Interview : Jonathan Mostow

Jonathan Mostow has the unenviable task of directing one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, but it’s a challenge he is prepared to face, and does so with a smile on his face. He talked to PAUL FISCHER.

So what about the homo-erotic sub-text of this film?
Mostow:That question actually beat out the guy who complained why there wasn’t more nudity. Wow. Well you know what, I’m going to fall back on Fellini who said “I leave it to the critics to analyze all that stuff”. Boy… I’m just a normal guy. I have no idea where that came from. Look, the black leather jacket and sunglasses, I didn’t create that. That was from some place else. I can’t answer that! This is too torrid! I’m stumped.

What is the heart of the film?
Mostow:The heart of the film is the story. And within that, it is the story of John Connor. A young man coming of age and coming to grips with his own purpose in life. What I love about the Terminator movies is that people think that the Terminator movies are about great visual effects or stunts or what not. But if you think about them, what really separates them is that they’ve got great stories, but when you get down to the essence of what the stories are, T1is a story of a young woman discovering her inner strength. T2 is a story of a mother reconciling with her son. T3 is a story about a young man coming of age and coming to grips with his purpose in life. Those would describe small independent movies at Sundance. And yet, that’s really what the core of each of those movies is, and it’s what gives them some kind of heart and soul.

There’s nothing small about this movie.
Mostow:Actually, technically it could be because it’s an independent production. We technically could enter (Sundance), but I don’t think anyone wants to, but we technically could enter this movie in Sundance.

When you’re making a film with this size and money, what added pressures are there on you?
Mostow:I suppose career wise there’s pressure, but I’ve made movies for a million dollars, and I’ve now made a movie for a little bit more than a million dollars. It’s always the same, you always feel like you don’t have enough time and money. You don’t come to work going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got all this money I have to worry about’. You come to work going, ‘I need more time and more money’. Because whatever resources you’re given, you’re always trying to push the envelope. There’s no prize you get when you come back to the studio at the end and say here’s your refund of what we didn’t spend. You always want to make sure that whatever resources you have, you’re going as far as can be gone with it. The only difference with this movie is whenever the words start to come out of my mouth, or I start complaining… my other movies, I sorta had the moral imperative to say I don’t have enough time or money. With this movie, if those words started to come out my mouth I’d sound like a major jerk. So I had to kinda censor myself. But you know, the moment… once you pull the trigger and say ok, I’m doing it, it just becomes like any other movie. What was most surprising to me is that I felt no different making this movie then I felt making any other movie I’ve ever made, even my micro-budget things I’ve worked on. It’s the same problems. It’s like, Where am I going to put the camera? What am I going to do in this scene? How am I going to make that scene work? How am I going to make the third act pace right? It’s just film making.

You didn’t have any concern about stepping on the shoes of another director? The two previous films were so closely linked to James Cameron.
Mostow:He must have great shoes because everyone keeps asking me what it’s like to wear them. Yeah, of course. Honestly, when I was first offered this movie, my first reaction was, that’s crazy, of course I won’t do that. What director would be crazy enough to step into those shoes? And then as I began thinking about it, I just got interested. I was a Terminator fan myself. Twelve years have passed and that’s pretty unusual to do a sequel that that’s much later. The character John Connor… he was a kid, and now he’s a young adult. And I was thinking of that Michael Apted documentary 28 Up, that’s already interesting. How am I comparing that to Terminator 3? That’s interesting enough to think about that change and now you add a component. Here’s a character that for a decade has been walking around wondering if he’s the leader of the world, or is he a shmuck who lives under a bridge and rides his motorcycle around with sort of paranoid delusions of machines showing up from the future. That’s probably about the most heavy-duty existential dilemma I could possibly imagine. So that was for me, very interesting and once I started thinking about what the story could be and the cool things that you could do with it, I just became obsessed with that I wanted to make that movie. And there’s other considerations going on in my head, and my history has always been to sort of ignore the conventional wisdom. Breakdown was turned down by every studio. I had studio executive and studio presidents look me in the eye and say, ‘Jonathon, if you do this movie, you’ll never work in this town again. This is a bad movie and you shouldn’t do it.’ When I did U-571… when I was starting to write that, people said ‘that’s crazy, no one’s ever gonna make a World War II movie, and it’s shot on water’.

Brits loved that.
Mostow:The Brits are nothing compared to the hard-core Terminator fans if you get something wrong with the Terminator franchise. But anyway, it’s so hard to find a story that you can care about. Once I found a story that I cared about I just tuned out the others.

But it couldn’t have been made without Arnold.
Mostow:No, absolutely not. How could you make it without him.

