With Lords of Chaos, Jonas Åkerlund never intended to make a movie for heavy metal’s truest believers. A decade ago, when the veteran music video director and former Bathory drummer envisioned turning the infamously homicidal and pyromanic origin story of Norwegian black metal into a feature-length film, he knew a strict biopic would never do. After all, the tragically tangled backstories of Burzum’s Varg Vikernes and Mayhem founder Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth had already been obsessively romanticized in documentaries and books, including the one that gives Åkerlund’s movie its name. Åkerlund wanted the story to resonate with new audiences, even those who couldn’t tell the difference between Fantoft and Filosofem.
The resulting Lords of Chaos (a film by VICE Studios) is a loving but concerned (and troubled) fan-fiction tribute to that scene, where the fundamental facts remain fixed but the details and dialogue are reimagined. Admittedly goofy and a tad sensational, Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos refuses to consider deeply the lingering problems of the scene’s pernicious politics or their musical legacy and, instead, humanizes its characters by creating a series of interlocking love triangles. Medieval cosplayer and modern fascist Varg Vikernes, for instance, is an impetuous kid who fucks anything that walks. Played by Rory Culkin, Euronymous is a reasonable marketing guru who, by the end of the film, looks like happy John in love with Yoko.
We spoke with Åkerlund about the struggles of balancing truth and fiction while trying to make a compelling movie, and the risks of romanticizing fascism at this moment of international strongmen.
VICE: You’ve said you wanted Lords of Chaos to be a story for more than the metal community. In writing the film, how did you try to accomplish that?
Jonas Åkerlund: I was so fascinated and intrigued about the story. Like many other people, I thought, “I own this story. I’m close to it. I know it better than everybody else.” But at some point, I let go of that and started to think I needed to make a movie. With that came a focus I didn’t have before. The research is fun. Developing these characters is fun. Listening to the music and watching all the documentaries is fun. But we’ve seen those documentaries, and they’re all the same—a little fire and a deep voice telling the stories about the murders and church burnings. I started to realize I should focus on the relationship between these three boys, and I should focus on making them human and remind us they are young. It happened in Norway, and they didn’t have an excuse for it. They were not abused, and they grew up in decent circumstances. They’re not monsters.
At this point, historically, has someone like Varg transitioned into seeming more like a monster, after decades of promoting nationalism?
You can call them monsters, or you can call them something else. I don’t make them into good guys. But the focus of the film was trying to figure out what happened and what led them to it, like these small decisions you take in life. I can identify with those moments in my life when I look back and remember which friends took the wrong decision. I’m lucky I took some good decisions. My big thing was to discover film editing, because it took over my whole life. But it was just a series of coincidences or accidents; it could have gone the other way. I could have stayed in music, stayed in drugs, met the wrong people. We all know those moments when you stop thinking as an individual and start to think like a group or when you become impressed and want to impress.
Why does this story continue to resonate after a quarter-century? Do you think it’s that youthful stupidity and absolute belief in what you’re doing?
We’ve seen this story so many times before—in the favelas of Brazil, in the suburbs of England, in the ghettos in Italy. I bet you right now some kid is killing somebody or doing something stupid somewhere around the world, and we may not even hear about it. So it beats me: I have no idea why this story caught me and stayed with me or why there are ten documentaries and books about it. A lot of people are very emotionally attached to it, but that doesn’t really have a reason to it.
You were in Bathory, another foundational band a country away. And you directed a Candlemass video a few years later that included Dead before he moved to Norway and joined Mayhem. How did your early experience in that scene in Sweden inform the decisions you made here?
The first act of the film, when it’s playful—when they’re finding their sound, dyeing their hair, drawing that logo, being awkward around girls, having parties in their garden—that was very much like when I was in bands. We also had dark lyrics and loved horror films, and we were playing around with symbols and wanted to be scary and cool. But the big difference is we could separate the reality from the fantasy, which they didn’t do in Norway. I felt like I knew these characters well, like I was close to them.
Since you began working on the film, there’s been a rise in international strongmen, fascism, and nationalism. Especially with Varg Vikernes’ paganism and displays of swastikas, those ideas thread through the film. Did the context of this moment impact the way you thought of these characters?
I have a theory—and this may not be true—that they didn’t really have a political agenda back then. The political agenda they have today is something that has been growing over the years. When this happened, they were just playing around with symbols. I’ve seen pictures of their rooms—the flags, the pictures, the upside-down crosses. It felt very young, and it felt like going in so many different directions, which makes me think there couldn’t be a proper political agenda. Obviously today, especially with Varg, he’s very open with his political beliefs; back then, I don’t think he had that.
So you think the actual belief in these ideas from someone like Varg came after the fact and that this was mere adolescent play?
We’ve all seen him talking about it over the years, and it seems like he’s had a lot of time to think about stuff. He’s been fine-tuning the story and fine-tuning his beliefs as he was growing, which is natural. I’m a lot smarter today than I was back then, too. He figured out whatever it is he thinks is right and wrong.
