This is one of my favorite Hollywood true stories. It involves mega action producer, Joel Silver. Now, like most power players, Joel has a rep. Some good. Some negative. Some deserved. Some not. I was once sitting in on an American Film Institute discussion panel where Joel actually said, “Hollywood is a venal town. I’d stab myself in the back to get ahead.” The line got a big laugh. And despite him having been the man who fired me from Die Hard 2 only days after I’d gotten the picture green lit, I’ve always had a fondness for both his blunt honesty and his talent for making sure the money ended up on the screen, which is what this piece is about.
Okay. If you’ve seen Die Hard, you’ll remember this scene. If you haven’t, rent it, watch it, and this story will be even more amusing.
The scene I’m speaking of takes place at the moment where Hans Gruber and his crew of thieves-posing-as-terrorists set off the load of C4 planted under the roof of the Nakatomi Tower. There’s a massive explosion. The helicopter crashes. And we see the opulent lobby of the Nakatomi Corporation wrecked, fires erupting all around, followed by the flame-retarding sprinkler system dousing the set in water. I say “set” because that’s precisely what the lobby was. A huge, three-story set built on a Twentieth Century Fox soundstage. All written scenes taking place on that set and involving the cast, including Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, and Alan Rickman, were already in the can as we like to say. All that was left was the scene where the roof blows and the set is destroyed. This is when the special effects crew moves in and rigs the set for more explosions, fire, and water. Because this is a single-take event, multiple cameras and operators are employed to make certain that the total destruction is captured on film. The set is cleared of non-essential crew. The director calls action. And blammo. Up goes the room in what was supposed to be total carnage. The director yells cut. Applause.
But Joel Silver wasn’t applauding. His keen producer’s eye had caught a mistake. Or as Joel viewed it: Evidence of sabotage.
Joel called for the entire crew to assemble on the nearly-demolished set, gathering the mob around a gorgeous, leather Roche-Bobois sofa. Estimated value, five thousand dollars. The couch, despite the conflagration that they’d all just witnessed, was in showroom condition. Untouched by destructive fire, explosives, or water.
“I wanna know,” Joel shouted, “Who just ruined my shot!”
You see, Joel had been around more than a few movie sets. He knew how things worked. He understood how the occasional underhanded crew member operated. In this case, he suspected that one crew member had paid off another crew member on the special effects crew to make certain that the five-thousand-dollar sofa survived the wreckage.
“Somebody on this crew,” announced Joel, “Decided to furnish their home at the expense of the movie.”
With that, Joel produced a bottle of lighter fluid, doused the expensive sofa in accelerant, and tossed a match to it. The lesson ended as the couch erupted in flame. The set was cleared again. And camera operators were ordered to “roll film.”
Now go back, watch the movie. There’s not much left of the scene, cut for time and context. But there are a pair of wide shots showing the destruction of the Nakatomi Corporation’s lobby. The first shot reveals the couch in question, unscarred from the planned wreckage. Moments later, when that same wide-shot returns, we see the sofa again. Aflame.