RISE OF THE DIRECTOR: What’s the quickest way for a mid-level director to jump to the tentpole group? Jonathan Mostow wagered he could measure up to James Cameron’s past work with “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” It was a gamble that not only could have jeopardized a promising directing career, but the existence of indie financier Intermedia. Now, that company’s head is cautiously wondering if Mostow will say “I’ll be back” for a fourth installment.

Opening July 2, “T3” might be the gutsiest venture of the summer, from Moritz Borman’s decision to finance the $175 million film, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna tying comebacks and a political career to it. But the big winner might be Mostow, who only a few years ago was dumped from “The Game” and had to battle to direct “Breakdown.”

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“Jonathan cracked the script and established the right balance of action, storytelling and comedic balance,” Borman said. “The picture needs legs — a second and third weekend — and Jonathan has given us that chance. A fourth film will be more difficult, but the story opens the door for another and we’ll do one as soon as is feasible. We’d like Jonathan back — if he hasn’t gotten too expensive.”

If Mostow has taken a shortcut to the top, it was necessary to qualify for the big-budget pictures he sees in his future. Mostow hails from Connecticut from a family full of scientists and classical musicians (his father was a Princeton prof who taught on the faculty with “A Beautiful Mind” protagonist John Nash). Mostow’s future veered from music to movies when he took an usher job.

“I must have seen ‘Kramer Vs. Kramer’ 150 times. I sought out films with tight plots like ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Marathon Man,’ where the story was the star,” he said. “I made that my mantra.”

HIGHER EDUCTION: Mostow got a visual studies degree from Harvard. His classmates were “T3” scribes Michael Ferris and John Brancato, and they all headed to Hollywood together. The scribes ghosted Mostow’s directing debut, “Flight of the Black Angel,” and they spent the next three years readying his next pic, “The Game.” And then Mostow learned the real rules of the Hollywood game.

“I was a director nobody knew and we couldn’t get a star,” he said. “Mike and John finally said, ‘It’s never going to get made with you, will you consider stepping aside? That was the low point of my career, just crushing.” (He was replaced by David Fincher.) He went six years between films, tying himself inextricably to his script “Breakdown” and benefiting from the risk-taking nature of Dino De Laurentiis.

“No domestic distributor wanted me, so Dino mortgaged his house and put $15 million to start production,” he said. “We were halfway through the movie when Paramount watched the footage and came aboard. If it wasn’t for Dino, I wouldn’t have a career.” Mostow offered De Laurentiis “U-571,” which convinced the “T3” team that Mostow was the man for the job.

SPECIAL CHALLENGES: Mostow said he wasn’t intimidated stepping up to “T3’s” special effects, learning that, “As long as you have ideas and a suitcase full of cash, anything you imagine is possible.” Directing the possible next governor of California also provided its moments.

“Late in the shoot, I returned after being back on a trailer filming driving scenes, and Arnold is waiting to introduce me to Bill Clinton,” Mostow said. I’ve got pictures of me, filthy, completely covered in grease and looking like a derelict, smiling alongside the former president of the United States.”