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HARRISON FORD stars as Allie Fox in "The Mosquito Coast," the story of a family's quest for paradise that becomes a terrifying fight for survival. A Warner Bros. release.
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 life."
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 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've never had a character like Allie in my films before," says Weir, "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 an 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 different."