3’ director Jonathan Mostow struggles to keep the
wraps on what becomes of Sarah Connor, her son John, a
new T-800, and just about everything else in the latest
chapter of the James Cameron-created blockbuster franchise.
by Mike Russell
(read the print version here)
Jonathan Mostow won’t tell you anything
juicy about “Terminator 3:
Rise of the Machines” – not that we didn’t
Is Sarah Connor dead
in “T3”? “Boy, I
don’t know if I want to talk about that.”
How do you top “Terminator 2’s” “liquid
metal” villain? “We spent a lot of time thinking
about what would be the next advance in technology – and
what would look cool and visceral and exciting. That’s
about as much as I can tell you.”
The movie’s subtitled “Rise of the Machines.” Do
machines, in fact, rise? “We’re not commenting
on the story – other than to say it’s
worth eight bucks at the box office.”
And so on. This much
we do know: “T3” is set
a decade after “T2,” James Cameron’s
big-budget sequel to his no-budget 1984 masterpiece. John
Connor (Nick Stahl), the future savior of humanity, is
now a young adult living “off the grid” – free
from e-mail, phones, or bank accounts – in
case any more time-traveling robots come back from
And come back to kill
him they do – in the
form of a high-tech female Terminator (Kristanna
once again playing a robot sent to protect Connor.
We know there are explosions.
We know that Arnold’s
now-hopelessly-outmoded Terminator makes off with a coffin
that may or may not contain Sarah Connor’s corpse.
We know that John Connor finds a love interest in the form
of Kate, played by Claire Danes. We’re pretty sure
that Arnold, reprogrammed by Loken’s T-X, switches
sides throughout the film. And we’re kind of
sure that at least some of the apocalyptic
mayhem everyone was
trying to prevent in the first two “Terminators” comes
to pass in “T3”’s final act.
We also know that James
Cameron had nothing to do with the movie. Instead, well-regarded
Mostow (who wrote and helmed the submarine
thriller “U-571” and
the minor suspense classic “Breakdown”)
took the reins.
On this point Mostow
is completely forthcoming: When he agreed to re-write
and direct “T3,” he knew
what he was getting into. “I’m a fan of the
previous two ‘Terminator’ movies, so I knew
this movie couldn’t simply be a re-tread – because
then why bother?” he says. “I realized when
I took this movie that I would be a little bit in some
sort of spotlight – certainly for having the temerity
to step into Jim Cameron’s shoes. But I realized, ‘You
know what? I’m simply a fan of the “Terminator” movies
making the movie that I, as a fan, would want to see next
in the series.’”
Between promotional fetes
and bouts with the film’s
final mix, Mostow talked to In Focus about secrecy, ushering,
Arnold, Kurt, “Breakdown,” leadership, art,
and action – all while remaining remarkably, um,
careful not to reveal any of “T3”’s
more dramatic plot points.
So you produced “The Game” with
David Fincher. David Fincher took over a major sci-fi franchise
from James Cameron. Now you’re taking over a major
sci-fi franchise from James Cameron. Have you and Fincher
talked about this at all?
JONATHAN MOSTOW: Well, the movie “The Game” is
the movie that I developed, and then I left it to go do “Breakdown”….
Actually, I’ll answer your question much more simply:
No, I have not spoken to him about it. How about that?
Fair enough. You and your production team have done a
excellent job of keeping the final
of “Rise of the Machines” — which, one
presumes, involves the rise of the machines — a closely
Well, we’ve kept the whole thing secret. Where do
you know about anything else?
Well, there you go.
But “T3”’s international trailer had
images of nukes going off and rubble and men waving tattered
flags. I’m aware that may all be a dream sequence — but “T3”’s
last 20 minutes have been described as “harrowing.” What
exactly are we looking at there?
Well, if I told you, I’d be giving away too much.
I always feel like the story should be the star of the
movie, and I don’t think it’s good to over-expose
I remember reading
that one of the first things you did when you got the “T3” gig
was that you holed up and worked with the script for
Oh, absolutely. What magazine is this for, by the way?
Oh, good — I started my movie career in exhibition.
I was an usher at the York Square Theater in New Haven,
Connecticut. In fact, when we made “T3,” we
had to work under a secret title — so we called it “York
Square Movie.” Nobody had any idea what the hell
When you were working as an usher, what
was your favorite film you saw there?
