Dream debut

“Who wants to make a movie everybody loves?” – Niclas Larsson on his surreal new film Mother, Couch
By Barry Pierce | Film+TV | 5 July 2024

Photography by Marcus Ibanez

In Mother, Couch, the debut feature by Swedish writer and director Niclas Larsson, Ellen Burstyn sits on a couch in a furniture store and refuses to get up. A deceptively simple set-up, the film follows the efforts made by her children, played by Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans and Lara Flynn Boyle, to get her to stand up and leave the store.

Based on the novel by the bestselling Swedish author Jerker Virdborg, Mother, Couch is a film in which reality feels somewhat warped, as if the boundary between real life and dreams has started to disappear. We spoke to Niclas Larsson about the conception of Mother, Couch, how it began its life as a novel and turned into a very different beast, and how he found a fan in Anna Wintour along the way. 

Barry Pierce: Thank you for taking the time to chat about Mother, Couch.
Niclas Larsson: Thank you, did you like it?

BP: Of course, it’s such a fabulously singular experience.
NL: It’s definitely not for everybody 

BP: Yeah, but how boring would it be to make a film that everyone will like?
NL: What’s fascinating to me is that the meme culture, or the film buffs culture right now is like, “We want original stories, we want something weird,” or whatever, and then an original, weird film comes out and everyone’s like, “Yeah not that, I’d rather go watch Dune 5.” But it’s true, who wants to make a movie everybody loves? But I think good movies grow and they take time to digest. People hated Billy Wilder and now his films are masterpieces.

BP: Wait, people hated Billy Wilder?
NL: He had some really fucking harsh critics on his back. I just finished reading Ingmar Bergman’s diaries, you should read them, but throughout the two volumes he’s always like, “Why are they so mean to me? What have I done to deserve these bad critics?” But now no one would criticise Bergman. A good review I just scroll through, but a bad review I read every word and I’m like, “Alright, what didn’t you get?” Because I’m really proud of my film, I love my movie.

BP: Well for a debut feature it’s insane that you managed to get the cast that you have. You got Ellen Burstyn! How did that happen?
NL: I’m a dedicated letter writer. I take time and I write really good letters. I think the Ellen letter I started with “The most important thing in life is a sharp knife.” So she read that letter, and then she read the script, and then I was invited to her home to drink tea. On her bed, she had put out all her knives, like a display of about thirty knives  and she was like, “Which one do you like the most?”

BP: That is insane.
NL: Isn’t that amazing?

BP: As if I couldn’t love Ellen Burstyn more.
NL: She just fucking gets it, she’s 91 or whatever. But that’s the beauty of a good actress. Ellen Burstyn is Ellen Burstyn for a reason. She’s hyper-intelligent, hyper-sensitive and just able to translate metaphors and words into physical things. That’s what a good actor should do.

Photography by Marcus Ibanez

“[Ellen Burstyn] just fucking gets it.”


BP: Where did it all begin for you? When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
NL: I was obsessed with celebrities when I was a kid. My mom had a beauty salon and the only type of literature I was exposed to as a kid was gossip magazines, because it’s not like they’d have a volume of Shakespeare’s poems in a beauty salon. And I became obsessed wondering why did these people have their own magazines? What’s so special about them? I understood there was a link between TV and movies and those magazines, so I think the truth is I wanted to be on the television to be in those magazines. So my teacher sent in an application for me to be on a TV talent show and I ended up winning the show. This was 1997, so I was turning seven. I got a lot of gigs after that as an actor. I acted professionally until I was sixteen. I don’t have a definite answer for when I turned to directing but being on sets when I was a kid, you had access to behind the scenes. I started making horror films when I was eleven, maybe. 

BP: What drew you to making horror?
NL: I used to spend my summers with my grandma and she always rented horror films. She showed me Se7en when I was literally seven years old. I remember this one time she showed me The Shining and I was so scared I had to go into the kitchen and breathe. Those are what movies were for me for a long time. I didn’t watch serious cinema until I was fifteen, probably. And I didn’t enjoy it until I was twenty. A lot of directors are very pretentious about the movies they grew up watching but my favourite movies were Lindsay Lohan movies like Freaky Friday. I watched 13 Going on 30 on repeat, I thought it was the greatest movie ever made. But you’re not allowed to call Freaky Friday a good movie now even though those movies shaped our generation. 

Photography by Marcus Ibanez

“I started making horror films when I was eleven, maybe.”


