rory culkin on the black metal biopic dubbed “one of the most controversial films ever made”
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, this isn’t.
Formed in Norway in 1984, and recognised as the most influential black metal band of all time, Mayhem are a group whose story has, over the years, grown so big it’s often seemed in danger of swallowing them up entirely.
Arson, extremism, suicide and inter-band murder -- and all that before of the release of 1994 debut album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas -- the band’s history often obscures the genuine thrills of its classic early line-up; 1987’s Deathcrush EP kickstarting a global phenomenon that continues to recruit disciples till this day.
The basis of a new feature film by music video director Jonas Åkerlund, Lords of Chaos succeeds where most other depictions have failed, balancing the brutal, sensationalist, church-burning frenzy of the early-90s, with the story of a bunch of kids who happened to form a truly groundbreaking band (nonetheless earning the description as “one of the most controversial films ever made” by the Telegraph).
In theatres from Friday, we spoke to star Rory Culkin about the humour, turmoil and friendship of playing Øystein Aarseth, better known as the band’s late founder and guitarist Euronymous.
What first attracted you to the part of Euronymous?
The fact that there’s this extreme story and if you strip it down the “masterminds” were just kids. That was interesting to me. Sort of how would we approach this, you know? Do you lean into the legend or the truth? I was just interested to be a part of that and try to help make that decision.
How much did you know of the story before?
I mean, I knew Mayhem and Burzum and I knew the story of Euronymous and Varg [the band’s former bass player] and Dead [its singer]. But no, I mean not too much. I remember being a little kid and seeing the burning churches on the news and things like that. That's the first thing that popped into my mind. Like, oh, it’s these guys. Then I met Jonas and I did my studying.
Jonas Åkerlund obviously has such history with that scene, as a member of Swedish black metal band Bathory in the early 1980s… How much was he able to impart on you in terms of what that world was like?
I mean, he was the director and also a consultant. There's a music video -- I believe it’s the first music video he ever directed -- by Candlemass, and Dead makes an appearance in it. So, you know, he hung out these guys, and its captured right there. It's really amazing video. I don't know how he feels about it now. But after I had first met with him and watched that video, I started falling in love with this story and these guys in this setting.
And thinking of those conversations with Jonas, how did you and he decide on who's version of the story to tell? As you say, did you decide to lean into the legend or the truth?
I think the most truthful way to approach it, or the middle ground, was to do this version of them as kids, but where they're pushing out the legend, you know? So, sort of looking behind the curtain a little bit. What's interesting about these guys is that a lot of them seem to have different definitions of what Norwegian black metal was. At least, at first, it wasn't very consistent. I think it meant different things to different people. I'm sure it still does. But it seemed like they were finding their legs.
Do you think there’s something in the Scandinavian or in the Norwegian psyche that meant black metal happened in that part of the world?
I mean that's sort of the big question for me. They seem to have pretty great lives. It's a lovely country with great people. And maybe the knock could be that it’s sort of sterilised or something? I don't know. Teenagers are always going to find a way to rebel, right? I'm from New York City and it's a very liberal place. Growing up, the way people would try to rebel would be by becoming more conservative, you know? Trying to piss off their liberal parents. And this is obviously a very extreme form of rebellion.
"I think it would have been wrong to lean into the legend of Euronymous. He was a real boy, and I wanted to express that."
What I really like about the movie is how among the rebellion, and among the kind of pain and anger and disgust and turmoil of the scene, there’s so much friendship and joy in the story. How did you decide to bring those lighter moments in?
I think it just sort of came naturally. I mean, it's kind of funny that these guys would scream and try to scare kids and old ladies. You know, you wouldn't want to see that walking down the street but there's an element of humour. And I didn't want to lean into that too much, I just felt like that was going to come naturally. As long as I took everything very seriously, it would work. You know, to me, part of the humour was how seriously they took themselves.
Did you speak to anyone else from the scene at the time?
Yeah, I spoke to a few people. I spoke to one of their girlfriends at the time. That was the most interesting thing to me, speaking to the girls that were around that scene. I was very curious about that from the start. Like, were these guys getting laid all the time? This is fascinating to me because, you know, you wonder about the sex, drugs and rock and roll elements but there didn't seem to be a lot of drugs. And I'm still sort of murky on the sex part too. I mean, I guess that’s just the purity of it. That they were just rock and roll. But, yeah, I found it most interesting speaking to the girls around the scene and sort of having them do impressions of these guys. When they would bring up Hellhammer [Mayhem’s former drummer] they would still swoon. It’s interesting. And reinforced all of those ideas, of the sexy drummer and the strange Varg.
And where do you stand on Euronymous? Was the image all to shock?
I mean, I would like to think that it was it was promotion. There’s one audio interview with Euronymous. And he’s speaking Norwegian but it’s clear, at least to me it's pretty clear that he's putting on a voice. He's playing a part. So that was kind of revealing. And also looking at photographs, when he's looking into the camera he's trying to look scary, and when he's caught off-guard he looks like a sweetheart. These are real people and, you know, he had parents who lost their son at a very young age. I think it would have been wrong, again, to lean into the legend of him. He was a real boy, and I wanted to express that.
With that in mind, were there any scenes that were harder than others to film?
I mean, his final moments. That was rough. I did the obvious research for this film, you know, reading books and watching documentaries, getting photos and speaking with people that were there. But then I also got my hands on a police report. And seeing the picture of him after he was murdered was rough. Seeing him in his pyjamas, with his haircut. It hits you hard. It was a rough night.
What is the story of the film for you?
I mean there’s so many different elements to it. Because I play Euronymous, I sort of selfishly look at it from that point of view. So it's about a young man who really ran with an art form. And he couldn't hold onto it. Actually, I just brought a friend of mine to a screening. And he was like, it’s as if Paul McCartney and John Lennon killed each other before the Beatles took off. You know what I mean? Because the genre was more extreme, that became part of it. They let it pick up speed and momentum and extremities. And it just got out of hand.
Lords of Chaos is released in UK theatres on the 29th of March.