My two favorite movies that I worked as an usher — which,
second to being a director, is the most-fun job I ever
had — were “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “La
Cage Aux Folles,” the original French film. I was
16 years old, but they were both movies I could watch over
Your parents are academics and you went
to Harvard. Given that resume, your films have a surprisingly
[Laughs] You know, it’s gonna sound odd coming from
me, but I’m personally opposed to…. There’s
no way to quote me on this without my sounding like a jackass:
There’s a certain kind of gratuitous violence — when
the entertainment value is essentially to watch someone
suffer — that I find offensive.
And in the case
of “U-571,” you’re telling
a historically based movie — and if it’s a
war picture, then you’re obligated to show certain
kinds of violence, because to not show that would be dishonest
to the subject matter.
Let me answer that question in a different way that isn’t
so high-falutin’: I may have an unusual background
for a movie director, but I’m a movie lover just
like anyone else, so that’s the movie fan in me making
those movies — not the academic.
“Terminator 3” fans are probably going to be surprised about “La
Cage Aux Folles” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
The movies that I liked best — and the movies that I try to make — are
movies where you don’t know what’s going to happen. And those were
both two entertaining movies where they had a certain dramatic tension — even
though one was in fact a comedy. They keep you engaged.
Back when I was an usher, that particular
theater didn’t run big action
movies, so I didn’t necessarily grow up on a diet of those kind of movies — at
least in that theater.
action movies just weren’t nearly as big back then.
Yeah, right. I remember when “Towering Inferno” came out, and it
cost $10 million — and people were astonished that a movie could cost
Let’s talk about “Breakdown.” It strikes me that the comparisons
to “Duel” are not entirely off the mark: Both films play to a sort
of urban fear; both films are desert-highway-bound. (There’s also a bit
of “Deliverance” and “Hills Have Eyes” in there, too — with
the themes of haves and murderous have-nots.) Were those sorts of inspirations
in the back of your mind when you were writing the film?
“Breakdown” was fueled, probably, by my own paranoia just driving
through the desert. When you live out in the West, you can sometimes drive for
and see nothing — except maybe some broken-down trailer a half-mile
off the road. And your mind starts to wonder: “Who lives there? And
why would someone want to live there?” I think the reason people
connected with “Breakdown” is
that it fed into a universal anxiety I think all people have when they’re
traveling far from home.
One of the first films I saw as a kid was
Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” which
was made in the ’30s. I’ll never forget the feeling: The movie takes
place in a train, and all of a sudden this woman who’s on the train vanishes,
and no one can find her. And that just absolutely captivated me. I suppose that
was lurking in my subconscious two decades later, when I wrote “Breakdown.”
I remember that “Breakdown” helped contribute to my being paranoid
on a road trip once. We pulled over somewhere and I was unusually, um … alert.
So many people tell me their own little private “Breakdown” stories — how
their car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and they immediately
started thinking about the movie.
done your part to fuel urban paranoia.
The thing is, it’s there already. These movies don’t create it — I
think these movies give people a way of actually working through their own unrealized
anxieties to achieve some form of resolution. That was the same way the Hitchcock
movies worked — they didn’t create the anxiety in us; we had the
anxiety already. They just gave us an outlet to explore it — and walk away
thinking we’d conquered our own fears.
The “Terminator” series
taps into a cultural anxiety about apocalypse pretty
And unfortunately, that’s an anxiety that hasn’t gone
I think one of the reasons that “Terminator” has been so huge and
appealing all over the world is that it operates on so many different levels.
It has this time-travel story that really captures your imagination; it has the
fun of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role that was custom-made for him; it
has humor; it has pathos; and it’s fueled, at some subconscious
level, by an anxiety we all have about the technological revolution
and how it increasingly,
every year, seems to threaten to overwhelm us.
So many of us are already prisoners of our
own e-mail. We’re increasingly
at the mercy of machines and computers.
And if the “T3” international trailer and the trailer that’s
in front of “The Matrix” are to be believed, you’re really
playing that up — this is the movie where things really
get out of control. We actually see that happen this time.
Yeah. I mean, the previous two movies talked about it — and
so we try to take it to the next level.
One last thing
about “Breakdown”: Kurt Russell is, for my money,
one of the most underrated leading men working in Hollywood, even though he keeps
turning out solid, simple, invisible acting — “Dark Blue” is
a great example. You really used him well in “Breakdown.”
