Neil Cross might be best known to TV viewers as the man who created John “Loofah” Luther, the hard-bitten London copper brought to life by Idris Elba in a big coat. But more recently, the versatile writer/producer has been going in a very different direction, adapting Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast for Apple TV+. As the series wraps up its first season this week, we hopped on Zoom to talk about why he took on the challenge, finding the right actor for the complicated main character and having to reconfigure the season in the wake of the pandemic. Oh, and he also offers a little hint about the future of everyone’s favourite tough ‘tec.
How familiar were you with the source novel?
I’m a lifelong reader and fan of Paul Theroux, I’ve read essentially, I think, every word he’s ever written, several times. I was given The Great Railway Bazaar when I was about 14, so I’m very familiar with his work. I’m also, I would lay serious claim to being the world’s most serious Harrison Ford fan. I would go into public gladiatorial combat. If anyone loves Harrison Ford more than me, I have yet to meet them? As far as I’m concerned, the definitive straight adaptation of that novel already exists, and it’s Peter Weir’s film from 1986. Harrison Ford essays a pitch-perfect portrayal of Allie Fox as he appears in the book. So when I was approached by a colleague who knew how much of a Paul Theroux fan I was, to say, ‘how would you feel about adapting The Mosquito Coast?’, my first reaction was, ‘no!’ A hard no. And being a subtle and psychology adept colleague, he asked me why. And I began to lay out, not my objections, my reservations. And my reservations were many, not just the fact that Harrison Ford and River Phoenix had done that movie. And
What were the challenges of this new adaptation?
Paul Theroux deploys literary irony longitudinally throughout the narrative. So there are elements of the novel, like literary irony, that doesn’t translate to the screen, which is a much brasher and more vulgar medium. But more particularly, Allie Fox as he appears in the novel, is a bifurcated character in as much as on one level, he’s an exemplar of a very American archetype. He’s Randal McMurphy, he’s John Yossarian, an American contrarian trickster, a character of which I am very fond. On another level, he’s an exemplar of a very particular set of economic, cultural and social circumstances that pertained at the end of the 1970s. The Allie Fox of the novel comes in the wake of the Oil Shock, he’s post-Nixon, he’s post-‘60s, he’s part of that Libertarian, hippie, sandal-wearing Whole Earth Catalog generation. So the first challenge was to think, ‘well, if you were going to adapt it, if you were going to set this kind of story in the here and now, who would that character be 40 years hence?’ How do you take the archetypal nature of the character, keep all of that and also take his specific rejection of what back then was simply called consumerism, and add those particulars to today. Because the consumerism that we live with now is a very different type of consumerism. You might want to call it late-stage capitalism, somebody rather brilliantly called it “limbic capitalism”, which I thought was great. And the final challenge, really was that in the book, Allie’s wife has no name. She is simply called “Mother”, she has no agency, she has no desire of her own. And this is deployed by Paul as a literary device, because this is a commentary about the type of person that Allie is, but that stuff doesn’t translate to the screen at all. So part of the consensual violence we had to do to the story was not just re-imagine Margot, but to imagine her. Who is this woman? How does this marriage work? Why are they together? That’s how the re-imagining arose.
How did you come to cast Justin Theroux?
He had to essentially take an asshole and make us like him, and moreover, make us understand why his poor family continue to like him. That is no mean feat for an actor. Especially since Allie’s in almost every scene, and not just in them, but central to them. It was a hell of a feat for Justin to have to pull off. So in some ways, the familial connection wasn’t quite a disadvantage, but I was a bit wary of before I met him. Justin has a profound familial connection not just to the author of the novel, but to the family members upon whom the character was based. And that’s a connection to the source material that is literally in the marrow of his bones, it’s in his DNA, it’s a family thing. And I, for my part, had a very different, but to my mind, no less profound connection with Paul Theroux, who I’d never met, through his novels. Before I met Justin, I was worried that there was the potential for some weird Kramer Vs. Kramer thing. But if anything, I was worried it might be to our disadvantage. When I met Justin, I was very nervous, I was over-caffeinated, I was chain smoking, and the first thing he did was put me completely at my ease, and to talk with great insight about the script. It became very evident very quickly that despite our different approaches, despite our different trajectories towards the material, we saw this new show and this new Allie in the same way.
You had to shut down production during the shoot because of the pandemic. Did you use the delay to work further on the show?
My brain in the great Covid interregnum was pretzeled and pretzeled again. It was like having your skull hit with a meat cleaver every day for nine hours every day for about three months. We were halfway through shooting episode 5 in Mexico City when we had to leave. And everybody, not least of them Apple, went to great efforts to ensure that we could finish the season. Everybody thought that we had something pretty cool, we were quite proud of what we had. And we looked at the possibility of how we could re-mount it. It seemed to be a kaleidoscopically infinite variation of approaches. Are we going to finish in Mexico City? Do we go to the Dominican Republic? Do we find somewhere in Arizona? We talked about the Philippines at one point. I got so desperate that I said, ‘what about New Zealand?’, where I live. It required a lot of re-thinking. But in the end, the only real material difference that we made is that we shortened the season. It was a nine-episode season and it became a seven-episode season. I wrote what was conceived to be the season finale, I wrote one assuming we were filming it in Mexico, one assuming we were filming it in the Philippines, one assuming it would be on a soundstage!
Does that affect your potential plans for Season 2 and onwards?
If there’s one thing I learned from reading Paul Theroux’s travel literature, it’s that you can have a destination in mind, but there is always another route you can take to get there. I know where we’re headed, as to the exact route, that’s to be determined.
Finally, what can you tell us about the future of Luther on the big and small screens?
I can tell you that we’ve got big and exciting news coming soon. I know Idris has kind of mentioned it, so it’s not a massive secret, but we have a thing. You’re going to see more of John Luther pretty soon in a very cool way.
The Mosquito Coast ends its first season on Apple TV+ this Friday.