Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast has been adapted to the screen once before, in a 1986 Peter Weir film starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. For this new iteration of the story, creator Neil Cross wanted to keep some of the key elements of the original novel while also expanding and altering certain things for the modern era.
I spoke with the creator about what changes he felt were necessary for the story, and why he believed that the tale of Allie Fox (Justin Theroux), his wife Margot (Melissa George), and their children Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) remained so fitting for the time we’re living in today.
Read my interview with The Mosquito Coast creator Neil Cross below:
Mitchell Beaupre: I’ve read that you’re a big Paul Theroux fan. What were your first impressions when this update on The Mosquito Coast was initially brought to you?
Neil Cross: My initial reaction was… I believe Americans call it a “hard no”. For all kinds of reasons, none of them being a professional consideration really. There were two primary reasons. One was that I am indeed a lifelong Paul Theroux fan. I’m trying to think of a better word than fan because that makes me sound like Annie Wilkes. I started reading him when I was 14 and I’ve read and re-read pretty much everything he’s written. There’s a complex, unusual, distant, but intimate relationship between reader and author. So, Paul Theroux has been an important voice in my life for almost my entire life.
In addition, there exists on the planet Earth no bigger, more passionate fan of Harrison Ford than me. I would go into gladiatorial combat to defend that position. So, to me there existed, as far as I was concerned, an essentially definitive adaptation of Paul’s book already. With that in mind, when I was first approached by my friend to do the project my initial reaction was to do a Road Runner zoom out of that.
MB: When you ultimately decided to take it on, what were the things from the source material and the Peter Weir film that you wanted to retain, and what areas did you want to make different?
NC: The primary consideration is Allie himself. Allie in the novel, like all great literary creations, exists on two levels. On one level, he belongs to a sort of timeless American archetype. He’s the great American contrarian, the great individualist rejectionist. He’s got a lot in common with your R.P. McMurphy and all of these kinds of guys whose basic philosophy is an extended middle finger.
At the same time, the specific guy in the novel, that iteration of Allie, belongs to a very specific set of historical, cultural, political, and economic circumstances. He’s post Nixon, post Vietnam, and given the age he is in the novel he’s kind of a disappointed Libertarian hippie, of which there were many in the late 1960s. Bizarrely, given the home that the show had found, he was of a similar generation to Steve Jobs and I can imagine that there was an iteration of Allie tinkering with a computer and a wooden box in a garage somewhere in Stockton. So what we needed to do was rethink these people as who they would be now in the modern world. Who would Allie be and what would his relationship be to the world?
The character of Allie’s wife in the book is simply known as Mother. She has no agency of her own, she has no wants, no desires. On the page this is an act of literary irony – her lack of character, or lack of self, is commenting on the kind of person that Allie is, because Allie is a nascent Jim Jones. He doesn’t want equals, he wants followers. He wants a congregation. So the mother in the novel is a kind of commentary. On the screen, I think the greatest weakness of Peter Weir’s adaptation is that this literary device fails on a big screen. As a modern audience you simply see that as a waste of Helen Mirren. So really the key to opening the door of what became our show is asking the question of “who the hell is this woman”? Why is she married to him? And what is the nature of their relationship?
MB: Could you talk more about the development of Margot in the series? At first she really is somewhat docile, and as the series goes on we see her agency develop and her layers get peeled back.
NC: Yes, that was all very deliberate. When we meet the Foxes, they’re living in what to all intents and purposes is kind of a slightly odd but nevertheless quite recognizable version of everyday family life. There was part of a deliberate misdirect on my part there. After that we are looking at Margot through our assumptions rather than who she is. The conceit, if it works, is not so much that Margot changes over the course of the season, but rather that she reveals to us who in fact she has been the whole time. In turn she is also revealing something about Allie that we might not have known, which he himself might not recognize. It allows us to examine the nature of that marriage from several different angles. I think the question that we have from midseason onwards is, “who actually is the dominant partner in this relationship?”
MB: You really do need to have an actor of Harrison Ford or Justin Theroux’s caliber in that leading role in order to make that character work. He could have been endlessly infuriating for the audience, but Justin is so compelling and draws us in despite the character’s many faults. What was the process like of collaborating with him on the part and managing that duality?
NC: That ultimately can be attributed entirely to Justin’s skill. This stuff is a high wire act, it really is. It would be so easy to just not want to spend any more time with this man, to be just exhausted by him. We talked about it a lot and we had to strike this delicate balance. In all honesty, though, 98% of this is absolutely down to Justin. Not simply his charm and charisma, which is an act of God that we’re very grateful for, but also his immense intelligence and insight and skill as an actor. Those attributes like charm and charisma can only be targeted appropriately if you have the intelligence and skill to do so.
MB: The use of location is such a striking component of the series that takes us on a journey of our own with these characters. The fact that you shot it on real locations feels like such a vital decision that was made. How much did that inform the process of making the series?
NC: It’s great for me because I’m a morally appalling person who likes to make the cast actively suffer as much as humanly possible. The structure of the first season was spiritually like a travel book – a travel adventure. The conceit is that every episode is a different chapter of the book, a different destination, different challenge, and actually physically shooting it as such allowed the cast to go through the process of actually traveling as well. I don’t want to overstate the difficulties because we did it all in as humane a fashion as possible, and as luxuriously as possible, but it was hard work and there are challenges to production at the best of times. Doing it like this was tough. I think that being so demanding on the cast ultimately became a benefit because it bonded them closer together as a family and we can see that on the screen.
MB: I’ve got to wrap, but I just want to say congratulations on the season, and as a big Luther fan I’ll also say that I’m really excited to learn more about whatever this next thing that Idris Elba has been teasing is going to be.
NC: Good news and big news on that front coming very soon!
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]