With the relentlessness of a Terminator pursuing its victim, the fan hounded Jonathan Mostow at a convention. "You aren't the original director of the 'Terminator' movies," he said. "Are you going to ruin [the franchise]?"
It's a question observers have posed, albeit more politely, since Mostow stepped into the oversized shoes vacated by franchise creator James Cameron two years ago.
While Cameron's 1984 "Terminator" and the 1991 sequel redefined the sci-fi-action hybrid, Mostow has just two previous feature film credits -- one a submarine thriller, "U-571," prompted by growing up "in the shadow of the Holocaust," he said.
So even Mostow hesitated when the call came to direct "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," when Cameron passed after years of legal wrangling over the rights to his films. "I thought, 'I'm going to follow in the footsteps of arguably one of the most famous directors of our time, which was daunting,'" Mostow said. "So I thought about it for a few weeks."
When he did say yes, his approach was simple. "I had to put my trepidations aside," he said. "I know people will compare my movie to Cameron's, but I can't control any of that. I'm a fan of his films, so I just focused on creating a movie that I, as a fan, wanted to see."
If Mostow initially seemed an unexpected choice for "T3," he has a history of thwarting expectations. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family of scientists and classical musicians (his father was a Yale math professor), the hope was he would become an academic or a cellist. Instead, he discovered dad's windup 8 mm camera and made his first film at age 12.
At Harvard's highbrow visual studies program, Mostow's senior thesis -- a horror film with an exploding eyeball -- "was not particularly well-received," he said. Not long after, he saw "The Terminator" and was riveted by "the epic stakes juxtaposed against intimate drama."
"But had anyone told me I'd eventually direct a 'Terminator' film, I would have fallen out of my chair," he said.
Instead, he waged a Terminator-worthy struggle to make it in Hollywood, sometimes living at the poverty line or working as an "SAT tutor to children of the stars" between television projects. His feature film big break was 1997's "Breakdown," a stranded-in-the-desert story he decided to write one day while unemployed and watching "Oprah" in his underwear. The film became a surprise hit.
"U-571," about a plot to swipe Germany's Enigma encryption device, was inspired by a childhood in which Hitler "was still a lingering horror," Mostow said. His father had taught trigonometry to artillery officers who used the math to blitz Nazis; Mostow's uncle was shot down and killed over North Africa.
Although the director engaged in painstaking research to recreate World War II submarine life, English newspapers indignantly pointed out that the Brits -- not the Yanks -- stole Enigma in 1941.
More questionable press followed after Mostow signed on to "Terminator 3." Even star Arnold Schwarzenegger told Entertainment Weekly he missed Cameron before Mostow "proved to me that he had what it takes to make this work."
The director, meanwhile, had his own concerns about the project. Since "T3" was one of 23 sequels slated for 2003, including "Matrix Reloaded" and "X2," he worried it was just another studio attempt to cash in on a perceived "sure thing." He changed his mind when producers agreed to let him help rework the script to explore the psychological angst of martyr-hero John Connor (Nick Stahl).
In the "threequel," Schwarzenegger's good cyborg protects Connor from a sexy fembot Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken). Directing actors to play these robots proved unexpectedly tough, Mostow said, because "it involves suppressing all innate human emotion." To help Loken, he approved training in mime and krav maga, the hand-to-hand combat system used by the Israeli army.
"It's the brutality of the system they were after," Terminator krav maga instructor Wade Allen said.
While anticipating movie reviews can be brutal for some directors, Mostow is resolved not to worry. "Of course, when you know fans really care, it makes you just put the pressure more on yourself. To be safe, I won't publish my address, although I'm sure those angry letters will find their way to me somehow."
"T3" opens July 2.