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Interview: Cinematographer Alex Disenhof on the Thrill of Problem Solving for ‘The Mosquito Coast’

When your new television series is immediately drawing comparisons to shows like Breaking Bad and Ozark, you know you’re doing something right. For The Mosquito CoastNeil Cross’ Apple TV+ adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel, the look of the series was a major component in drawing people’s minds to those modern classics. 

To break down how the look of the series was established I spoke with cinematographer Alex Disenhof. Having already worked on the instantly iconic Watchmen HBO series, Disenhof was ready for this next step in prestige television, reuniting with director Rupert Wyatt after the two had worked together on the recent series The Exorcist and the film Captive State

In our discussion, Disenhof talks about his working relationship with Wyatt, and how they established the visual elements of the series in the opening episodes. From the very first shot we see the camera as its own character, one which moves and breathes, leading into its place as the audience’s vessel to follow the Fox family on the journey they take from Stockton, California all the way into Mexico. Shooting on location presented plenty of challenges for Disenhof, but as he says, problem solving is in his nature and a big part of the fun of his job. That worked out here, as The Mosquito Coast presented plenty of opportunities to solve those exciting challenges. 

Read below for my interview with cinematographer Alex Disenhof: 

Mitchell Beaupre: You and Rupert Wyatt had worked together before, is that how you first got involved with The Mosquito Coast

Alex Disenhof: Yeah, so Rupert and I have done a few things together. We did the pilot for The Exorcist back in 2016. Then we did Captive State together a few years back. We’ve been good friends for six or seven years now. He brought this project to me and asked if I would like to be involved, and I love working with Rupert and thought it was an interesting concept. So I gladly accepted and we went on this crazy adventure together. 

MB: Had you been familiar with the source material before, the novel or the Peter Weir film? 

AD: Um, I knew it was a film. I hadn’t seen it, though, and I hadn’t read the book. I was pretty new to the whole story. 

MB: While you didn’t shoot the entire series you did do the first several episodes, which meant that you were the one in charge of coming up with the aesthetic that the other cinematographers were going to follow. What was the process like for you of figuring out the base look for the series? 

AD: There was an interesting trajectory there because the series was originally conceived as nine episodes and I was going to do six of them. Then COVID happened and they shut down production halfway through, and I had another commitment when things started to come back in motion, so I ended up doing episodes one, two, and four from the seven episodes. Rupert was really keen to create a kind of moving camera where the camera was almost a character in itself, keeping the momentum of the story with the characters from place to place and really feeling like you’re kind of over their shoulder seeing things as they see them. 

It was also important to create a visual arc for the whole story going from the first episode through the end of the first season, which was fun because you get to go from Stockton, California to these harsh desert landscapes and then into the colorful jumbled city in Mexico and stopping at these different spots along the way. Everything for the series was done on location so it was exciting finding local spots to film. We went weeks and weeks and weeks looking for the right places. The Fox house, for instance, was really important to find because it sets up the whole family. It needed to be a place that you felt bad about them having to leave after the end of just one episode. You had to feel that pain of these kids leaving this place that’s kind of an offbeat existence but it’s still warm, it’s still lived-in, it’s still home. So it was fun to kick off the show like that. 

MB: I love that first episode because you develop this great juxtaposition between the interior and the exterior, which follows throughout the series when you hit the desert or the big mansion in Mexico. Was that something that you really wanted to develop with the visual language of the series, this contrast between the interiors and the exteriors? 

AD: Absolutely. It was really important to create an environment that felt like a family really lived in that area. It wasn’t just a set, but a place that was warm and homey so I pumped in a lot of warm light through the windows and worked with Rupert and our great production designer to get a tone and texture for each room. That juxtaposition that you get between the home and then Allie’s reality of the world, which you start to see in some of the night scenes, was so important for us to find locations that represented his ideas of broken consumerism. During the day scenes you’re seeing all of these street signs and then at night you’re outside all of these different stores just seeing the banks of televisions. You get the gritty, grimy streets and the homeless community out there. We go out to this garbage dump and it’s a heightened reality version of a real garbage dump that is absolutely massive, and it creates this visual representation of what Allie thought the world was and what he was trying to show his children. 

MB: That garbage dump location is so striking, and there’s this junkyard set as well where you pull back and show the characters as these ants almost in these vast wasteland locations. Were you and Rupert using those locations to illustrate those themes of how Allie sees the world without having to lean on any exposition to explain those ideas to the audience?

AD: That’s exactly what it was. That’s the best way to put it. Rupert’s brilliant and he’s really good at visualizing a script. That was one of the main things that he said, was that it wasn’t just about telling the audience these things. Allie does have a few monologues about his belief system, but the show would get pretty boring if it was just long monologues all the time. So it was really about putting the characters in these big spaces and using that moving camera to show the excess of these locations to reflect his worldview to the audience. 

