The Extreme Sport of Being John McTiernan
Q: What did you like about Basic Instinct as a project?
A: I had a notion to have it rewritten so the character was a young Spanish American or Cuban American. I wanted him seduced not by just the woman but by wealth and luxury he'd never before been exposed to. I was going to make him much younger than in the script. I left him as a psychiatrist, but not sitting in some office with a couch and a notepad. I wanted him working 100-hour shifts as a resident in a city hospital, dealing with drugs and all the things that happen to people who show up in an emergency room at 3 o'clock in the morning. The original had enormous mythic, psychological subtext. It's the Sphinx, a woman with the body of a lion who asks a man a question. If he comes up with the wrong answer, she eats him. That's Basic Instinct.
Q: Speaking of sequels, you've hatched many films that went to sequels you didn't take part in. After that terrific start to the Jack Ryan franchise in The Hunt for Red October, why didn't you take part in the sequel?
A: Patriot Games was a movie where the villains are the Irish Republican Army. Alec Baldwin, the original Jack Ryan, and I, while neither of us were sympathizers with the Irish Republican Army, were nonetheless of Irish descent and preferred not to make a movie that makes villains of our heritage. We pleaded with the studio to make the other Jack Ryan book, Clear and Present Danger, which was a much better script. Alec and I both wanted to do it and told them straight off we would. But the producer owned the book Patriot Games, and it was going to greatly increase his participation in the ultimate series if they made Patriot Games as the second movie. Are you Irish?
Q: Yeah, I am.
A: Well, there were things I didn't know about until I was nearly 30. But there were several people in my extended family it turns out I wasn't actually related to. They were Michael Collins's assassins who my grandfather took in and sheltered. For 50 years. They... [long pause as his eyes well with tears] ...I'm sorry, I hadn't thought about this in a long time. There was this one dear old man in my family who was most deferential--wouldn't step on a crack in the sidewalk. But when he was 13 years old, he dropped an egg basket full of grenades into the, lap of an English colonel. They got those young men out of the country so that the English could never find them. My grandfather would never exactly fess up about it, but I believe he sheltered a number of them.
Q: How about the second Die Hard? Why didn't you go along for the ride on the second one?
A: I didn't like the car. Later, the cast of characters changed, and I was very happy to be back for the third one. I actually prepared two sequels. One didn't happen because Fox was wrangling with Bruce over money. After we made Die Hard 3, the studio used most of the material we'd developed for the other sequel and turned it into Speed 2: Cruise Control. The ocean liner going on the beach and stuff? That's what we'd written for Die Hard.
Q: There was some controversy about Bruce Willis getting paid $5 million for the first Die Hard, when, following "Moonlighting," he'd had a couple of big movie failures.
A: In fact, two weeks before the movie came out, the studio changed the poster and took his picture off of it. Two weeks after the movie came out, they put his picture back on it. Profiles in courage.
Q: Was there a moment early on when you knew you'd hired the right guy?
A: Well, we built it for him. The hero role had been written for Richard Gere, I think, but we rebuilt the part for Bruce, to take advantage of who he is. Working-class New York. He's grown beyond this now, but he seemed very cocky then. In the wrong atmosphere and context, that came off as arrogant and difficult. If you make sure he's the underdog, though, that cockiness is an act of courage.
Q: Would you go back and do a fourth?
A: I'm neither hostile to the idea nor eager. But Bruce doesn't need to do another Die Hard. He's gone way beyond that.
Q: The Last Action Hero was a modest story overwhelmed by hype and the rush to make a summer release date. It got tarred as the first failure for Hollywood's then-top star Arnold Schwarzenegger. When you look back, is there something that could have been done to make it work?
A: [Long pause] I just shouldn't say. Obviously, who you work for has a lot to do with how things work out. Initially, it was a wonderful Cinderella story with a nine-year-old boy. We had a pretty good script by Bill Goldman, charming. And this ludicrous hype machine got hold of it, and it got buried under bullshit.
Q: That's got to be tough, when what's being sold isn't the movie you made.
A: Yeah, but in the end, I didn't even make the movie it started out to be. It was so overwhelmed with baggage. And then it was whipped out unedited, practically assembled right out of the camera. It was in the theater five or six weeks after I finished shooting. It was kamikaze, stupid, no good reason for it. And then to open the week after Jurassic Park--God! To get to the depth of bad judgment involved in that you'd need a snorkel.
Q; This came after Medicine Man, which was considered a disappointment...
A: It was a little art movie with Sean Connery that cost only $27 million. If the press hadn't defined it as an action movie, it probably wouldn't have been considered a disappointment.