Lords of Chaos director's 20-year quest to bring a notorious music murder to the big screen
As a former member of the Swedish metal band Bathory, Jonas Åkerlund knows a thing or three about the Scandinavian rock scene. And in the late ’90s, Åkerlund established himself as an in-demand video director whose credits included the clip for Madonna’s “Ray of Light” single. Yet when, around 1998, he tried to interest studio executives in a film about Norwegian death metal band Mayhem, the involvement by members in a string of church-burnings, and ultimately the murder of Mayhem founder Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth by fellow musician Varg Vikernes, he was greeted with deaf ears.
“I tried to pitch it in Los Angeles, like, ’98,” says Åkerlund. “The agencies back then, nobody even knew what Sweden was. They thought we were Switzerland, you know. So, I went in there and showed some pictures of some kids with corpse makeup, and they were like, ‘There’s the door!’”
Two decades on, Åkerlund has finally succeeded in bringing the tale of Mayhem to the screen with the deliberately brutal Lords of Chaos, which opened in New York Feb. 8 and expands into Los Angeles theaters this Friday. In the film, Rory Culkin plays the doomed Euronymous while Emory Cohen portrays Vikernes.
“Jonas was the director but he was also a consultant,” says Culkin. “We didn’t have to question whether or not certain things were authentic. He would let us know real quick whether or not that was bulls—. It was good to sort of have the real thing overlooking everything at all times.”
Åkerlund played with Bathory in the mid-’80s and recorded the track “Sacrifice,” which appeared on the compilation Scandinavian Metal Attack, before leaving the band.
“We were a few years earlier [than Mayhem],” he says, “[We were] starting to play dark metal, kind of not knowing what we were doing, searching for a sound, loving horror movies, and loving dark stuff, and KISS, and King Diamond, and all that stuff. We never did corpse makeup but we did write dark lyrics. Obviously, the big difference with what we did is we did separate the reality from fantasy. I do feel like the first act of Lords of Chaos, you know, when they come together, they have a band name, they draw their logo, they’re searching for band members, they’re awkward with girls, and they have their garden parties, was very much like the time that I was in there for a moment. That would be the one part that was very much like when we started with Bathory in Sweden.”
After his failure to interest anyone in the story of Mayhem in the late ’90s, Åkerlund went back to shooting videos before making his feature debut with 2002’s Mickey Rourke-featuring drug drama Spun, following that with 2009’s Dennis Quaid-starring Horsemen. But the director remained fascinated with the twisted tale of Euronymous and Vikernes. He wasn’t alone. In 2009, it was announced that Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono was set to direct a film based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 2003 book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. There were also reports that Twilight Saga actor Jackson Rathbone would play Vikernes, but the project ultimately fell apart.
“It was one of those stories that stuck with me and I thought I was the only one,” says Åkerlund. “I thought that this story was like mine almost. I thought that I owned it for some reason. And then I realized that a lot of people think that they own this story, a lot of people actually believe that they are closer to this story than anybody else.”
Around six years ago, determined to get his vision of the story onscreen, Åkerlund set to work on a script, also titled Lords of Chaos.
“I kind of started myself,” he says. “After thinking about it for so many years, the writing process was kind of easy for me. And then my partner Dennis Magnusson and I started to do all the proper research to make sure we knew what we were talking about. It’s such a big story. I think it could have been a series, actually. There are so many side stories that I could not fit into the movie. My focus became showing that these guys were young boys, they were children basically. I wanted to humanize them because, in the documentaries and the books, it’s like they’re all portrayed like demons. I wanted to show that these kids were humans, and they were real and they actually didn’t have an excuse. They came from pretty good parents and they lived in a pretty good world. They didn’t really have anything to blame, you know. There were no drugs involved, there was no abuse involved. They just stopped thinking as individuals, and started to think as a group, and then took a few wrong decisions that just made it go really bad.”
The project was given a boost by Ridley Scott, whose production company RSA Films represents Åkerlund in the UK.
“He actually read the script, and he liked it, and he told some of his guys to help me out,” says the director. “So, that was a really solid, good start. Then we partnered up with Vice. I thought that they’re crazy enough to like this and at the time they had this deal going on with Fox. So, there was a little money there, and then there was a little money from a company called Insurgent, and there was a little bit of a tax break thing. We started at a million dollars and we probably ended at two. But we shot the movie in eighteen days, so it was like a super tight production.”
Åkerlund mostly filmed the movie in Budapest, but also briefly shot in Olso, Norway, where the tale he was relating is very well known.
“We actually just shot one day in Norway,” he says. “What I noticed right away, going from Hungary to Norway, was that, in Hungary, we worked completely freely, it didn’t feel like anybody had like personal attachment to this story. The second we came to Norway, the whole subject became so sensitive. We were followed around by paparazzi and gossip magazines. They spread rumors about what we were doing. I felt a lot more limited when we were in Norway shooting.”
“Jonas had us learn eleven or twelve different songs,” says Culkin. “Luckily, we’re playing these boys when they were first starting out, so we didn’t have to be polished black metal musicians, we were learning as the characters were learning. The songs didn’t need to be played beautifully. It was a lot of thrashing and a lot of bloody-fingers by the end of the shoot. Luckily for us, these kids were big on taking pictures. This was before iPhones, so they had to really go out of their way to take all these pictures. There was a big difference in photos where Euronymous was posing, and then photos where it was candid, and he didn’t know he was getting his picture taken. That was revealing for me to see those photos where he doesn’t know he’s on camera, and he’s giggling, and stuff like that. I was just trying to shatter the intimidating façade.”
Åkerlund had no contact with Vikernes, who was released from prison in 2009 after serving 15 years of a 21-year sentence for killing Euronymous.
“No, never,” he says. “I mean, I’ll leave it at that, but — I could say, I never felt I needed to because he has been the most outspoken about what happened and what his reasoning was. So, I felt he was the one character in the movie that I had the most material on. Euronymous was trickier because [he] is dead and he wasn’t as outspoken as Varg was. The Varg material that I had was more than enough for me to understand his character, so I never need him, so I didn’t reach out to him.”
Åkerlund’s quest finally came to an end when Lords of Chaos premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m a director for hire,” he says. “I always have an artist to think about, I always have a client to think about, I’m always there for someone else, and trying to figure out what their vision is. And then, once in a while, I’ll do a short film or an art project or a movie where I do my thing. I’m proud that the movie’s done and I’m very happy with the fact that it got to the place, exactly where I wanted it to be.”
“I’ve done now, at least maybe ten, maybe fifteen, screenings with an audience,” he continues. “To sit next to the audience and feel the energy, and knowing that the movie works, it’s a reward for me, beyond my expectations.”
Watch the trailer for Lords of Chaos, above.
WARNING: Lords of Chaos features a portrayal of death by suicide.