BP: You started off making short films, such as The Magic Diner and its sequel for Vogue, both of which, rather unbelievably, starred Anna Wintour in one of her very few acting roles. How did that happen?
NL: You’re a good person, I can tell, I’ll give you the real story. It was 2015 and Vogue asked me to do a Vogue Short with Alicia Vikander. In the script I had written, I knew someone had to interrupt the scene and Anna had suggested that it would be Matt Damon. So, up until the shoot day, Matt Damon was going to play that role. Then literally the morning of the shoot, his agent called and said Matt is stuck in Las Vegas and he can’t come. So I freaked out and the Vogue people were like, well, Anna is close by and the studio is on the way to the airport. I don’t know who did it, but someone convinced Anna to stop by and make the cameo. I met her the following February at Paris Fashion Week and she was obsessed with that short film, she was like, “We have to do another one, I loved that experience!”

BP: That is bonkers.
NL: It’s a little nuts. But underneath those glasses is just a human. Anna Wintour was drinking the shitty coffee I had on set. Like with Mother, Couch, I had this crazy cast but after a while, they’re just colleagues. You cannot treat them any different.

“Anna Wintour was drinking the shitty coffee I had on set.”

Niclas Larsson, credit: Max Montgomery


BP: So where did Mother, Couch come from? I know it was originally a novel. But did you read it and then decide to adapt it or did someone bring it to you?
NL: I just picked up the novel and read it because I was a big fan of Jerker Virdborg’s previous novels. I read the first ten pages and immediately thought, this is a movie. So I stopped reading and started a script and wrote the rest of the story myself. When I finished reading the book, it ended up being similar but it was more about that tone [the author] had set at the beginning.

BP: Was it your first experience of writing a feature-length script?
NL: No, I’d been struggling in Sweden for quite a long time. This was my fifth feature script but the previous ones had all been Swedish. I was adamant that I wanted to do two or three Swedish films before I ventured across the pond, so to speak. But they turned me down. It’s very hard to finance films in Sweden because you need state funding and you need all these players, but in the States you just need to find one person or one company who can back the whole thing. So I felt, why do those two Swedish films? Why struggle here for another five or ten years when people don’t seem to “get” me here? The truth is it took me less than a year to find the finances for the film. 

BP: Do you think that’s because in America they’re more open to strange projects?
NL: I think so. And I think the market for strange films is in America. Sure, you can make strange, weird, metaphorical movies in Europe, but it’s easier in America.

BP: Is that your style of storytelling, then?
NL: Well, you’ve seen my Vogue shorts. I love when reality is slightly off. The first ten pages of the novel, when the mother enters a furniture store and refuses to leave, that’s already heightened reality. My job as a storyteller, as a screenwriter and filmmaker, is to just keep the balance of reality and find out how far I can push it. People have a problem with surrealism and symbols and metaphor, but that always surprises me because we all dream and when we’re in our dreams we believe what we are experiencing.


BP: There’s a speech that Ellen Burstyn’s Mother does in the film that I immediately recognised is from an interview that Louise Bourgeois gave in the 90s where she recounted a cruel joke that her father played on her. 
NL: It’s a complete steal.

BP: Why did you include that?
NL: You’re the first one to notice that. I love Louise Bourgeois and having something from her in the film was essential. She started manifesting her deep dark feelings towards humanity at the very end of her life. When I came across that interview, I felt it was a perfect connection to Mother. I think Mother wanted to be a man. She didn’t love that her body was a vessel for men to dictate over, that’s what she says to her son, “You guys are only the result of men demanding my love.” I know that’s true for a lot of women, that they only became mothers because someone told them to. And Louise was the perfect reference for that. 

BP: Something that surprised me at the beginning of the film, as the titles were coming up, were the words: Costumes by Bode. Obviously, Bode is a massively hyped designer in New York at the moment. How did that collaboration come about?
NL: Well, I was interviewing all these amazing costume designers and I was like, I don’t know if you get it. I could feel they were just going to go to a Salvation Army and find things. I can do that! So, I’ve been obsessed with Emily Bode’s work ever since she started and I thought, maybe I should just ask her? So I wrote to her on Instagram asking if she’s ever wanted to do a movie and she was like, “Hell yeah, I’m a huge cinephile.” So I went over to hers and we just started talking about it. She brought me to her warehouse in Brooklyn where she has a collection of the craziest fucking clothes and we just spent a whole day there, building the characters from her collection. She made replicas of everything and that was it. 

BP: That is crazy.
NL: She’s so cool and we’re already talking about the next movie. Because there are no rules, you can just do that. Of course, it made my producers a little nervous and I had to have an on-set dresser, but the clothes the actors wear are an art form. We can’t just have anyone doing that. I shoot on film, I record on tape, I couldn’t just let the clothing be random. 

Mother, Couch is out now.


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