SPOILER ALERT: After an explosive Season Two finale of The Mosquito Coast, a decision looms imminently on whether Apple TV+ reups. It so, the third season heads right into the territory of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel that Peter Weir turned into a cult classic movie with Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix. The one where Ford’s brilliant counterculture inventor Allie Fox becomes so obsessed with imposing a vision of utopia that he nearly takes down his family. Here, the author discusses seeing his famed novel pre-quelized by Neil Cross (Luther), the improvements over his book, his nephew Justin starring, and why he’s so rooting for one more season.
DEADLINE: How do you feel about the Fox family possibly heading down the same rabbit hole they did in the Peter Weir film, in search of utopia.
PAUL THEROUX: I was delighted when Fremantle and Apple first picked it up at, and wondered how they would start. They found a clever way in, by creating a backstory. The novel had no backstory, just a hint that Allie Fox had a disturbed past. He’s hyperactive, may have spent some time at Harvard, as well as in a hospital. I suggested in the book there was something wrong but didn’t say what it was. The people who created the show, Neil Cross, Rupert Wyatt and others, created the very plausible backstory that Allie (Justin Theroux) is a highly intelligent enemy of the state.
And that his wife, Margo (Melissa George), has a history of being an eco-terrorist. You didn’t know in the first season why they’re pursued by the feds, but we discovered in that first episode of the second season that Margo was in a plot to blow up a government building. I didn’t have that, and it’s a very substantial basis for the narratives that follow. What I imagined was the man that Allie was as he takes his family into a jungle to create a utopian community. If there’s a third season, it would segue into the book itself, and the movie’s search for a utopian community. But we don’t know at the end of the second season if Allie is part of this, or if Margo is on her own. That’s the cliffhanger.
DEADLINE: You are an exec producer, but how did you feel about your well respected novel being turned upside down?
THEROUX: As the author of the book, I’m fascinated by what they’ve made of it. I’m an exec producer so I was tuned into each episode, but I was still on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen. They’ve done such a great job writing and directing, and the acting is terrific. I’m hoping that it goes into a third season just to round it off.
DEADLINE: Justin Theroux’s Allie Fox is headstrong, but do you see a clear path for the descent into paranoia that Ford portrayed in the Weir movie? Is he a Colonel Kurtz figure like Marlon Brando played in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now?
THEROUX: That’s a very good analogy, Col Kurtz, who’s based on the Joseph Conrad character from Heart of Darkness. The Mosquito Coast fits into that territory. I don’t believe in superheroes. Allie is a mechanical genius, and also he has a screw loose. On the one side, he’s extremely intelligent, very clever, can solve problems; the other is deeply disturbed.
You also notice there’s less and less chemistry in the second season between Allie and Margo, which is a springboard for a brilliant third season that circles back to the novel and actually identifies who Allie is. Margo is a very distinct character by the end of the second season, and Allie has revealed who he really is too. It creates a great narrative for the beginning, for what I wrote in the novel. A man on the run who creates a kind of utopian society. And if he falls, Margot will pick up the baton and she’ll do it. Not what we’re used to seeing in movies a lot, the hero without flaws.
DEADLINE: Many filmmakers have lamented the simplicity of world saving superheroes…
THEROUX: He’s usually the great guy, the man without dark sides. One of the things I loved about Joker, he was a very complicated character. Very funny, very dark, very clever, and very dangerous. Allie has those same qualities. He’s not the Joker, but he has several distinct aspects to his character, which is more human than the usual bundled Marvel comic book doer of good. I wanted the book to be more nuanced, and it was important that Allie not be a completely good character.
He’s very dangerous and reckless. That recklessness gives him a kind of wisdom, which we often see in great movies. That’s also true of Colonel Kurtz. Very reckless, very insightful, and he knows how to lead. Marlon Brando played him flawed. That’s also Allie and to me it makes a much more interesting narrative to have a character who’s not completely good or completely bad, but leans toward bad and can solve problems. Margo has those same abilities. One of the things that I love about the series is Margo. I didn’t create a believable woman when I wrote the book. I was obsessed with Allie.
But the people who made the TV series created a woman with great subtlety and great strength, and she’s in opposition to Allie. In the book, and the movie with Helen Mirren, Margo mostly goes along. She’s not a patsy but is passive in a way. She goes along and trusts Allie. Margo resists, and that’s a great thing. I didn’t put it in the book. I wish I had actually, but a TV series is a second chance. I’ve always thought as a writer of novels that movies or TV give us the second chance that life denies us. We always wish, gee, I wish I could have done that. When you make a movie or write a sequel, you have the chance to get it right. That’s happened here.
DEADLINE: That’s gracious for an author to say about his best known work.
