Ewan McGregor Cried for 12 Minutes Minutes Filming 5

Mother, Couch filmmaker isn’t afraid to take a big swing both personally and professionally.

As a teenager in Sweden, Larsson embarked on a five-hour train ride to a Stockholm hotel just so he could have a chance to meet one of his all-time favorite filmmakers, Gus Van Sant. After waiting around all night at a hotel bar, he eventually approached the Good Will Hunting director to praise his Palme d’Or-winning film, Elephant. Their subsequent exchange altered his perspective on filmmaking a great deal, but it also paved the way for Van Sant to eventually serve in a mentor-like capacity during post-production on Larsson’s feature directorial debut, Mother, Couch.

Larsson initially paid his dues as a child actor until a Ruben Östlund-involved short film whet his appetite for filmmaking. He then proceeded to make a series of acclaimed short films, music videos and commercials, including two shorts for Vogue, starring longtime friend and fellow Swede, Alicia Vikander, as well as Vogue EIC Anna Wintour. With the encouragement of various friends and colleagues such as Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze, Larsson knew it was time to take the leap into features.

During the pandemic, he read Jerker Virdborg’s book, Mamma i soffa, and decided to loosely adapt the Swedish author’s work, namely the concept of a mother who refuses to get up from a sofa at a seemingly ordinary furniture store. In the film, Ewan McGregor’s David desperately tries to persuade his mother (Ellen Burstyn) to leave, all while his estranged half-siblings, Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans) and Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle), offer little to no help. The furniture store staff that consists of Taylor Russell’s Bella and F. Murray Abraham’s dual twin roles of Marcus and Marco then provide varying degrees of support, including an invitation to stay overnight in the store’s staged bedroom area until the situation is resolved.

For a Swedish director making his feature debut in the States, Larsson pulled off a coup as far as the ensemble cast he put together, especially since his actors were on all on his PDF wishlist from the very start. He credits his use of personal letters and three-dimensional characters.

These actors are all role models. Ellen Burstyn played one of the scariest characters of all time in Requiem for a Dream, and I remember, as a 15-year-old, being terrified to the bone. So, prior to casting Mother, Couch, I was like, ‘Well, who’s the scariest old lady in town?’ And she’s the one; she knows it. That’s a real compliment,” Larsson tells The Hollywood Reporter.

On set, Larsson quickly realized why McGregor is one of the most beloved leading men of his generation, as there’s a particular scene in which his character has an emotional breakdown during a 911 call. 

“I saw him walking around with headphones and staying in the zone to do his job. So the only thing I would want as an actor in that situation is very technical direction, and I just said, ‘I have a 12-minute [camera] mag, so please cry until I see a rollout.’ Of course, the scene in the final cut is not 12 minutes, but it’s a good five-minute cry. It’s one of the most excellent performances I’ve ever experienced.”

The film, in time, becomes an exercise in magic realism, serving as an allegory with a number of possible interpretations. One read is that the furniture store represents the mind, exploring the line between fantasy and reality, as well as the difficulty in letting go of past trauma and lost loved ones. On set, Larsson handed out a helpful guide so his crew could understand the ins and outs of what they were crafting, but he purposefully withheld his 140-page “Storm Book” from his actors for good reason.

“It was helpful for me to not tell the actors exactly what was going on, and it was beautiful how they all had their own interpretation of the script. That created a beautiful conversation, and that’s really all it is,” Larsson says. “I did a lot of theater back in the day, and the best performances always came from the conversation between actors: ‘What is going on, and why are we doing this?’ It didn’t necessarily come from a director who was just dictating where to go and what to say.”

Larsson attributes his love of magic realism to a number of films he enjoyed as a teenager, and Mark Waters’ Freaky Friday (2003) was chief among those titles that truly served as his gateway into the deeper corners of the subgenre. He even rewatched the pic for inspiration in the leadup to Mother, Couch’s shoot. Furthermore, when Mother, Couch premiered at TIFF last September, his adoration for Freaky Friday was so highly publicized that part of him is disappointed he wasn’t hired to direct the Lindsay Lohan- and Jamie Lee Curtis-led sequel that’s currently in production.

“I was surprised they didn’t call me. I think I made quite a splash with those [quotes at TIFF]. It felt like I was the only one talking about Freaky Friday a year ago, and now everyone is talking about Freaky Friday. But I am a little jealous. I wanted to direct Freaky Friday 2, but I bet it’s going to be great,” Larsson says.

