DIRECTOR

Niclas Larsson and Ruben Östlund on Ambition, Awards, and American Life

Niclas Larsson

Niclas Larsson, photographed by Marcus Ibanez.

Swedish filmmaker Niclas Larsson grew up in a hair salon, spending hours parsing through celebrity magazines while his mom worked late hours. After enough time, the lure of fame had left its mark, and he started working as a child actor. As he got older he decided it was time to get behind the camera, and later ditched film school to start shooting high-end commercials, one of which caught the attention of Spike Jonze. The director asked him to head out to L.A. to work together, and the rest was history. His feature debut, in theaters nationwide on July 12th, Mother Couch, (based on a Swedish novel by Jerker Virdborg) springs from Larsson’s love of Americana horror, and stars 91-year-old Ellen Burstyn, alongside Ewan McGregor and Taylor Russell, as a woman who sinks down on a couch in a furniture store, and refuses to ever get up. To mark the release of his new film, Larsson got on the phone with fellow Swedish filmmaker and Oscar nominee Ruben Östlund to discuss the difference his unusual path towards filmmaking, the psychological impact of awards, and the differences between American and European attitudes towards ambition.

———

LARSSON: How’s Mallorca right now?

ÖSTLUND: Cold, actually. It’s kind of like 22 degrees, 23 degrees [Celsius]. 

LARSSON: Oh, wow. Where exactly are you? Are you in Sóller or Deià?

ÖSTLUND: No, Sóller and Deià are like the hipster places to go in Mallorca. I live on the other side.

LARSSON: Is that the German side of Mallorca?

ÖSTLUND: I would say all sides are the German side of Mallorca. And what is the reason that you are in New York? 

LARSSON: I just like things I see here. I live in a really rough area of New York, and the other day I was out walking my dog and I saw this Mercedes Maybach, like a $350,000 car, next to a meth clinic, where this 60-year-old Wall Street guy had his driver waiting for him while he was smoking crack underneath scaffolding. It’s something about the contrast of this place that’s just super inspiring.

ÖSTLUND: How long have you been there now?

LARSSON: I’ve been here three years. When was the last time you were in New York?

ÖSTLUND: Probably when I was promoting Triangle of Sadness. It must have been for that or for New York Film Festival. 

LARSSON: That’s a great festival.

Niclas Larsson

Photo by Marcus Ibanez.

ÖSTLUND: It really is. But last time I was there I was basically in and out. I was in the kind of madness that you are in now promoting your film.

LARSSON: Yeah. It is madness, isn’t it? 

ÖSTLUND: Yeah. So how are you? The last time we saw each other you were pretty drunk because you were celebrating that you had just won Best Film [Göteborg Film Festival]. I think we got separated there in the crowds.

LARSSON: You forced me up on stage, I remember. And I was way too drunk to be up there at that point. But I’m holding up. Isn’t that what you do? You try your best to have the most energy all the time and you know at some point you will crash. But it’s not here yet, now it’s just adrenaline and it’s exciting. This is my first marathon. Do you consider Gitarrmongot your first film?

ÖSTLUND: Yeah, it definitely was. But it was only distributed in Norway and Sweden, so I didn’t have to do that kind of travel that you’re dealing with now. How long have you been on the road?

LARSSON: Almost a year. We premiered in Toronto and then it’s been around at film festivals like every other month. I met Richard Linklater at a bar in Los Angeles right before we premiered in Toronto and I asked him, “Do you have anything for me? Just whatever you have.” He’s like, “Try to enjoy it, but also don’t go to every film festival because you will go mad.” I didn’t take his advice and now a year later, he was so right. It takes a toll.

ÖSTLUND: Yeah, definitely. 

LARSSON: I had a question for you. How long after a release do you start writing?

ÖSTLUND: I usually know which film I’m going to work on next, and maybe it’s just a very simple setup that is the core. Like in the next one it’s that the entertainment system is down on a long flight, and basically passengers have to deal with the boredom. I start to play around with that idea and I pitch it to people when I meet them like, “I’m working on this film, please tell me something that you have experienced on an airplane.” When you have a very simple setup, very often people are throwing ideas back on you. So then I use the year that I’m touring to pitch and collect ideas. And then when the touring is over, hopefully, I have enough ideas or I have created a structure of the film just by talking about it to be able to start to write it down. It’s great because if you’re traveling as much as you are right now, it’s not so fun to talk about the film that you’ve just made, because soon you won’t be curious about your own answers anymore.

