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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 lovable Creole boatmant, 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 reasonable close to the U.S., where the currency and political situation were both stable.