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The Telegraph (02/Aug/2003) - Film-makers on film: Jonathan Mostow

(c) Telegraph (02/Aug/2003)

Film-makers on film: Jonathan Mostow

When US director Jonathan Mostow announces, not long before our interview, that he wants to discuss Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, an obvious opening question presents itself. Compared with Hitch's later, American work, isn't this modest British offering a guppy among great whites?

It's a perfectly decent little movie: it's got an intriguing set-up (an old governess, Miss Froy, disappears without trace from a train), appealing central turns from Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Dame May Whitty (as Froy), and clever dialogue by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder.

But what can it possibly have that the likes of Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) lack?

I never get to ask the question, though, for the simple reason that Mostow clearly doesn't think much of The Lady Vanishes either.

"I went back a few years ago just out of curiosity to see the movie," he says, "and it totally didn't hold up for me. It's kind of a light… it's sort of like… I don't know what it is.

The plot thickens. "It's funny," he says. "It's like when someone says, 'What did you have for lunch yesterday?', and you can't remember. As soon as someone says, 'What's your favourite movie?', my mind goes blank. Maybe it's because I'm coming here to England that I thought of The Lady Vanishes.

"You know," he continues, "with any film that really makes an impression, you have to talk about where you were in your life when you saw it.

And I must have been 11, and my father took me to see it in this great old repertory movie theatre, in Connecticut, this old theatre that no longer exists, that was built probably right when silent movies came in, almost a creaky old barn.

"When I saw the movie again, I was bored - but when I was a kid, I was hooked. It was the seemingly impossible situation of their being on this train, and in a compartment, and Hitchcock sets up the character, and all of a sudden she's gone.

"Where could she have gone? They're on a train, and the train doesn't stop: how could she disappear? And the main reason I picked this film is because it completely describes all the movies that I've made.

"And in fact I believe I made Breakdown because I had this film rattling in my subconscious for so many years; making that film was almost the only way of expunging it.

For anyone unfamiliar with Breakdown, it's worth pointing out two things: that it is one of the most relentlessly gripping thrillers to have come out of America in the past 10 years; and that "the lady vanishes" is in fact a perfect synopsis of its plot.

"In Breakdown," says Mostow, currently riding high with his blistering, bone-crunching Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (now on general release), "this woman vanishes, but how could she just vanish out of nowhere?"

How indeed? Kurt Russell plays Jeff Taylor, moving with his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) to start a new life in California. When their Jeep falters in the middle of nowhere, an apparently friendly trucker (the late JT Walsh) offers Amy a lift to a diner to call for a tow-truck, while Jeff waits for it to arrive.

But not only does Jeff, forced to make his own way to the diner, find no trace of them there; when he later happens upon the trucker, he denies ever having met Jeff or Amy.

"So," says Mostow, "you have this impossible situation, then you have the fact that you just don't know what's going to happen next in the story, which is true of all my movies.

"I hate it when I see a film and I can check my watch and say, well, there's 45 minutes left, our hero's going to fight the arch-villain, etc etc.

Mostow, it would seem, has a personality trait invaluable in a director of thrillers: a low boredom threshold. "I do get bored very easily," he says. "But, although I love movies where I don't know what's going to happen next, at the same time I don't want to feel that things are random and unpredictable.

"I like the sense that the movie is moving forward, which is why all my pictures have been road pictures: Breakdown was a road picture, when I was going to direct The Game it actually was more of a road picture." (The Game was too "complex", he says, so he executive produced it instead, with David Fincher as director, and wrote the equally excellent cheaper Breakdown.)

"U-571 is a road picture, too - they're in a submarine, but they're moving from point A to B - and so is Terminator 3.

"So," he continues, "the physical circumstances of the characters going from A to B are just intrinsically fascinating to me, and I think it's because The Lady Vanishes is one of the first movies I ever saw. It was my first Hitchcock movie, my first suspense movie, and it left such an indelible impression on me that I guess I thought, well, that's what movies should be like.

"I remember how I felt, watching the movie - I was so caught up in the suspense of it. I was only 11 then, don't forget," he adds in a whisper.

"I can't wax philosophical about specific aspects of the movie," he continues, "because I don't remember them - I have a more gestalt overview of it. From the emotional sense memory of the movie, though, it was incredibly influential on me.

"I think," he adds, "that had I seen some other Hitchcock movie at that age, perhaps I'd be making a different kind of movie now."

But, given the fruits that The Lady Vanishes has evidently borne, we can only be thankful that, all those years ago, Mostow was taken to such an ordinary film.