For part of the production of Mosquito Kingdom, the cast and crew traveled to an island in the Florida Keys and shot the film without permits on a budget of less than $100,000. Over ten grueling twenty-hour days, they broke into back yards and built sets, siphoned electricity to power their lighting, and fled from the police as they were reported for trespassing.
Gathered around a worn wooden table upstairs at Meshuggah Coffee House, the three St. Louis-based filmmakers responsible for the movie, codirectors Derek Elz and Brad Hodge, and screenwriter Jedidiah Ayres, recount their experience.
"It is true guerilla filmmaking," Elz, who doubled as the cinematographer, says proudly. "You beg, borrow, plead and hope people cooperate. And you might be arrested at any minute."
Adds the onetime Riverfront Times contributor Ayres: "The time in Florida was absolutely wild and pretty intense for me."
As a result, Mosquito Kingdom is dark. Not just in the sense that the hyper-stylized images onscreen rival the most inky-black and smoke-filled film noir, but dark for the way in which the film takes place in a frantic, bizarre and life-sucking moral vacuum.
The story depicts the interlocking lives of a small, shady cast of characters — prostitutes, pimps, henchmen and crooked cops. Woodrell is a stogie-puffing pimp/gangster who exiles troublesome women from his harem and "retired" hatchet men to a desolate tropical island. Once there, they fall in love, fornicate and, naturally, plan escapes. Meanwhile, back in the equally barren big city, an ex-cop with a corrupt past is forced to face his demons as one of Woodrell's men, Ash, starts having an affair with his wife. A bit convoluted? Perhaps. But like any art film, it is as much an exercise in style and philosophy as it is a coherent narrative.
Aesthetically, Mosquito Kingdom borrows heavily from late-era film noir. Despite the low budget and digital cameras, little is lost in terms of production value. Lush black shadows sprawl across the sets and actors' faces, starkly contrasting with swirling plumes of cigarette smoke. Several outdoor scenes take this sinister visual style to expansive squares or sun-bleached beaches. One shot in particular frames a character in the dark arches of Laclede's Landing (in addition to filming in Florida, several scenes were shot in St. Louis), evoking a famous scene from the Orson Welles classic The Third Man.
Other elements place the film squarely in the contemporary genre of neo-noir. Split-screen shots and fight scenes in blue and sepia tones lend the movie a graphic novel feel. There's a torture scene straight out of Reservoir Dogs in which a character gets a belt-sander to the face while a tinkling pop song blares in the background.
The torture scene, which takes place in the spooky confines of the Lemp Brewery, highlights the acting of Dick Pointer, who plays an aging goon named Raymond. Pointer, who moonlights as a bartender at Benton Park's Venice Café, steals several scenes in the film, mainly because he seems to be the only character on the godforsaken island to be having any fun. With thick-framed glasses and a bushy gray beard, he's all piss and vinegar as he sarcastically deadpans lines like, "I don't want to piss on your birthday cake, but we're going to have a problem."
Ayres' screenplay unfolds nonlinearly, and is remarkable for the parasitic nature of nearly every character. It's almost nihilistic given the fact the viewer sees virtually no one outside of these creatures locked in their depraved world (extras were a luxury the crew could not afford.)
"When I wrote it, metaphorically the island is Hell," Ayres says. "Some people were sent there against their will, others worked really hard to get there."
He adds that some of the script was adapted to fit the bizarre and dodgy conditions in which the movie was being filmed. Lines were crafted on the fly as the constant breaking down and rebuilding of the sets caused a continuity nightmare.
"We had to mold it into something that was leaner and meaner and could be done in this setting," says Elz, a product of Webster University's film school.
All three of the filmmakers agree that the dialogue wasn't the only aspect of the film that was affected by their "guerilla" filming regimen. They describe sleeping the entire eighteen-person cast and crew in an apartment meant for eight, stealing furniture from the pool to serve as beds. Consequently, they say, the "haggard look" of many of the actors was achieved without much makeup.
"The living and working conditions really came back into the film," says Hodge, the codirector. "People were almost on the verge of prostituting themselves."