Jonas Akerlund on "Personal" Heavy Metal Thriller 'Lords of Chaos'

Jonas Akerlund — P 2018

The 52-year-old music video director from Stockholm discusses his first "real movie," about the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem.

Jonas Akerlund is used to the life of pop superstardom — the music video director from Stockholm has a client list that includes Madonna, U2, Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Taylor Swift — but for his new film, Lords of Chaos, the 52-year-old helmer drew on his rock roots as a drummer in Bathory, a seminal 1980s Swedish band that pioneered black metal, an extreme heavy metal subgenre featuring shrieking vocals, lightning fast guitars and stage shows dripping in satanic imagery.

Chaos, which Akerlund also co-wrote with Dennis Magnusson, is based on the real-life story of Mayhem, a Norwegian black metal band whose members took talk of creating “chaos, suffering and death” literally, carrying out a series of church burnings and murders. Rory Culkin stars as Mayhem founder Euronymous, a would-be “Lord of Chaos” who isn’t beyond using the suicide of the band’s frontman, Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), for marketing purposes. He meets his match in Varg (Emory Cohen), a onetime fan turned bandmember who is determined to do whatever it takes — including arson and murder — to prove he is a more authentic black metal musician. 

Lords of Chaos premiered at Sundance and is being sold at AFM by Gunpowder & Sky.

This is your fourth feature, but is it fair to say that Lords of Chaos is the closest to your heart?

Absolutely. In many ways, Lords of Chaos is my first real movie. I went deeper with this film than any of my other movies. I approached my other films like I did my music videos or commercials, like jobs. But Lords of Chaos I wrote myself, and it’s a close, personal story. I know these people. All my best friends are still in the metal scene. Per was a friend. We were all shocked when he committed suicide. When the news of the church burnings came out, in 1993, I was already living in Los Angeles, but we all knew who was behind them. It took the police a lot longer to find out. I’ve been trying to get this movie made for a very long time — I’ve been pitching it around Hollywood for years.

Why did it take so long to get made?

Well, I always knew this was a hard sell. It still is to be honest. It's asking a lot from an audience. It's a very dark story but I find it hard to have a story about music and young kids without adding humor. So it's really funny but it's definitely not a comedy. It has some horror elements —I tried to make the murder scenes as authentic and as close to real life as I could, reading the police reports for details—but it's definitely not a horror movie. The tone of the movie is all over the place but when you see it, it comes together. In the end I think of it more of a relationship drama, its really about the story, almost the love story, between these characters. 

On one level, it’s the age-old story of a band and the conflict between the purist, Varg, and the careerist, Euronymous.

Yeah, it’s Spinal Tap all over again.

Euronymous and Varg are in many ways very ordinary kids. What sends them down the dark path?

I think what changed everything was Per’s suicide. When Euronymous found his body, instead of calling the police, he ran out and bought a disposable camera and took pictures. It was quite a while before the picture became accessible — I hate that picture, by the way; it’s online, but I think it should be taken down — but there were rumors: Did Euronymous really take a bite of his brain? Did he really make amulets from his skull fragments? I think that picture made him immune. Afterward, he could do anything, and burning down a church didn’t seem so crazy. I mean, they burned down like 50 churches in Norway, ancient, centuries-old churches.

The shocking thing seems that this happened in Norway, peaceful, wealthy Norway.

Yeah, young boys doing stupid things and taking wrong turns in life, that story is not so unique. But the setting is unique. These aren't kids in a Brazilian favela. They're not drug addicts or abused as children. They're not poor. They've got no excuses for doing what they did. But they are also incredibly driven, ambitious kids. I mean, they ran a record store, they recorded albums, they toured. And they found time to burn churches and kill people.

In the film, you note Varg’s far-right political leanings — he has a Nazi flag on the wall of his room — but that’s not central to the story.

I think back then, in 1993, Varg and the others were playing around with symbols — he had a Nazi flag, an upside-down cross, Euronymous had a picture of Stalin in his room — but I don’t think they had a political agenda at all. Not then. It was only after a few years in prison that Varg really got political. And now, of course, he’s out of the closet as a full-blown Nazi.

What’s your opinion of musicians and artists speaking out politically, like Taylor Swift has done recently?

I think anyone with a voice should use it. I think a lot of people could, and should, do a lot more. The guys in U2, whom I work with a lot, have a very open political agenda. Madonna does so much more than she ever talks about, which I think makes her more genuine and real in her work and in her life. With my own work, I’ve always tried at least to wake people up and shake them out of their complacency. And that’s always easier if I’m working with an artist who really has something to say.

How about closer to home? Are you teaching your kids the joys of true Norwegian black metal?

I do force them to head-bang in the car sometimes. My son is pretty good at it. But the girls these days are much more into ABBA. Blame Mamma Mia.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 3 daily issue at the American Film Market.