Behind the Lines with DR: Live Free or Die of Pneumonia

It was the day we burned the Hostage set. Bruce ambled onto the soundstage and dropped a script onto my lap. The title was Die Hard 4.0. I could tell by the date it was the most recent writer’s attempt at the fourth installment of the series.

“Do me a favor and read it will ya?” asked Bruce.

“Over the weekend?” I asked. “Or overnight?”

“Over lunch if you can do it,” he asked. “Really wanna talk about it.”

Okay. So I bailed out to my office before the morning’s last set-up, ordered a few slices of pizza and locked the door. Two hours later, I was encamped in Bruce’s trailer. He was reclined on the couch, lamenting about how much he loathed the script. I agreed that it didn’t live up to the franchise. But then again, it was number four.

Willis and Richardson on set of 'Hostage'

“What would you do?” Bruce asked. “Studio loves this script.”

I reminded Bruce that it wasn’t on me. He was the guy whose name was above the title.

“Do you even wanna see a Die Hard 4?” he asked.

“Not really.”

“So what’s a Die Hard 4 you’d wanna see?”

This is where it happened. Me and big fat mouth. I began to think out loud about a new Die Hard 4. A relevant Die Hard 4. A harder Die Hard 4 that would challenge and surprise both fans and critics. I should’ve just shut my hole and hiked back to the set.

The very next day I was in Fox Chairman Tom Rothman’s office. It was sold to me as just Bruce and me, continuing the “conversation.” All along I could read that look in Tom’s eye. I could tell he really liked the current script. That the present incarnation was something he could market. That he was willing to commit untold millions to it. But in just a single hour of offhanded chatter with Bruce in his trailer, I’d just broken Tom’s script.

Whoops.

In the eight months that followed, I went on to finish Hostage, delivered a first draft of a delayed assignment to Paramount, then finally sat down to pen my relevant version of Die Hard 4.

The studio was more patient than Bruce, who’d call every couple of weeks. Is it good? How close are you? When can I see it? My answer was always the same. I’m happy. You’ll see it soon enough. Any slow going on my part was due to me knowing that expectations were insanely high. It was on me to deliver a Die Hard 4 Bruce Willis was willing to get behind. So I was grinding. Second guessing. Losing sleep. And when I was finally near the end I got sick.

I was at El Torito, a local Mexican franchise, having burritos with my family when Bruce called from Montreal.

“Time’s up, Doug,” said Bruce. “I gotta read it.”

“Not finished,” I told him. “Really close.”

“Well, you can finish it on the plane.”

“What plane?”

“Flying you up to Montreal tomorrow. You can meet Sir Ben and Morgan Freeman.”

“Got a thousand notes I’ve made that I still have to incorporate into—”

But Bruce had already handed the phone off to Stevie, his personal assistant, whose efficiency never failed to astonish. Stevie’d already booked me first class to Montreal where Bruce was currently filming Lucky Number Sleven. A car was picking me up at 7 AM.

I’d run out of refusals. I paid the check, packed a bag, ingested fists full of cold meds before powering through the rest of the night revising the script. I wrote in the car to the airport. Wrote in the lounge. On the aircraft. Wrote while waiting to change planes in Toronto. Wrote on the flight to Montreal. I wrote in the SUV sent to deliver me to Bruce’s hotel. And I shit you not. I wrote “FADE OUT” just as the valet opened my door.

Done. I bagged my laptop, discovered I’d already been checked in, then boarded the private elevator to the hotel’s Presidential Suite. The doors opened and Stevie was there to grab my bags and show me to a large unopened box.

“Brand damn new printer,” he said. “Don’t worry. Couple hours I’ll have it cranking out the script.”

“Where’s El Jefe?” I asked.

“Waiting for you.” Stevie pointed. “Follow the music.”

I’d already been up for something like thirty-six hours. Traveled thousands of miles. I was in Montreal. It was snowing outside. I calculated that pneumonia was just around the corner. Instead, around the corner was a closet. Well, not a closet anymore. At some point, in expanding the prez suite the hotel had pushed through a walk-in closet to another suite in order to make the space, I suppose, more presidential. The closet had since been converted to a tight passage with bookshelves and a built-in desk with doors at either end. The door facing me was shut with a handwritten sign, reading “Doug. Leave the script with Stevie and your cares behind.”

I entered. The cramped space was smaller than the average prison cell, lit with just a couple of scented candles. Bruce was hunched over a MacBook stuffed with seemingly every blues tune ever put down on wax. Hanging out was an acting guru, otherwise known as Irish Jerry, who waved his hands over the makeshift bar. I ordered a scotch on the rocks and, while Irish Jerry kept us served deep into the night, Bruce kept the music spinning.

