LOS ANGELES — The audacity of it, a young upstart director commandeering a venerated science-fiction saga from a filmmaking idol.
Seventeen years ago, it was James Cameron with "Aliens," a rip-roaring action sequel to Ridley Scott's more quietly creepy "Alien." Cameron had come out of Roger Corman's B-movie factory and had just one notable credit to his name, writing and directing 1984's sci-fi sleeper hit "The Terminator."
Now it's Cameron — creator of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "True Lies" and the biggest modern blockbuster, "Titanic" — who has an upstart in his wake.
Jonathan Mostow, who made the thriller "Breakdown" and the submarine adventure "U-571," gets his crack at directing a major franchise with "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." Mostow was hired after Cameron decided against doing a third movie about a time-traveling cyborg soldier (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a future war between humanity and machines.
"When I was first sent the script, my first response was, wow, somebody's making 'Terminator 3,' " Mostow said. "And then my second response was, who'd be insane enough to take that job?"
Both as a young director and a fan of the "Terminator" flicks, Mostow hesitated, figuring Cameron was an impossible act to follow. Then Mostow got hooked on the story, which picks up 10 years after "Terminator 2."
The new movie has Schwarzenegger's killing machine sent back to the present day to once again protect John Connor (Nick Stahl), the future leader of the human resistance. The action pits Schwarzenegger against a far superior female terminator (Kristanna Loken) that's programmed to snuff Connor and his rebel lieutenants, one of them played by Claire Danes.
It was an adventure that Mostow, as a fan, would enjoy. He quickly decided other fans would like it, too. "I'm a huge Jim Cameron fan, I'm a huge fan of the other movies. I just tried to make the movie that I would want to see. I can't make the movie that I thought Jim would make. I can only make the movie that I would make and hope that it fits in nicely to the trilogy. But that it's also it's own film, because if it's not, you might as well just go out and rent 'T2.' "
While more and more directors stick around for one or more sequels nowadays, it remains common for studios to hire someone new to carry on a franchise if the original filmmaker does not return.
But "Terminator" is one of those cut-above franchises, indelibly associated with Cameron — imagine a "Star Wars" flick without George Lucas or an "Indiana Jones" sequel without Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Schwarzenegger, who also starred in "True Lies," initially felt the same way.
"Not only because of his talent, but also, when you start something with somebody, you feel it's like your wife and you have created this baby," Schwarzenegger said. "Working together like this, then all of a sudden him not continuing, there were concerns."
Lacking Cameron, the franchise needed an up-and-coming director out to prove he could deliver on something really big, Schwarzenegger said. Mostow came on board intimately familiar with the "Terminator" world, and after watching the director marshal the crew in the first week of shooting, Schwarzenegger said any doubts vanished.
"It was a concern for everyone, but I think we fared pretty well," co-star Danes said. "I did sincerely trust Jonathan's capabilities as a director."
During shooting, Schwarzenegger gave his friend Cameron an occasional update on how "Terminator 3" was going. But "as for how good of a film it is, I have no idea," Cameron said. "We'll all find out about the same time."
Cameron had considered writing and directing another "Terminator" movie but dropped out in the late 1990s amid a tussle over sequel rights. His ex-wife and former producing partner, Gale Anne Hurd, owned half the rights, and the other half was being sold in a bankruptcy auction for Carolco, the production outfit that made "Terminator 2."
Carolco co-founders Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna, producers on the new movie, won the bidding for their former company's share and later acquired Hurd's half.
The first phone call they made was to Cameron, telling him, "James, we have acquired the rights and we would like for you to direct," Kassar said. "I don't think I heard a very happy man on the line. I think that was the last time we talked. He was not a happy man because he was trying to get the rights himself then."
If Cameron feels any bitterness, he keeps it hidden. He and Mostow met for the first time at a screening last spring of Cameron's Titanic documentary "Ghosts of the Abyss." Mostow said Cameron was gracious and supportive.
Cameron shrugs off "Terminator 3" questions, saying that like "Alien" director Scott, he has been in the position before where another filmmaker tinkered with his creation. The opening of "Alien 3," directed by David Fincher, derailed the happy ending of "Aliens" by killing off characters Cameron had invented.
"There's nothing they can do to me on 'Terminator 3,' " Cameron said, "that's going to be as outrageous as that."