With the two successful Underworld films under his belt, director Len Wiseman was ready to talk turkey about his next project. Sitting down with some executives from Fox, he says, he was open to all sorts of suggestions. Save one.
"I couldn't see myself doing a straightforward action cop film," Wiseman, 34, says over the phone from his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. "That's not really something I'm in to."
What he was in to, or at least what he was known for, were Underworld (2003) and Underworld: Evolution (2006), two ultra-stylish modern Gothic horror films starring a leather-clad Kate Beckinsale (who Wiseman would marry in 2004) as a vampire warrior in a deadly struggle with a race of werewolves. The films did well at the box office - totaling just over $114 million in the U.S. - and attracted a devoted following, but Wiseman wanted to try something different.
After some discussion, everyone went their separate ways, with nothing decided. A bit sheepishly, the Fox executives later made a proposal. Any chance Wiseman would like to direct the fourth Die Hard film?
"When they sent [the script] to me later, they said, 'Now we know you said that ... '" Wiseman recalls. "And I said, 'Guys, yeah, I did say that. But there's a difference between any action cop film and Die Hard.'"
Wiseman laughs now, but at the time, he was practically starstruck. "It's like somebody saying, 'We have a movie that's in the vein of Indiana Jones.' That I'm not too interested in. But if it's actually Indiana Jones itself, then I'm interested, I'm willing to listen."
Listen he did, although briefly. And then he signed on. For what the folks at Fox didn't know was that Wiseman had been a diehard Die Hard fan since his teens. The first film he ever made, as a young kid growing up near San Francisco, was a knockoff of the first Die Hard film. He got his friends to act in it but cast himself as John McClane, the reluctant but resourceful hero played by Bruce Willis.
"It was as pathetic as it could possibly be," Wiseman says of his performance. But it was a start. Here he was, nearly 20 years later, being entrusted with the franchise's future.
Was he nervous?
"Of course," Wiseman says. "It's a huge franchise, and the first film was such a classic to so many people. But, you've got only one life. It was like, 'What am I in this industry for, anyway, if not to try to have some fun and just be part of a franchise that was so important to me growing up?' I thought, 'I can't pass that up. It's Die Hard. How many times does an opportunity like that come along?'"
Or, to put it another way, Wiseman says, "The kid in me outweighed the rational adult."
Of course, it didn't hurt that Wiseman had Willis in his corner. Or, more precisely, Willis' daughters.
"[Willis] told me, 'They sat me down and had me watch the second Underworld at, like, 2 o'clock in the morning,'" Wiseman says. "And, he said, 'As different a movie as it was, I could tell there was a really strong vision in the film. ... That's all I was looking for. I just want a director I know has a vision of something, a guy who can steer the ship.'"
Die Hard fans were outraged at first, at a loss to understand what Wiseman could bring to the film. "I remember reading these articles early on," the director says, "that were saying, 'Oh, my God, they've hired Wiseman! What are they going to do, put Bruce Willis in black leather?'"
That attitude exasperated Wiseman, who, early in his career, had been warned about the perils of such directorial typecasting. While getting his start in filmmaking, working with props and in the art department on such films as Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), he saw how success in one genre works against efforts to branch out.
"I'd always heard, from the actors and directors, how you get so typecast," Wiseman says. "I knew it as a term, and now, all of a sudden, I start directing, and you don't realize how strong it is."
Turns out, the franchise was in capable hands. The only leather in Live Free or Die Hard is the grizzled look on Willis' face. There are plenty of explosions, lots of chances for McClane to do the hero thing, plenty of bad guys for him to go up against.
Among the fans of the finished product was Willis himself, who told the British film magazine Empire, "I told Len early on that I was the keeper of the keys to this film, and he wanted that. There wasn't anyone on the set that worked on all four films, so he came to me a lot of times and said, 'What do you think?' It was a great collaboration."
Wiseman also proved a conscientious protector of the McClane character - more so, he says, than his film's original screenwriters. While he appreciated their idea for Live Free or Die Hard's central conflict, with McClane as an old-school cop taking on a vengeful computer hacker bent on bringing the United States to its knees by seizing control of the nation's infrastructure, he wasn't big on how they tinkered with the character himself.
The key to McClane's appeal, Wiseman believes, is his status as a reluctant hero, forced to take on missions he would rather avoid. The original script, he says, didn't get that.
"In fact, there was a line in the script where he goes into the police department and is finding out about what the situation is. He goes to the cops and says, 'What can I do to help?' I thought, 'That's not the John McClane I know.'
"He is a hero, he's one of our biggest action heroes around," Wiseman says. "But he's a hero who, in the end, he's never a volunteer, he's always a victim."
Wiseman won that difference of opinion. His John McClane doesn't volunteer for anything.
"People like the fact that he kind of whines and moans," Wiseman says. "You can put yourself out there and go, 'Man, I'd hate to be in that situation.'"