A note about Bruce Willis. There are few fellahs I’d rather tilt pints with until dawn. It’s as if all the movie star stuff fades into the ether. He becomes the guy from Jersey who loves great tunes, dangerous women, and trading laugh-out-loud stories.

We pickled ourselves until we were crocked. Then sometime around four AM, Bruce decides to call lights out. I don’t recall ever handing Stevie my thumb drive, but he’d succeeded in printing a hot copy of Die Hard 4.

Bruce fanned the pages script, held up in the air, and said that he was off to read it. I may have been drunk, but not stupid.

“Bruce. Please don’t,” I strongly suggested. “Sleep it off. Read it sober.”

“Sober enough,” he said. “Call you when I’m done.”

I found my hotel room, locked the door and flopped on the bed. And though I tried to sleep, I couldn’t get a wink knowing at any second the damn phone was going to ring and the voice at the other end wasn’t going to be cool Bruce, but it’d be a drunken movie star with notes. I’m screwed, I thought. Months of hard work. Flushed.

Two hours later with a headache coming on, the phone hadn’t rung. And as sobriety took hold, I realized Bruce had most likely fallen asleep on page two and, while I was bathing in writer’s paranoia, he was sleeping it off. I showered, slept, and was awoken by the phone around noon.

“Betcha thought I was gonna read it drunk.”

“Naw,” I lied. “I bet Irish Jerry you wouldn’t make it past page two.”

Bruce laughed. Promised he’d read it after we’d visited the Lucky Number Sleven set and he’d introduced me to Sir Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman.

Wrapping up, Bruce read the script and loved it. A few days later, he sent me home with his notes. What happened after? Well, that’s between me and Bruce and a very powerful movie studio. Maybe someday I’ll write about it. But in the end, Tom Rothman convinced Bruce to make that earlier script he’d liked so much. It was released as Live Free or Die Hard. It made a gazillion dollars.

31 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: Live Free or Die of Pneumonia

  1. Nim Chimpsky

    Dear Billie Jean (real name? wow! crazy!): My splenetic scribblings are obviously not to everyone’s taste, and yes, my geographic nexus is nowhere near the fever swamp of groovy positivity that you call home. But alas, at the risk of flirting with that verboten activity known as name dropping, my employer is a celebrity and interacting with folks of the star persuasion has been a rather mundane aspect of my life for years too. So, in sum, your point is?

    *Stormy and sustained applause*

  2. Billie Jean

    I didn’t read all the comments because I don’t need that much negativity in my life but I would say I can tell Nim has never worked in LA. Not even in a desk job. When we say things about meeting celebrities we are just saying their names like we would anyone else’s. It just doesn’t regester the same way because we’re around these people all the time. I tell the story of when I got coffee for Leonardo DiCaprio because I almost got into a fight because someone tried to steal it. It would still be a story if I was getting coffee for you just different.
    The best advice my mama ever gave me was never do anything you have to hide your face for, because no matter what you tell yourself you know you ain’t acting right if you do.

  3. Nim Chimpsky

    Apologies to Mr. Joshua James (above) if my reluctance to emerge from behind the e-curtain offends, but in my experience, properly used anonymity serves as an effective check against tactics commonly deployed by people who think they are above being challenged on their ideas. You will note that some of those very tactics – including pulling of rank – were deployed in the above discussion, to no avail.

    The phrase “trolls abound” may have a pithy ring, but it is wholly inapplicable to this situation.

    Sincerely,

    William Goldman… er, I mean, Nim.

  4. Ben Trebilcook

    Mr R, loved this story first time round – loving it more so now!

    As for pseudonyms, I am not Skip Woods!!

    Did I ever tell you Tom Cruise told me not to name drop? 🙂

  5. Shayne Laughter

    I think there’s a buried lesson in Doug’s “Die Hard” story that is getting lost in the comment-thread fireworks.

    It’s about the balance of “friendship” and professional decisions.

    If you are “friends” or “friendly” with a star, at what point does that “friendship” become “exploitation”? From either side?

    I have worked in small business, big business, and the non-profit sector. It is a truth throughout that everyone is better off with a friendship built on fair business practices, instead of trying to build a business on a friendship.

    Looking at this story from the POV of someone who doesn’t know, hasn’t met Doug or Bruce, I can see several red-flag points that tell me the moments when both D & B (internally) assessed the situation from a business perspective, no matter how “friendly” they were acting … and maybe Doug made a decision that erred on the side of staying “friendly” with a major star. Or not – maybe there were clear agreements between them about what all this work would mean. I don’t know.

    The major red-flag point is … Tim Rothman. If a 900-lb gorilla and his army of 800-lb gorillas are behind a certain script, guess what script is going to be made. And guess where the damage will fall if the project’s Star pulls out because he doesn’t like the script.

    What, then, was Doug doing when he put his health at risk to pound out a very different draft, and put his own reputation on the line with Tim Rothman?

