Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund's career of bold and colorful visuals has spanned critically acclaimed music videos and Grammy-winning concert movies for some of rock and pop's biggest names — Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Metallica and more. But before all that he was the teenage drummer of Swedish black-metal pioneers Bathory. With his fourth feature film, Lords of Chaos, he's returning to the extreme-metal roar where he got his start.
The film focuses on the notorious lives and deaths of the black-metal scene in Norway, the church-burnings and murders surrounding the band Mayhem in the early Nineties. Åkerlund paints a vision of late Mayhem leader Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin) not as a black-hearted malcontent out to create chaos, but instead a conflicted emotional young adult. Revolver talked to Åkerlund about his surprisingly colorful look at black-metal history
ONE OF THE MOST IMMEDIATELY STRIKING THINGS ABOUT THE FILM WAS YOUR DECISION TO DO IT IN BRIGHT AND SATURATED COLORS INSTEAD OF THE BLACK AND WHITE AND GRAY IMAGERY OF THE SCENE.
JONAS ÅKERLUND Every time you hear about these stories or see it in documentaries or read about it or see pictures, there's always that darkness and that deep voice that presents these demons and monsters. And my take from day one was to find a different angle on it and actually try to portray the reality of it, which was, these were were children, basically, living in Norway at a pretty good time and a pretty decent upbringing with decent parents. I wanted to humanize them and I wanted to make it more real. Especially in the first act of the movie, they're searching for their sound and they're awkward with girls, and they're having like a garden party trying to figure shit out. I did use a lot of the pictures that was available from that era … in terms of how I wanted the movie to look and feel.
YOU DO SORT OF GIVE LIFE TO THE PHOTOS OF METALION, THE SCENE DOCUMENTARIAN.
It's incredible. Pre-mobile phones, they actually took a lot of pictures, these kids, which was great for me in terms of research.
YOU WERE ACTUALLY A MEMBER OF BATHORY FOR A SHORT TIME IN THE EIGHTIES. WERE YOU AT ANY OF THE EVENTS DEPICTED IN THIS MOVIE?
No, and, of course, I wish. The truth is that there wasn't that many people there. It was only like a handful of people that got a chance to see this classic moment. Most of it had happened in Norway. We were a few years earlier. We were in Sweden. I kind of left the scene for filmmaking pretty early.
YOU REALLY DO HUMANIZE THESE GUYS. THE MYTHOLOGY IS WELL DOCUMENTED. WHERE DID YOU LEARN ALL THE STORIES ABOUT THEM BEING HUMAN AND EMOTIONAL? WHO WAS TELLING YOU THAT STORY?
I do feel like there was a lot of information that we got by talking to people. We were in contact with Euronymous's parents, and we were in contact with Anders [Ohlin], which is [Mayhem vocalist] Pelle's brother. [Current Mayhem members] Necrobutcher and Hellhammer have been involved. … But it is also me taking a little bit of freedom by making a movie, and then it's, like, what actually happened. So I had to base my movie on all these [factual] things with the focus on trying to figure out an emotional angle that hasn't been seen before. We do know that Euronymous and Pelle had a really close relationship, and that he was very sad when he died. And we also know that he took those horrible pictures, which is really hard to figure out how he could have done that. How could you do that? We know for a fact that Faust killed that innocent man in the park, and it's really hard to understand why he did it, you know?
THE MOVIE DOESN'T REALLY GLORIFY THE EVIL ACTS OF THESE GUYS.
Well, I mean, my intentions was never to glorify this, because it is a very sad story. … I don't know, maybe it's because I have children myself, but I get reminded of how extremely young they were. And how driven they were. How can you get a 19-, 20-year-old to open a record store, open a label, record music and tour and burn down churches and killing people? It's like a lot a lot of work, you know? They were very young, ambitious, driven children. And I don't think there's any glamour in that. I think you respect them because they were such a strong characters and they were artists. They left an amazing art behind them. I work with advertising. It's like, you could pay an advertising agency millions, and they could never establish a brand that … 20 years later, I see people with Mayhem T-shirts at Disneyland. It's incredible what they actually achieved pre-internet.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST SCENE TO FILM?
We shot this movie in 18 days, which is a pretty extreme schedule. I don't remember it being that hard, because we were so extremely focused. Everybody on set knew exactly what they needed to do. Obviously, [to] build these churches and burn them down, that's technical stuff. And I said from the beginning that I didn't wanna have any CGI and I didn't want to do anything fake, so all the murder scenes are all old-school blood pumps and, like, a guy sitting, pumping blood, so it became a little technical. And, the final murder scene, in our 18-day schedule, we spent two full days on that last scene.
RORY SAID HE GOT A LITTLE BIT BEAT UP DURING THAT FINAL SCENE
Yeah, I know, and it was cold, too. We were in this staircase. It was really cold, and he was on that damn stone floor that was so cold. And all that fake blood, it's based on syrups. It's all sticky and it's horrible. It's horrible. Yeah, we tortured him that night for sure.
RORY WAS NOT THAT FAMILIAR WITH BLACK METAL GOING INTO THIS. DID YOU GIVE EVERYONE CRASH COURSES?
I mean, there was a lot of research material available for them. A lot of people that I've shown the movie to that didn't know anything about black metal, they all say the same thing. They all say that, "Oh, man, I got home after I saw your movie, and I spent, like, six hours in front of my computer. I couldn't believe what I found." There's a lot of stuff out there, and I think Rory, he probably read everything. I mean, he probably read more than I did at this point, he has been so into it. Jack [Kilmer, who plays Pelle "Dead" Ohlin] was a little bit more familiar with it. Skye [Ferreira, who plays photographer and Euronymous love interest Ann-Marit] was definitely more familiar with it, and she's the only musician in real life, but she didn't play an instrument in the movie. And a lot of the other background characters were also in direct contact. Sam [Coleman] was in contact with Metallion, and Anthony [De La Torre] was in contact with Hellhammer, so they all had their guy that they were in contact with, which was pretty cool.
The biggest thing was probably to learn the instruments. It may sound like it's a simple thing but I wanted it to look great. Anthony, who played the drums in the film, he's not a drummer. And Rory never held a guitar in his life, so that was a lot of rehearsal time.
AS A 53-YEAR-OLD WHOSE WORKED IN SO MANY CORNERS OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, WHAT ARE YOU MORE LIKELY TO PUT ON YOUR STEREO: A BLACK-METAL ALBUM OR A MADONNA ALBUM?
If that's the, the choice, I will probably do a black-metal album. But I would probably prefer a Black Sabbath album. [Laughs]