During the last American film Festival of Deauville, which took place from 5 to 14 September, we had the chance to participate in a masterclass by the great John McTiernan. Director famous of the great action movies of the 80s-90s, in particular, Predactor, Red October, Last Action Hero, but also, and especially, the brilliant Die Hard 1 and 3 (Trap of Crystal and A Day in Hell).
As a result of dark stories of phone hacking, John McTiernan went on to legal problems since 2006, which was worth to him including a year in prison in 2012. As he says himself, he had the sensation of “back among the living after 10 years”.
The masterclass begins with the masterful intro scene of the movie the hunt for Red October
Just after Trap Crystal, you are a leader of action films with James Cameron. This opening scene is going to cost a fortune, and could not be achieved without the confidence that you had with Franck Mancuso.
This introduction has actually cost her a fortune, because at the time we didn’t have the technology sufficient to achieve this stage in image synthesis. However, it was necessary to believe in the existence of the submarine, and therefore able to convince the producers to manufacture such a monster of steel and include it in a plan to be daunting. It was a question of the credibility of the film ! It is estimated the scene to half a million dollars, and everything has been turned to the helicopter.
This scene has little dialogue, but rather a rise to power narrative, introduced with the movement of the camera (it makes a great zoom of the eyes of Sean Connery to get the wide shot on the submarine). This construction is actually very new, with little writing.
There is no real calculation in advance, not general idea of the film. I wanted this sequence of images, little dialogue, just a grip on the time which is the time spent. This is the sentence that pronounces Sean Connery : “Time indeed” (“It’s time”).
We find this construction in Predator, which is a true tribute to the films of jungle, which revisits the Vietnam war. During a scene, you have to follow the Predator and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a game of glances, estimate of intelligence between the two characters. This scene also shows how the action movie does not only a logic of the body, but also talking heads.
This song is actually amazing because we had a problem with the appearance of the monster to the half of the shoot. Arose not only the question of appearance to the image of the monster, but also the duration of its appearance. There were many possibilities, sometimes very silly, like go and find the monster in the spaceship… But we were not convinced by this, and what’s more, we had a time constraint with Arnold Schwarzenegger who could not stay a single day. We have, therefore, to find an idea feasible in a night and a day of shooting fast-paced (for information, where we turn 1 shot per hour at night in normal time, we made 18 or 19 on average on this day !). At the time, it seemed to us more a kind of escape, a real good solution. But at the viewing, we finally found a real consistency in the cinema. And finally we are told that this was not a chance of making this scene in this way, but a particular vision of the cinema, where the words are ultimately of little interest.
What is funny is that when I was a film student, I’ve dreamed of this end. In my dream, I was a young scientist during the 1st test of the atomic bomb. All the scientists were there, and the bomb was at the top of the tower ready to explode. Except that nothing happens, and one drops the bomb and sends me to see what is happening. I open it, and then hears suddenly a small click. There, I observed (out of scope) and Hoppenheimer said to me, “Now John, you know to run”. I run like hell, jump over a wall, and everything explodes behind me. Fade to white, on a wall with a wallpaper with a newspaper clipping. When zooming in on the cut where you see my obituary stating that I died in 1978, leaving wife & children. The radiation had on my skin.
What is fun with Predator, is that it starts on a classic war film with the advance of the Marines in the jungle before having a 2nd half more dreamlike after the fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the cascade. Finally, this second half is almost at the level of the dream.
It is a very great compliment that you make me ! Actually, the dream is mostly a succession of image, the intensity of semantic and sensory huge. It was in a dream so much meaning in each image that passes description, and the words. I think that cinema should be of the same order, a sensory experience. Listen to for example the music of Beethoven. It is hyper-sensory, powerful, and doesn’t require words either. Finally, I aspire to be a film which would also be free of writing or music.
In addition to being a filmmaker, you are also an engineer always looking for a new way of turning, a new lens for in order to reinvent the language of cinema. On this point, you are very close to James Cameron. For your next movie, you work for 3 years now on 2 cameras, very specific and, moreover, you are looking to design a 3D camera well before its generalization. The work here is very rigorous and precise. Lastly, for you, is this-that this lucid dreaming also involves engineering ?
In fact, I started by studying drama, why ? I don’t know myself. But what I do know is that it is this side engineering, side rigorous scientific that demand for the cinema to give the dreamlike.
