It’s been 27 years since Dead, the lead shrieker of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, blew his brains out, and 25 since Euronymous, the guy who put a picture of Dead’s corpse on an album cover, was in-turn murdered by Varg Vikernes. Since then there have been a few documentaries about the saga, a few television specials, and a handful of magazine features, but never a scripted feature film.
Which means those of us who’ve been following this strange story have been waiting a long time for Jonas Akerlund’s new film, Lords Of Chaos, starring Rory Culkin as Euronymous and Brooklyn‘s Emory Cohen as Varg Vikernes. Akerlund, who when I spoke to him had just wrapped shooting an Old Navy commercial, seems both an odd choice for the project and the perfect one. I ask him whether his corporate clients like Old Navy know about his Satanic metal movie and he jokes, “I’m not inviting them to the premiere.”
Akerlund is just kidding though, and his history with metal actually predates his filmmaking career, having been the original drummer in the Swedish proto-black metal band, Bathory before transitioning to filmmaking. Since then, he has directed dozens of music videos and commercials, as well as Spun, perhaps the lesser-known of 2002’s dueling meth movies (the other being Salton Sea), and a Mads Mikkelsen assassin thriller that just came out on Netflix — Polar.
But it’s arguably Lords of Chaos that most draws on Akerlund’s formative experiences. And given that Vikernes was (or eventually became, depending on your perspective) a white supremacist, a Nordic nationalist (Euronymous being Sami was one of Vikerne’s posthumous justifications for killing him), and a famous criminal heartthrob, there were a lot of difficult choices to be made about what was most important to this story and what could fit. It has… a lot of moving parts. Not to mention a fair degree of danger, considering Vikernes, a convicted killer, is out of prison now. Perhaps Akerlund still subconsciously courts danger, like the metal musician he was, and the ones he depicts in Lords of Chaos. In any case, I had a lot of questions. I spoke to Akerlund by phone last week.
Are you in the middle of production now?
I was just doing a music video with Rammstein in Berlin. I brought the band to the screening.
What did Rammstein think of Lords of Chaos?
Two of them had seen it before. But they like it. It’s obviously a very different world from their very interesting history, but they understand rock ‘n roll. They also have a pretty extreme story behind them, so.
I’ll have to do a separate interview where I ask you about Rammstein. So tell me about the genesis of this project. I imagine this has been in development for quite some time.
Yeah, in different iterations though, because I started as thinking about it for quite some time. And I remember when I made my first movie, Spawn, here in LA. I was pitching the idea of Norwegian black metal, and I remember I went to some of the big agencies here with pictures of kids with corpse makeup, and they were like, “There’s the door. Get out.” This was at a time when people didn’t even know I was from Sweden. They thought I was from Switzerland. Scandinavia has become more of a solid place that people actually know what it is lately. Back then it was like, not so many Swedes here. So in my head, it’s been around for a long time, and other people have been on it, and then there’s a book coming out, and there’s a documentary coming out…It’s been marinating in me for a long time. And then like six years ago or so, I decided to really go for it. I didn’t know that it was gonna take this long and be this hard work, but I wrote it pretty fast, because I’d been thinking about it for such a long time. And I brought in Dennis [Magnusson], who became my writing partner. And then we just took it from there. I was lucky because Ridley Scott and his company liked the project, and attached themselves. And then Vice came onboard. Then it was like a patchwork of financing to get it made.
That seems crazy to me that someone wouldn’t immediately want to make a movie about Satanic church-burning metal kids.
Right? That’s what I thought, but you know, it’s still a hard sell. The movie’s doing really well, and people seem to like it, but it’s happening slowly. It’s growing, but it’s not like your big premiere at every shopping mall in America, with big advertising. It has to have its own life, and people have to discover it.
So just before this interview, I was reading that you were in Bathory, which I didn’t know about. Did you have any personal connection to the story? Had you had run-ins with any of the characters in the story?
Well, yes and no. We were a couple of years earlier, and then I got into film editing, and kind of left drumming behind pretty fast. But I feel like the first act of Lords of Chaos is very much like what we did with Bathory. You know when you’re trying to figure out your sound and your coloring your hair, you’re awkward with girls. You’re drawing a logo, putting the band together, having a garden party. You know… it’s all that stuff was kind of what we were doing with Bathory. And Per, “Dead” in the film, who commits the suicide, he was Swedish, and he was a couple of years younger than me, but he was kind of part of the metal scene in Sweden. He was in a band called Morbid at the same that was in Bathory. So we had connections. And actually, the first music video I ever shot… which was like, I don’t know, 1987 maybe? Per was in the video as an extra. It was a video for the Swedish metal band called Candlemass. So I have a little bit of connection with him, and when he committed his suicide, news traveled really slowly back then, but obviously, we all knew who he was and were taken by it.
