To accompany this cover story, Jonas Åkerlund has submitted his ten favourite black metal tracks, and exclusive behind the scenes stills he took on the set of Lords of Chaos.
In 1992, global news reported on a unique new crime-spree gripping southern Norway: teenagers were burning down churches. As police and journalists zoomed in further, it appeared the arson was being committed by members of a niche new music subgenre, a ground-breakingly bleak twist on black metal coming straight out of Oslo.
Dubbed the “Necro Sound”, Norwegian black metal was icy, impenetrable — far more atmospheric and unknowable than any metal before it. There was true horror in the cacophony, with sped-up riffs buried under thick layers of sleet, blast-beats like static TV emissions and shrieking eldritch vocals wrenched from the gutter. Icier still were the scene’s proprietors, with bands like Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone donning grimacing black and white makeup — so-called ‘corpse paint’ — and bloodying themselves on stage.
After Mayhem’s founding member Euronymous was murdered by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes in 1993, the story of Norwegian black metal turned from a youth-powered creative phenomenon to a cult true crime parable. Municipal Norway’s underground became hard news. As rumours were passed through the media after the homicide, the story of Mayhem became more and more sensationalised, with Kerrang! magazine dubbing the group “satanic terrorists” and “devil worshippers” across a six page cover story.
But for filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund, while the Norwegian black metal tale continues to haunt popular culture, the humanisms at the core of it have been lost in time. As he sees it, these were kids whose teen angst, necromania and questionable values got way out of hand. The bands may have stood for press shots dressed as insane conquistadors, but there were humans under the corpse paint.
His new film Lords of Chaos focuses in on the friendship between Vikernes and Euronymous, as the creative bonds they form early on eventually drive them apart. In the movie, the pair are powerful but opposite centres of gravity for the movement: Vikernes, played by a chillingly emotionless Emory Cohen, enters as a Mayhem fan desperate to get in with his heroes. Euronymous, Rory Culkin, eventually pushes past his own scene snobbery and lets Vikernes in on the secrets behind the band’s success. Euronymous is painted as both a musical pioneer and a master of the dark arts: visionary in steering rock music in a new direction, while scaremongering about his band in the press. As Vikernes gets closer to Euronymous’s lies, the more he feels he has a point to prove about his own integrity.
It’s why when Åkerlund sent the script out to his actors, it came with a one-line precis: “This film is about truth and lies.” “It’s really hard to make a movie about idiots,” the Swedish director tells me bluntly. “I’m not saying they didn’t do fucked up things, but what you’ve got to remember is that this story is about a group of young, middle class boys from happy upbringings.” That they didn’t have any obvious excuse to lash out at society like they did is, for Åkerlund, what makes their story so complex and essential.
The director is closer to this scene than you might think. Before earning a Grammy for his thrilling time-lapse video for Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and controversy for Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” clip, he drummed in a Stockholm band called Bathory. Though his time in Bathory was brief, the music he made with co-founder Thomas Forsberg laid the touchstones for Norwegian black metal. Along with metal groups like Venom from Newcastle and Celtic Frost from Zürich, Bathory where amongst Mayhem’s biggest influences.
On top of this, back in 1987 Åkerlund had cast Mayhem’s first vocalist Dead as an extra in his debut music video, for the Swedish band Candlemass. In the film, Dead zombie-walks around a cemetery with a gang of lobotomised metalheads. Meeting Dead in real life before his suicide in 1991 made finding the right actor for him for Lords of Chaos far easier. The process came so organically, in fact, it scared him. “The first time he walked in I actually thought it was Dead for a moment,” Åkerlund recalls about meeting a frail Jack Kilmer in the lobby of Chateau Marmont. “He walks exactly like him.”
“Dead was the first (non-fiction) person I’ve played... I wanted to know why someone would be interested in horror in that way” — Jack Kilmer
In the lead up to his death, Dead had a consuming fascination with the after-life, supposedly burying clothes he’d later wear onstage to make them look rotten and collecting dead birds from a local forest. “He had a near-death experience which I think was a big influence on his life, it made him more spiritual” muses Kilmer, a fan of black metal who spent hours of preparation with Dead’s brother. “Dead was the first ‘real’ (non-fiction) person I’ve played... I wanted to know why someone would be interested in horror in that way.”
“It was pretty emotional — (his brother) had really never talked about his death before,” he continues. “He just had so many sweet memories about the guy, because you only hear about the death and violence.” After their conversations, he handed Kilmer some of Dead’s clothes and accessories, including a moth-eaten pair of jeans covered in doodles. (Too fragile to wear, the director had a replica made for Kilmer). “I also had some original black metal memorabilia around my hotel room to get in the mood. I had a few knives around as decoration, which I bought off a gypsy in Budapest.”
On the request of the director, Kilmer perfected Dead’s morose vocal fry. “There’s a particular way he would do it. We had a two week chanting session before we even started filming,” the actor recalls, before drifting off on a fascinating tangent about the black metal sound. “I like that it doesn’t really have anything to with music — there’s a perversity to it that I find funny and extreme. Songs are about the wind and nature recorded on the worst equipment they could find. It’s almost against black metal to be successful in any way (laughs), and yet they all wanted to be famous.”
Beyond sourcing original band merch, Åkerlund was granted access to key police reports as well as detailed photos of Euronymous’s record store Helvete, and the house the band camped out in. He even cast the the son of Attila Csihar, Mayhem’s current singer, as a young version of his dad. “A lot of black metal professors are gonna go, ‘Oh they got the T-shirt right,” Åkerlund states. “The production designer Emma Farley was a vital element too,” adds Rory Culkin. “When Euronymous was murdered in his apartment, he was listening to the band Tangerine Dream. I came to shoot the scene and, sure enough, Tangerine Dream was sitting on the record player.” Åkerlund even used real locations for exterior shots of, among others, Euronymous’s flat and a rebuilt church that Vikernes burnt down in Holmenkollen.
“We’d been talking about this film for so long and now here we were: Dead’s in the coffin, dead cats are hanging, it’s perfect!” — Rory Culkin
But the true extent of Åkerlund’s obsessiveness awaited Kilmer in the house he would film Dead’s suicide in. The director had learnt about Dead’s hobby for collecting dead pets, explains Kilmer: “It was rainy and cold and dark that day, and the house we shot in was so dank and decrepit. They’d left out rotting fruit and real dead cats, and I laid in freezing fake blood for three to four hours. It was just miserable.”
Despite Åkerlund’s almost masochistic commitment to the truth, he’s keen to remind me of the “truth and lies” disclaimer he had stapled to his script, adapted from Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 scene memoir. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m making a movie — I’m not making a documentary,” he says, nodding to Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s essential 2008 documentary Until the Light Takes Us. “It is one of those stories that people think they own, you know — and, over time, you can see how it has changed. The fish gets bigger and bigger every time you tell it.”
At the film’s premiere at Sundance in January, the cast had to console Culkin after he broke down watching himself being murdered on the big screen. “I was shook. I remembered that (Euronymous) was a real guy and he really was brutally murdered. I was wondering what he would think of me dressed up like him, and if he would be okay with it,” he says wistfully. “I’d like to think that he would want someone to tell his story.”
It’s clear the film took its toll on a cast willing to let the horrors of the story into their lives. “Researching Euronymous, I was desperate to humanise him,” adds Culkin. “I was searching for his soft spots. I would ask his old friends questions like; what was he like around girls? Do you think he was ever in love?” Culkin became fascinated with a photo of the guitarist in Helvete, in which he stands commandingly in a cropped Mayhem tee. “It’s jarring — he sort of looks silly, but he’s stone-cold confident. For whatever reason, that aesthetic was important to me.” For Culkin, the image spoke of Euronymous’s vast contradictions, of a willingness to compromise his values in order to feel embraced.
“I asked everyone I spoke to who knew him to do an impression of the way he stood,” he recalls. “They almost always compared him to a mythological creature: one person said he was kind of like a gnome and another said he was like an evil elf. Because he was small a dude but confident in himself and he has this clan around him, people really embellished and lionised him.” Judging by the music he listened to privately — the kind of goofy thrash metal usually scoffed at by the scene — Culkin believes that behind closed doors, Euronymous felt like an outsider in a community he was core to.
It was at Sundance that Culkin and other cast members realised they’d perhaps spent too long in this world, despite shooting the film for just under a month. “I realised that everything had become normal,” says Culkin. “There’s a scene where I wake up Dead, and he’s sleeping in a coffin, and the audience started laughing. I was like, ‘What’s funny about this?’” Lucian Charles Collier, who portrays Mayhem member Occultus, recalls an improvised party scene where the cast were told they could completely destroy the house they’d been filming in. Naturally, things escalated quickly. “We’d been shooting a long time and it was getting late, and Rory and Jack decided to take it upon themselves to keep everybody’s energies up. They were scaring everyone with the dead cats...”
It’s testament to the power of the story how far the cast were willing to go to be involved in telling it. For her audition tape, Sky Ferreira, who plays Euronymous’ fictional girlfriend Ann-Marit, sent Åkerlund clips of herself performing fire-breathing tricks he says were “simply impossible to not take seriously”. “I was trying to be a part of the project for years, and I was just so happy to be standing in a room full of dead animals,” Culkin remembers of his first day on set. “I have cats and I love animals, but we’ve been talking about this film for so long and now here we are: Dead’s in the coffin, dead cats are hanging, it’s perfect!”
“I asked people who knew Euronymous to do an impression of the way that he stood” — Rory Culkin
Wilson Gonzalez, who plays the one-time Mayhem guitarist and Vikernes’ sidekick Blackthorn, even embarked on a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse with the director after a series of auditions led to nothing. While on holiday in Austria, Gonzalez bumped into Till Lindemann, the lead singer of stadium-industrial band Rammstein. “He gave me Jonas’ email and address and said, ‘you’d better not fuck this up,’” he laughs. “I wrote to Jonas and was like, ‘Okay, I will burn down churches if I can be a part of this film!”
At a press conference earlier this year, journalists focused on the one aspect of the film that seemed to have surprised them the most — its humour. (The movie’s biggest laugh comes when Euronymous screams “Hail Satan!” at a group of mortified old ladies). For Åkerlund, humour wasn’t brought into Lords of Chaos to detract from the horror of the crimes, but as a way of humanising the perpetrators. To dethrone them.
For Culkin, he relied on his character’s humour to build a connection with Euronymous — to find, as he puts it, “the gateway where Rory and Euronymous meet.” He refers me back to the picture he’s been staring at for so long now, of Euronymous as a vociferous underground leader in a slightly undersized crop-top. It is in the contradictions and insecurities of Euronymous that Culkin found his spot. “Lords of Chaos is a really simple human tale for me,” he ponders. “It’s about a crazed fan who was more talented than the person he admires. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like that.”
Lords of Chaos is being screened at New York’s Lincoln Center between Aug 17-23, and will see a wider release next year.
Hair Tamara McNaughton at Streeters using Oribe, make-up Daniel Sallstrom at CLM using Dior Fall Look and Capture Youth, set design Luis Ortega Govela, lighting assistants Adam Matijasevic, Mark Nakagawa, styling assistant Rebecca Perlmutar, hair assistant Lauren Palmer Smith, make-up assistant Melissa Hurkman, digital operator John Shin, production Artistry, on-set production François Boulaire, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein at Starworks Group, retouching IMGN Studio