The upcoming movie Lords of Chaos tackles one of the bloodiest and most infamous stories in rock history, the circle of disaffected young Norwegians surrounding Nineties black-metal band Mayhem. Their short bout of international notoriety left behind a trail of dead bodies and burned churches, but also indelible iconography and highly influential music.
Directed by former Bathory drummer and sometime Madonna music video director Jonas Åkerlund, the controversial film (based on the 1997 nonfiction book of the same name) stars Rory Culkin (yes, he's Macaulay's younger brother) as ringleader Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth, who co-founded Mayhem as a teenager and would be murdered at age 25 by bandmate and Burzum main man Varg Vikernes. Culkin — whose best-known work includes childhood roles in early aughts films like M. Night Shyamalan's Signs and Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me — plays the character not as the malevolent, haunting, corpse-painted scowler of the era's many black-and-white photographs, but as a conflicted, scared, fucked-up music fan whose innovation got out of his control. Alongside co-stars Emory Cohen (Vikernes) and Sky Ferreira (photographer and love interest Ann-Marit), Culkin delivers a performance that provides a more nuanced and less glorified look at one of the most infamous moments in metal history.
WHAT WAS YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF BLACK METAL GOING INTO THIS ROLE?
RORY CULKIN I didn't know much about it, honestly. I knew about the church burnings and stuff 'cause it made its way all around the world on the news. … Honestly, I wasn't a big metalhead, you know, as far as screaming and shit like that. I'm more into like Deep Purple and Jefferson Airplane and things like that, so it took a bit of, uh, adjusting.
WHAT WAS YOUR CRASH COURSE FOR LEARNING ABOUT IT?
I met with Jonas Åkerlund many times to discuss these guys. I watched all the documentaries, read all the books and all of that. But what was most revealing to me is these guys took a lot of photos of each other, and so I just have hundreds of photos of Euronymous. And I separate them into two groups. There's ones where he's posing, he knows the camera's on him, and he's making evil faces, he's trying to be scary, and then there's the photos where he's in the background or just candids. He doesn't know he's getting his picture taken, and he's like giggling and laughing and he's just like a kid. So I'm trying to just piece him together through photographs.
THE MOVIE DOES SHOW HIM AS THIS MULTIFACETED PERSON, AS OPPOSED TO JUST BUYING INTO THE MYTHOLOGY.
Yeah. I mean, as cool as the legends are, I think it would be a mistake to just play into that. I'd been attached for four or five years, so I've seen many versions of the script and there was one, early on, that was just mythology. It was just like they were legends, and it just didn't feel right. As cool as the aesthetics are in the genre, what they were doing was not cool, and I think it would just be a disservice to try to glorify all of the terrible things these guys did.
WOULD YOU CALL YOURSELF A BLACK-METAL FAN AT THIS POINT?
Well, I mean, I obviously have a soft spot for Mayhem now. I had to learn maybe like 11 of their songs. A song sounds different when you know sort of how to play it. It's more exciting. So, yeah, I bust out "Freezing Moon" and stuff every once in a while. But, actually, unfortunately, Varg is the one that made the best music. Not the greatest guy, but some of his music is really beautiful.
DID YOU HAVE ANY GUITAR EXPERIENCE BEFORE GOING INTO THIS?
Not really. But luckily black-metal guitars, it's a lot of just thrashing, so it was more about attrition than technique. Just more about building up my forearm strength. [Laughs]
DID THEY HAVE GUITAR TEACHERS FOR YOU?
We had this Hungarian black-metal band [Bornholm], they were there whenever we needed them. We did, you know, six days a week, but the one day off we had would be in the music studio learning. There's a lot of bloody fingers by the end, a lot of scabs all over the hands. Healed up now though, all good.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR WRIST?
You look at photos of Euronymous, and that was something I was trying to measure — like, did this guy work out? There are photos where he looks like sort of scrawny and then there are photos where he looks muscular and I'm like, What the fuck? Do I work out or not? I noticed the one common thing was like, his right forearm was always solid. It was like, OK, it's just a lot of guitar playing, and so I just worked the forearms constantly. It was a lot of hanging on scaffoldings and stuff.
DID YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE BROODING?
[Laughs] Uh, yeah, silly as that sounds, I did. Talking to these black-metal dudes or consultants, it's funny how a big part of it is, "Look at yourself in the mirror," is what they would say. And it sounds like kind of silly, you know. These guys, they have long hair and they wear makeup, but they're ultra-masculine, and then for them to say, "Pose in the mirror," it's just ... I mean the whole genre's sort of a head-scratcher. There's a lot of posing and then trying to look a certain way, trying to look like their definition of cool.
IS THERE A PHYSICAL ELEMENT TO JUST HAVING TO BROOD FOR A DAY'S SHOOT?
It becomes fun once you refer to yourself as the devil, once you keep saying, "I am Satan." I was always sort of curious, like why does this genre draw people in? I think some people like the idea of taking control of things that are scary. It's like why a lot of people love horror movies. It's because you're turning death into something fun. Something that's out of our control is suddenly fun and you can grow up and be afraid of Satan or you can declare that you are Satan and, suddenly, Satan isn't very scary.
DID YOU MEET ANYONE IN THE INNER CIRCLE OR GET ADVICE FROM ANY OF THEM?
Attila [Csihar, Mayhem's current vocalist] came to set for the church-burning scenes and I hung out with Attila and met his family. Hanging out with Attila, I got to really see how he's such a good guy in person and then you see him perform and he's terrifying and ... that's real theater. I was worried that they would look at us actors and think, "Look at these softies," but when he was on set I got a sense that he really respected what we were doing. He saw the performance element and, as scary as these dudes are, they do respect good theater because that's what they produce.
HOW LONG WERE YOU IN NORWAY?
You know, we shot most of it in Budapest, Hungary, and then we did maybe a couple of days in Norway, like two or three days for exteriors and for the churches and things like that. We burned churches down in Budapest because it would be probably too offensive to go back to Norway, build churches and then burn 'em down. In Budapest they were shooting Blade Runner 2049. They just wrapped and, I guess they used the set from Blade Runner to build the churches, so we were burning down the set of Blade Runner in the movie.
WITH THOSE THREE DAYS IN NORWAY, DID YOU GET A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF THE COUNTRY AS A BREEDING GROUND FOR THIS TYPE OF DISCONTENT?
The big takeaway from Norway for me was just how pleasant everything is. The people, the landscape and even the language is upbeat. This is a very positive place, so it just sort of enhanced the contrast between these kids and where they grew up. They really had no excuse to do this stuff and they had everything going. I hope [the film] doesn't come across like we're glorifying them, you know.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE DOING A SEX SCENE IN CORPSE PAINT?
[Laughs] Uh, you know, it was fine with me. It's more of a question for Sky, you know. She had to look at me.
WHAT WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING SCENE FOR YOU TO FILM?
I guess the scene that I wasn't totally sure about was the final scene where, you know, Varg comes to my apartment and confronts Euronymous. I just didn't know how that was going to play out. When we first started shooting it, Emory came busting into the apartment. Emory just had this like intensity to him and was just staring through me. And, I was like, oh shit, I better pick up the pace here because Emory's taken off. And then as soon as he pulls out a blade, I think the scene started to get going and we really had a lot of momentum, I ended that night with bruises all over my body.
DID YOU GET THE BRUISES FROM THE STUMBLING OR THE STABBING?
I didn't tell him, but, yeah, Emory really beat the shit out of me that day. [Laughs]