Lords Of Chaos, the feature film surrounding the grim story of Mayhem and Norwegian Black Metal, opened in select theaters this weekend to mostly rave reviews. As an avid follower of the events that occurred in Norway throughout the early 90's and fan of world renown director, Jonas Akerlund, it was a pleasure to sit with him on opening day.
We discussed the film, the book from which it spawns from, Mayhem's support, his response to Varg, the challenges of making a big studio release about black metal, his days playing in Bathory, being a metal head in hollywood and so much more! Read it below, or jump to the bottom for the audio via YouTube.
Frank Godla: Frank here with Jonas Akerlund. Jonas, it's a pleasure and an honor to be here with you today.
Jonas Akerlund: Thank you.
Frank Godla: We're here today to talk about your latest movie Lords of Chaos, which was inspired by the book of the same name. Naturally, it was something that I read when it was first released and certainly had an impact on me as a teenager and black metal fan in America. As someone who was much closer to the events in the story, what was your impression of the book and how did that influence the film that you eventually made decades later?
Jonas Akerlund: Well, thanks for having me, first. Thank you. And well, I got the book right when it came out. My brother gave it to me as a gift. And to be honest, I read it, but I didn't pay much attention to it. Even before the book came out, this story had already caught my attention and I, was already touched by it and I already in a weird way felt close to it. So the book was just like, I didn't criticize it as much as a lot of other people did. I just thought it was like a book, and I read the Bathory part, and I thought there was a lot of things that was wrong and I was like, "Whatever." It stayed on my shelf and it's kind of still there.
Decades later, I realized that this story had stayed with me and as many others, I thought that this story was more important to me than anybody else. I thought that I own it. Nobody should touch it. It's mine. You know, and I realized that a lot of other people think that too. You know, it's one of those stories that just stays with you in a weird way. Once I got over that, I started thinking that this could actually potentially be a movie. I saw the documentaries, I read all the other books and there was a lot of darkness, a lot of fires and corpse makeup and demon voices that described a story. And I thought that maybe there's a way to tell this story where we remind the audience that these were very young children, and that this story is kind of sad. You know, so I thought that there was another perspective that have not been told yet.
Frank Godla: That makes a lot of sense. And I heard that this was a story that you wanted to tell for many years. What actually took so long to finally get there and why is now the time?
Jonas Akerlund: I think it's a combination of me maturing and getting confidence enough to write it, eventually. And then me also letting go of a few things and just trying to focus on making this into a movie… And then the other part of it is like a practical, boring part of it, which is it's a really hard movie to get made. It was very hard to find any sort of partner or financing or just getting it done has been an extreme uphill production for 10 years. You asked me about timing and I'm actually happy I didn't make this movie 10 years ago or even five years ago. I feel like, obviously it's a timeless story and it's been important for a lot of people for a long time, but I feel like it needed to breathe a little bit, and now it's been doing that for several years and I feel like now is the time to remind us of what happened and also introduce it to a new, young audience that didn't know about this story.
Frank Godla: And you did mention that there was some uphill battles and getting the project financed and whatnot. Did that have anything to do with the difficulty of trying to explain to Hollywood producers what black metal is?
Jonas Akerlund: Yes and no. I remember the first meeting I did with this, I went into one of the big agencies in Hollywood with some pictures of Norwegian black metal and corpse make up and it literally took five minutes before they showed me the door. But I think, I mean, obviously it's a very dark story. Dark stories are always hard to make, you know, unless it's a horror movie, and this is obviously not a horror movie. It's kind of a drama, but then it does have kind of comedic moments and the script kinda builds in a very untraditional way. You know, so it's hard to compare it to any other movie.
So all these things just makes it hard. You know, anybody who puts up financing, want to know what it is and want to understand it, and preferably have seen it before in something else. And this movie didn't really have any good references.
Frank Godla: Well, I've seen the film and I think it's terrific. As someone who grew up fascinated by the story, I wound up doing a bunch of research on my own through the years, and even went "blackpacking", through Norway, visiting the sites. And despite knowing what was going to happen each step of the way, the film is just so captivating and well done that it really did pique my interest throughout the whole thing, both as a metal head and a movie lover, which really begs the question, who was your target audience for this film?
