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Switching drivers

In sequel-addicted Hollywood, studios are taking a gamble with directors new to key franchises.

June 29, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

In fact, he has just directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in the third "Terminator" movie. With a budget approaching $200 million, "Terminator 3" is one of this summer's biggest wagers. Although much of the pre-release publicity has focused on whether the aging Schwarzenegger can still carry an action movie, few people have worried about Mostow's credentials.

That's not surprising. Mostow has quickly and quietly built a reputation as one of Hollywood's most inventive action directors. His low-budget 1997 thriller, "Breakdown," with Kurt Russell, was one of that year's biggest surprise hits (it grossed $50.1 million). In 2000, he made both a submarine and Matthew McConaughey come alive in "U-571."

"Jonathan was on the top of the list from the beginning," says Moritz Borman, whose Intermedia financed "Terminator 3."

"There are great directors who are very good with actors, but they don't know how to do special effects. Cameron can do it. Tony Scott can do it, and Ridley Scott can do it. Michael Bay can do it. But not many others."

What also impressed Intermedia and producers Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar were Mostow's candid script worries. Unlike the other two directors who are inheriting summer sequels, Mostow enjoyed the luxury of time. He wasn't rushing to make a release date, and he wasn't about to start work on the movie until his concerns about story were resolved.

"Let's face it," Mostow says by phone. "How many movies with the number 3 after the title are that great? I didn't want to make a retread of what has been done before. Because if you want a retread, you might as well go out and rent 'Terminator 2.'

"I wanted to make a movie that, from a narrative perspective, was a seamless part of the legend."

With college classmates and longtime screenwriting colleagues John Brancato and Michael Ferris ("The Game"), Mostow spent more time revising the script -- a full year -- than this summer's other two new franchise filmmakers had to rewrite, film and edit their movies.

He jettisoned almost all of the Tedi Sarafian script that Intermedia had developed. He ditched the character of Sarah Connor -- made famous in the first two movies by Linda Hamilton -- in favor of her son, John (Nick Stahl). When Mostow started revising the script, John Connor was working at a dot-com and about to be married; now he's on the run from killers from the future. As originally written, the female Terminator played by Kristanna Loken could become invisible. "But that didn't work for me," Mostow says. "It's not visceral."

Then the director and his writers added scenes that made "Terminator 3" feel more like the road movie Mostow wanted to make. They also made sure that the film subtly reflected its star's age (Schwarzenegger is 55) by highlighting how the Terminator is nearly obsolete compared with Loken's T-X killing machine.

"It's always great if you can have your protagonist or hero be completely outmatched," Mostow says.

Not that Schwarzenegger wasn't still in great shape: Mostow says the actor's body measurements were "exactly, to the inch" the same as when he made "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991.

Mostow hopes the resulting film is both true to the "Terminator" legacy and reflects Mostow's own filmmaking style.

Compared with Cameron's epic-length movies ("Terminator 2" was 137 minutes), Mostow's film is aggressively tight, lasting but 109 minutes. Yet Mostow still has room for an extravagant chase sequence that feels like a big-budget brother of his "Breakdown."

"You can give five filmmakers the exact same script, and you will get five completely different movies," Mostow says.

"On a movie like this, a director makes maybe 1 million decisions. So how can the movie not reflect the director's sensibilities? It's impossible that it not."

At the same time, he has been careful not to jettison the rich legacy developed by Cameron, who didn't want to work on this film and had nothing to do with its making.

"If you go out and buy Rolling Stones tickets, you don't want to hear Mick Jagger sing opera," Mostow says.

"You want to get the right combination of honoring the mythology and the franchise, and give the audience something they have never seen before."

HIGHER STAKES

In the new "Legally Blonde" movie, the preternaturally pink Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) has moved from Harvard Law to the nation's capital, and before her Jimmy Choo boots are even scuffed, she has crafted and submitted an animal rights bill. Taking a break from finishing the film's sound mix and special effects at a Los Angeles scoring stage, director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld dials into a conference call to discuss Washington campaigning, hoping to document on film the moments that define a politician's life.

"We need to find out what feels real, what feels good," the director says. Except that the movie he's talking about doesn't star Witherspoon. It stars former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, for whom Herman-Wurmfeld is volunteering by making short documentaries about the candidate.

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