The Mosquito Coast: Interview with costume designer Justine Seymour

Justin Theroux in “The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+

 
Forty years after its publishing, Paul Theroux’s book, The Mosquito Coast, which, with the incredibly vivid creation of Allie Fox as the escapee from society who abhors modern life and uproots his family for a deluded utopian mission in Central America, gave us such an unnerving and fascinating read, has inspired a contemporary retelling of the story. The series however, created by Neil Cross, starring Justin Theroux, Paul Theroux’s nephew, and co-executive-produced by the writer himself, unlike Peter Weir’s faithful 1986 adaptation for the big screen, bears little resemblance to the book and follows Allie Fox and his family’s dangerous journey across the border to Mexico, before arriving at the title location, in a tensely plotted thriller and family drama.

The story begins with the family – Allie, brilliant inventor but who has a hard time selling his inventions for profit, his wife Margot (Melissa George), and their two homeschooled children, Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) – living mostly off-the-grid in Stockton, California. Allie has a job on an asparagus farm and is working on an ice machine that’s the core element in the book but barely carrying any importance in the series. Justin Theroux’s Allie Fox is adverse to technology and consumerism, but the reason his own disillusioned character uproots his family from an America mired in materialism and conformity is not leaving by his own free will in order to remake a better civilisation elsewhere, at least for now. Why tell the same story twice? He and his wife Margot have to flee the US when they suddenly find themselves on the run from the US government and their mysterious past. But the urge to leave, to go somewhere else has always been there, I think, for this contemporary Allie Fox, too. Maybe Justin Theroux’s egomaniacal patriarch is more a stubborn optimist than an idealist, and he certainly is deeply flawed and has a distorted perspective on reality (at least by the standards generally accepted by society), but his unabated conviction in his own beliefs is liberating, and feels liberating for the times we are living, too, which fuels this differently shaped story.

From embodying key character traits and themes from the book into the wardrobe of the leading cast – “It was something you could boast about, it made our life seem dull and home-made, like the patches on our clothes,” Charlie fantasies in the book about that other world, the ordinary world, his father had forbidden them to enter – that evoke the simple living and breaking of the status quo, centered around style choices of recyclable, re-used and sustainable clothing, of the Fox family, to embracing the rich colours and design of Mexican culture and subtly incorporating them into the development of the characters, costume designer Justine Seymour was responsible for the art that conceals art. Especially in a film that requires dressing down rather than dressing up, costume design is the thing that often goes unnoticed. And so it should. Because everything is part of the alchemy of film-making – creating a world and the characters that inhabit it. But there are some people who simply rise above whatever you put on them, or you make the choice of using a Hawaiian shirt as a beautiful tribute to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in the original film and costume designer Gary Jones while remaining truthful first and foremost to your own character. And that is what makes dressing a film all the more fascinating.

Right after the series aired, I talked to Justine Seymour about her design process, her style references and this new world the entire team have created in The Mosquito Coast.
 

Justin Theroux and Melissa George in “The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+

 

How challenging was it to work on The Mosquito Coast given the legacy of the book and of the 1986 feature film?

The book and original film compared to Neil Cross’s TV show are very different. Our show is a prequel to the original story. I, of course, watched the film again, I read the book, and did quite a bit of research into alternative living ideas. I wanted to get a good base understanding of how the Fox family were living. Once I had read Neil Cross’s script, I started my design process. I always embrace a challenge and this one was a fun adventure!

Where do you start and where do you look for inspiration? What were your references for the wardrobes?

We contemporised the world in this show, so it would have political relevance to today’s issues with waste and the environmental issues we are facing. But I did start with the original material from the 1980s, with Paul Theroux’s book and the issues Allie Fox was obsessed with back in the 1980s.

I also watched all of Justin Theroux’s previous work and looked at about a million images of him online to see how his physicality worked with clothing. I did the same research for Melissa George, in addition to a lot of research into migrant workers, refugees trekking across the desert, and families that go on adventures across the country.