I always thought that Kurt was truly one of the great cinema
actors of all time. And when I say that, I mean that he understands
medium and he understands
how the camera works. He’s able to convey ideas and emotions with no dialogue — with
a close-up, with the way that he moves — with tremendous
The trick of film acting is to not act — the trick is simply to behave in the most realistic way possible, and let the film capture that behavior. So
few actors truly trust in that process; they get nervous and they start “acting.” It’s
the difference between a performance that allows you to
just dissolve into the experience of the movie at a visceral
level, versus sort of watching at an objective
distance. And I always prefer movies that you experience rather than you just watch.
In the case of “Breakdown” — which is a movie all told from
the main character’s point of view — I wanted an actor who would
really let us get inside his head. And “Breakdown” has very little
dialogue in it — it’s a very, very visual movie.
So Kurt was my first choice.
He’s done those fantastic DVD commentaries with John Carpenter where they
talk about the importance of “keeping it simple.”
I know. In fact, I ran into Kurt recently — we hadn’t seen each other
for a while, because he’s been living up in Canada — and we were
remembering J.T. Walsh. One of the reasons Kurt so loved J.T. — and felt
J.T. may have been one of the best movie actors ever — was
because he understood economy and simplicity: He understood
how to boil something down to its minimum
essence and let the camera capture that, and trusted in
It was really
a shame when Walsh died — because he was just starting to
get recognition for that in “Breakdown” and “Red
I was glad that at least he got to the point that he finally
was getting notice for having this remarkable talent.
I always loved
that little speech in “U-571” about leadership — where
Keitel is telling Matthew McConaughey that the skipper
is always right and can never show doubt. That sounded
like something John Milius might have written.
I knew it was the core of the movie — and writing
things like that is always tricky, because you try not
to make them phony and you try not to gild the lily.
I had the luxury, in making that movie,
of having with me a retired WWII submariner who was later
up to become
the Navy — you know, the guy
controlling all the missiles in the whole Cold War. And we had long conversations
about that scene. His son had become a Naval aviator, and [the former submariner]
showed me a speech that he’d read on an aircraft carrier on the occasion
of a milestone in his son’s career. Contained in that speech were the seeds
of what wound up being [Keitel’s] speech in the movie.
We worked that speech over and over and
over just to get it just right — to
boil it down, again, to the most economical way of conveying
How much do ideas like that apply to the
Completely — it’s very much the same situation. I mean, obviously,
it’s not life-and-death stakes; sometimes people
in Hollywood forget that.
a movie of “T3”’s scope.
But the dynamic is the same. The military people I had
working on “U-571” all
had the same comment — “This is the closest thing that I’ve
seen to the military outside of the military.” Because a film set is run
in a very hierarchical way, where ultimately the director, like the general,
bears responsibility for the outcome. And you’re responsible for making
sure that the efforts of — in the case of “Terminator” — maybe
1,200 people are coordinated in a way that appears to be
an effortless narrative.
The director needs to make, I
estimated once, between 1,000
to 3,000 decisions a day — and they range from “Where does the camera go?” to “Should
this shirt be red or blue?” to “Should the color on the wall be white
or off-white?” You get a million questions like that.
Conceivably, you could answer one question wrong and sink
That’s sort of the tremendous mental challenge of directing — and
yet, at the same time, you have to keep the story on track, because that’s
what people care about. People don’t just go see movies to see cool special
effects and things blow up — they go because they want to be transported
away for two hours with a story that captures their imagination. Your job as
a director is to never forget that, and yet at the same time to manage this thing
that’s akin to an army.
There were seven
years between “Flight of the Black Angel” and “Breakdown” — such
a long stretch of time that many people mistakenly see “Breakdown” as
your directorial debut. What were you up to during those
I was discovering how difficult it was to make the transition
from having made a small movie to a big movie in Hollywood.
Usually, the way people
do it is
they make a small movie to get some attention, then they
some project that
may not have a very good script — and they hope they get lucky. I love
movies too much to ever make one where I’m not in love with the story,
so I became involved in developing some movies that ultimately got made without
me — because I didn’t have enough credibility
at that point to get financing.
Are we talking
about “The Game”?
Yeah. I mean, I spent three-and-a-half years developing “The Game” — and
ultimately I left to go direct “Breakdown” because I got tired of “The
Game” not happening.
Hollywood is a very hot-and-cold place — and I’ve been out in the
cold to understand how that feels. My definition of “success” is
simply being able to make a living doing what you love to do, and I love to make
movies, so I just consider myself lucky. Because the alternative is you sit around
waiting for your phone to ring [laughs] — and sometimes
you can go a long time waiting for it to ring.
