Michael Bay where every movie has to be bigger than the last?
Wiseman: I don’t think everything has to be bigger and bigger and all that. I would actually love to do there’s so many types of films that I wanna do, so yeah, it depends on what it is. If it’s like some great dramatic thriller piece, then of course not, but it all depends on the project. (You can read what Len said about possibly directing “Wolverine” here.)
Live Free or Die Hard opens nationwide on Wednesday.