Die Hard (1988) / Jan de Bont, ASC

, Episode #70

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Jan de Bont, ASC, connects with AC via Skype to discuss his work on John McTiernan’s Die Hard, now considered a classic of the action genre. Citing an affinity for a proactive, participatory camera, De Bont details how he and McTiernan sought “the right style for the right moment,” and explains how production designer Jackson De Govia and editor Frank Urioste helped them achieve that. He also discusses the influence of John Frankenheimer, his approach to lighting the skyscraper interiors and exteriors (including balancing the two in shot), working with Panavision anamorphic lenses, and lighting the massive atrium set.

  • New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) witnesses the terrorists’ brutality. “When we built the lighting into the set, we also built in the shadows,” says De Bont.
  • Terrorist leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, right) schemes with his henchman Karl (Alexander Godunov). De Bont used Panavision’s C-Series anamorphics for close-ups and reserved E-Series lenses for wider shots.
  • Karl (Alexander Godunov) prepares for action. De Bont recalls that most of his six-week prep involved working with production designer Jackson De Govia to integrate lighting — including many fluorescents — into the set.
  • McClane (Bruce Willis) makes a play in an elevator shaft.
  • Jan de Bont, ASC (right), and his crew prep a scene with Willis. The cinematographer was also the A-camera operator on the show.
  • McClane (Bruce Willis) communicates with authorities on the streets below. The filmmakers strove to make exteriors visible in interior shots as often as possible.

About the Project

While visiting his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company Christmas party in Los Angeles, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) stumbles onto a terrorist attack led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), whose mercenaries take dozens of hostages, including McClane’s wife. During the ensuing standoff between the terrorists within the skyscraper and the authorities outside, McClane maneuvers to outsmart Gruber and rescue the hostages.

About the Cinematographer

Born in the Netherlands, Jan de Bont, ASC, started working behind the camera on Dutch productions in the 1960s. Early collaborations with director and fellow Dutchman Paul Verhoeven included short films and features, and it was one of the latter, The 4th Man, that brought De Bont to the attention of Die Hard director John McTiernan. The cinematographer’s feature credits also include The Jewel of the Nile, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October and Basic Instinct. He transitioned to directing on the action thriller Speed.

American Cinematographer interviews cinematographers, directors and other filmmakers to take you behind the scenes on major studio movies, independent films and popular television series.

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