    For me, the answer is in the closing line, “that’s between me and Bruce and a very powerful movie studio.” Yes, it is, and it was so from the very first.

    What looks like exploitation on the surface probably involved a lot of hard-business decision points and carefully-worded verbal agreements amidst the beer and the playlists.

    Because Hollywood A-list “friendship” is not what we learned about in the Girl Scouts.

    Best.

  6. Nim Chimpsky

    Fair enough. I’m a working writer too. I know the deal. That’s why in my last post I suggested that Script Mag’s editorial staff bears primary responsibility for the crudity of presentation that I criticized in this instance. They should have slanted the piece more responsibly; I think they did a disservice to their readers by not insisting on a richer, beyond-the-frills look at this rather perverse artform.

    If there’s a constructive discussion to be had here beyond the snark, I think it’s about what sorts of responsibilities, if any, the people who sell the “Scriptwriting Dream” – the magazine publishers, contest admins, seminar and pitch and festival folks and so on – have to their audience (and cu$tomer ba$e) of wide-eyed aspiring writers. All too often I see this industry – in its emails, columns, ads, success stories, interviews – veering into the same crass space occupied by cult religions, ponzi schemes and Oprah Winfrey self-help hooey. So yeah, it makes me mad, and I’m making a bigger effort to call people on it when it appears, which I think it did in this instance. Sure, people will try to diagnose you as crazy, they’ll try to pull rank, they’ll do all the shit that power and privilege do when they’re criticized by outsiders. But too fucking bad. This is important stuff. It should be discussed more openly and squarely.

  7. Doug Richardson

    I’ve never claimed wisdom. Only experience. And for those who hope to write for the screen, some of the experiences involve dealing with movie stars. As a whole, they’re a prickly, immature, and demanding club. Better a future screenwriter read what he or she have to deal with in their future than have the lesson come as a dream-waking slap with a wet rag. Sure. Sometimes the ride is kind of glamorous. And sometimes it’s an absurd tab of acid. More often than not (if you read my blogs) it’s a soul-sucking grind that tests how much you love the form. As for my “gratuitous name dropping?” The most common complaint about my blogs is that I’m too stingy with names. So when an opportunity presents itself to let fly with actual monickers, I’m glad to do so.

    I’m not a teacher. I’m a working writer. If there’s something instructive that I possess that is not imparted in my blogs, I”m always available for questions via my site dougrichardson.com.

  8. Nim Chimpsky

    Thanks for the advice Jes. Maybe I’m the rare bird who doubts the constructiveness of gratuitous name-dropping and flashy jet-setter descriptions that titillate more than teach. Fine for memoirs, perhaps, but as packaged ‘wisdom’ in a publication geared toward aspiring writers? I think it’s pretty gross, alienating, and counterproductive, and on further reflection it’s more a symptom of bad editorial decision-making than the writer’s bad faith.

  9. Jes

    Nim. Wow, someone is taking himself way too seriously! Lighten up little boy.

    Doug, the lad doth protest too much, methinks. You simply can’t rationalize with crazy!

    Fun read, and thanks for the actual insight that chimp boy just doesn’t get.

  10. letrado

    I liked the story. I thought it was fascinating from the point of view of somebody completely outside the business. Will tune in for more. Thanks.

  11. Steve Jessop

    Wow. I thought I was bored at my day job.

    Doug, love reading your column and blog. Sometimes I cringe when you mention a name or company in fear that it may hurt your career. In my line of business, relationships mean everything, so I’m used to a lot of tip toeing around to not even appear to offend someone. I appreciate your honesty and telling it like it is.

    Now it’s time for a banana.

  12. Nim Chimpsky

    Look, to sum up: If you ask me – and you did, otherwise there wouldn’t be a comments section – your “Adventures of Bruce and Me” had no “there” there. It was big on setpieces but bereft of insight, and the ending blew huge nuts. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing whatever insight that could be culled from these particular typings are restricted by Nondisclosure-type juju.

    So yeah, a lot of people get off on reading these types of stories, sort of like people who used to dig Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (me, e.g.). And obviously writing them must be fun too, if you’ve got the time. It’s basically porn-ish bragadaccio coated with a slender “This Could Be You” sort of marketing pitch. I don’t trust it as far as it goes, nor should anyone in my opinion, but if that’s what passes for “Career Wisdom” in these parts, so be it.

  13. Doug Richardson

    Nim. I have many more blogs for your pissing pleasure over at dougrichardson.com. There are also links to the novels I’ve written. Please feel free to purchase however many you need to build a bonfire large enough to fuel your existential anger.

  14. Jim Burns

    Hey Chumpsky!

    I follow Doug’s blog because he’s a hard working guy who cares about his job. He writes candidly about the dilemmas that he meets along the way. It’s entertaining and educational. And Doug’s a decent guy.