Did you worry that the movie romanticizes fascism or Nazism, because it seems like the philosophical spark for some “mad genius” like Varg?
I don’t think we are doing that. I think the documentaries do a better job on that. I think we are showing a very sad part of it, the less glamorous part. It has a realness, so I’m not worried about that. If you take your time and watch the movie, it grabs you in a way you didn’t expect. I’ve been in the room so many times now for all these festivals and screenings, so I can feel all the energy. I haven’t seen any signs of that.
Likewise, Lords of Chaos the book is problematic on a factual basis and because writer Michael Moynihan has espoused fascism and nationalism himself for decades. Was there a thought that maybe it was too troubled to endorse by using the name?
We were talking about changing the title and buying rights to other books. The story is public domain, but it was better for us to buy the rights. Lords of Chaos was the most available book for us at the time. I know the book is infected and a lot of people don’t like it, but we fell in love with the title. We tried to change the title a few times, but we always came back to Lords of Chaos. Our research for writing the script and making this movie was way, way beyond the book. The book was just one of many sources where we picked up inspiration and learned.
At the start of the film, a title card says this is “Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened.” Can you tell me about the distinction?
My first script said “Based on truth,” and then I was like, “Oh, wait a minute—there’s a lot of bullshit in here, too,” so it’s “Based on truth and lies.” At one time, I could not think of adding anything; I had to make it as real as I could. My writing partner reminded me that it’s a movie, that we have to take freedom in telling these stories so we can make an entertaining movie. The truth part is a lot of research and stories, and I realize that a lot of this truth is other people’s truth. People have different perspectives on truth, so that’s when I added, “And what actually happened,” because there are a few things you can’t argue—people died, churches burned, a lot of sad people were left behind.
One thing that is essentially concocted—Ann-Marit, a photographer and Euronymous’ girlfriend, played by Sky Ferreira. When did it become clear she should be inserted into the story?
This is part of the research we did. In a lot of the pictures I saw, there was this girl that kept showing up. I kept asking around, and nobody knew who she was. But then I met a person who lived with Euronymous only three weeks before he got murdered, and that person told me there was a girlfriend in his life when he was murdered. I got enough material from that source to write it in as one of the reasons why Euronymous at the end of the film is on his way somewhere. He’s cutting his hair. He’s writing that letter to his fans that he’s going to start fresh with Mayhem and get rid of Varg with a contract. He’s got a girlfriend. I had enough material to understand that he was on his way somewhere, and she had something to do with it.
She humanizes him. Do you think he deserves that more than his murderer, Varg?
Again, they were young. They had their whole lives ahead of them, and they did all those things that you do when you are young. I’m not saying Euronymous was a saint. He did a lot of crazy shit, too, and he was responsible for a lot of these things that happened. But they were young and human.
At one point, Varg is badly explaining his vile beliefs to a reporter when his driver interrupts by asking if anyone wants tea. It’s an honest, goofy, hilarious moment. Was humor your way to humanize these kids, too?
It was that, and I just think some of this stuff is funny. The seriousness of the scene becomes funny if you take a step outside; Spinal Tap is like that because you see it as an outsider. You can’t do a movie about kids and rock ’n’ roll without having crazy, fun shit. We’re asking a lot from the audience to watch this movie, so there has to be a sense of wit. In the edit, I tried a version where we took out all the jokes—it became all dark with no hope. It’s the same with violence. If you take the edge off the violence, it loses power. All the emotional ups and downs are very important.
One of the dynamics at play in the film is ideology versus image. Euronymous loves building a brand, while Varg is committed to his band and a budding ideology behind it. Which is more important to the survival of this saga?
Euronymous was known to be very driven and very good at getting his stuff done and out there, considering that, pre-internet, he made the band so famous. The Mayhem logo is now all over the world. You can go to Disneyland and see people with that t-shirt. He did stuff that advertisers today could only dream of. He started with that very early, and he was probably much better there than ever as a guitarist or songwriter. I would say the opposite with Varg. He was a great musician and very driven when it came to writing. But they go hand in hand, and I don’t think you can trick your audience into liking something if it’s not good.
You’ve said that, though you knew the records, listening to Mayhem and their black metal peers was never a great passion. What do you like about black metal now?
It’s almost like listening to classical music or opera; first, it’s almost painful and kind of sucks, but when you give it a chance and spend some enough time, it becomes fantastic. It’s such a specific genre they invented. The sound is very specific. A lot of people tried to sound exactly like that, but Mayhem are still the best black metal band there is. There are other bands that are great, but they’re still not close to the originals.
What would Euronymous think of bands who have taken his sound in so many different directions? He was serious. He wanted to get his music out there. All entertainers want that, whatever they say. That’s the whole point—to get people to enjoy your art. Euronymous would have enjoyed this movie and where black metal has gone, I’m pretty sure.
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