Sundance 2018 Interview: Rory Culkin, Sky Ferreira, Jack Kilmer, Director, Jonas Åkerlund, Producer, Danny Gabai, Talk LORDS OF CHAOS
There may be as many Mayhem fans anticipating the release of Jonas Åkerlund's Lords of Chaos, as there are devotees dreading the film. It may come as a total surprise to some to learn that there even exists such a thing as a Norwegian Black Metal movement as defined by the highly influential and most certainly controversial godfathers, Mayhem: an 'evil' band who caught the world's imaginations with their satanic extremity, sacrilegious brutality, and dissolution into unbelievable violence. Some believe it's a story that should not be cinematically realized, particularly, I'd imagine, those who were nearest to the boggling events. I'd think most are salivating at the thought of Jonas Åkerlund's Lords Of Chaos.
If you'd like to hear the thoughts of a long-time Mayhem appreciator, Noel Lawrence wrote a great knowing review shortly after the film's Sundance premiere. I arrived at the film from a different background. Metal is not my genre. I'm down, but it isn't where my musical passions lay. That said, I've always been a huge fan of extreme theatrics in rock and roll and the shock rock trajectory as laid out by horror outfits like Screaming Lord Sutch, or perhaps, The God of Hellfire, Arthur Brown, then carried on by Alice Cooper, belittled by KISS, and eventually pushed to its limits by Mayhem in ways that'd make Sutch faint... Mayhem was a band that practiced what they preached. What they preached was unflinching anarchy.
Non metalheads, aware of Mayhem's utterly insane story, seem to have mostly come across them via the many circulating documentaries. Those old enough to remember the events firsthand possibly first heard them through the news. My personal introduction to Mayhem came from reading Peter Bebergal's book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, where they are mentioned in passing. Yet my imagination was immediately captured by the band's brilliant penchant for radical publicity, their satanic take on entertainment, and the unbelievable outcome of the dark energies they vomited into the world.
This fascination alone was enough for me to schedule an interview with Lords of Chaos' director, Jonas Åkerlund, its producer, Danny Gabai, and cast members, Rory Culkin, Sky Ferreira, and Jack Kilmer, even though I wouldn't get to have a look at the film until later that night - midnight at Sundance, a deliciously unholy time of the year. What resulted was a great introductory conversation that I find especially rich having now seen and loved the film. For all of the reasons stated above - not to mention my devotion to the true crime genre - I expected to really like Chaos. I did not expect it to be one of my new favorite movies.
Had I seen the film prior to conducting this interview, our conversation would have centered around the unexpected insight and heart of the film, not to mention the incredible performances from its cast and the hyper-intelligent pacing of its storyteller. It's clearly a film that Jonas Åkerlund, who has deep roots in the scene that Mayhem bred, has been thinking about for a lot of his life. Nevertheless, I'm delighted to share this introduction to 2018's first midnight masterpiece.
What was your first impression of Mayhem? What was the first time you heard of Mayhem?
Jonas Åkerlund (JA): That was a long time ago. That was probably end of the 80s. Being from Sweden, we kind of knew about the Norwegian scene and all the bands over there. Mayhem was one of the sounds to be heard early on.
What was the first thing that intrigued you - that got under your skin or whatever?
JA: I do remember one thing really clearly, that was a little later because I just started to work with film and I started to travel a lot to Los Angeles and I saw - it must have been around '93, '94 - I saw the church burning on CNN in America. I remember really well how that spread all over the world that way.
By that point was Dead already dead? (Turning to Jack Kilmer, who plays 'Dead') How did you come to know about Mayhem?
Jack Kilmer (JK): It was probably through the Vice documentary, or another documentary that might have been Vice as well.
And your reaction?
JK: My reaction, well... Not to endorse any of their behavior, but I was a big fan. The music and the aesthetic. I had never seen anything like it. It was like a very intimate, very compelling story.
Rory, what was your introduction to Mayhem?
Rory Culkin (RK): The script. I was wasn't really aware of them.
And your gut response?
RC:'Holy shit! What is this? Who are these people? Why are they doing this?'
