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 uncut Web-only 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.
You and your
production team have done a pretty excellent job of keeping
the final 20 minutes
of “Rise of the
Machines” – which, one presumes, involves the
rise of the machines – a closely guarded secret.
Well, we’ve kept the whole thing secret. Where do
you know about anything else?
Well, there you go.
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.
Oh, absolutely. What magazine is this for, by the way?
In Focus. It's
the magazine of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
It's the cover story, actually.
Oh, good – I started my movie career in exhibition.
I was an usher at the York Square Theatre in New Haven,
Conn. 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
“Terminator” fans are probably going to be
surprised about “La Cage Aux Folles” and “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.
Back when I was an usher, that particular
run big action movies.
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 that much.
Your parents are academics and you went to Harvard. Given
that resume, your films have a surprisingly high squib
[Laughs] You know, 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.
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.
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 ...
“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 100 miles 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
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.”
done your part to fuel urban paranoia.
The thing is, it’s there already. 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
I think one of the reasons that “Terminator” has
been so huge 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. He understands the 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 economy.
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.” 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. “Breakdown” has very little
dialogue in it – it’s a very, very visual movie.
So Kurt was my first choice.
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 World War II submariner who
was later up to
become a vice admiral in 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 that idea.
How much do ideas like that apply to the directing process
Completely – it’s very much the same situation.
I mean, obviously, it’s not life-and-death stakes,
but the dynamic is the same. 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?” Conceivably, you could
answer one question wrong and sink the movie.
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. 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.
When you holed
up and re-tooled the “T3” script,
were there any elements 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.
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?
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.
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. 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.
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.
There’re 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
He runs the show (in films which shall 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 were you?
My attitude from the beginning was, “This is the
role that Arnold originated.” 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
throw down their chips with the filmmaker – and hope
that filmmaker has in his or her head a really good story
to tell. That’s why I could never be an actor – I
don’t think I’d be able to trust the filmmaker
Arnold was perhaps the most supportive actor
ever worked with. He was always making sure that I had
enough money and enough time. 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.” 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 of films.
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
[on computer-generated effects] 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. 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 experience.
it like, on this film, having your every creative move
followed by the Internet?
I just decided to tune it out. I can’t control
what people are going to think about me, or how they
this film against the other films; I simply worried about
making the best film that I could possibly make.
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,
Well, you must have been gratified when you and Arnold
showed up at that San Diego comic convention recently and
people were just out of their seats for Schwarzenegger.
God, I felt like I was introducing The Beatles. It was
intense. You have to go back to John Wayne to find an actor
who has that kind of longevity. What actor has created
roles that are so iconic – that transcend cultural
and political and geographic boundaries? I mean, everybody
in the world knows “Terminator.”
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 that “eye”?
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.”
The Internet Movie Database says Arnold plays a T-850
instead of the T-800 he played in the first two films.
What sort of an upgrade did he get there?
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.