It strikes me
that “T3” could be something like the third “Planet
of the Apes” film, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” — because
the first two movies closed a narrative loop, you have
an opportunity to blow the story wide open by taking a
creative left turn.
Because it’s been a decade since the last movie, I was interested in the
character of John Connor — who was a young kid when
we last saw him and is now a young adult. How would that
affect your life to be living not knowing
if a machine from the future was about to show up and try
to kill you? And have you successfully changed the future
when you were a kid, or does this destiny
still await you? And what kind of person would that be?
I found that quite fascinating — and
so I used that as the starting point to tell a story that
would take the mythology to the next step in the evolution
of the story.
the press materials, John Connor is “off the grid.” He’s
just completely gone anti-technology.
Right. In the world where everything’s wired and connected, he’s
got to live an existence where, if the machines send a Terminator back to find
him, they can’t find him. So all the normal things we take for granted — having
a telephone, having an address, using e-mail, having a bank account — those
are all things that can be used to trace you, so he doesn’t
have any of those things. He lives completely out of the
mainstream of society.
When you holed
up and re-tooled the “T3” script, were there
any elements of the early drafts you were adamant had
to go go go?
The script I inherited had some good ideas in it, but I
had a different direction that I wanted to go in. So it
much a reinvention.
Were there any elements that you were bound
and determined to add or restore to the series at any cost?
Well, I knew there were certain things that had to be in
the movie — because,
just as a fan, I’d want to see those things. It’s
balancing that with putting in a lot of new and exciting
things that make the movie a surprise
and elevate it above being a re-hash.
When these movies
were originally contracted, they were going to be two
back-to-back sequels — a “T3” and a “T4.” Is
that still the plan?
Well, no. Originally, they talked about shooting both movies
together, and I thought it was presumptuous to make a sequel
before “T3” comes out — let
the audience decide if the movie’s good enough to
warrant a sequel, and then do a sequel at that point.
I also felt, frankly, that the movie was
so complex that I didn’t want
to dilute my attention between two movies. I wanted to put all of my attention
on making “T3” as good as I possibly could.
You’ve said “U-571” tested highly as a women’s movie.
Any chance of that happening with “T3”?
Look: On the surface, “T3” would seem to be a guy’s movie,
and it certainly satisfies that audience. I think women are going to be pleasantly
surprised. Um…. I’m just trying to choose my words here…. The
women who have seen it all say the same thing: They’re
all surprised at how much they enjoyed it.
Claire Danes has said in interviews that
she becomes something of an ass-kicking Linda Hamilton
character in this movie.
She sounded very
proud of it, too.
When I came to her with the role, I said, “Look, you’re going to
get to do everything in this movie — you laugh, you cry, you run, you jump,
you shoot, you get shot at…. Anything that somebody could do in a movie,
you do in this movie.”
Does the film play into any of the Cameron
thematic obsessions, where men sacrifice themselves to
make women stronger?
I don’t know. I mean, I never thought about that.
[laughs] No. Yeah.
Now let’s talk about the “Terminatrix.” In an early script
draft, she was some kind of energy being — “sentient frequency matter” or
something — who could control other machines. But that’s changed
somewhat, hasn’t it? In trailers she’s seen melting and looking all
You asked about the original script, and the original script
exist any more. There’s some ideas that are contained
from the original screenplay, but that is just one of hundreds
of things that were tossed out.
the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it strikes me that
there are really two ways he works with
remain nameless) or he enthusiastically subverts his will
to the director’s
vision. (I’m thinking specifically here of Arnold’s work with McTiernan,
Cameron and Verhoeven. And maybe Ivan Reitman.) But it’s
always clearly one or the other. Which sort of director
My attitude from the beginning was, “This is the role that Arnold originated.” We’re
coming up on the second decade of him being known as this
I had a particular vision for the movie,
so when I met
with Arnold, I said, “Look:
Here’s the movie that I want to tell” — and I figured if he
liked it and was on board with it, great, and if he didn’t
like it, then I was the wrong filmmaker. And happily, he
was very enthusiastic about my approach.
Arnold was tremendously supportive. The
way a movie works is, for better or for worse, everybody
has to basically
the filmmaker — and
hope that filmmaker has in his or her head a really good story to tell and knows
how to tell it. That’s why I could never be an actor — I don’t
think I would be able to trust the filmmaker [laughs].
