"...the Mosquito Coast, which extends from Puerto
Barritos in Guatemala to Colon in Panama. It is wild
and looks the perfect setting for the story of castaways..."
Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express
Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is possessed by a singular dream:
to escape with his family to a pure, untainted world, a jungle
utopia far from the corrupting influences of the modern world. A
fiercely independent man, Allie is fed up with the America
of fast food, television, pollution, phony evangelicism and
crime. Packing up his wife, two sons and twin daughters,
he boards a freighter bound for the Mosquito Coast. "Goodbye,
America," says Allie, "and have a nice day."
Based on Paul Theroux's best-selling novel, "The Mosquito
Coast" is the exhilarating adventure story of how a
family's quest for paradise becomes a terrifying fight for
survival. A Jerome Hellman production for The Saul
Zaentz Company, “The Mosquito Coast” was directed
by Peter Weir and stars Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River
Phoenix, Conrad Roberts, Andre Gregory, and Martha Plimpton. Paul
Schrader adapted the screenplay from Theroux's novel. Jerome
Hellman was the producer and Saul Zaentz the executive producer
of The Saul Zaentz Company Presentation.
"The Mosquito Coast" reunites Harrison Ford with
director Peter Weir after "Witness," for which
they both received Academy Award nominations, and offers
both artists an even broader canvas on which to display their
prodigious talents. For Ford in particular, "The
Mosquito Coast" provides his most challenging dramatic
role to date. Audiences will see him as they have never
before seen him, stripped of the romantic trappings of his
Other members of "The Mosquito Coast" team who
received Academy nominations for "Witness" include
director of photography John Seale, composer Maurice Jarre,
and editor Thom Noble, who won the coveted award.
Producer Jerome Hellman ("Coming Home," "Midnight
Cowboy") has been committed to bringing "The Mosquito
Coast" to the screen since 1982 when he read Theroux's
novel and personally purchased the film rights shortly after
publication. "Very rarely do you read something
that gets you really excited," says Hellman. "I
felt that it could make a wonderful movie if the right people
Hellman engaged writer/director Paul Schrader ("Taxi
Driver") to adapt the book and a first draft screenplay
was developed in 1983. That year, Hellman initiated
discussions with the celebrated Australian director Peter
Weir. Weir's talent for telling stories of strangers
in strange lands interacting with ominous forces beyond their
understanding (notably in films like "Picnic at Hanging
Rock," "The Last Wave" and "The Year
of Living Dangerously") made him seem the best possible
choice to bring Theroux's novel to the screen. "The
thematic harmony between Peter's previous work and “The
Mosquito Coast” was striking," says Hellman, "but
I was also impressed with the humanism of his work - this
was not a man with a cynical attitude towards people or towards
After sending the first draft of the screenplay to Weir,
Hellman and Schrader met with him in Australia. The
three filmmakers spent the better part of a week discussing
every aspect of the script. "I had a lot of questions
about how to do it," says Weir. "The turning
point for me was the storm scene. I got a picture in my mind
of Allie turning to his son and saying "Help me!" It
was "Help me get out of this storm!" but it was
also a cry from a man who's losing control of himself. That
moment wasn't in the film and it won't ever be - it just
became a personal starting point that this man needed help
but didn't know how to ask for it." Satisfied
that the book's qualities could be translated to film, Weir
committed himself to the project.
Hellman brought Weir to America in 1983 to see the book's
New England locations before they began further work on the
script. Paul Theroux had a house in Cape Cod, and Hellman
set up a meeting. "Naturally, Peter was apprehensive," says
Hellman. "He had just had a terrible experience with
the novelist of one of his earlier films." But
Theroux was a different story. "He said that I
had to take it away, make it mine," Weir explains. "He's
contributed to the film, offering ideas and advice compatible
with my approach to his book. A unique experience for
me." An example of this is a letter Theroux wrote
to Weir about "The Mosquito Coast’s” multi-faceted
hero, Allie Fox:
"I think the key to Allie is showing all the sides
of his personality and at times showing how one lies just
beneath the other, loud bullying being a feature of a rather
inward shyness, bravery being a wilder manifestation of blind
cowardice, and most inventiveness being self-serving. I've never had a character like Allie in my films before that I like and dislike in
equal measure. Men like Allie have obviously changed
the course of the world's history in certain instances -
they've become great statesmen or great dictators. They
have a cause and if people must suffer for that cause, then
that must be the price."
