Across his career, Bruce Willis earned a reputation for sometimes being on the difficult side – but M Night Shyamalan had a simple, clever approach to directing him.
Even though he already was a sizeable small screen star off the back of the hit TV series Moonlighting, eyebrows were still raised – and that’s some understatement – when 20th Century Fox was persuaded to cough up $5m for him to take the lead in 1988’s Die Hard. It was only Willis’ second major movie role (Blind Date hadn’t hit big, and he was a support player in Sunset) , and here he was, an unproven film leading man earning a blockbuster star’s salary.
In hindsight of course, money very well spent. In the years that followed, Willis would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Die Hard 2, in the summer of 1990, cemented that status quickly.
Along with his star rising though came a growing reputation for not always being the easiest to work with. It’s important to note that not every director has reported this. Yet it’d be fair to say there’s been a smattering of different viewpoints on working with Willis. Furthermore, it’s worth adding that nobody hires a movie star and doesn’t expect them to have input. Harrison Ford for instance spent a lot of time working with director Steven Soderbergh shaping elements of Traffic with a view to taking on the lead role before ultimately passing. A movie star will have their say, and have the clout to get things done.
Sometimes though, it’s how you use it.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco, it’s really some read. It’s a warts and all story of the making of 1990’s infamous box office blunder The Bonfire Of The Vanities, a film where both Willis and Tom Hanks earned $5m apiece in roles that neither was ideally cast for.
It was that book that first raised, in public at least, the idea that Willis wasn’t the easiest movie actor for a director to manage. In one notable incident, Willis was said to have made changes to a particular scene without consulting the director. In this case, the helmer was no wet behind the ears novice. It was Brian De Palma. De Palma, even though he went with the idea that Willis put forward in that instance, would have words in private, and things were apparently never quite the same between the pair.
Just a year later, two other examples came along: firstly, Hudson Hawk. I really have a soft spot for the movie, and this is the only production on which Willis has any kind of screenwriting credit. Still, director Michael Lehmann was hired off the back of Heathers rather than for making Joel Silver-produced summer blockbusters, and this time Willis had clout on set and very much used it. Richard E Grant offers a candid viewpoint on the making of this one in his superb memoir With Nails. When the box office didn’t come up trumps for Hudson Hawk (the misfire at the box office of that particular summer), the stories about Willis gained further fuel.
It didn’t help that his next movie, The Last Boy Scout, was also said to be a difficult shoot. The late director of that one, Tony Scott, hardly had a reputation for taking much nonsense, and would admit he hated working on the movie. Still, it was a solid hit, so everyone involved could move on without taking much damage.
What followed was arguably one of the most interesting periods of Willis’ career. He took risks at a point where his movie career had been damaged off the back of big films underperforming. Over the coming years, stories of his difficult nature on film sets would all but disappear.
He did pick projects with particularly strong, singular directors. Robert Altman gave him a useful cameo in The Player (showing Hollywood that Willis could make fun of himself), whilst Willis was happy to share billing on effects-driven Robert Zemeckis-directed comedy Death Becomes Her (in a role that Kevin Kline was said to have priced himself out of). A quiet, praised pair of supporting turns in Billy Bathgate and Mortal Thoughts completed what some in Hollywood noted as a mini career rehabilitation.
Then Quentin Tarantino came calling, Pulp Fiction happened, and the career reboot was complete. No director was complaining, or if they were, grumbles were kept behind closed doors.
Perhaps too the press had moved on a bit. Willis, for instance, said he had no intention of ever working with Michael Bay again after 1999’s Armageddon, and the pair haven’t gone near each other on a film set again since. Antoine Fuqua would lament that making 2003’s Tears Of The Sun wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but again, it was hardly headline grabbing (although Willis’ lawsuit against the production was).
The first fresh signs of trouble? Well, the writing of Kevin Smith I’d suggest. Not the blow up that’d happen when the pair had to spend a prolonged amount of time in each other company, but the first project they crossed on: Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free & Die Hard if you’re in the US).
Smith did some screenwriting on that, at Willis’ request, and watched as the star threatened to quit the film in a dispute with 20th Century Fox. Willis wanted the changes Smith had penned, Fox didn’t. “Let me ask you a question”, Willis asked the studio executives. “Who’s your second choice to play John McClane”. Willis not only got his way, but he and Smith would announce soon after that they were teaming on a comedy called A Couple Of Dicks, eventually renamed Cop Out.
That’s when it all blew up.
Smith has never directed a studio film since, and in truth you can count the number of shits he gives about that on no hands. He would describe the experience of working with Willis as “soul destroying”, adding “he turned out to be the unhappiest most bitter and meanest emo-bitch I’ve ever met at any job I’ve held down”. Willis didn’t engage much with the accusations, but the film underperformed and the headlines spread.
It’s worth noting that Rian Johnson, who had helmed Looper around the same time, Tweeted that he’d not had a single problem directing Willis. And that seemed to be the story: some sets were troublesome, some not. As Smith has since admitted too, time heals: Willis and Smith are back talking.
But I wanted to end with this tale, which sent me down this particular rabbit hole in the first place. Because I think this is a lovely story, and feels a few inches deeper than the cheaper headlines that sometimes bubble up.
Bottom line: arguably M Night Shyamalan got the best out of Willis, by pretty much matching him toe to toe. Shyamalan has directed him several times (and not many directors can say that), most notably the back-to-back hits The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
When he came to the former, he’d never helmed a picture with a movie star before, and in an interview with Jeremy Kagan for the book Director’s Close Up, he admits there were moments in the early days when he found working with Willis difficult.
But he paints a picture of Willis as a man just insecure about getting the scene right. “His acting style he likes to actually take the piss out of you a little bit”, Shyamalan said. But also there were times when “I see his eyes glazing over. He’s getting emotional. And a lot of times he’d direct it at me, and it took me the first four days to get that this is kind of his thing, you know? Where he would kind of bust me in front of the set”.
It looked like it was going to be a problem until Shyamalan came up with the perfect riposte. If Willis was gearing up to take the piss out of him, he was going to give it back. To the movie star taking home the huge salary.
As such, he gives an example of getting a scene ready to shoot, where Willis prodded Shyamalan, saying “you’re going to be directing commercials after this”. “And everybody on set would go quiet”, Shyamalan noted, as his star gave him shit in front of everyone.
How did he break the tension? Simple. A quiet moment of genius.
He looked Willis in the eye, and simply said two words: “Hudson Hawk”.
The tension broke, and Willis delivered the scene. The resultant film would give Willis both his biggest hit and some of the best reviews of his career. It’s tough on Hudson Hawk, I’d argue. But there’s clearly a reason why Willis and Shyamalan have made four films together – and that little moment might just go to the heart of it.
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