On the 3D, it is assumed that all visual art share an erroneous assumption. Wrong, but accepted by all, those who will design the images, such as those who receive them. This assumption is ultimately not so different from the pictorial art of the Fourteenth century, when it was decided that the characters who was in high in the composition were far away, and those at the bottom close. With the film, the premise is certainly different, but we all agree in the same manner to project in a one-dimensional, which is that of film or paper. Our eye is spherical, it is acceptable, therefore, to read the collection “spherical” in this dish.
What is amusing is that in cinema, with a long focal length, you get a depth of field short, whereas with a short focal length, one arrives quickly to a wide shot. Finally, the long focal length we focus on the details, the short on the width and breadth of the frame. However, the human eye does not have this distortion, he sees the two. In fact, the movies are not and may not be realistic. The choice of the director is a permenent : The width or the depth ? You can play by filming with multiple cameras and combining the different shots, so you can get to reproduce the immediacy between the depth of field and the width of the view.
But we note at this point that a revolution is in short that we will show a more rapid movement. This speed will make it more réalisate, and one wonders how it was that realistic before !
Now let’s turn to Trap crystal Die Hard). This film is an example in the way of filming the action, the movement in the space. The legibility of the space is perfect, and it operates all parts of the tower. How do you actually film the movement in this way ?
It is important to know that at the time of Trap Crystal, the audience was ready to receive it, but the studios do not. The studios refuse to make a cut between two scenes in motion. For them, it is necessary to stop on a fixed plane and to resume the movement on the next plane.Except that Bertolucci had done so in The Luna, so it is possible. The game was to find an editor who had this same desire. I found just a son of a musician, and who had this same desire. He has managed to find barely the right method, the right rhythm in order to be able to make the connections. It is necessary to have a very flexible approach for this type of editing, and working with John de Bont, the photograph was also essential to arrive at this result.Because the movie, photo and music have the same logic of appropriateness. The music leaves more room for error, for experimentation. In a sense, she is much more tolerant than the movie. There is a lot of feeling, if you have the impression that it is well, you should go there. The movie should follow the same logic, detach from the writing and move more around the music. Leaves to go against the original rules, let’s not forget that it is a young art that is still looking. Help to get out of the logic of the writing to go in the music.
In Die Hard, the space is at the heart of it all. Is this the key to the cinema of action to synthesize a space ? Put the spectator at the heart of the space ?
In the case of Die Hard, it comes from the story that the film tells. The goal is that the viewer adheres to the perspective of the character. He is discovering the space where the character before moving on with him. In a reverse logic, take Tony Scott, who is rather focused on working with focal long. For him, the plan must inform, and finally the place where the character has less importance. With this method, it escapes the difficulty of the installation. This is another approach to cinema.
For me, all the theories on how to film, where one puts the camera etc… has no meaning. The only question to ask is : where would be positioned the viewer ? As well, we don’t take the head and offers a real sensation. I am not inventing anything here, it is clear that there are more simple. Take the Burning of Mike Nichols. The moment where Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep break, there is no displacement. It leaves out fields, one sees only herself, alone in the kitchen. And we stay with it. It is at the door, and we live this moment with her. The power is here, not in the sophisticated structuring.
Spend A Day in Hell (Die Hard 3) : There is always this logic of the space, while breaking the rules laid down in the first pane.
This is the simplest way to conceive of the cinema. Attempts to have the language, the less stylized possible, a bit like in the 50’s. The idea is to do a back and forth film between Bruce willis and the bad guys. When one is with Bruce Willis, the plans are broad, long. We are still waiting, we saw the fact that they are in the shit. Conversely, with the bad guys, everything is préçis, more punchy, more mounted. It changes style depending on what side of the plot one is positioned.
A perfect example is the opposition between the chaos of the street and good organization of the terrorists in the case of the FED.
Actually, for 5 to 7 minutes, there was 0 dialogue. We know that something is going to happen, but we don’t know what it is, always with different styles depending on whether one is with Bruce Willis or with the terrorists.
Tell us more about this scene extracted from the film The Thomas Crown affair.
I like the side nervous of this scene. This is the movie that make me the most happy of my entire filmography. Franck Mancuso has left me to do as I felt, especially for the scene with the hats. At the base, the scenario is quite classic, but I wanted to do it my way on the editing and directing. It adds grip more on the love story between the characters : it does not fly to the table that he wanted, but the one she wanted. Thus, the scene ends with the ignorance of how has been done the burglary. We play bce the viewer with the bowler hats, and in the end, we don’t know how he did it, as well for the film’s protagonists to the viewer.
What do you think of the other Die Hard ? Have you kept good relations with Bruce Willis ?
I kept very good relations with Bruce Willis, and if I want to keep them, I will refrain from saying what I think of the other Die Hard !