THEROUX: Margo resisting him, that’s the human element I wish I had done in the book. The reason I’m flexible is, this is a TV series. A movie is a completely different art form. I love what Peter Weir did in the movie. I collaborated with him on it a lot, but I didn’t get a credit. Paul Schrader did, but Peter Weir and I did a lot of the work there. And it was the first time I realized how effective music is in a movie. Music, sound, creates a complete atmosphere that you can’t create in a book. The artistry of film and TV is something I envy.
DEADLINE: There is now a media fixation with nepotism in show business. How did your nephew come to be the star of this?
THEROUX: It wasn’t nepotism. He did it off his own bat. There was a lot of prologue to it, legal issues to resolve, and a lot of paperwork before it started. When they got the green light, I got an email from [Justin] saying he was up for the job. I said, really? I didn’t know that. I said, go for it, that’s great. I had no influence on him other than encouraging him. He got it on his own and good for him.
DEADLINE: He’d started as a screenwriter, but got a lot of acclaim for The Leftovers. I felt obliged to ask, because the media has made it a thing.
THEROUX: I know it is. But, either you’re right for a big part, or you’re not. You’re not getting it because you’re related to the director, or the author. I’m sure directors’ girlfriends get parts, but I don’t think they get starring roles.
DEADLINE: If The Mosquito Coast’s third season cracks into a novel you published over 40 years ago, how relevant are the themes?
THEROUX: I wrote the book in 1980, when Americans were looking at the Arab oil crisis, the Carter administration and very high interest rates. People were very discouraged, and saying things like, I’d like to go to Canada, to Africa, South America, Mexico. I’m outta here. But Americans are very bad expatriates. That’s why Colonel Kurtz is a good analogy for Allie. He goes away, he fits in. It was Africa in the Joseph Conrad novel and the Congo in the movie. He fits in enough to have all these people protecting him. You look at the States now, and there are a lot of very discouraging things happening and a lot of people who could relate to somebody who wants to go away and find a utopian community, to just bring America to some other place in a pure form. That’s Swiss Family Robinson and The Mosquito Coast ideal. We’ll start again, make friends and create this little village in the jungle. In the series, Allie is being pursued so in a way he has to do it. In the book, he brings an invention that makes ice in the jungle…
DEADLINE: We see that in the final moments of Season Two…
THEROUX: And the Margo character is strong enough to fulfill his vision even if he didn’t survive. I had always thought of a sequel for the book. Allie dies at the end of the novel, and in the movie too. But in my fantasy sequel novel, the children would take over and the story would be narrated by his son, Charlie. He would take the place of his father. I thought I would let some time pass and I never got around to it. But I never imagined that the mother would have the mojo to do it. Melissa George is a fantastic actress, and her character has the determination, the intelligence and the strength to carry it through. Her most compelling feature is her resistance against Allie, when she knows he’s going wrong. There’s a line in As Good As It Gets, where Jack Nicholson says that when he’s asked how you create great women characters, he says, I think of a man, and then I delete reason and accountability. Melissa’s character has reason and accountability; she is a complete person.
DEADLINE: But the dark tale they would pick up in Season Three is the same. Leave a corrupt civilization to start over, and then find the same problems?
THEROUX: Yeah, that’s right, because there is no such thing as utopia. It doesn’t exist. The trouble with people who try to create utopias, like Allie Fox or Colonel Kurtz, is while they left the United States, America and its flaws are within them. You can’t create a pure society, especially if you’re basically a flawed character. Something is gonna go wrong no matter what happens. You create this society, it seems to be going well, but there’s always a flaw. And the flaw is in the creator.
One of the inspirations for the book was Jim Jones. Remember him? Mid to late 70s, Jones was trying to create a utopia in Guyana. He had ideas, and it ended in mass suicide, one of the most horrible events in my lifetime. More than 900 people dead. But while they were building it, they were growing plants, and trying to create a society that was equal and colorblind and all that. Talk about an idealist who really had a screw loose. What Jim Jones did, I couldn’t find elsewhere in history, where someone’s leading his flock to this jungle place. They create a society, they build, they have God, they have houses, they have food, speeches, sing songs. And it all ends to the mass suicide. That to me was an American tragedy.
DEADLINE: That’s an extreme comparison to Allie Fox. We’ve recently seen cult leaders exposed and some of them had ulterior motives that had to do with exploiting women for their own prurient purposes, most recently NXIVM…
THEROUX: Jones had an element of megalomania and paranoia, but no one accused him of persecuting women. From the books I read about him, it is apparently truer to say that he was hitting on guys. But this wasn’t a sexual thing with him. It was power, and paranoia. Allie isn’t demented or paranoid. He’s human. Carrying this through to the final results of the book is, you can’t put a wall around the utopia you build, and people from the outside move in on them. That happened in the book, the movie and if there’s a third season, it would be about being invaded by people from the outside, looking to take advantage of them.