The new film has proved a success for the director of ''Flight of Black Angel''

Jonathan Mostow is living proof that good things happen to people who sit in their underwear watching Oprah. Which is exactly how the 35-year-old Harvard grad was spending his days three years ago when he decided to write Breakdown. Conceived years earlier when Mostow and his wife were driving to Las Vegas from their home in Los Angeles, the Kurt Russell stranded-in-the-desert thriller — which also marks Mostow’s feature-directing debut — shook Hollywood by opening at No. 1, pulling in $12 million its first weekend.

”The film was impossible to market,” says the director, who expected the film to open at only $7 million. ”There are no exploding volcanoes and no ships that run into anything or sink.” The movie’s take ballooned to $23 million after two weeks — impressive for an unknown director who didn’t pay his dues on the indie circuit.

So where was he until now? After directing the 1990 Showtime film Flight of Black Angel, he cowrote an early draft of The Game, a psychological drama, with hopes of directing it. When David Fincher got the job, Mostow began toying with other ideas that never jelled. ”I basically waited for three years to see if someone would let me direct a feature,” he says.

His breakthrough was Breakdown. He secured not only financing from producer Dino De Laurentiis but the director’s chair as well. ”The industry needs young blood, and I understood what Jon was trying to do,” says De Laurentiis, who’s now working on a World War II action-adventure with Mostow.

Breakdown has been compared favorably to Steven Spielberg’s 1971 Duel (”the greatest compliment in the world,” says Mostow), but the upstart’s film will no doubt be swallowed by the veteran director’s The Lost World. That doesn’t sour Mostow. ”When I call people now,” he says, ”the amount of time I’m put on hold is much less.”

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