Arnold was perhaps the most supportive actor
I’ve ever worked with. His
number-one concern was making sure that I had what I needed — he
was always making sure that I had enough money and enough
time, and if I needed more takes
or something, he was always happy to do them.
The first time I was doing a lot of takes
of something — maybe I was on
my 10th take or something — I went to him and I said, “Gee, I’m
sorry we’re having to do so many takes,” and he said, “Are
you kidding? You can keep going until you get what you want. It’s like
doing repetitions in the gym — you’ve just gotta keep doing it until
you get it right.” And I realized at that point that
he was completely, 100-percent behind the movie.
What’s been the biggest technical challenge of “T3”? You’ve
had a pretty aggressive technical learning curve in your films — from
a non-effects movie shot in the desert to this in a couple
One of the fun things about being a director is that the
subject matter of the movie often takes you to worlds you’d
never get to explore otherwise. And in this movie, the
making of it took me into this whole world of CG.
I’d done a lot of effects shots in “U-571,” but it was primarily
miniature work. So I had to kind of engage in a crash course in self-study to
get myself up to speed and make sure I knew what I was talking about. I was lucky
enough to be working with the top creative people in the world, you know? Industrial
Light and Magic, Stan Winston—
Stan Winston, baby!
Yeah, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Did Winston just have a gas designing those
new Terminator robots?
Yeah. It was fun. The great thing about making movies is
that you get an idea, and the you get to make that idea
tremendous expense — fortunately, it’s somebody else’s
From what I’ve read, Winston had a hell of a good time retrofitting the
whole line of Terminators — sort of building backwards
from the ones in the first film.
Yeah. I’m somebody who’s heard and read all about Stan Winston and
seen all the movies he’s worked on. I’d be sitting in a room working
with Stan and ILM and I’d have to pinch myself and realize that I wasn’t
just there as somebody who won a movie contest and got to fly to Hollywood to
see this stuff — truly a through-the-looking-glass
it like, on this film, having your every creative move
followed by the Internet?
The thing there is that I just decided to tune it out.
I can’t control
what people are going to think about me, or how they might
compare this film against the other films; I simply worried
about making the best film that I could
possibly make. So I tuned it out.
Sometimes I look at the sites, and I can
read that I’m the greatest person
in the world, or I’m an idiot. And it makes me chuckle — I’m
entertained by the fact that there are people who would
take it so seriously, frankly.
Well, you must have been gratified when
you and Arnold showed up at that San Diego comic convention
God, I felt like I was introducing The Beatles. It was
He still has
that pull, all these years later — this almost
sort of unholy draw.
Well, you have to go back to John Wayne to find an actor
who has that kind of longevity. What actor has created
iconic — that transcend
cultural and political and geographic boundaries? I mean, everybody in the world
In your prior
movies, you demonstrated that elusive “eye” when it
comes to shooting action scenes. I’m thinking of smart action directors
like Martin Campbell, Andrew Davis and McTiernan — guys who really know
where to put the camera and shoot action clearly. What does it take to develop
I just have a very strong sense of geography.
kind of a lost art these days.
It is, actually…. You know, the concept of “Terminator” is
rather bizarre: You have a robot from the future that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger
traveling through time to assassinate somebody. So if you over-stylize the shooting
of the movie, I think it actually steals away from the movie. What you want to
do is make it seem as realistic as possible, so the audience can lose themselves
in the fantasy of the movie. So I like to shoot in a way that draws the audience
into the story as opposed to showing off — “Look at this cool shot
I learned at film school.”
You also worked briefly with Roger Corman.
Is he still providing a vital film school for rising talent?
Well, what Roger does is basically create an environment
where, again, you’re
playing with somebody else’s money. They’re teeny budgets, but there’s
a great tremendous energy because, you know, everybody’s young and they’re
all new to Hollywood and they’re all trying to make their mark — and
a lot of relationships get formed that last for entire careers. I mean, I’m
still in touch with people I knew from my Corman days. I wasn’t there very
long, actually. It’s sort of like a graduate school, I suppose you’d
say, for filmmaking.
IMDb says Arnold plays a T-850 instead of
the T-800 he played in the first two films. What sort of
did he get
Well, he’s not a T-850 — I don’t know
where they’re getting
that. I don’t think I can answer that without getting
into too much that I don’t want to get into. I’m
a lousy interview subject when we talk about this.