Spoiler warning: This post discusses a major story point from Die Hard, if for any reason you haven't seen this twenty-five year-old movie, you might want to do that first and come back later...
I recently asked my students to read Die Hard - a masterpiece in the art and craft of screenwriting.
Our ensuing discussion of character archetypes inevitably turned to Hans Gruber, one of cinema's most compelling action genre antagonists, made all the more memorable by Alan Rickman's breathtaking performance.
'How would you describe Hans Gruber ? What makes him a great villain? ' I asked.
They replied with a torrent of great observations;
'He has a plan!'
'He's almost charming?'
As evidence, they cited Gruber's references to Forbes, 60 Minutes, FBI Playbooks and 'the benefits of a classical education'.
Then one student, called out a particularly smart detail.
'He buys tailored suits from John Philips of London!'
At that, we jumped into the scene-in-question for a closer look at Gruber in action:
Reading the scene aloud, it became apparent that there are numerous, very sophisticated, layers interwoven in this brief exchange between Gruber and Takagi.
For context, Takagi is President of the Japanese corporation Nakatomi Trading . Moments earlier, Gruber and his gunmen seized control of its Los Angeles headquarters - taking the employees hostage and singling out Takagi for an ominiously personal meeting (clip).
As a reader/ viewer, at this point in Die Hard, we are very much in Takagi's shoes, scrambling to make sense of:
Who, or what kind of villain is Gruber?
What are Gruber's motives?
Our first instinct might have been to write-off Gruber as a deranged homicidal terrorist. However the brief exchange that plays out in the elevator promptly subverts such assumptions.
Read in total isolation from the preceding events, the scene could easily be mistaken for a snapshot of two C-suite businessmen sharing a lift to the executive washroom.
Written differently, it would have been plausible for Gruber's men to rough up Takagi, throw him in the elevator, and dig machine gun nozzles into his forehead.
Instead, Gruber whistles Wagner, projecting an effortless, calm, professionalism (only minutes after bullets raked through security guards and ceiling tiles).
Thinking about the interplay of power and perceptions, Gruber's disposition communicates to Takagi, the viewer, and even his own henchmen, that he is in absolute control of the current moment and all future eventualities. Cool heads prevail as they say.
But there is a further layer of purpose to Gruber's words and conduct.
If we skip forward a few pages in the script, we learn that Gruber will imminently embark on a negotiation (of sorts) with Takagi to obtain the security codes for the corporation’s vault:
With this in mind, when we re-read the elevator scene and put ourselves in Gruber's shoes, it is clear he seeks to establish more than just a presence of calm control. If that was his sole intent, Gruber could have simply whistled Wagner until the lift reached its destination.
Instead, he extends a subtle small-talk overture to Takagi:
Nice suit. John Philips... London?
These few words speak a thousand. Firstly, Gruber, as noted above, relays that he is a man of fine tastes. He also confirms that he is well-traveled and has spent time in one of Europe's financial and legal capitals (backstory anyone?). This clearly stuns Takagi, who might have reasonably assumed that Gruber's suave attire was merely a disguise to access the building. But it doesn't end there, Gruber goes on to remark...
I have two myself.
I love this line, it underscores that in this exchange, Gruber endeavors to make a connection with Takagi. He knows that Takagi has the codes for the vault, he wants those codes, and in advance of their forthcoming negotiation he wishes to build a sense of commonality by demonstrating that they are literally cut from the same cloth.
If the scene ended on that line, we might infer a cautious optimism for relations between the two men, but then Gruber delivers the sinister punchline.
(beat, as he exits:)
I'm told Arafat shops there too...
This line serves important dual purposes. As a veiled threat, Gruber pointedly tells Takagi (and the reader) that he moves in circles intimately acquainted with Yassar Arafat's wardrobe contents (who at that time was a figure of international terrorist controversy). We later learn that this has resonated with Takagi, when he exclaims:
You want... money? What kind of
terrorists are you?
Reading between the lines, Gruber also invites Takagi to acknowledge that capitalism is a fundamentally murky business, and that few men of their ilk are saints. Again, this too is later revealed to have hit a nerve with Takagi when he misreads Gruber and pre-preemptively defends the Nakatomi coporation's forthcoming projects in Indonesia:
The symbolic significance of the elevator conversation is further affirmed at the climax of their standoff:
It is no coincidence that Gruber makes a fateful final callback to Takagi's suit before killing him. This small detail subtly underscores the irreconcilable incompatibility between Takagi's honour code and Gruber's ruthless sociopathic materialism. From a screenwriting craft perspective, it deftly imprints a full-circle closure of their contest of wit and will.
As this article has hopefully illustrated, taking the time to dissect even short scenes can be immensely rewarding. The aforementioned example from Die Hard is a micro-masterclass in both the direct, and indirect, embedding of multi-dimensional layers in Dialogue - something all of us as screenwriters should strive to achieve.