Once the story moved down to Mexico, things became so much more colourful and vibrant. It was such fun exploring the markets and cultural differences, finding wonderful handmade items to place on my characters. Dina is wearing a handcrafted sundress at the dinner party, and Justin is wearing a very classic linen Guevara shirt. I love incorporating traditional handcrafts from the region.

But they are still wearing their boots, all of them. Is it a way of reminding the viewer that their clothes are in fact not theirs, but what Enrique Salazar has chosen for them to wear?

Yes, exactly, well spotted. The clothing is given to the family, as their personal clothing is caked in sand and sweat from the three-day desert crossing. The clothing fits our beautiful cast very well, leaving the boots hinting that this was some sort of façade, and the Fox family have walked into a very serious situation. The miss-matching of the clothing supports the unease experienced so acutely by Margot.
 

Logan Polish and Melissa George as Dina and Margot Fox in “The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Dina is wearing a locally handcrafted sundress and Margot is wearing the dramatic, out-of-character red Hispanic-style
dress given to her, reflecting both her unease and the faded glory of the Hacienda.

 

Margot may be the most intriguing and enigmatic character and her clothes give us glimpses into the character that could hardly be revealed otherwise. Were Margot’s dresses, the striped day dress and then the red and black patterned dress for dinner at the Hacienda, also sourced locally?

They were sourced in the USA since I needed multiple dresses, allowing for Margot’s stunt double and picture double. The dresses from the Mexican markets are unique and don’t have multiples, so they would not have worked.

I wanted the day dress to feel as if it once belonged to someone less fortunate, that had not managed to escape the spider web of the Hacienda. But also keeping her colour palette in the motherly world of white and dusty pink stripe, mirroring her earlier shirt. This supports the reveal when she emerges in her strong red Hispanic-style dinner dress. This dramatic red dress was an old cast-off from Lucrecia the Matriarch (in my back story), reflecting the faded glory of the Hacienda.

And we also see Allie in a Hawaiian shirt. Harrison Ford’s own Hawaiian shirt from the movie comes to mind, but the shirt has a different meaning here, as, again, it’s a piece of clothing that isn’t the character’s choice. Was it your intention to reference the original or you just felt it appropriate for that part of the story?

The yellow Hawaiian shirt was an homage to the original film, celebrating Harrison Ford’s Allie and Gary Jones the costume designer from Peter Weir’s feature film. A perfect introduction to a slightly out-of-character shirt, replacing the cool, minimal, utilitarian clothing Allie had worn in the first three episodes. It allowed me to have him adopt a tourist feel for episode 7, while setting up this shirt for later seasons.
 

Bruno Bichir and Justin Theroux in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie’s Hawaiian shirt is a tribute to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox and Gary Jones the costume designer in Peter Weir’s 1986 film.

 

Did you make or have made any costume for any of the characters?

Yes, I did have some of the clothes made. I started by finding Allie’s cap, it was a copy of Quint’s cap, played by Robert Shaw in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws. Rupert Wyatt, our director for Episode 1 & 2, loved this idea. I also had the American flag pained onto the cap of the Militia leader played by Brett Rickaby. Then, in Episode 4, all the maid’s uniforms were made to measure. Lucrecia’s played by the amazing Ofelia Medina dinner party dress was also made to measure. Then, in Episode 7, I made the dress Margot wears at the gas station and beach.

And, for the character Hershey, I had been looking for the perfect hoodie for this petty, criminal beach bum character with little success. Thinking outside the box, I asked my buyer to go to the market and get samples of the fabric used in Mexico for cleaning the floor. The fabric is woven in long 15” panels, a wide loose woven cotton, available in many colours. My heart was set on a colourful stripe. Later that day, Sam, my lovely buyer, presented some options, and I was delighted to have found the fabric I was looking for. Then the ager/dyer overdyed it to a warm, over-washed, sun-bleached colour. The tailor then built two hoodie tops for Hershey. We needed two for the waterworks, just in case one got wet during the shoot, continuity from shot to shot is super important, and water scenes are always unpredictable.