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Larsson also discusses the unique origin story behind his friendship with Vikander, first as child actors and then as adulthood friends and collaborators.

Congrats on your feature debut, Niclas. We’ve got a lot to talk about today. 

Thank you. Did you watch Mother, Couch on a link, or did you go to a press screening?

I’m supposed to say that I watched it at a press screening, but it was a link. 

When I was 16, I lived in Gothenburg, Sweden, which is a five-hour train to Stockholm, and my friend and I had Gus Van Sant as a favorite director in common. So Gus was getting some honorary award or whatever at the Stockholm Film Festival, and we were like, “Alright, let’s go.” I also knew somebody who knew where he was staying, so we went to that hotel and sat in the lobby bar. In Sweden, you’re allowed to sit in the bar at 16, but you can’t drink. Anyway, Gus, David Fincher, Jodie Foster and Stellan Skarsgård got a table to sit and eat, and I was just like, “That’s a pretty big deal.” So my friend disappeared. He went home or whatever, and I was just adamant. I was like, “I’m going to wait for Gus. I need to talk to Gus.” So I walked up to Gus after his dinner. I waited till midnight, and I was like, “Hey, Gus, I’m a huge fan. I recently saw Elephant, and it is one of my favorite films.” And he said to me, “How did you watch it?”

Oh wow. 

I know. Of course, he asked, “How did you watch it?,” not where. And I was like, “At home!?” I was 16 years old, so I probably watched a ripped version on my fucking computer.

Besides the origin of your opening question, that must also explain why you thanked him in Mother, Couch’s credits. 

Yeah, it just says a lot about intellect and the way we talk about movies. I enjoy Die Hard 2, too. That’s cool and all, but in order to really dig deep into what actually matters in cinema, I think you have to think that way. So, at the time, I was like, “Oh, it matters to Gus Van Sant how I watched his film,” and that’s just beautiful. So I know you watched [Mother, Couch] on a link, but for the sake of conversation, we can say that you watched it in a really fancy theater. 

Yes, Dolby Surround Sound, IMAX, the works. 

(Laughs.) Totally!

So, having grown up as an actor, when did you realize that you were more interested in filmmaking?

Kind of early. I did a short film with Ruben Östlund when I was 12-ish. He was still in film school — at least I think it was his film school. I don’t even know if he directed it. He may have just produced it, believe it or not. But it was about a bunch of kids, and while we were filming at this farm in the south of Sweden, we had a lot of downtime for a couple weeks during the summer. So they asked us to make a behind-the-scenes film, and we did that, but we also made horror films. And I just remember feeling that this was way more fun than whatever I had to do [as an actor] on set. I also grew bored of the type of roles I was getting around 16 or 17, because Sweden is this tiny country. There’s not an abundance of good parts, so making short films and music videos felt like the right step to take when I was 17. And I haven’t really looked back. 

You made numerous well-received commercials and shorts, two of which were with Alicia Vikander for Vogue. Did the two of you first become friends as young actors in Sweden? 

We don’t know. We’ve talked a lot about this, too. We’ve been on the same TV shows and stuff, so we must have. When we were kids, there was a huge talent show called The Little Stars, and it was a big deal. It was like American Idol, but for kids in the ‘90s. So she won that show in ‘96, and I won that show in ‘97. It was a big televised thing. And I remember a bunch of reunions involving the kids who won in the ‘90s, so we must have met then. We also grew up in the same city, but it wasn’t until I made my first short film, Vatten, in 2012, that she reached out and wanted to hang out. So we became really close friends.

When you were hired to direct that first Vogue short with her, they had no idea that you had a personal history with one another? 

That’s true. I actually wrote the script without her in mind. The star [of the short and corresponding cover] was a secret, but they wanted me to direct the short. So Alicia and I had lunch one day, and she was like, “What are you doing right now?” And I was like, “I’m actually doing a Vogue short.” And she was like, “Oh, how fun. Who’s the actor?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” And she was like, “Well, I’m doing a Vogue short, too!” And then I was like, “Oh, do you want me to pitch you? It must be the same one.” So I pitched a take on The Twilight Zone’s “Nick of Time” episode, and she was like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing.”

Ewan McGregor as David in Mother, Couch

Courtesy of Film Movement

The recognition these projects received likely convinced you and your team that you were ready to make the leap into features. What was it about Jerker Virdborg’s book, Mamma i soffa, that led you to adapt it as your feature debut? 