Jonas Akerlund: I mean, I always thought that this story is appealing to a bigger audience than just a metal fans. And I feel like this story translates into so many different things in so many different lives and worlds, and we've kind of seen this movie before, if you think about it. You know, in the Favelas in Brazil, we see young kids doing stupid things and shoot each other and kill each other, and we've seen it in the suburbs of London, and we've seen it in the ghettos in Italy, and we've kind of seen it before.But it is a story that this one doesn't really have any excuses for all the stuff that they did. Um, and of course I wanted to get a, some sort of approval for black metal scene. I have a huge respect for a lot of people that was there of course in a lot of people that care about this story. My goal was always to reach a bigger audience and to have people being touched over it, even if you have no clue what black metal is or doesn't even know about this story. You know, and I've met a lot of people who have seen the movie now at festivals that didn't know anything about it, and most of them end up in front of the computer afterwards, googling for hours and can't believe what they find online. So I think it works, it translates pretty well.
Frank Godla: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. And kind of in the same vein, when you wound up meeting with the cast, were any of them familiar with the story or fans of black mental beforehand?
Jonas Akerlund: I mean, it's a young cast and Jack Kilmer was actually probably the one … And Sky was also like into the story, and she knew the story. Jack loves the music. But I think, yeah, I think all of them had to, especially Rory and Emory, they really had to go deep into the research. And I helped them, and obviously my script, I did a lot of research just to put the script together, and we even had a picture script with all this … Every scene you read, there was pictures attached to it, because back then, keep in mind pre-internet, pre-mobile phones, they were really good at documenting everything they did. So I don't know how many Kodak disposable cameras they burned, but there's so many great pictures that we could use for inspiration and there's interviews and there's other documentaries and there's the books and there's police reports and there's a lot of material for us to work with.
Frank Godla: Now, I'm not sure how true this is, but I heard early on that Necrobutcher was against you having rights to Mayhem's music for the film. And at some point I know that you definitely wound up getting support from the band, and even had Attila's son make an appearance in the movie. What happened internally to make amends and changed their minds?
Jonas Akerlund: It's not true. They were never against it. So that's been a rumor from day one. But it was a process for me to not convince them but to describe to them what I was going to do. And especially with Euronymous's parents that have the rights to the music. I had to … I couldn't make this movie without the music. That was never an option for me. So early on I was involved with talking to Euronymous's parents, Pelle's brother, Anders, Necrobutcher, and Hellhammer and all those people that was involved. There's a lot of credits on all of these songs, there was a lot of people involved writing the music. So, all of them has been on board from day one.
I never asked for any Burzum music or any other music. Mayhem was the music I really needed. But there was never a no, there was never they didn't want to do it, but there was a balance for me to keep them involved and at the same time, kind of making my movie, and kind of making them understand that this is my perspective and this is … And it was awkward at times because it's like I'm making a movie about you, but you can't be involved, but I want you involved, but not really. It was like a balance, and I think it took a little while to build respect between us. And right now I feel really good about it because the movie is coming out and everybody is very proud of the movie. So that means a lot to me.
Frank Godla: Speaking of Burzum naturally, there's at least one person out there who really hates the film. And as you probably know, Varg has been very outspoken about, you know, how the film is a character assassination. What are your feelings on that?
Jonas Akerlund: Well, I mean, it's very expected, of course. And I'm happy he's spending so much time on it and talking about it. It's good for him, but I feel like that's … It makes me a little sad because that means that he's thinking a lot about it and I wish that he could watch it and I wish that he could, you know, try to watch it from taking a step aside and watch it. But, I don't think that's going to happen. And I understand him too. You know, somebody is making a movie out of his life and he's not involved. I get it. I understand that that's an awkward situation, and maybe not be the best situation. But he's also been very outspoken about his perspective of this story, and he told in detail so many times. And he's done more interviews than anybody else in the scene. So I had a lot of material to build from a when I wrote the script. And a lot of it is a very close to what he said, you know? And of course he can have opinion about how the actors look and this is wrong and that is wrong. And that's fine. I would probably have the same problem if somebody just out of the blue made a movie out of me, you know, so …
Frank Godla: Back in 2014, it was a kind of metal news that you had purchased a church which caused some confusion. Did that church actually come in handy during the filming of Lords of Chaos?