How much did you rely on the Lords of Chaos book for this? [Editor’s note: an often very dry book consisting largely of interviews with key figures]
Not as much as you would think, actually, because the research materials available is pretty big. So we had the rights to the book early on so we could clear names. And we called the project Lords of Chaos, and I made this logo that we still have in the film, and we kind of fell in love with the title. But we did learn that the title itself was very infected by people’s opinions about the book. And people in the black metal world have a lot of opinions about the book. And I didn’t wanna confuse them, because the movie is a very different perspective than the book is. But at the same time, we all liked the title, so we kind of just stayed on.
But my research writing the script was much bigger than the book Lords of Chaos. There was everything from other books and documentaries and pictures. Luckily for me, these kids — and this is all pre-mobile phones — they were really good at taking pictures of everything. And the police reports, and meeting people that was there. It was a ton of things that I could use. And the truth is that this could easily have been a series instead of a movie, because there’s so many interesting side stories that I just didn’t have room for in the movie. It’s a movie. It’s two hours long. And you have to focus. But there’s a lot of side-tracking that I couldn’t fit in, and a lot of great characters and other stories that I wish I could put into the movie, but I couldn’t.
So tell me about this conception of Varg. I had read that book and had seen a lot of stuff on the story, and this was not a take that I had seen on him before, but it felt really right when I was watching it.
Yeah, I mean… I say it in the beginning of the movie, that it’s based on truth and lies. The hardest part of the research was to figure out what was going through their heads, and how the relationship really was between these young boys. Because they were boys. They were basically children. We forget about that. In all the documentaries and in the book, they are portrayed like demons and monsters. But in the movie, I tried to make them a little more humanized, and reminding us that they were so young.
And that goes for all the characters in the film. I had to have a little bit of freedom to make a movie as much as I wanted it to be real. And it was a balance. But [Varg’s] truth is in the film, too, because he has been telling this story over and over again. There’s a lot of things that he’s been saying that I used in the film. And there’s also a few things that actually happened. We know that he killed Euronymous, and we know that they burned down these churches.
Right. I mean, in the movie, it seems like you sort of characterize it as this competition of one-ups-manship, and not this inherently evil thing, and… well, it rang true, for whatever reason.
Well great, great.
On that note, when you’re making a movie where the portrayal of Varg isn’t super flattering, did you ever worry about the fact that you might be pissing off some guy who’s killed people?
I don’t know. I’m sorry I cannot comment on that, but it’s like… I mean, it’s… I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to talk about. But I knew from day one that Varg wasn’t gonna like this project, but I also knew that I didn’t want him to stop me from making it. I didn’t want him to stop the audience from seeing this film.
But I’m not here to piss anybody off. I tried to treat it with respect. But this is a story that’s been around for a long time, and it’s already been told a million times. I’m not doing anything new here. It’s just a different way of telling it, a different perspective. And… a lot of bands are dreaming to have a movie made about their band. Queen gets a movie, and Mayhem gets a movie. It’s fucking amazing. So in a way, it’s like, I’m not asking them to be happy about it, but I know some of them are, because I know all the other guys. The only one I don’t know is Varg.
You didn’t really go into his white supremacist beliefs. Do you think that was just something he got more into later and not relevant, or just didn’t have enough room, or what was the decision process there?
My whole take on the political and religious side of this story was that I don’t think there was a political agenda at the time. I think it became that later, but I think at the time, they were young boys playing around with symbols. And I see it in pictures where he actually has an upside down cross and a Nazi flag and a picture of Odin in his room. And the same with Euronymous. He had like Stalin on his walls and all these weird things. It was almost a mess. And I can identify with that. I know when we did Bathory we wrote a lot of dark lyrics… But we didn’t have a political agenda. We didn’t know what we were talking about! And I think a lot of this was created afterwards, and I think it became more real later.
What about this idea of having this metal scene, or just any scene where people are part of it and making art together. Do you think that that exists in music anymore?
I think it does, but I think it’s harder to have a voice. I think you can scream very loud without anyone hearing you. I think the nuances were smaller back then than it is today. It’s probably more art made today than it was back then, because it’s easier to get it done, and it’s more of a real thing today. I mean, we were doing music not ever dreaming to actually make it. Or same with me when I started as a filmmaker. The thought of working in America and working with big artists or whatever, the thought of working outside Sweden was just not even on my radar. I think today the pressure of doing any sort of art is bigger than it was back then, because the expectation is like, if you don’t have millions of followers or millions of hits or millions of whatever, it’s like you’re nothing, you know? So I think that may limit you a little bit, but I think the art’s definitely there. In the basements of family homes there’s these probably like thousands of fantastic rock bands that we will never hear.
Right. I mean, do you think that there are too many ways to measure popularity quantitatively now? You know, it seems like everybody has numbers for things, whereas they didn’t back then. It was just you were famous among your friends and that was cool.
Yeah, I mean, we definitely did not have that. But yeah, no, I think so. And I think it’s a pressure. It’s a pressure with kids just to get likes. That’s something we couldn’t imagine.