How do you feel working with Arnold when, to a lot of people, he’s more important than you are?
Mostow:Yeah, I used to joke with him that I feel like I’m directing the story of the Bible but I’ve actually got Moses playing Moses. Here’s the thing about Arnold, and it’s true of every major movie star that’s had longevity. What makes a movie star have longevity? It’s having a batting average with your movies where you have a vast preponderance of success over failure and if you look at Arnold’s complete body of work, there’s a vast preponderance of success. How do you get that success? Do you get that success because you have a good publicity machine? Do you have that success because you got lucky? No, you get it because you picked the right movies. Then you made sure that the stories were well told. And any body that is smart about filmmaking understands that film is ultimately a director’s medium. Plays might be a writer’s medium but films are a directors medium. And if you want to have a film that has a shot at actually being good, then you’ve got to hire the best director you can that’s most appropriate for that project. Then back their play, give them all the resources you could possibly give them and then cross your fingers that they don’t screw it up and that they actually had an idea in their head that was right. The truly successful and great actors have always historically put themselves in the hands of filmmakers whom they trusted. The leap Arnold had to make was to trust me. But it’s one of those things where you’re in for a penny, in for a pound. He was great. It could have been the opposite. Arnold would have had every right and authority to just sort of run the whole show. But you can also go out and hire some kid from MTV to direct a movie and tell him how to do everything and then you wind up with some shlocky picture. People that are smart about the process understand that it’s the directors medium and you’ve got to support the director in that way. I wouldn’t have done the movie if… I suppose I would have no way of knowing how it would be on the set until I got there but I… just from what I could tell about Arnold and our discussions before I committed to the movie, I could tell that he was gonna be that kinda guy. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. And he was great.

How much attention did you pay to Arnold’s catch phrases? And creating new ones?
Mostow:I’ll answer after taking advantage of talking to everybody face to face to really hope that… I know you guys won’t give out plot spoilers, even on these lines, my feeling is that they only work if the audience discovers them. Like ‘I’ll be back’, nobody had an idea that that was going to catch on. No body wrote about that.

I won’t give anything away, but I will say that there are catch phrases.
Mostow:Totally, there are catch phrases. We actually gave attention to it because, again, this isn’t a bound movie where it’s such a formula that you could figure out. Part of the fun of this was figuring out, like what should be new, and what should we pay homage to in the previous movies. Having a certain number of catch phrases felt like absolutely something we had to do, and that was incredibly fun. And they’re really fragile because if it looks like we’re pushing them on the audience I think the audience steps back and goes ‘eh, I don’t like that’. You saw it even in our Christmas trailer that ended with Arnold saying, ‘She’ll be back’. Some of the theaters I went into, people jeered that line. They went ‘eh’ and they groaned because it felt like we were just shoving that in their face. So that was a good sort of wake up call to realize that you had to be really smart about it. There’s got to be things that the audience discovers, but we absolutely, well you saw from last night, we definitely worked in a few.

How tough was it to maintain the timeline because even some things had to be fudged a little??
Mostow:One of the difficulties of the time line is actually a result of a casting choice that (James) Cameron made. I’ve never spoken to him about it, but I think I understand why it was made. He originally wrote John Connor in the script as ten years old, but when he went to find an actor, my guess is that he couldn’t find a ten year old that could handle the complexity to that role. So he had to go older, and so he picked Eddie Furlong. He played, in my mind thirteen… fourteen… or something like that. And so when it came time to the sequel, I had the problem of, wait a second, do I stay faithful to the screenplay and maintain the timeline that way? Or do I stay faithful to the movie where I’m just going from what he looks like, and he looks like he’s three or four years older than what was in the script. So I chose to go based on what Eddie Furlong looked like, so for the real hard core fans, they may find an inconsistency. Numerically we tried to dodge the issue as much as we could, but that’s wherein the timeline has an inconsistency.

Was Edward Furlong at all considered for this?
Mostow:Yeah, absolutely, but you know… the whole reason goes back to why I was interested in doing the movie in the first place, because of the psychological change. Biologically, yes, he is John Connor and he’s the same person technically, but from a character point of view, he’s a very different character now. So I felt I wanted to throw out all assumptions and start from scratch and say who’s the best actor to play this part. Here I have an actor, who at the age of 22 is literally carrying the weight on his shoulders. I needed an actor who had a tremendous amount of soulfulness and is also a hell of an actor. Nick Stahl to me seemed, based on the work I’d seen in his priors and meeting with him and him reading some scenes for me, to be unique in that at 22, it’s very hard to find actors that have that kind of soulfulness to them. And he does, he’s been a working actor since the age of thirteen and he’s lived by himself since the age of fifteen. And, you know, he’s missed out on high school and college and he carries that with him into his work.

