How ‘The Mosquito Coast’ Achieved That Hyperreal Cinematic Visual Style

TheWrap awards magazine: Cinematographer Alex Disenhof discusses the challenges of desert filming and the reason he never wanted the Apple TV+ series to “feel clean”

A version of this story about “The Mosquito Coast” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. 

(Note: This story may include spoilers).

Cinematographer Alex Disenhof admits to not being terribly familiar with “The Mosquito Coast” via either Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel or Peter Weir’s 1986 film starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. But for those who have seen any of the episodes to date, it’s a rare case where that is perfectly OK. “We didn’t really want to use them as jumping off points too much,” Disenhof said. “We wanted to tell our own story, and we were guided by the scripts handed to us.”

Apple’s series, hatched by “Luther” creator Neil Cross, retains the main story of both sources: the Foxes, an American family led by its eccentric, inventor paterfamilias Allie (played here by Justin Theroux, nephew of the book’s author) and his more introspective wife Margot (Melissa George), find themselves and their two children deep in the jungles of Central America to escape the U.S.’s increasing reliance on consumerism and corruption. But this take is more of a thriller (this family is definitely on the run from officiosos), and much more plugged into the present – remember that cell phones and 5G were not commonplace when the original sources dropped – and the series uses its visual style to create a fully up to date, off-the-grid palette.

Disenhof, reuniting with frequent collaborator and director Rupert Wyatt (“The Exorcist,” “Captive State”), tells of finding just the right paranoid tone for the proceedings. “We were always on the lookout for visual ways to represent Allie’s views on the cycle of broken consumerism and waste and this society that he believes is failing,” captured in quite-bravura manner in an early first-episode scene where Allie looks nearly crushed by the signage of corporations and businesses while trying to sneakily procure goods for his DIY-only home, complete with its own electricity-free ice-making machine.

“I was hugely inspired by DP Robby Müller and his work on the movie ‘Paris, Texas’ [directed by Wim Wenders], which has a sense of Americana but there’s something rugged and colorful and grimy, there’s this amazing mix there,” Disenhof said, noting that the visual scheme changes as the Fox family begins its escape through Mexico from California, which was a mostly effects-free, sun-bathed endeavor that was thankfully filmed before the pandemic shut down production for half a year. (It also shortened the episode total to seven from nine.)

“The biggest challenge on the shoot was the location shooting, playing around in the harsh sun, which I embraced and wanted, because I felt like it was fitting for our story. It was always challenging to match some of our locations to each other and continue that visual language, especially at night, with some of these streets in Mexico that you want to make look like a dirty Central California,” said Disenhof, whose completed work was not affected by the production’s shutdown, as he is the central director of photography on the first, second and fourth episodes of “Coast.”

Eventually the cast and crew traded the elements for the indoors for the show’s fourth installment, a tense episode set in the care of a deeply shady cartel family residing in a massive hacienda which practically dwarfs the Fox clan yet allows George’s momma character a chance to show who is actually boss. “It’s a 500-year-old hacienda, and there was this sumptuousness to it: red walls, extremely high ceilings. I lit it with old-school tungsten lights, and wanted this feeling of warm, bold light. You realize that things are not as they seem. There’s a sense of unease to that place,” Disenhof said.

The production also employed the use of a process called LiveGrain to get that specific and gritty celluloid resolution down pat. “It’s an amazing algorithm that was created by a guy in L.A. that organically reads the so-called density of the image,” Disenhof said about the emerging texture tool. “It needed some sort of texture, and I didn’t want this series to feel clean ever, because that’s not the world Allie lives in inside his head, right?”

The Mosquito Coast is available to stream on AppleTV+

Read more from the Comedy & Drama Series issue here

FOR STORIES Comedy & Drama Series EmmyWrap 2021
(Clockwise from top: Maya Erskine, Charlotte Nicdao, Punam Patel, Hannah Einbinder, Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap)