Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund may be most celebrated for his extensive music video and concert film output, collaborating with everyone from Madonna to Metallica, Roxette to Rammstein, the Smashing Pumpkins to the Prodigy. His movies, however, brim with an equally intense aesthetic and off-the-cuff kineticism: Spun, Åkerlund’s delirious 2002 debut feature, is now widely considered a pinnacle of drug-culture–cinema epics; Small Apartments, his 2012 movie about an outsider searching for his place in the world, would probably attain similar cult status if only it’d reached a larger audience. (In between, he also made the crime-thriller Horsemen, one that’s light on his usual style and personality.) The 52-year-old provocateur has a passion for telling stories – the more twisted, the better.
And now, after roughly 20 years of percolation, he finally brings to screen the story of notorious Norwegian black-metal band Mayhem. Drawing from personal experience – Åkerlund was a drummer for the Swedish extreme metal band Bathory for a short time in the early Eighties – his adaptation of Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book Lords of Chaos details the group’s rise and fall via Mayhem’s co-founder/guitarist Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. Euronymous (Rory Culkin) and his relationship with two volatile collaborators: Per Yngve Ohlin a.k.a. Pelle aka Dead (Jack Kilmer), the band’s ultra-melancholic first singer who killed cats and then himself; and Varg Vikernes, a.k.a the Count (Emory Cohen), a fellow outcast and Aarseth’s eventual murderer.
Recently screening in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival, Lords of Chaos is profoundly disturbing, macabrely comical and truly unforgettable – a Jonas Åkerlund movie, in other words. (It’s currently without a distributor.) A few days after the movie’s world premiere, the filmmaker spoke to Rolling Stone about his connection to the story and the scene, why it took so long to get this movie made and how he handled some of the more sensitive (and grisly) aspects of Mayhem’s tragedy.
What’s the appeal of these types of oddball characters for you?
I’ve always been drawn to movies where I get a chance to look into a world that I kind of know about, but that I never really get to see what’s happening behind the doors. I’ve also always been drawn to movies and books that are based on true stories with strong characters – and that was a main appeal for me when it came to Lords of Chaos. I think a lot of people expect me to do a film about music that is very dark, but my focus has been very much on the characters and their relationships – the emotional part of what actually happened, which I feel is very important.
Have you been hit with any harsh reactions or legal issues?
No legal issues; it’s a story that’s kind of [in the] public domain, and we have the rights to the book. But you are right: It is a very sensitive story and to be honest, I’m not really sure why. I mean, I’m very passionate about this story, but the truth is that … young kids do stupid things around the world every day. But this specific story seems to be very important to people, and some of them were already criticizing the movie and asking why we’d tell this story. I think they’re wrong. I definitely think this is a relevant story that translates really well into the world of youth today and it needs to be told. And a lot of people that are very close to the story has been supportive. We do have Mayhem’s music in the film. I read a lot online [saying] that we don’t, but we have the support of Mayhem and the music is in there. They also understand that this story exists in so many different formats already and that a movie is important to tell this story to the next generation.
In terms of the other Mayhem members – particularly Varg, who’s not portrayed very favorably – do you think there will be issues with this version of the story getting out there? Have you heard from him?
No, he’s the only one we haven’t been in contact with. We don’t have any of his music in the film so we didn’t need his permission. I mean, he’s very proud of what he did. He brags about it – and he keeps telling this story over and over again, ever since it happened like 25 years ago. But he’s changed his story through the years, so it’s hard for me to say exactly what happened; obviously, a lot of his character is based on what he has told. But the other Mayhem members have read the script and they’ve been supportive with the music and all that, like I said. We’ve even been in contact with Euronymous’s parents and Pelle’s family. I’ve been trying to treat it with respect as much as I can, especially because people have lost family members. It’s a very sad story in many ways.
Was there a reason you decided not to include more performance scenes in the film?
It’s a fine balance … maybe I should have included one or two more songs. We actually shot a couple more in the rehearsal studio but I wanted to make sure, because it’s kind of painful to listen to black metal music if you’re not used to it or don’t love it. The music was an important part of what the kids did over these years. At the same time, I didn’t want it to take over too much so I tried to find a way to show how they become better and better at their instruments, become better and better song writers. But as all these other things are slowly taking over their lives, it becomes less and less about the music.
It starts out where music is everything. Then before you know it you’re a businessman, you’re still like 18 years old but you run your own record shop and label, you represent bands, you do to tours and recordings … and you burn down churches and you kill people. Before you know it, everything is out of hand. I mean, these kids were very, very driven, and if you think about how much they actually accomplished over only a few years, it’s incredible; they’re children, pretty much. But, yeah, we can do a couple of outtakes to show more music. I love those parts. It was fun to work with the actors … but actors with wigs and instruments is tough. I was very keen on making sure that it looked authentic, and that the cast spent a lot of hours rehearsing their instruments.
You made the choice to not even have them do any accents at all – which would have been even more distracting.
Thank you for saying that, because obviously this has been on my mind for many, many sleepless nights – am I gonna do it? How am I going to do it? But early on I decided to do it with English-speaking actors mainly for two reasons: I wanted to make a movie for a big audience – I don’t want to make a Norwegian movie; and I wanted to make sure that I got the best actors. Being limited to Norwegian-speaking actors would have been really hard for me.
And how did you decide that Rory Culkin was your Euronymous?
It was funny because usually when you cast you’re kind of like, okay, this guy is perfect for this role and that guy is perfect for that role. But I was so keen on the chemistry between these boys that I actually moved some of the names around a little bit. With Rory, he loved Euronymous from day one. So I felt that he was my Euronymous.
And then eventually, when I met Jack Kilmer, and when he when he walked into the room, for a moment I actually thought he was Pelle, the real guy. I literally turned around and thought: Wow, wait a minute, he’s Dead … no, wait a minute, it’s Jack Kilmer. He was just perfect; I couldn’t get that out of my head. And eventually Emory Cohen came on board and he loved the character of Varg, so I feel like I got it right in the end.
“It starts out where music is everything. Then before you know it you run your own record shop and label, you represent bands, you do to tours … and you burn down churches and you kill people.”
Some metal types are not exactly known to be social or outgoing – did that present a challenge in how you’d portray these characters?
I guess a little bit. I mean, part of the humor of the film is to actually be able to take a step outside of the bubbles that they live in and to see how stupid and weird it looks from the outside. And it doesn’t matter if you’re into metal or not – you could be in that bubble in whatever style of music you listen to or whatever group you decide to join. Now that I actually think about it, it’s funny how this movie, after all these documentaries and books and stories that have been told about this, it’s almost like the behind-the-scenes of it. Like, okay, now we get the chance to really see all of the things we’ve heard for so many years.
Right … but then something like Dead’s suicide in particular is devastating to watch. How do you approach that scene in particular.
The same as I did with everything else in the movie. I decided early on that I wanted it to be as real as possible and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t censor ourselves. If we’re playing metal, then it should be metal; it should be in your face, it should look real and raw. If we have an emotional beat between Euronymous and [his lover] Ann-Marit, it needs to be as emotional as I, as a filmmaker, can make it; if he has a nightmare it should be as graphic here as it is in reality. I approached the same thing with the murder scenes in the film. I read a lot from the police reports and I learned how these murders happened. I wanted to make it as real and in your face as I could.
Euronymous’s murder scene is definitely grueling as well; during the postscreening Q&A, Rory was obviously as shaken up by it as the audience was.
I’m happy you were there that night to see that. I thought it was not only incredible to see how Rory was shaken by the film but also, I don’t know if you noticed, but it was incredibly cool to see how the other guys kind of like surrounded him and took care of him right away – like the real black circle. They were there for him in a heartbeat.
You briefly mentioned your history in the music world, but could you talk a little bit more about your ties to the death metal scene in particular and if it influenced your desire to make this film?
I think my background in music, and specifically black metal, was important to me in making this movie, but my time in the world was pretty much the first acts of the film – when they’re having fun, when they’re looking for band members, when they’re rehearsing, having parties. Once the music became too serious, I moved on to filmmaking.
But then of course I stayed in touch with a lot of the metal community and some of my best friends up till this day are from this era. Ghost and Candlemass and Opeth – I hang with these people. So I come from this world, I’m close to this world. But for me as a filmmaker to approach a movie like Spun or Small Apartments or a story like this is pretty much the same thing. It’s all about getting to know the characters, getting as close as I can to the story. So I’m a little torn between saying that yes my background is important … and no, not really, because I have to do so much hard work to learn and understand it anyway.
When did you know this was a story you wanted to bring the screen – and why did it actually take so long to get it made?
Back when it happened, before there were any books and documentaries, I was already thinking about this as a substantial movie. I remember I was in Los Angeles shooting something – it must have been 1994 – and I saw the church burnings on CNN. Weirdly enough, everybody who was in this world knew who it was way before the police caught up to them. And in like ’96, ’97, I started to think that this is a potential story, so you can see how many years this has been brewing in my head.
And then of course when all these other great documentaries and great books came out, I read them and I saw them and I was first in line to take it all in. But I’m happy that I didn’t make it 10 years ago. I think that this story needed a little space – and I feel like now is actually the perfect time for this movie to come out.