The Extreme Sport of Being John McTiernan

The director of the original Die Hard and the new Rollerball talks about why he chose to do another remake after The Thomas Crown Affair, how he ended up not doing Basic Instinct 2 and what he did to get the beach-bunny quality out of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.


So the airplane engine is on fire," recalls John McTiernan, "and the only way to put it out is to head straight down and hope that the flames go out before you hit the ground and that you have time to pull out. At 14,000 feet, you head down. You pull out of the dive at 2,500 feet. The plane's damaged now and it won't hold altitude, so you land on a two-lane highway, between tractor trailers." McTiernan, who directed the first and third Die Hard movies, isn't describing a stunt for Bruce Willis's character. He's talking about the price he paid for being a hands-on filmmaker who insisted on personally scouting his own locations. After the near-crash just recounted, McTiernan didn't return the faulty plane angrily to its owner and vow never to fly again. He went out and bought his own plane, which now sits nearby, ready to take him back to his Wyoming ranch. This is the plane McTiernan used to search down the ideal Caribbean house for Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo's sexiest scenes together in The Thomas Crown Affair. It also got him the perfect Canadian spots for his new film, Rollerball.

McTiernan's aerial adventures are an apt metaphor for his Hollywood career. The Die Hards, The Hunt for Red October and the earlier Predator marked him as a talented, gutsy high flier. With Medicine Man, The Last Action Hero and The 13th Warrior, he came close to drilling a hole in the earth with his propeller. In the last two years, McTiernan has taken off again at MGM, a studio which had trouble getting A-list directors until he got there and made The Thomas Crown Affair a hit.

McTiernan has a gruff manner that suits his less well-known profession--cattle rancher--better than his Hollywood gig. But the same toughness that makes him the rare director who can speak with authority about mad cow disease led him to take on the huge risk of Rollerball, his remake of the '70s movie that starred James Caan. With its cast of wannabe stars Chris Klein, LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, a visual style that partakes heavily of MTV and an updated plot that gives new meaning to the term "extreme sports," Rollerball enters the summer megapicture derby with McTiernan's hopes riding on it.

MICHAEL FLEMING: After having your engine burst into flames, why in the world would you continue to fly around scouting your own locations?

JOHN McTIERNAN: It's faster, more effective. Early in my career, I did a film that was supposed to be in the jungle. We had a hideous time, stuck in this piece of woods on the west coast of Mexico. Problem was, during the dry season in this area, the leaves turn yellow and fall off, just like in New Hampshire in the fall. The person who'd done the scouting insisted he checked all over Mexico and this was far and away the very best place. Only after I was in the middle of the movie, dealing with a forest that looked like a bald chicken, did I discover that the reason it was the only place that worked was because it was the only place where he happened to own several condos. He had people from the movie working on his house. I've just never trusted a location manager since.

Q: At the most basic level, what was it about Rollerball that made it interesting for you to do?

A: A lot of movies are radio plays with visual aids, the way television used to be. Rollerball is entirely visual, completely different from anything I've done before. We just got a count of the number of shots--it's nearly 9,000. Five to seven times what has ever been put into a movie before. Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange has about 470 shots.

Q: The Thomas Crown Affair and Rollerball are both remakes. What's the appeal from your point of view of doing a remake?

A: Films are market-driven now. Anything with Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe, that's a movie. Almost anything based on a 1960s television show, that's a movie. One of the other ways to make it easier to market a film is to remake a movie, because then it already has presence. The executives can look at it and feel they know what it's about. The marketing people can look at it and say, "I know what that is. I know how to sell that." That gives you a huge leg up. Also, doing remakes has given me the freedom to not have to get a $20 million actor in a movie. There are five $20 million actors that everyone in the entire industry is chasing. It's a pleasure not to have to queue up in that line. And the extraordinary power that those people have, plus the organizations they have around them, tend to turn their movies into advertisements for them. There will not be a funny line or a courageous moment anywhere, in any draft of the script, that doesn't wind up coming from the star's mouth.

Q: Has that happened in your films?