Of course, there are always many alterations and often over-dyeing to make clothes look and feel authentic.
 

Justin Theroux and Melissa George in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
The classic white linen Guevara shirt worn by Allie Fox brings traditional handcrafted design from Mexico into the story.

 

What a great style reference, Quint’s cap in Jaws. It somehow makes sense. Robert Shaw’s rough-edged, old sea dog Quint is as anti-social and anti-conventional as one can be. His clothes serve one purpose and one purpose only: to be worn, and everything about his clothing suggests that the last thing on his mind is to impersonate a social creature or to belong. I think Allie would have liked him. How did you come to think of Quint’s cap?

I agree that there are similarities between Quint and Allie Fox, both are very practical men, salt of the earth type guys, that make no apologies for who they are. Rupert Wyatt had talked about Quint’s cap as a reference and when I found that I could get the exact copy, we both just laughed, and it was perfect.

Is the writer or the director usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution?

When you make a TV show the size of The Mosquito Coast, the showrunner (writer) is the final decision maker, but I work very closely with the directors and, of course, the cast. It is a very collaborative department, I have to work with the production designer and the cinematographer as well, to make sure we are all working on the same narrative and ensuring we are creating worlds that all fit together perfectly.
 

Ofelia Medina and Bruno Bichir in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
The beautifully elegant Ofelia Medina put her own spin on the character of the Matriarch, Aunt Lucretia.

 

Ofelia Medina, whom you’ve mentioned earlier, does stand out when we meet her, through poise, attitude, and clothing. Was the script your only inspiration for the character?

The character of the Matriarch, Aunt Lucrecia, turned out more glamorous than Rupert Wyatt and I had originally talked about, but that was also due to the casting. We had talked about a cigar-smoking, drug cartel, cruel and scary. But the casting of the beautifully elegant Ofelia Medina added another dimension and she put her own spin on this character, and it was wonderful to watch her character develop into a much more stylish woman. Plus, the location was so grand, I felt that all the wardrobe needed to be elevated from the original conversations to match that spectacular Hacienda.

Do you ever feel that contemporary film costume doesn’t get the attention it deserves and that people are quick to overlook its relevance in telling the story?

I do feel that not many people understand the costume department world and how much work goes into creating a character. A period costume gets more recognition as it is easier to see the difference, but a contemporary piece is well done if you don’t really notice the separate pieces but still understand the character.

Is designing a contemporary film more difficult than a period film, in the sense that you don’t get the control of designing the costumes, choosing fabrics, and fine-tuning colours?

No, not really, and you still have a choice of fabric and colours. I often over-dye and even more often alter to get exactly the shape I am looking for. It does get tricky when you are working on a film that is set in a different season. Let’s say the shops are full of summer stock and you are looking for that perfect winter coat, that you might need 4 of exactly the same coat then it can become tricky. There are always challenges to be overcome in my department.
 

Justin Theroux in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie Fox is wearing his well-worn elbow-patched cardigan at the beginning of the series.

 

Allie Fox loathes the consumerism that is choking America. There is a line in the first episode where he is talking to his son, Charlie, and he is revolting against the waste the modern society is capable of, against the fact that people don’t mend and fix anything anymore, they are just throwing it away if it doesn’t work anymore. He is a tinkerer. He is wearing a patched-elbow cardigan in the first sequence. I suppose he is wearing an old cardigan patched up, not the kind you buy designed in that way – use what you have, make things last longer.

Yes, I wanted the family to be dressed in secondhand clothing from Goodwill or even collecting from the tip and Allie resurrects many household items found at the tip, why not including clothing.