Hellman and Weir then spent two frustrating years. "It
was a period," says Hellman, "when in a few
months' time, every studio had a change: no sooner had an
executive approved us for production, then he or she headed
elsewhere, leaving Peter and me to start shopping for another
home." In early 1984 it became clear that, due
to the seasonal demands of the plot, "The Mosquito Coast" would
have to be put off another year. Weir was then offered
the opportunity to direct "Witness." Through
that film, he developed a special rapport with his star. "Harrison
Ford," says Weir, "was born with the kind of talent
that cannot be learned. Combined with the craft that
he has mastered over the years, it makes for an extremely
potent force." Hellman and Weir soon agreed that
Ford would be a perfect Allie Fox in "The Mosquito Coast."
Harrison Ford felt an immediate connection with the character
of Allie Fox. "I don't have any trouble representing
something that I understand," Ford notes, "and
this is a character that I've never felt any difficulty understanding. So
I didn't think of it as a more difficult job than what I'd
done before. On the other hand, I was aware that there
was opportunity here for more complicated characterization
and because the character is so verbal and effusive, it goes
against the kind of characters for which I'm best known. That
was the attraction the part held for me: to do something
After "Witness" opened, "The Mosquito Coast" was hotly pursued by almost every studio, but Hellman felt strongly about finding an independent source of financial backing. He met with another Academy Award-winning producer, Saul Zaentz ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus"), to ask for advice. Zaentz, a trusted friend and someone whose own work Hellman greatly admired, asked to read the script. Upon doing so, he immediately offered to have his company finance, present and supervise the distribution of the film. "There wasn't any question in my mind," says Hellman. "We closed the deal in one day in early March and started work on the next."
For the important part of Mother, Allie's wife, Hellman and Weir auditioned scores of actresses, from the biggest stars to total unknowns. "Helen Mirren came in," says Weir, "and there was very little doubt
from the moment I spoke to her that she could do it. She's a complex person, and she provides a range
of interesting and contradictory aspects to the way she plays the part. The number of implications that
come off her appearance speak the words that aren't written in the script, give us information that would take a long time to be written."
It was equally crucial to find the right young actor to play the pivotal role of Allie Fox's son, Charlie. "We were looking for a boy about 12 or 13," says Weir, "but Dianne Crittenden, the casting director, said 'there's a boy on this tape, River Phoenix, he's terrific—only he's 15.'" Although he was very impressed with Phoenix's test, Weir remained convinced that he was too old for the part. Still, Weir was unable to stop looking at the young actor's audition tape. It was equally intriguing that Phoenix had, like Charlie, spent his childhood traveling in Latin America with his family. "I finally said to myself," Weir recalls. "What the hell does it matter how old he is? He looks like Harrison's son. And I cast him." Once shooting began and Phoenix's performance started appearing in dailies, the cast and crew immediately became aware of his special screen presence. "He has the look of someone who has secrets," says Weir. "There's something in him and it goes onto film. The last time I remember seeing it in someone unknown was with Mel Gibson."
In the role of Allie Fox's younger son, Jerry, is Jadrien Steele, a veteran performer at the ripe old age of eleven, having been in show business since he was five months old. His twin sisters April and Clover are played by Hilary and Rebecca Gordon, two eight-year-old fashion models making their screen debut. Rounding out the supporting cast of "The Mosquito Coast" is a diverse group of talented actors: Andre Gregory, of "My Dinner With Andre" fame, plays the Rev. Spellgood, the theological adversary Allie Fox encounters during the journey to the tropics; Martha Plimpton ("The Goonies") plays Spellgood's precocious daughter, Emily; veteran character actor Dick O'Neill plays Tim Polski, Allie Fox's New England nemesis; New York actor Conrad Roberts portrays the Creole boatman, Mr. Haddy; Yale School of Drama graduate Michael Rogers plays Francis Lungley, a friendly native; and Butterfly McQueen (Prissy in "Gone With The Wind") is Ma Kennywick, an eccentric old lady living on the Foxes' land.
