In a lonely, cavernous apartment overlooking Central Park, Wall Street data whiz Richard Boca (Beau Knapp) realises he’s been bitten by a mosquito. That itchy discovery sets in motion Mosquito State, a movie about a man’s journey of self-discovery that dovetails into a complete mental collapse; as he’s frantically trying to keep a handle on the predictive computer models that help him obsessively track the economy, he becomes equally obsessed with the colony of mosquitos that have begun rapidly breeding in his home.
His unctuous boss and co-workers just want him to keep doing the number-crunching that’s made them all rich, a mysterious woman he’s just met seemingly slips further from his grasp, and his face and body develop grotesque swollen patches thanks to his bloodthirsty new companions. Meanwhile, the world outside his floor-to-ceiling windows feels like it’s stumbling toward doom.
Mosquito State will make you think, it will make you recoil, and it will definitely make you itch. To learn more ahead of the film’s Shudder release later this week, we spoke over the phone to director Filip Jan Rymsza, who also co-wrote with the film with Mario Zermeno. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: Mosquito State begins on a very specific date (August 3, 2007), which obviously was a deliberate choice. What is the significance of setting the movie exactly then?
Filip Jan Rymsza: The more I researched the beginnings or at least the first signs of the financial collapse, that whole week just seemed very eventful, and also foretelling in a way. It wasn’t just what was going on in the background with the housing crisis; it was also what was going on in technology and sports and journalism, politics, pop culture. All these things. And everything that takes place that’s visible in the background took place on that day. So to me, there was something festering and kind of rotting at its core. I just thought it was a really interesting week in American socio-economic history.
Gizmodo: A lot of the movie takes place in Richard’s apartment but we get a sense of the outside world through the news on his TV. How did you decide which footage to include in the film, and what purpose does it serve beyond just reminding us what was making headlines at the time?
Rymsza: I was thinking about the start of the 24-hour news cycle and how deafening it was, and what it ultimately became. Like I said, I kind of wanted to touch upon all aspects of it, and I also started thinking about [Richard] as an algorithm in a way, in a way that a data analyst would look at data — the way that an algorithm will comb through everything that’s out there to be able to see signs, to anticipate or to react quicker than any human being could. So I wanted to set him around all of this information. I wanted him to have this in the background, and for us to be aware that he’s constantly consuming and churning through all this data.
Gizmodo: We don’t learn too much about Richard’s past or even get inside his head too much. Mostly we get to know him based on his actions and reactions throughout the film itself. Is the fact that he’s taking in all of this information (and that a lot of it’s building to a sense of doom) the reason why he gets to the point of a nervous breakdown?
Rymsza: You know, it’s that fine line between genius and madness and being able to connect all these things. A lot of times making these types of connections kind of leads you to a nervous breakdown of sorts because you’re just seeing too many things — trying to connect too many things which are, for the most part, random or chaotic. Being able to sift through that, usually it takes us decades to be able to do it, for analysts to be able to do it. So doing it in real time is impossible. That was kind of the point of it.
Gizmodo: Beau Knapp’s performance as Richard is so physical and compelling and even frightening at times, but yet you also feel sorry for him. How did you work with Knapp to bring this unusual character to life?
Rymsza: That was a process. Beau’s physicality didn’t fit Richard at all; he ended up losing like 23 kg. But he’s somebody who’s very masculine, very “bro-y,” so when I first met him it was kind of — the handshake, he, like, broke my hand. So when I first met him, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see my way through it. But he really stayed engaged with us — he started losing weight before I cast him — and I loved the passion. When we were talking about it, I had him read Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, I had him watch a few things [including Adam Curtis’ documentary HyperNormalisation] and I opened myself up to the possibility of him doing it. Then, once I said “OK, let’s kind of take a risk on each other,” because it’s bi-lateral in a sense, that collaboration, he came with a lot of really interesting ideas. A lot of the physicality, a lot of Richard’s quirks are things that Beau brought to it, and then I kind of amplified where needed and shaped. But he brought a lot to that character.
