On the occasion of the rebroadcast of Die Hard 3 (A Day in Hell), this evening on W9, we are republishing an interview with its director, John McTiernan, met in 2014.
The cohorts of fanboys sporting t-shirts “Nakatomi Corporation” had migrated to the English Channel to listen to his war memories, in Hollywood and behind bars in Yankton. But McT did not hear it exactly that way: with the exception of a masterclass where he condescended to discuss his method in depth, the filmmaker hammered home his grievances against the powerful, with an insistence sometimes bordering on conspiratorial paranoia. No sooner do we find him, at the bar of the Villa Cartier, than he sets foot in the haunting dish of the American elites and the corporate plot (already his obsession since the end of the 2000s, well before his incarceration). He is the one who asks the questions: does his voice carry? Is the world waking up? Seemingly serene (or at least appeased), McT still seems to be boiling with a legitimate anger, but which somewhat eclipses the reason for our meeting: his cinema. To avoid this interview resembling that of Michael Moore, we have tried to approach the militant field through his own universe, populated by heroes in his image: worn out, diminished and fighting against the system.
John McTiernan: Were you at the tribute party yesterday?
First: No, sorry; too much work…
We told you about it? How do people react?
They are surprised to see you so angry with your country.
Nobody realizes what is happening. Largely because the press has changed a lot. The only magazines doing well today are those supported by the right. That’s enough to stifle a lot of discussion topics.
But the French press is on your side, you know that…
You see, your country has had revolutions. England too, even if they failed. In the United States, the only revolution that ever took place was only a war of independence. It was not an uprising against the English aristocracy. Except in the north, where the rulers had understood and accepted French ideas.
What if we talked about all this through your cinema? Your ideas may have been in your films since your debut…
Implicitly, yes. But not forever. Everything changed in 2001, after the attacks in New York. The war began, the right took over the system, and used the press to achieve its ends. That’s why I shot my documentary, The Political Prosecutions of Karl Roveabout the persecution of Democratic members of Congress between 2000 and 2008.
But before that, your films were already very anar… De predator to your two diehard, it is always about fighting a savage fight, outside the official battlefield. The cops and the military end up fighting in civilian clothes, detached from their unit.
Yeah, I’ve always loved making fun of the police. I don’t like the police, I never liked them, and I like making films about them even less. Yet she has become something of a product of American culture… You know the show cops ? I don’t know if, in Europe, you are oppressed in the same way by fiction. Cops characters are everywhere. Does that mean there isn’t a single civilian in America whose story is worth telling?
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So we can see crystal trap like a satire on the police, in a way? The police trying to free the Nakatomi tower are real jerks…
crystal trap is more of a comedy than a satire. Structurally, it’s a Shakespearean comedy, based on a string of absurd and catastrophic twists. It’s not a farce, strictly speaking, but rather an implicit and light comedy. The model, if you will, would be this play by Shakespeare, the one with these two fellows in Padua… The Taming of the Shrew ! crystal trap is a version of The Taming of the Shrew or even from Dream of a summer night that would happen in a skyscraper.
Is John McClane an anarchist?
Yes. Wait… No. He’s not an anarchist, he believes in a fairer world. But he is a pure proletarian. He has no respect for the hierarchy, he has no respect for the upper classes. He constantly thumbs his nose at them.
You talk about the film as a comedy, but there are also real moments of intensity…
Sure. Michael Kamen’s soundtrack is designed to play on several variations: comic, tragic… But most of the time, if you listen to his music, you realize that he maintains an ironic distance from the action. He sometimes tells you: “OK, we’re in an epic, it’s dramatic…” Then he immediately tells you: “But look, it’s a great show, it’s just bullshit!” He constantly passes from one look to another. Michael was a very funny guy, he carried that irony in him. And he smoked tons of weed. Maybe it was the weed that won out, but it definitely helped him with the music! (laughs)
The diehard don’t really have a main theme, by the way.