Margot has a slightly retro feel to her pants and shirt when we first meet her, all are well worn and soft. And, yes, I did buy the cardigan Allie wears, then aged it down by putting patches over the holes in the elbow so that it looked well-worn and well cared for.
 

Justin Theroux and Melissa George in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie’s overalls are old and lived-in, and reminiscing Harrison Ford’s character again.

 

The overalls are again something old most probably, recalling almost by definition a feeling of resourcefulness, and also reminiscing of Harrison Ford’s own dungarees in the 1986 film.

His overalls were about 10 years old to start with, and then we aged them, ground-in dirt to the knees and elbows, giving an extra lived-in dimension.

Was there anything in particular you felt you needed to insist on because you felt it was important for defining a certain character?

Not really, I don’t think so, we work as a team and bring the story to life step by step. All is talked about, images are shown, fittings and options discussed and worked out, both Justin and Melissa were very much involved with creating their characters and we found the looks as a team.
 

Ian Hart in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
The character of Bill Lee is “an elegant Hit Man” and the Cicada bolo tie that looks like a cockroach
was used by costume designer Justine Seymour to reflect his underworld connections.

Ian Hart in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Bill Lee goes undercover, trading his elegant suit for a short-sleeved shirt and straw Fedora.

 

Ian Hart’s character seems to steal the show whenever he wanders into a scene, not in the least through his clothes.

Bill Lee, played by Ian Hart, is an elegant ‘Hit Man’. Neil Cross and I spoke about Rocker Billy’s influences, but that got diluted and became a Bolo tie, suit-wearing elegant killer. With his army of street kids, he has eyes all over the city. The street kids’ wardrobe was broken down and aged to make them look scruffy and homeless, the ‘forgotten children’ that Billy Lee utilizes and supports, while, in return, the kids organise themselves and hunt down the Fox family. I chose the Cicada bolo tie as it looked like a cockroach, representing Bill Lee’s underworld connections, moving through Mexico unnoticed, killing his pray with grace. I wanted him to be an elegant thug, with neatness that contradicted his line of work. He goes undercover to the beachside town in Episode 7 and I change him into a short-sleeve shirt, and a straw Fedora. I enjoyed that the look just barely changed, but to him, he was fitting into a tourist world. This character was such fun to play around with, and Ian Hart was always game to go to the next level.

“His army of street kids, the forgotten children”, I love that. They were such a crucial part of the world that you created in Mexico. How are you addressing dressing the extras?

I am very involved with Background Artists (Extras), they are so important for setting the mood of the scene and, of course, the colour palette.

Before the shoot day, I collect palette images, style images, and references relevant to the scenes being shot. The images and instructions are sent directly to the Background Artists, asking them to match the images as best they can. I also have a stock of clothing to change things out once we see the Extras, that don’t match the world I am trying to create.

The Tomato factory scene is a perfect example. We had about 100 extras on that day, they all came dressed according to the reference images. Then my team gave them pre-aged and pre-dirtied garments, hats, shirts, bandanas, and character pieces to add to the basic layer they arrived in. Creating a world of workers, where Allie chats to his friend Hector over lunch surrounded by the perfectly aged, sun-bleached, sweaty, and dirtied workers. Hector is Allie’s connection to the Coyotes.

Creating worlds with Neil Cross and Rupert Wyatt is a joy, the clues throughout the script are wonderful pop culture references.

Let’s end on a little quiz for your readers: Hector’s name, can you spot the reference?
Hint Episode 2.

Thank you for letting me show you my world of thought behind the design.

Thank you, Justine, for taking us on this journey with you, and I will get back to you with spotting that reference.
 

Justin Theroux, Logan Polish, Melissa George and Gabriel Bateman in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie’s cap is a copy of the cap Robert Shaw wore in “Jaws” – both are “very practical men, salt of the earth type guys,
that make no apologies for who they are,” says Justine Seymour. Melissa George is wearing a dress created for her character.

 

Photos published with permission.

 
 

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