Hellman and Weir had settled some years before on the perfect location for the film - Belize - a tiny country on the Caribbean coast of Central America below the Yucatan Peninsula. "It was recommended," says Hellman, "by people on Norman Jewison's staff who shot “The Dogs of War” there nine years ago. They'd read the book, they thought that we could find what we needed there." "We half-heartedly surveyed Jamaica," adds Weir, "and made further inquiries about Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Hawaii, but Belize seemed to stand out. We found every location we needed—mountains, ocean, jungle, Amazon-like rivers--all within a one-hour radius of Belize City." Belize also offered the advantages of an English-language country reasonably close to the U.S., where the currency and political situation were both stable.
The international cast and crew of "The Mosquito Coast," composed mainly of Australians, Americans, Britons and Canadians, had to find ways to adapt to the harsh conditions of filming in Belize. Nearly everyone had their share of bruises, cuts, mosquito bites and heavy sunburn. Large snakes, even boa constrictors, became a common sight on the set. "To actually experience the heat, the bugs, the mud and the rain," says Helen Mirren, "was a million times better than playing it on a studio back lot with a few palm trees." Far more troubling was the sense of cultural isolation. To deal with this, many brought along the bare rudiments of civilization: two dozen VCR's with a wide selection of tapes, elaborate stereo systems, four computers and a cappuccino machine. Bagels, not a Belizean specialty, were flown in on occasion from Miami.
In the film, Allie Fox purchases an abandoned "town," Jeronimo - actually no more than a few dilapidated shacks in an overgrown jungle clearing. At Jeronimo, the Fox family builds from scratch an ingenious and comfortable settlement for themselves, complete with bedrooms, a kitchen, showers and an impressive set of gardens. Weir felt it was important that the construction of Jeronimo be filmed in continuity. To that end, three Jeronimos were created, each in a little more advanced state than the one before. "Everything had to be built," says Weir, "in the way Allie would've done it." When shooting progressed from one Jeronimo to the next, the construction crew did additional work on the previous set. By constantly circling, the camera following the construction crew, the production team was able to film in days what would have taken many months.
Music played a key role in Peter Weir's method of making
the film. "I think all creativity links somewhere
to music," says Weir. The director regularly carried
a small tape player, which he played on the set and at the
screenings of raw footage. "It's inspiration," he
says, "a way of losing yourself in someone else's creation
and regenerating or recharging one's own batteries." Weir
also incorporated some of the indigenous musical culture
of Belize into the film as source music. In one scene
he added a local band that played drums made out of turtle-shells;
in another he invited drummer Isobel Flores, a Belizean legend,
to perform with his group.
Music played a key role in Peter Weir's method of making the film. "I think all creativity links somewhere to music," says Weir. The director regularly carried a small tape player, which he played on the set and at the screenings of raw footage. "It's inspiration," he says, "a way of losing yourself in someone else's creation and regenerating or recharging one's own batteries." Weir also incorporated some of the indigenous musical culture of Belize into the film as source music. In one scene he added a local band that played drums made out of turtle-shells; in another he invited drummer Isobel Flores, a Belizean legend, to perform with his group.
To create the dense visual style of "The Mosquito Coast," Weir collaborated closely with his award-winning director of photography, John Seale. "Peter and I have always believed that you can't make every shot beautiful," says Seale. "You have to tell the story. With 'The Mosquito Coast,' we began with some lovely shots that will make the audience say, 'Wow! That's the tropics!'--but as we go deeper into the jungle, it becomes more nitty-gritty, more documentary-style. We're avoiding the perfectly lit Hollywood look: our jungles are dark, creepy and threatening."
"John Seale and I had a phrase we used to capture the larger-than-life quality we were looking for," says Weir. "This film is eight feet above the ground. When you climb up to it, everything in this world makes sense." "My character is big," says Harrison Ford, "and I wanted to go as far as I could to the edge, beyond the limits of comfort on occasion." "Harrison is very courageous," says River Phoenix, "I think his performance is going to shock a lot of people."
While most filmmakers resist speculating about the success of a film while they're making it, a high degree of optimism was evident among "The Mosquito Coast" production team. Everyone, from the grips and electricians to the producer, director and stars, gave off the feeling that this was a special project. "As much as I liked the novel and the script," Ford notes, "it's turned out to be a different movie than the one we imagined— funnier, more emotional ... more complete."
"I'd like this film to have the power," says Weir, "that the books of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens had for me, and still do. Particularly Stevenson, because of the exotic adventure stories he wrote, which were for all ages. Like “The Mosquito Coast,” they are adult adventures—the stakes are high and the people who feel pain really feel it. I'm trying to make a grand adventure."
Released: November 1986