I wrote a bunch of Swedish films leading up to Mother, Couch, and I had a hard time. You’ve seen Mother, Couch; it’s a tricky film. It demands producers and a certain quality of engagements from financiers to trust whatever is on the paper, and I don’t know if that kind of trust exists in Sweden, based on its financial system. So, after three or four scripts had been turned down by the Swedish system, I was like, “Fuck it. Let me just write something in English, and I’ll call my friends across the pond.” So I did that. 

When I read the first ten pages of Jerker’s novel, I was just like, “This is a fantastic concept. Let me see where I can take it.” So I finished my screenplay, and then I went back to finish his novel before I called him. It’s a tiny book, but it’s very poetic. It’s almost like a long poetic journal of one’s mind, but I thought it was a great film concept.

Also, it felt doable. It was almost one location. I could just focus on the acting and try to make it as surreal and beautiful as I could. It felt very condensed in a good way. The idea then grew a little bit, and the end sequence is not condensed. Titanic was the reference, so to speak.

Ewan McGregor as David, Rhys Ifans as Gruffudd & Lara Flynn Boyle as Linda in Mother, Couch

Toronto International Film Festival

Does the book also involve an American mother having Scottish, Welsh and American children?

No, I made that up. I took a lot of liberty. The film is different from the book. The book is really good, actually, but it’s less sensational, I suppose.

Considering this was your feature directorial debut, you assembled an astonishing cast (Ewan McGregor, Ellen Burstyn, Rhys Ifans, Taylor Russell, F. Murray Abraham, Lara Flynn Boyle, Lake Bell). Did Ewan start the domino effect? How did you pull this off?

I’m a rookie in Hollywood, so I don’t know how it works. I knew I wanted great actors, and the truth is that the ones you see in the film were on my list for the family. They were on my PDF. So we went out to Ewan and Ellen first. I wrote them letters, and while it sounds like I’m simplifying things, the truth is that, within two weeks, they had all said yes. I met them and we started talking. I suppose actors want to be challenged. That’s my experience at least, and these are all very challenging parts and real parts, even though it’s a very weird, allegorical movie. But that’s what they liked about it, really. So I spent a few days in Ellen Burstyn’s apartment, drinking tea and talking about motherhood and the importance of knives and narcissistic parents. And these were all conversations that, in my experience, actors love. It comes down to three-dimensional characters.

David Gordon Green told me a similar story about drinking tea in Ellen Burstyn’s apartment, so that must be her go-to activity with her potential filmmakers.

That’s hilarious. Maybe that’s what she does. Maybe I’m not that special.

No! It’s something that only a select few get to do. 

(Laughs.) 

Ellen Burstyn as Mother in Mother, Couch

Courtesy of Film Movement

You’ve likely watched a lot of these actors for most of your life, so was it rather bizarre to now be intimately involved in their processes? 

Except for Taylor, who is an excellent, new addition, these actors are all role models. Ellen Burstyn played one of the scariest characters of all time in Requiem for a Dream, and I remember, as a 15-year-old, being terrified to the bone. I actually watched The Exorcist after Requiem, and so, prior to casting Mother, Couch, I was like, “Well, who’s the scariest old lady in town?” And she’s the one; she knows it. That’s a real compliment. And Ewan is, of course, a leading man, so it’s bizarre, man. It’s bizarre up until the first day of shooting, and then they become colleagues. And I guess that’s what happens all the time when you reach someone on a personal level. You meet famous people all the time, and it’s special up until the point of talking bullshit to each other. That’s when they become friends and colleagues and regular people, which is a beautiful thing. There’s a comfort in that, but, of course, it’s bizarre and crazy.

Ewan has a memorable breakdown scene during a 911 call. What’s the story behind capturing that moment? 

Strategically, we placed that scene far into the shoot, knowing that he needed to go through a lot of stuff. I also do a lot of takes, so I knew that he was very tired at that point. But what you see in the film is his second take. I think we only did two takes, but the first take he did was as good as the second, but too short. So I walked up to him and said that I have a double mag on the camera, meaning 12 minutes, and I wanted to see a rollout. In very emotional scenes, the only thing you can do is to direct actors, technically. It doesn’t matter what I say, but he was preparing a lot. I saw him walking around with headphones and staying in the zone to do his job. So the only thing I would want as an actor in that situation is very technical direction, and that’s what I did. I just said, “I have a 12-minute mag, so please cry until I see a rollout.” Of course, the scene in the final cut is not 12 minutes, but it’s a good five-minute cry. It’s one of the most excellent performances I’ve ever experienced.