Niclas Larsson

Photo by Marcus Ibanez.

LARSSON: Totally.

ÖSTLUND: Are you working on something now? 

LARSSON: Yeah, I’ve written two scripts since we locked edits and I’m pitching. I’m doing what you do, I’m pitching them very openly. 

ÖSTLUND: Okay, pitch the film for me then.

LARSSON: Okay. It takes place in a Connecticut suburb during a chimp attack. The film starts with four chimpanzees escaping a zoo, and chimps are really dangerous, as you know. So they have a lockdown in this neighborhood as they’re searching for them, and during that lockdown, a five-year-old boy disappears. It’s not by the chimp, and we, as an audience, know exactly what happened to him, but no one else. So during two days of a search, it becomes this sort of absurd blame on the chimps, but they haven’t done anything. 

ÖSTLUND: I love it. It sounds really, really great. You know, Terry Notary did this performance monkey thing.

LARSSON: Yeah, I’m going to do that. And you’re obsessed with apes, obviously.

ÖSTLUND: Yeah, it’s very interesting. As a kid I was interested in them and I still am, but I wanted to tell you that you should contact Terry because he’s great at teaching actors to do the movements. He’s definitely the guy you should talk to. 

LARSSON: Oh, that’s great. Because he was in The Square.

ÖSTLUND: Yeah. He’s fantastic. I googled “Actor imitating monkey” and there was a short clip from when he was doing Planet of the Apes and he’s standing on a little stage and they are filming him and he has this arm extension thing that he uses because monkeys have longer arms than human beings so they can go a little bit more straight up, even if they are using the hands to walk also. And then it goes back and he goes, “So this is a chimpanzee.” And then it starts walking and it’s exactly like a chimpanzee. Then he says, “This is a gorilla.” And then he switches to gorilla and it’s a gorilla.

LARSSON: No way.

ÖSTLUND: It’s exactly how a gorilla moves. And then he switches to orangutan. There was something so beautiful about it, it was a kind of acting where even the shy can say, “He’s great at imitating a monkey.” I love his directness in acting. I had one Zoom with him and then he came to Stockholm and we were shooting at Grand Hôtel. For three days, he was doing this quite long choreographed movement around that room over and over again. It was probably one of the best shooting days I’ve had in my life.

Niclas Larsson

Photo by Marcus Ibanez.

LARSSON: Well, it’s one of the best film sequences. Not to jerk you off or anything, but you can feel you watch cinema. And I don’t take that word, cinema, lightly. It’s not a movie necessarily, it’s not a film, it’s not a stream, it’s cinema. You created one of the best sequences in cinema history. 

ÖSTLUND: Thank you so much. But we have to sell your film here also Niclas. It’s fun because you acted in my ex-wife’s film that she did when she was in film school, and you tried out for a part in one of my movies.

LARSSON: Yeah.

ÖSTLUND: I’m sorry that you didn’t get the part, but anyway, was this how your film interest started? By acting?

LARSSON: Yeah. Well, actually by celebrities. My mom was a hairdresser and I grew up in the hair salon after school because she worked late. The only type of literature I was really exposed to was celebrity magazines. I was obsessed with celebrities until I was like maybe eight or nine. So I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to be a celebrity. And when I was around 12, I had done a couple of TV shows and movies and stuff like that, and I started to become really, really interested in what’s going on behind the camera.

ÖSTLUND: When did you go to film school?

LARSSON: When I was 18 I got this fancy scholarship to go to USC, but I’d realized after a couple of months that film school wasn’t for me. I didn’t like Los Angeles, to be honest. So I moved to Stockholm and started assisting various directors for commercials and stuff like that. 

ÖSTLUND: So through the assisting you started to direct short films or doing commercials, and you have had a quite solid career doing commercials, I understand? I mean, I see you working together with a lot of established actors doing advertising.

Niclas Larsson

Photo by Marcus Ibanez.

LARSSON: Yeah. I haven’t done a commercial for three years now, but I became really good at them because I didn’t treat them as commercials. I started treating them as short films, or as an exercise in narrative. And then Spike Jonze saw my films and asked me if I wanted to come to L.A. and make a movie. So I sent him Mother Couch, which I wrote in Swedish first, actually. And that’s the way it went.

ÖSTLUND: Cool. That sounds like a very self-confident way of approaching the industry. If you’re 18 years old and you’re starting to assist other directors and then decide, “Yeah, sure, I can do your project, but then I have to also be able to develop my way of filmmaking.”