A: Sure, though I try to discourage it. And I've made a number of movies with guys who weren't megalomaniacs. You could say to them, "What are you trying to do, be all alone here?" And they might hear you.

Q: James Caan did the original Rollerball after The Godfather, when he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Chris Klein has starred only in a few goofy teen comedies. Is he the next Keanu Reeves?

A: He'll be pissed at me for two or three years if I say yes to that question. We used to tease him about that, we'd ask him what it was like to star in Speed--"Chris, did you jump from the bus yourself, or use a stuntman?" Or we'd tease him about his older brother, Keanu. We could always get his goat with that. He'd brood for two hours. Chris was perfect for Rollerball because he's an absolute, straightforward American boy, without an agenda or a cool bone in his whole body. He's as earnest as Jimmy Stewart, so that when he finally gets angry, you believe it.

Q: Looks like you gave Rebecca Romijn-Stamos more to do than she had in X-Men, where she played a blue villain who didn't speak.

A: They painted her up, and left her waiting nine hours a day for the chance to stand somewhere and say nothing. This movie changed her. I tried to kill the Southern California beach bunny in her. I gave her black hair and lots of makeup, and I scarred her face. She did this whole number on me--that I had this emotional block, I was afraid of a beautiful blonde woman and couldn't talk to her until I made her more accessible. But that smiley beach-bunny quality disappeared. I eventually found out that many times at the end of the workday, she left the scar on and went out with it to clubs in Montreal. She was fascinated by how people related to her differently. I know I got a better performance out of her because of it.

Q: Before doing The Thomas Crown Affair with you, Rene Russo had lots of thankless girl roles alongside male stars like Mel Gibson, John Travolta, Clint Eastwood. Why did you cast her?

A: Well, there are usually two levels of what an audience knows about a character--the specifics of the character, and the specifics of the actor. The Thomas Crown Affair was about this really tough cookie of a woman who falls in love. So I didn't want a tough cookie, I wanted a woman that the audience knew is deep down inside a doll. Then I wanted to put the tough-ass clothes on top of her. Most of the work went into helping Rene become that tough person.

Q: How did you toughen her up?

A: We concentrated on very tiny and yet very significant things. In dealing with men, Rene had little gestures of deference and of dispelling confrontation, like lowering her eyes. We had to go piece by piece, pick them out. I'd tell her, "So what if he doesn't like what you're going to say? So what if he yells at you? Why do you give a shit? Stare at him. If he has a problem, it's his, not yours." I also took her--well, sent her--to a madam who ran a whorehouse because that woman had 30 years of experience teaching women to be hard-nosed with men, to be someone who can't be embarrassed or made to blush.

Q: I was surprised Rene Russo agreed to appear nude. Was that part of dropping the shyness?

A: Sure. It scared the hell out of her. I did it in places where they weren't having sex, which is the part I liked about it--the conceit of having a woman play a scene in a whodunit where they're talking about the plot and she's standing there topless and she doesn't care.

Q: Rene Russo matched up well with Pierce Brosnan. Did you test them together?

A: No. I knew. And the two of them trusted me. And the studio trusted me. They had wanted several flavors of the month for the girl. But this man is supposed to be 40-something years old with $100 million, and he's supposed to, for the first time, let his guard down for some girl who's 19? I said, "What are we doing, Sabrina?. Can we get a woman who's near his age?" They trusted me. Funny, I just went through a similar experience with Sharon Stone and Benjamin Bratt, and in the end, she wouldn't trust me.

Q: You're referring to the casting of Basic Instinct 2, which at one point you were going to direct, right? You wanted Bratt opposite Sharon Stone, but she wouldn't approve him--what did you see in him that she didn't?

A: I think he's going to be a movie star. He's got a thing right now where he's ingratiating, always playing smiling boys. Once he stops that, he's going to be a real tough cookie on film. He's a very good actor. He's six feet four inches tall, and great looking. He was fabulous in Traffic, spooky as hell. For a little bit he dared to stop being ingratiating, just stood there and occupied the space. He had the physical presence.

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