Were you appealed?
RC: Of course, really. Just like the first image I saw when I first got the script - it was a hard copy, and the first page had a picture of Euronymous in this skin corpse thing. Immediately, I was just like intrigued.Trying to figure out why he'd do it.
Were you guys into Shock Rock at all prior to this? Sky, perhaps you were? Wild guess.
Sky Ferreira (SF): Well it depends, what you mean really, but yes and no. You know, I kind of knew the story, but not that much. I do like it, but I'm glad I didn't listen to it when I was younger. I was listening to it while I was working out ...
It's inspiring? Gets the blood pumping?
SF: Yeah, I kind of liken it to an adrenaline rush.
What was your introduction to Mayhem?
Danny Gabai (DG): It was Thurston Moore, actually, when the Lords Of Chaos book was republished the first time, maybe like in 2003, 2004.
This was based on the book?
DG: It's one of many sources. We got the title from the book. Thurston wrote a review of the book in a 'zine that he was doing some writing for, in a magazine called "Author". I read about it in there. That was the first time I heard about it and I then slipped the documentary out there to a bunch of guys I worked with. Kind of went down a wormhole and really got into that one. And then there's also this kind of funny thing that happened around 2004 or 2005. There was this new wave of these bands that were very inspired by that first wave of New Age and Black Metal, bands like Zombie, Earth, and The Boy and the Sea, that brought quite a lot of trappings from that stuff. A lot of visuals and things like that. They started playing a lot of music festivals and things like that. Even Sun actually hired Mayhem's second singer who joined the band later on because his character passed away.
Jonas, I take it you've seen Mayhem live?
JA: Oh yeah.
When was your first Mayhem show?
JA: Actually, I did not see them back in the day. But they did very, very few shows. I didn't see them until later. But yeah I've seen them. They're actually touring still. I would say they're top of their game right now, actually.
So what would you say was the most shocking moment in Rock and Roll prior to Mayhem? Like Alice Cooper biting the head off of a chicken or something? What do you think?
JA: Maybe, I grew up with all that around me. You know, for me personally it was probably the Bound Sweet. They were... I can't even say what they did on the stage.
I saw them when I was like eleven with my mom and the stuff they did on stage was... It made Mayhem look pretty.
So, how would you describe the appeal? Why did it get under your skin and why did it sow the seeds for this film you would end up making?
JA: There's a lot of music in this film. The big appeal for me was actually the dreams, the struggle, the relationships of these boys. They started with a lot of enthusiasm and dreams, and an enormous drive and creativity. And then following them, just taking these wrong decisions in life and having this really sad ending. I tried to figure out why, because they didn't really have an excuse for it - they grew up in a safe environment in a wealthy country. So that, to me, was the biggest appeal of it. The look of it, the mayhem, and the music is kind of more of how we dressed this film, but the real core of the film is something else.
Right. I mean, they were just a couple of young boys - especially in those bizarre early days...
JA: Yeah, they were a group of young boys that kind of affected each other with this type of music. I think we can all identify with those moments when we know, we kind of are happy we took the right decisions in life. We know there are friends who did not make the right decisions. These guys definitely went down the wrong path.
What's an example of a day or moment on set when you were like, "What am I doing here?" Thinking out loud, "What is happening?"
RC: When we were burning the churches. At the end of the day. I think I was wrapped, but the church was still burning and I was like, 'Can I just stay and watch this?' Just that moment of 'I'm at work right now burning this church cause that's my job.'
JA: I thought you were going to say, when the extras were eating the pig ears.
When what now?
JA: When the extras were eating the pig head.
RC: Oh yeah...
SF: The pig heads had been sitting out, too.
JK: They had real pig heads on stage. They threw them into the audience and enthusiastic extras just tore it up with their mouths.
Oh, I see. That wasn't necessarily something you had directed.
JK: It was captured.
JA: It actually happened in real life, and we had pictures of when it happened, and we had really good extras and they were very enthusiastic... It actually happened, yeah. It's in the movie, so you'll see it.
Perfect! Did you feel any pressure in bringing this story that is so near and dear to so many people to the big screen? What was the biggest challenge?