MB: The night scenes that you mentioned have such an interesting color palette to them that drew my mind to Robby Müller’s work on films like Paris, Texas and The American Friend and the way he mixed cool and warm lighting. What were some of your big influences visually for this project? 

AD: Paris, Texas actually was my main influence. I loved the way he uses greens and reds. Müller’s work was a really specific jumping off point for me because there was something so American about it. We wanted to show that this is America and it’s got this color and this warmth to it. It’s not this totally sterile place, but the warmth also comes with something else to it, especially in Allie’s view of what commercialism is. It’s not this gleaming city on a hill, it’s those ugly back alleys, it’s the withered streets with all sorts of commercial detritus. That color palette was really important to establish that. I really wanted to explore that green fluorescent metal halide look and then progress into the desert where we bleach out a lot of the color and only have a certain range of tones. Then in episode four coming into the Hacienda I shot basically all of it with real tungsten light to give it this warm feeling that’s dripping with this realization of it not being what you think it is. Alex Webb is this really amazing photographer who was another big influence for me. 

MB: The second episode opens and closes with these magnificent tracking shots of this butterfly. Who came up with that motif and how did you work to accomplish those two shots to bookend the episode?

AD: That was Neil, I believe. It was in the scripts. And yeah, it really serves as this allegory for freedom. It continues our motif of a moving camera, following something and continually moving forward. We also used animals in the show to establish that sense of heightened reality as well because it is a bit of a fable in its own weird, twisted way. It’s like an odyssey, this family on a journey. I always really liked that part of it because it allowed us to have these kinds of moments. That butterfly shot was a tough one because we had to shut down multiple city blocks for it and use a crane to start low on the Coke can and then boom up and pretend that we’re following this butterfly because the actual butterfly was CG. We followed it up along this fence and then had to time it perfectly for when the car swoops into frame. Then the ending of the episode was another equally tricky one because we had to use drone shots that were stitched together for that technique of going up over the mountain of rocks and coming down to this dead horse. It creates that allegory where they’re off again on the run, and what’s ahead of them might not be so nice. Those were really fun moments and also really tricky ones to capture. 

MB: The visual language of the series starts off in a really fascinating place as well even in just the opening shot as you take us through this ice machine that Allie has created. Could you walk us through the construction of shooting that scene, and the mixture of CG with the practical elements there?

AD: So the beginning and end of that shot were practical and then the middle of it was all CG. We started off with what was basically a long stick of a lens with a light mounted right around the optics on the front of it. We created a hole in a tube that would go inside the icebox and then literally pushed the lens through to create that first movement, and then the CG takes over. At the end we used a different system called a T-Rex lens which allows you to focus really close, and then essentially getting the camera to be pulled back as the ice gets pushed out of the machine. This was all Rupert’s idea I believe. He wanted to create this journey right away, establish that movement of the camera and the idea that we’re going to end then with this big helicopter shot into a drone shot that goes all the way across Allie’s place of work. Within the first five minutes you’re already establishing this sweeping camera language. It just immediately sets up the tone of the show. 

MB: Allie is someone who is really technical, someone who can always find some sort of solution anytime something goes wrong. As someone whose work is also very technical, could you relate to that element of the character? That idea of wanting to just get in there with your hands and problem solve to find these solutions whenever something goes wrong.

AD: Absolutely. Hopefully I don’t ever get as zealous as Allie does, but a big part of my job as a cinematographer is problem solving. Problem is even the wrong word really, it’s more like solving the challenge that the script presents. It’s really all about visual trickery. You’re constantly manipulating light and manipulating what the viewer is seeing. None of the things that we’re seeing are ever just a camera turning on and filming. Every single shot is so calculated, with a series of decisions that have to be made in order to make each shot work. There’s always problem solving, and I think that’s just part of my personality. It can drive my wife crazy sometimes because I’m always wanting to solve every problem that comes up, but I think it’s what makes me enjoy my job. Part of the fun of filmmaking too is that you’re part of a big team of people. It’s community art-making really. I have an amazing crew who supports the vision and I could never do any of this stuff without them. 

MB: What was the biggest challenge for you on Mosquito Coast

AD: The biggest challenge of this show was that it’s all on location and it’s always moving. We could never get settled into one place for more than a few days at a time. Which is what makes the show so visually interesting, and was also the most fun part of shooting it, but it also presented a real challenge because you’re always working with limitations, you’re always fighting for control of the elements. We also split our time between California and Mexico and there are some scenes where some shots of the scene are in California and some shots of the scene are in Mexico and so I’m having to match the lighting for the shots and with totally different crews. It was an enormous technical challenge, the whole production, and most of it had to do with the fact that it was all shot on location. 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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