So you do a good job contextualizing the story within Norway and what was happening at the time. Is there anything specific to Scandinavia that non-Scandinavians might miss in this movie?
Nah. Well, the fact that I shot it in Budapest, for starters. And the fact that I did it in an English language with English-speaking actors. Those are the big steps away from the reality, but the movie is filled with details that are correct. It’s like everything from the posters to the patches to the t-shirts to the shoes to the instruments. The look of stuff and the hairdos and all that stuff is pretty damn close. And I got that confirmed from a lot of people who were there and the pictures that we’ve seen and all that. I didn’t wanna give the black metal community the pleasure of catching me in details that are not right. And personally, I hate when movies are wrong. I hate when I see like, “Oh no, those sneakers didn’t come out until three years later.” I hate that. I really wanted it to be correct.
Tell me about casting Emory Cohen. He’s so different in every movie, and he was so completely different from any of his other roles in this. What had you seen him in that made you want to cast him, and how did that turn it out?
I mean, I had seen him in everything after that point, but Brooklyn had just come out, and I had my eyes on him earlier, too. To be honest, he was the last one I cast, and originally, I met Jack [Kilmer, who plays Dead] for Varg, and then I met Rory for Euronymous, and then I met a lot of others. In one way, it was easy to cast, because I had a very clear image in my head on what the characters should be. But the difficult part was to get good chemistry between these kids, make sure that they felt like they were from the same world.
And all these kids, they were so dedicated. They really lived and breathed it. They didn’t wanna take off their wigs. After we were done with the shoot, Rory had a really hard time to separate with his character. He stole his leather jacket, and he wanted to keep the hair. Even though our shoot was so short, but it was very intense. We had a good prep time to learn all the instruments and get into character, but the shoot was only 18 days, so it’s a really quick shoot.
There’s that scene where I think Varg comes in wearing a jacket, and Euronymous is making fun of one of his patches. That scene seemed like it came with a certain amount of personal experience. What was it like when you were in that scene where people are kind of judging each other by their tastes and stuff all the time?
I mean, we made a point out of their relationship starting in a weird way, and also how affected Varg was by Euronymous and his black circle. I’ll tell you a little side story. I haven’t told this to anybody, but it was actually meant to be shot it with a Dr. Feelgood, Mötley Crüe’s patch. And then one of my producers said, “You have to clear it. It’s a close-up, we have to clear it.” And Nikki Sixx said no. He actually said, like, “No way.” And we send him the scene, and I was like, “Come on, dude, we’re not making fun of you. These guys were fucked up and they didn’t like anything, especially American glam rock.”
But he couldn’t take it. Nikki Sixx was worried that his brand was gonna be damaged. So he said no. So as a backup, we [shot it with a Scorpions patch], which is not really correct, actually, because Scorpions, at that time, was not cheesy. If you were metal back then, Scorpions was cool. All the ’70s stuff and early ’80s stuff with Scorpions still, to this day, is fucking awesome. I feel a little bad. Doing that, it should really be Mötley Crüe, or any of the American acts from that time. That’s the biggest contrast. Norwegian black metal and the Sunset Strip glam rock. You couldn’t be further away from each other.
Speaking of things that don’t seem to happen anymore, back then, it seemed like if you were into black metal, you could only be into that, and you couldn’t listen to Mötley Crüe or whatever. It doesn’t seem like [that kind of specialization] is as much of a thing nowadays.
Yeah, no, but it was definitely back then. I remember myself hiding a few albums from my friends. Like, it’s like, “Shit. I’ve got these Genesis albums and Peter Gabriel albums. I can’t show them to my friends.” Stuff like that. But Euronymous did, though. He was big on electronic music. He was a big Tangerine Dream fan, he was a big Dead Can Dance fan. And a lot of extreme music that was not just metal. So he definitely had ears for other things. But yeah, it was that era. You had to have the right t-shirt.
In terms of the Nazi connections, there’s always been this weird crossover between metal and certain types of Nazi imagery. Is that just two different groups that both were into the occult, or is there something more to that connection?
I don’t know if it’s actually true. To me, metal has always had a sense of wit and a sense of humor in there, and also kind of a distance between, “What is reality and what’s fantasy?” But obviously in this case, it became something else, and I feel like all the political reasonings that they had was added on later. I really think they were playing around with symbols, lyrics, darkness, watched horror movies and these horror movies were very extreme, and I think it was more that than a proper agenda, you know?
Well, our time is winding down. Do you have anything to add?
I’m just so grateful that this movie’s out, and I’ve been having the chance to see it now at festivals with an audience, and it’s just incredible for me as a director to sit in the audience and feel the energy. It’s like, I have four billion hits on YouTube, but I have never sat next to my audience ever. And the fact that this movie’s coming out and it’s like… People are gonna be able to see it on a big screen in a room with other people. It’s definitely the best way to experience this movie.