JA: Of course, that is a very sensitive story. And a lot of people almost feel like they own this story, they feel like they were really close to it. In reality, not that many people are close to it. Somehow people are still emotionally attached to it. We tried to be respectful, especially to the people that were there, the people that died, and all the relatives and all that.
Why do you think that is? What do you think Mayhem meant to people?
JA: I think in a weird way it means more to people now actuality - to the young generation - than it did back then. It think it's something that's been growing over the years. But it is a big mystery to me why this story is so important to people. This story happens today around the world. Young kids doing stupid things. But this specific story has stuck with people.
JK: It is very scary to a lot of people - scandalous - and can have this sort of magnetic quality to it as well, and people connect to it, I think actually, in a very spiritual context - Very deep and they love to wander around in the forest and shit like that.
They're philosophical about their Satanism.
JA: It represented purity, you know, they never got to grow up.
SF: Also, they started their own genre. They started doing book readings. On their own.
DG: That's true, so they've got the innovation thing. They created their own philosophy on life that completely tied into the art they were making. I think there was this kind of idea of their art and their life as a total art form - not breaking from it. But then when you also got on top of that, you have the layers of the guys that were actually starting it and creating it and, I think, looking at it as path to make their art, make noise and ultimately bring attention to themselves, and be famous.
I think that is a constant thing you see with various characters - not wanting to sell out, wanting to be on the outside, but then when somebody gets a little taste of fame, and really goes, "What's that like being famous?" I think it kind of gets to the heart of who these guys actually were. But then, that layer on top of it, of kind of a spoiled generation of super fans, that took what they were saying too literally; taking what the first generation was preaching and going hard core with it. Varg's character, too, I think maybe took his philosophy much more seriously than everyone else at the start.
I don't know that they were necessarily followers of Aleister Crowley in the sense that they were Satanists like a lot of Crowley disciples were, but there was that element of "do what thou wilt".
JA: They were all over the place with their beliefs anyway. You'll see that in the movie, too. We're almost making fun of them, but I don't think Satan has anything to do with anything they did. That was a cool image to have.
Maybe in the sense that the Hardcore Punks wore swastikas to communicate "Down with morality."?
JA: I would probably say that any Punk Rockers were more political than any of these Black Metal kids were.
JK: You see it really well in the movie. These guys were looking for anything that's going to push more records out there, get more fans, make more noise, and make them seem more evil, because it will get them more attention. It's the combination of what they were doing back then and the amplification of time and distance and the actions that actually occurred around them. It made people 25 to 28 years later go, "These guys actually were Satanists. These guys actually were cannibals." They were doing whatever they were doing and over time these stories would get told again and again, to the point that it gets hard to pull the urban legend apart from what was maybe for show or for attention.
Do you appreciate that aspect of the story? The myth having a life of its own?
JA: It's one of the reasons why we want to tell the story.
To set the record straight? Or, because you're so fascinated by this?
No, I think that's impossible, especially with all the years and all the different perspectives of this story. That's why at the beginning of the movie we have that "it's based on truths and lies". I don't think anybody, even the people that were there, could tell you today what really happened.
As for the people that were there, have they seen your film yet?
Are you nervous, maybe not nervous, but curious? Is this on your mind at all?
JA: I'm proud of what we did. I think this is, like I say, our perspective of this story, and no matter whatever anyone says, I'm still proud of the film. And it's turned out the way I wanted it to. I know that people are going to have opinions about it, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
What was your favorite day of the shoot? The one you'll take with you to your dying day.
JA: I don't know. There's a lot of them. Coming to Norway finally, after shooting in Budapest for forty days and actually seeing the locations - where Euronymous actually lived - was very special. To see the stairs where he got killed. You know, just really being there was something that was very powerful for most of us, very emotional.
Rory, how did that feel for you?
RC: Strange standing there, laying where he laid. I got to go down to the Black Metal basement. There's still a Black Metal mural on the wall. Euronymous' workout station, he had a little bench press.
I wouldn't have wanted to go there. Certainly not at the time.