Gizmodo: How did you come up with the look and feel of Richard’s apartment?
Rymsza: I wanted it to feel [like] a cathedral in terms of the sound, and in terms of how the single mosquito would then be heard, and how that would carry — so it was almost like working backwards from a practical aspect. I wanted the windows to be the entire wall so that we could see [Central Park] and the sky, and the sky would ultimately reflect some of his moods. And then I wanted it to feel like there was no personality in it. He bought that flat almost with the furniture that it was modelled with. Coming in and just being like, “I’ll take it as is.” So I wanted there to be nothing that spoke of him, where we came in and it was empty, so he was empty.
Gizmodo: The fact that he would buy the entire floor — including an entire apartment just to hold his wine collection, even though he doesn’t drink — to remain more isolated is also striking.
Rymsza: And having the means to do it. That’s kind of the thing with some of these characters, and I say characters broadly because I’ve talked to some of these people. It’s amassing such wealth and then not being able to enjoy it, because it’s this cog that just continues to churn and you don’t know how to turn it off. So it’s really interesting, having all this wine and not being able to enjoy it, not having a sense of appreciating what you have.
Gizmodo: The mosquitos are obviously their own character in the film. I assume most of that was special effects, with some extreme close-ups of the real thing? What was your vision for portraying the swarm on camera?
Rymsza: I wanted them to have a consciousness or at least to communicate with Richard in some way that wasn’t sound. It had to be movement, and mosquitos kind of hover in these clouds, so I wanted to borrow from nature. I looked at starlings and murmurations and just other creatures and how they would form, whether it was fish or birds. That was just to suggest that they’re communicating in some way. That was obviously CG, but we borrowed quite a bit from the natural world.
Gizmodo: The sound design is also influenced by all the mosquitos. How did you go about plotting that out?
Rymsza: It’s tough to hear one individual mosquito within a swarm, so it was a lot of play with pitching. That worked together with score; I wanted all violins and violas to also suggest the movement of wings. And then, with the servers, that constant droning. By the end of the film, a lot of people don’t notice this, where there are supposed to be mosquitos there are servers humming, and then the other way around. It’s kind of being experimental and trying to play with the perception, and kind of getting into Richard’s head, because all these things are starting to coalesce. For him, they’re starting to be this ecosystem, they’re building onto each other. As his [computer] model, which he names “Mosquito,” is working, it’s like in his world all these things are converging into one little point.
Gizmodo: Mosquito State is coming to Shudder, which is known for showing horror movies. Do you consider Mosquito State — which feels inspired by David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, maybe Dario Argento’s Phenomena — to be a horror movie?
Rymsza: Nothing from Cronenberg! Not at all! Which surprises everybody when I say it.
Gizmodo: Because people are like, “Body horror? Must be Cronenberg’s influence!”
Rymsza: Uh-huh. I mean, strangely, I didn’t realise I was making a horror or genre film. I thought I was making more of a [psychological] thriller along the lines of something like Taxi Driver. So, it kind of came as a surprise to me in the film’s reception. But I had a feeling, because obviously I’ve seen The Fly, but if somebody were to — which I hate doing — [ask me to] give me three films [that compare to Mosquito State], The Fly wouldn’t be in the top 50. But Metamorphosis for sure. Especially when I’m punctuating the chapters of a metamorphosis, how do you not go back to that?
I really do like films that challenge conventions. It’s cool that Shudder is broadening whatever that [horror label] is. Certainly I’m somebody who — I really doesn’t like certain labels on films. Oftentimes there are certain films that just don’t fit by design. I think every artist is the worst judge of what their art is, and I’m certainly no exception. But I think that [Mosquito State] is one that probably defies some of the very traditional categorizations of film.
Mosquito State arrives on Shudder August 26.