Mother, Couch ventures into magic realism, so it’s open to interpretation. But you opted to write an explanatory guide for your crew, not your actors. Was the point to keep your actors in the dark just like their characters?

That’s sort of the point. I also wanted the actors to experience what we went through. I wanted them to come with their own questions rather than the shit that I made up a couple of weeks earlier. It was obviously important for the crew to know exactly where we’re going because that’s a very technical aspect. The furniture store breaks down quite literally, and that’s a technical feat for a set design crew to handle. But, for an actor who’s walking onto a set that’s broken down, they get to react emotionally and physically to something. They knew the script, obviously, but they didn’t necessarily know why stuff was moving, so that really helped the conversation on set.

Often, if they had a question about certain things, I would refer to my “Storm Book.” It was a book that I wrote for the crew, and I realized that I was wrong in that book. So I had to rewrite the prep that I did in that book based on the intuition that the actors had on set and some of the stuff that we did. But it worked. It was helpful for me to not tell the actors exactly what was going on, and it was beautiful how they all had their own interpretation of the script. That created a beautiful conversation, and that’s really all it is. I did a lot of theater back in the day, and the best performances always came from the conversation between actors: “What is going on, and why are we doing this?” It didn’t necessarily come from a director who was just dictating where to go and what to say.

Taylor Russell as Bella and Ewan McGregor as David in Mother, Couch

Courtesy of Lyrical Media

As far as I can glean, the movie is partially about mental health and clutter of the mind and the painful memories we lock away. But, personally, I connected most with the more literal dynamic of when the child becomes the parent to their older parent on the decline.

That’s very observant, and that’s it. That’s also something I’ve struggled with a lot. It’s extremely traumatic for people that know that experience of being a parent to your own parent. You don’t know that until you either hear a therapist say it to you or you figure it out after someone’s passing. 

I don’t know if Mother’s [Burstyn] kids are unwanted. I think they are a little bit, but she still loves David and wants to help David for various reasons. David’s arc is to understand that he can literally, from this point, start to let go, but it’s not a happy-go-lucky ending where he just figures it all out. Rather, it’s the beginning of healing, and death is that for me. It’s not the end of something; it’s the beginning of a healing process that can take a lifetime, especially if you’ve gone through that trauma of being a parent to your parents. 

I talked to friends who’ve lost their parents; I’ve also lost a parent. And this one friend said to me: “When my dad died, I started laughing. It was a complete relief.” And that’s a feeling we don’t talk about too much, and I think it’s more true than not true. Feeling relief when someone passes has a crazy stigma, but it’s true. We can be allowed to have that relief.

Besides Gus Van Sant, you thanked some notable people in the credits: Spike Jonze, Alicia, Cord Jefferson. Were they your note network on early cuts of the film? 

Yeah, they were. They also offered quite practical help. Spike has been really helpful in introducing me to the right people, and Gus was very helpful in giving notes during the edit process. What’s scary as a filmmaker is that you’re so alone for so long and you don’t quite know everyone’s intention. So you need to gather people you trust. If you’re in a dispute with your producer about how a scene should be edited, you need to be able to go back to the people you truly trust. So those names were those people for me, and they were very helpful.

As far as what’s next, am I looking at the next project on the whiteboard behind you?

(Larsson picks up his camera and shows me the entirety of his whiteboard that is broken up into specific days.) Yeah, you are, actually. Parts of it. This one is really ambitious, and it might be my third film. I’ve written two scripts this year, so it might be one of those. Who knows? I think it was Fincher who said, “Whatever I do, I want to make movies for my 15-year-old self.” But, right now, I think I’m working for my 17-year-old self, so I’m trying to talk to that guy about the movies that impressed him when he was 17.

Lastly, your 13-year-old self was a big fan of Freak Friday. So, similar to your Gus Van Sant story, have you figured out a way to crash the set of the sequel that’s currently being filmed? 

(Laughs.) I was surprised they didn’t call me. I think I made quite a splash with those [quotes at TIFF]. It felt like I was the only one talking about Freaky Friday a year ago, and now everyone is talking about Freaky Friday. But I am a little jealous. I wanted to direct Freaky Friday 2, but I bet it’s going to be great. I love Freaky Friday, and it’s one of my favorite films.

***
Mother, Couch is now playing in movie theaters.

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