Jonas Akerlund: Unfortunately not. I wish. But I still have it. I still have it in Stockholm, and it's been under renovation for a time and it's … Yeah, it's a fun project.
Frank Godla: So it's strictly just a renovation project?
Jonas Akerlund: Yeah, I mean it's pretty big and it was in very bad condition when I bought it. So we've been trying to save it and, yeah, fix it up.
Frank Godla: Now, you've done so well for yourself in the world of film and music videos, but it's well known in underground metal that you started off by playing drums in Bathory. Do you still play at all?
Jonas Akerlund: No I don't. But I've been starting to think about it a little bit, because I kind of like … When I discovered film editing, I also hand in hand with that, I discovered that I'm a much better film editor than I ever was a drummer. And a film editing and putting together images with music and sound came very natural for me in a way drumming never did. Drumming was a struggle for me. So I kinda just put it aside completely. And I was always the guy in the band that made a logo and came up with the outfits or whatever, the backdrop. I was always the guy that took care of the look of the band, and that's eventually what became my job. And I still do it up to this day, you know, music videos and working together with band visually is what I do. I don't … I haven't missed playing drums for years, but the last few years I've been actually thinking about it a little bit.
Frank Godla: But I imagine that you still listened to metal, right? Were you guys maybe listening to any black metal during the filming?
Jonas Akerlund: Yeah, I mean obviously there's a lot of metal in the film, but it's, it's three parts. In the beginning of the film, there's a lot of songs that they listened to during this era, which is probably closer to my roots, you know, where the Sabbath and the Dio and Accept and the whole … Especially the English scene for me, with Diamond Head, and Samson, and Maiden, like all those bands, that's the music I grew up with. And then of course in the film, we also have all the music that they played it, which is the Mayhem music. And then we also had a film score in the film, which is done by Sigur Rós, The Icelandic band, which I didn't have this emotional, kind of like more cinematic music. So they scored the film, which is a beautiful score. But I'm definitely a metal head. I mean I will always listened to metal. Not so much black metal, but the last few years more than I've done in a long time because of the movie.
Frank Godla: I read years ago that you decided to leave Bathory before the debut album came out because it got too serious, which always made me wonder, do you feel as though directing and working in film is less serious than drumming?
Jonas Akerlund: No, but I'm also older now so I have to be serious. It took me a long time before I realized that filmmaking is what I do for a living now. No, I dunno if that's the real reason why I left Bathory. I think Quorthon was such an amazing creative force. He was always going to go this way with or without me. And Fredric, who played the bass, we knew that he was just going to take off and do his thing. And I think the main reason why I stopped was discovering film editing.
Frank Godla: Outside of your work in films like Lords of Chaos. You have a really heavy hand in the world of pop culture creating videos for Madonna, The Prodigy, and even a new incredible film Polar, which was just released on Netflix, which all seem to carry this really dark aesthetic. Do you feel as though heavy metal plays an important role in your style of movie making?
Jonas Akerlund: I mean, yeah, yeah, I think so. I mean, it's always there, you know, and I know I have a pretty broad spectrum in what I do in films. But I've been like that from day one, I'm always fueled by doing different types of things, working with different types of artists and different types of clients and different countries. And that's what makes it interesting and fun for me. So for me to go from one extreme to another, it's very creatively challenging and what takes me to new places. I used to be a snob, I used to turn down stuff because I personally didn't like it or because I thought it was cheesy or whatever. And then I started to open my mind and said yes to stuff. And that opened so many doors for me creatively. And I just realized that you don't necessarily have to love the music that you work with or … There has to be a respect and there has to be an ambition level for me to get excited, but it doesn't have to be my music all the time. Once in a while I'm lucky to work with some of my favorite artists, but it doesn't necessarily have to be like that for me to perform and do well.
Frank Godla: And you've done a lot with it. Jonas, thank you so much for being here to talk to me today. Guys, Lords of Chaos in select theaters out today. Get your ass out there and see it. And if you haven't already, Polar is available on Netflix right now. Check it out.
Jonas Akerlund: Thanks. Thank you.
Lords of Chaos is playing in theaters now. Get listings here.