6 Filmmaking Tips From John McTiernan

By  · Published on February 13th, 2013

John McTiernan on Die Hard set

He’s made some amazing films, he stands as an icon of a lengthy era, but I submit that John McTiernan is still an unfairly maligned filmmaker. He’s relegated by many to a position as merely a mindless action director, and maybe, yeah, Rollerball was tough to stomach, but there’s a reason why Die Hard is still used as the template in thousands of pitch meetings every year. Plus, the guy went to Juilliard (so he’s probably also an incredible dancer).

Those who dismiss him do so at their own peril and have clearly never heard the man speak about the craft of filmmaking. He knows a production truck’s worth of practical information and can condense it into lessons that make sense to all of us rubes.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who started his studio career by having an alien attack Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A Good Idea Needs a Good Script (and Vice Versa)

“You see a lot of good ideas or well-written scripts that are bad ideas.”

Easier said than done, sure, but think back to the times you’ve returned to the theater lobby irritated by how the movie you just saw squandered a brilliant concept (one that you could have knocked out of the park!). There’s tension there. Movies like that naturally come packaged with the question “How could someone smart enough to come up with that concept not know how to do anything with it?” stapled to their one-sheets. The yang to its yin is the film that’s solid but built on a shaky foundation, and the same grating feeling comes with that ticket price.

There are two check marks to earn here: good idea, good execution. That combination is one of the reasons Die Hard is so beloved (and has spawned such a lasting series of films). An everyman fish-out-of-water fighting off witty terrorists with no escape but victory. It wasn’t a well-worn idea at the time, and the storytelling is so tight, and McClane is in such a state of suspended danger (even when he’s not being shot at), that the material remains compelling long after the appeal of the idea itself fades away.

And that’s really the bottom line. A good idea gets you the first 10 pages of a script, but where will the next 110 come from? What’s the second good idea, and the third, and the fourth that you can pile on top of the first to make something packed with goodness instead of something laboring under the weight of a single interesting concept?

We’re Wasting Our Time with This Filmmaking Tips Series

“You can’t tell filmmakers anything, no matter what stage of life they are in. If you could, they wouldn’t be film directors.”

Damn, I love this guy. Even if it means I should pack this all in.

Maybe for the sake of the column we’ll call this one “You’ve Got to Learn A Lot On Your Own Through Failure.” Yeah, that sounds good.

Of course, he’s also given this advice:

“It’s the same thing of how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Also, I’d say get a hold of a video camera and just shoot as much as you can, of anything. If you have a script, get a couple actors together and shoot two pages from the script, then edit the footage on a really basic video editing program. It takes as long to develop a prose style on film as it does a prose style in writing, so it’s crucial to practice whenever and however you can.”

Think of Camera Movement as Music

This was a big, big change in the 1980s:

Allow Yourself to Discover a Character Along the Way

And to let your actors help with that construction beyond the writing.

From our Commentary Commentary entry on Die Hard:

“In the script, John McClane is a tough-as-nails New York cop, but McTiernan and Bruce Willis didn’t really have the character sorted out until about halfway through shooting. It was then they figured out this was a guy who didn’t like himself very much, but who’s doing the best he could. The little moment of McClane banging his head against the door frame after fighting with Holly was a reshoot done after the character was figured out.”

That is, hopefully you have the money for reshoots if they’re needed.

Be Ready to Lose Weight and Hate Life

“The biggest disconnect between what the studio was trying to enforce for the action sequences and what McTiernan wanted to do himself, is the opening siege on the camp, which was mostly constructed by his second unit team and is frightfully boring. Gone are McTiernan’s fluid, subjective shots, and in their place are flat plates of things exploding and people firing guns. At the very beginning of the DVD commentary track, McTiernan admits that the production was, ‘terrifying in a lot of ways.’ (And not just because everyone got really sick – in one sequence Arnold performs while an IV drip is sticking out of his arm, just off camera. McTiernan himself lost 25 pounds, just from not eating.) Elsewhere on the same DVD, Carl Weathers describes McTiernan on set: ‘I remember a lot of times seeing John with his head in his hands, like ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’”

Shoot The Film In Your Head First

What Have We Learned

First of all, not to underestimate the intelligence of action directors. Second of all, that a filmmaker career sometimes shapes up in the most illogical way possible. McTiernan had very little knowledge of how to shoot action when he made Predator, but he knew he wanted to imbue the film with a new sense of motion and editing that had people puzzled. The Juilliard-attending, AFI graduate became an icon of action filmmaking – a surprising twist of fate – specifically because he wanted to do something different. You can’t be a pioneer in a field by maintaining the status quo.

His career also shows that there are sacrifices to be made, that working with the studio system can be a grueling nightmare, and that having a great idea isn’t good enough. You have to push beyond it, build on it, and then make something that’s more than its logline.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.