Was there any consideration, at any point, of bringing Linda Hamilton back?
Mostow:Yeah, that was interesting because when I… you know, because I didn’t originate this, Jim Cameron created this thing, so it was about a two month curve for me, as I had to sort of really get my head into it and figure out what is the story I really wanted to tell. When I initially signed on to the movie, I said ok, here are a couple of conditions. I have to have Linda Hamilton. Absolutely had to have her. But then as I began to think about the movie and the characters who are developing, I realized that… you know, while John Connor had had this very interesting psychological evolution since T2, Linda Hamilton’s psychological evolution had happened between T1 and T2. In T1 she’s sort of this naïve innocent and we meet her in T2, she’s this hardened, frustrated, angry woman who’s battle hardened. And I thought, in between, what would have happened to her over the last ten years, and I realized, not too much. She’d still be pretty much on guard, you know, hardened kind of person. So I realized that the story, emotionally, had to focus on John Connor. Sarah Connor would become kind of a third wheel in that. Linda Hamilton is too important to the franchise to stick her in as the third wheel. So then I realized, you know what, it’s actually better if she’s not in the movie. Then I had to figure a way to sort of still acknowledge her presence and deal with that so that we felt whatever impact she should have on John Connor. That’s how we would up with the scene in the cemetery.

How difficult was the moment when you had to fire your actress?
Mostow:It was heartbreaking because initially I wanted Claire Danes and then sort of like Hollywood deal making silliness, it didn’t work out. So then I started casting for the part and I found this actress, Sophia Bush, who I thought was fabulous, and still do. And I cast her in it. I was more excited about casting her than I was anyone else in the movie. I thought I’d made a real find. And after a week of filming it became clear that she was too young. She was nineteen and the other actors were twenty-two. And there’s just a difference, and three years at that age is a big difference. And I tried everything I could to make her look older, but ultimately the camera doesn’t lie. So I had to replace her and it was heart breaking because it was a huge break for her. And all I can think of is to recall The Big Chill. Remember The Big Chill when Kevin Costner got caught and everyone thought, well that’s the end of that guy’s career. And he did OK. So I have no doubt in a couple of years from now, hopefully she’ll be sitting at one of these tables with some movie.

Dissing you?
Mostow:Dissing me of course. Absolutely. But she was… I think she’s unbelievably talented. The only time in my life where I had that happen, where I had to make a change like that.

Were you always going for about 100 minutes run time or were there arguments to make it longer?
Mostow:No, I never enter a movie with a pre-set length. I’m just having read on the Internet, there’s been a lot of chatter about you know, the length and I’m reading all these people bitching about it. ‘109? That’s too short’ and ‘that’s terrible’. And by the way, 109 is still like the same length as T1. So movies just wind up having their own natural length. I’ve heard a lot of comments about the movie, no body has come out to me and said, the movies was too short, or too long.

You are monitoring the Internet? Do you pay attention to what the fans are saying?
Mostow:Oh yeah, I’m a big nerd.

What do you like reading? What sites?
Mostow:Film sites I tend to cruise are Ain’t It Cool and Dark Horizons. Dark Horizons I thought has got just a lot better over the last year. I’m always finding about new ones and stuff. But it’s good, particularly in this movie because the hard-core fans, they go on the sites. And I’m making this movie for a mass general audience, but I also want it to work for those fans. Making a movie is difficult enough to sort of have a premeditated length that you’re going for. I don’t know a single filmmaker on the planet who does that.

You spent a lot of time on the Downey Studios. What did you think of the studios down there?
Mostow:You know what was amazing about it? When I was there, there were three other movies that were shooting there. Catch Me If You Can was shooting there and Daredevil was shooting there. And some other movie, I think Italian Job was doing some stuff there. It was so enormous, I never saw any of those other movies.

Would you shoot there again? Is there anything they can do to improve the facilities?
Mostow:The only thing they can do to improve that is to move it closer to my house. It’s a little bit of a schlep from where I live. But, some of those buildings are incredible. I mean, they built the space shuttle there. It’s just amazing.

Have you shown T3 to James Cameron yet?

Are you nervous about showing it to him?
Mostow:Yeah, I would say that if there was one person I’d be nervous about showing this movie to, it’s him. I want him to like it. I want him to feel like I carried the torch and didn’t screw up his franchise.

Mostow:It’s something that certainly under consideration. But I think it’s presumptuous to come out and talk about T4 before people decide whether they like T3.


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