LARSSON: Let me stop you. In terms of confidence, do you separate self-confidence with creative confidence?

ÖSTLUND: Yes, I think so. But I think also true creative confidence and managing to achieve something and working with feature films and traveling the world and meeting people also developed my self-confidence. So it’s something about getting confidence in a profession and then through that, experiencing the world and being put up in different social situations that makes you even more confident. 

LARSSON: Do you think awards create self-confidence or make you more insecure?

ÖSTLUND: It makes you more insecure, I would say. For me it was a hundred percent like this. Winning one Golden Palm put more pressure on me, but winning two Golden Palms took away a lot of pressure.

LARSSON: Wow.

ÖSTLUND: Because that means I wasn’t a one hit wonder. But then also I need pressure in order to perform. So that’s why the goal with the next film is to win another Golden Palm. It’s going to be the first time in the history of filmmaking that a director wins three Golden Palms in a row. I mean, it’s completely absurd to say these things, but–

LARSSON: No, I like it.

ÖSTLUND: For me, the goal is to create a bar that is pushed up and to create a goal. I think a lot of people consider me very cocky in a way, but for me, you say it because it creates something that makes it possible to push something.

LARSSON: Maybe it’s even the opposite of cocky. Maybe it’s actually showing your insecurities. It makes you very vulnerable, saying these things. I remember you made one of the best short films and you didn’t get your Oscar nomination. But I think what you communicate to younger filmmakers is that it’s okay to have goals. It’s okay to want to win an Oscar. It’s also okay to fail. I think that’s really, really beautiful and strong. I really hope you win three, a hat trick. That would be cool.

Niclas Larsson

Photo by Marcus Ibanez.

ÖSTLUND: Yeah. Don’t you think it’s interesting comparing the attitude in the U.S. with Europe, because in Sweden we strive for creating equality and everybody should be at the same level and you shouldn’t strive for popping up in the hierarchy and so on, which is in some ways I actually think is good. But when we started to do Force Majeure and Involuntary, that’s when I started to say, “Okay, I want to have a premiere in Cannes or we want to be Oscar nominated.” And if you said this in Europe, people would get a little bit insecure. But if you spoke to people in the U.S., they would say, “Okay, good luck, man. I hope you make it.”

LARSSON: Yeah. It’s true. It’s like the definition of, if someone drives a Ferrari down the streets of Gothenburg, they think they’re an asshole. But if someone drives a Ferrari down the street in New York, they think, wow, what a success.

ÖSTLUND: Like, “Oh, you made it, man.” 

LARSSON: Yeah. I like America in that way, actually. It’s a little bit more open. What I like most about living here is that I’m an observer of someone else’s culture and it gives me distance in a really interesting way. For example, writing Jungle Juice, setting it in an American suburb, it feels so exotic to me. I feel like I’m literally watching the monkeys in the cage. If I set it in like a Gothenburg suburb, it would’ve been a completely different film. 

ÖSTLUND: I understand what you mean. I can relate to it in some way that it is about curiosity, like being voyeuristic and watching things almost  from a behavioristic point of view. 

LARSSON: Right.

ÖSTLUND: Okay. So tell me, when you were doing Mother Couch, what was the first moment that you decided that you wanted to make this film? 

LARSSON: I want this answer to be smarter, but the truth was that it felt manageable. It felt like I could squeeze down everything that I had, all my trauma into a smart narrative and make a metaphorical dream-like movie. This was my fourth full-on script that I’ve written. And all the other movies were trying to say what I say in Mother Couch, but in more complicated ways. I remember reading the first 10 pages of Jerker [Vidborg]’s book when the mother sits down on the furniture. I closed the book and I wrote the script. I remember thinking as a concept, this is everything I need. I wrote the whole script and then I finished the book, but didn’t care much about the book. I feel like there’s this stigma that real artists are not supposed to be career-strategic or whatever. But to be honest, I was like, “I can probably make this happen.” I’ve gotten so many nos up until that point that I’m like, either I stop writing or I find something that I can make. And this felt very doable.

ÖSTLUND: I understand the yo-yo of a setup like that. To have someone sitting down on a couch that refuses to get up. It’s a very practical, simple, almost slapstick, Chaplin setup. But at the same time, you can put it in a different world and you understand immediately that you are going to bounce so many other ideas towards this concept. I’m happy that you had such a great experience with Mother Couch and looking forward so much to see what you’re doing next.

LARSSON: Thank you, Ruben. You’re the best. Have a great summer.