    From what you’ve written you need to address a few of your own issues. Don’t take it all so seriously.

    Have a banana!

    Jim

  15. Nim Chimpsky

    Here’s a better moral, Doug, and those of you who might be reading and not working at your desk jobs like me. Can I call you Doug? Or how about Bruce?

    Whenever someone says a bunch of shit that’s dressed up like wisdom, and another someone comes along and says, “Gee, that doesn’t sound wise at all, in fact it’s all kind of implausibly and crassly presented like the plot mechanics of a bad action movie,” and then the guy who spoke the so-called wisdom responds with deflections (anonymity! no backsies!) and condescension (“acerbic” used in an acerbic way, e.g., so meta!), you know you’re dealing with an insecure fellow who has contempt for free inquiry. I encounter it time and again in these forums. It says a lot about the trustworthiness of the people “behind the velvet rope.”

  16. Jenna AveryJenna Avery

    As always, I love reading your posts, Doug. They give me a sense of being there in the thick of things and make it clear that the fantasy life that is so easy to imagine ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. It still involves nights without sleep, second- and triple-guessing, traveling with a cold, etc. It’s easy to be intimidated by the glamor of Hollywood, but the details of what really happens reminds me that it’s just real life with real people with real foibles and agendas. Not a lot different than what we all deal with on a daily basis. Thanks.

  17. Princess Scribe

    Oh, Nim. You are so precious.

    Question: What is the velocity of an unladen swallow?

    Doug, your tales from the trenches give me something to look forward to. There’s a sense of camaraderie that your column(s) instill in (most of) us. We laugh, we cry, we giggle… and ultimately, we don’t feel so alone. Thank you.

  18. Doug Richardson

    Great question, Nim of the Unknown Name. The moral goes like this. All my pieces are cautionary tales. Positives and negatives. Amusing and otherwise. This is the way it went down. This is the way it is. Should you choose to endeavor into showbiz as a writer then it would be best to picture and plot your future as realistically as possible. By your acerbic reaction, I reckon that it’s not the best path for you.

  19. Nim Chimpsky

    Yes, of course, my anonymity nullifies everything I say. Because if you knew my real name, you could… Google me and my grand comment conspiracy would be unraveled! Or maybe your assistant can do that. Or Bruce’s, or Sir Ben’s. Because you guys have assistants. And stay in classy hotels and drink all night. No, but really, the moral of the story is what now?

  20. Doug Richardson

    Nim. You’re amusing at best. Possibly more amusing than my column. Unfortunately, it’s at your own pitiful expense. The best part is how you accuse me of shamelessly name dropping. Yes. I employ the real names of the actual characters who were part of my story, including myself. You, on the other hand, don’t appear to have the stones to use your own name. Bravo. Stay classy.

  21. Nim Chimpsky

    Well. From where I’m standing (in reality) Mr. Richardson’s story is kind of gross. In the fairest possible light it’s a tale of hard creative work that went for naught and yet the most instructive aspect of why that happened (I don’t know… the greed of grossly overpaid Hollywood corporate people?) ends up being classified information (“that’s between me and Bruce and a very powerful movie studio”). Talk about a cop-out ending! “It was all just a bad dream, but everyone got paid a lot!”

    So in this “war story” that eager writers are supposed to eat up and learn from, the brutality and cynicism of war are actually obscured in favor of slick, look-at-my-big-manhood vignettes set in first-class airline lounges, limos and presidential suites. This is a crass, pornographic episode if there ever was one, and in my experience it’s exactly what the script magazine and contest and seminar industries routinely rely on as a “This Could Be You” marketing point. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between this stuff and late-night real estate ponzi scheme infomercials.

    And if you think this isn’t a glaring example of name-dropping, please explain what meeting “Sir Ben and Morgan” does – to borrow your industry parlance – ‘advance the story’?

  22. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Nim, Doug Richardson graciously shares his experiences as a working writer in the industry … a successful career of close to 30 years and whose films have grossed $800 million in revenue. I’d say the honest and raw behind-the-scenes accounts he brings us are extremely valuable for those trying to break in and wanting to know what truly happens once you’re on the other side of the velvet rope. The fact he names people specifically is not at all an attempt to impress you. I assure you, impressing you is not his goal or interest. Educating those who DO want to learn, is. Letting go of ego is valuable skill for a writer in this industry. Ones who can’t, never make it. Doug is one of the most humble people I’ve met in L.A. I am proud to have his industry insight on ScriptMag.

  23. Nim Chimpsky

    Wow this is some really self-satisfied name-dropping horsecrap exemplifying precisely why Hollywood is the cynical shitshow it is. Bruce hates a script, orders another one, ends up making the original crappy one, earns the big payday. By the way, did you know I met Bruce? The end.

    Remind me again why this is a career worth wanting by any self-respecting person?

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