No, because the idea is not to glorify an action hero. That’s what I was telling you about John McClane: he’s not a national hero. The soundtrack does not settle on a single redundant theme, it adapts to the space, and to the tone of the story.
It’s funny, the models of crystal trap seem to be on the side of straw dogs or of rolling thunder rather than Shakespeare…
No idea. It’s your assessment… And you’re probably right. But if that’s the case, it’s unconscious: I never remember the films. I still remember that I went to see straw dogs, which I didn’t like. But I wouldn’t be able to quote footage from all of these movies, although I’ve probably seen them all. I don’t take those kinds of references. There was an old French actress at dinner last night: I don’t know how I managed, but I managed to remember that she was in a film with Paul Newman… It’s already extraordinary for me.
And no contemporary film has marked you? Interested in what happened to the action blockbuster?
Today, action movies all come from comics. These are projects that executive producers can buy with their eyes closed, and very easy to market. The other reason is political: the stories take place in a fairy tale world. Their universes vaguely resemble ours, but in reality, they have no connection with the contemporary world. This is reassuring for decision makers.
And Avatar, for example?
I loved Avatar. It’s fabulous, absolutely fabulous. The best movie I’ve seen in the last twenty years.
Let me guess: you were seduced by the dissenting subtext…
Exactly. Even though the film is set in the future, it is far more realistic than other blockbusters. It is a projection of my country’s problems, of its way of waging war. Corn Iron Man is not a hero of our world, for example. These superhero movies are entertaining, but I don’t see what they mean to audiences. I do not see where their political impact would be.
Is that why space is so important to you? The battlefield is always concrete, as if you were trying to anchor it in a raw reality…
Yes. Even in an adventure film, the battlefield is a theater stage where a drama is being played out. You have to rely on the classic rules, and bring this scene to life. the jungle of predator was designed by a Hollywood studio, but using local labor and sets. The big tree that we see towards the end was made with concrete, but they made it so natural, vegetal… A concrete tree, can you imagine?
You feel a certain sense of paternity when you go to see the saga Expendables ?
No. The problem of the people who produce these films is that they only see it as good windfall. But they don’t really know the cinema they are referring to.
In a way, you had already given in this “meta-review” of the blockbuster character with Last Action Hero… which was very cinephile, for once.
Yes. You know, there are scenes in Last Action Hero that I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot. In particular one, in New York: the city had to be harsher, colder, and the characters had to almost drown in the pouring rain. Well, I was able to get that atmosphere, up to a point. But I would still have liked to film more of the real world in which the hero finds himself. And make the real city even more hostile and cruel towards the action heroes…
Why is that ?
In this way, I would have taken my speech even further. I would have marked even more clearly the border between cinema and the real world. There’s another scene that I didn’t shoot, but it was a choice: at a certain point, the little boy had to get out of a situation by pulling out a gun, and pointing it at everyone. This scene posed a personal problem for me, of a political and moral order. So, I negotiated: he finally points the gun at Death, and at fantastic creatures. But there was no way he would end up on the streets of New York, shooting real people. For me, that was the wrong message.
However, in A Day in Hell, McClane drives a taxi in the middle of Central Park as if trying to knock down passers-by…
It’s different. He still tries to avoid them, and it’s for a good cause. Pulling out a revolver to solve the slightest problem is not the same thing.
Everything you say confirms that your cinema has always been political, ultimately…
All forms of art are political. The author’s beliefs are always hidden somewhere. With my work in Hollywood, I didn’t go completely to the end of my political discourse. Finally, I expressed a point of view in my own way, and I hope that people see it. But it is certain that all my films defend the ideal of meritocracy. The righteous prevail, and the characters reap the rewards of their own deeds. A day in hell, above all, carried this message. That’s why Sam and Bruce suffer so much: if I used such wide angles, if I shot such long takes, if I edited such long shots, it was because I wanted them to drooling, they go through these pathetic situations to solve the puzzle. They had to look lost in the middle of an incredibly polished and organized system: that of the bad guys.
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See also: The secret history of Die Hard episodes 1, 2, 3 and 4
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