Marked by interfactional fighting and a string of murders, suicides and arson attacks, the violence surrounding the foundation of the Norwegian black metal scene and its notorious “Black Circle” of insiders is one of the most infamous episodes in the history of underground music. Over the years, the story has been analysed, mythologised and personalised by both the protagonists, those around them and people across the world who have become attached and obsessed with the legend.

The case was examined in the 1998 book Lords of Chaos: the Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, a tome that serves as part of the source material for Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund’s dark and violent film adaptation, Lords of Chaos, which is about to see Australian big-screen release on February 22. Like the book, the film has won its fair share of controversy, especially from figures within the scene who have claimed it to be full of lies, and the widely-seen trailer was condemned for showing the subject matter to be awkward and trite. On the eve of the film’s screen debut, we interviewed Åkerlund about the challenges of making a movie with a story that resonates so deeply with so many.

Thanks for your time, Jonas. Let’s talk about this fantastic new film you’ve made, Lords of Chaos. It’s been a little controversial already with a few people close to the source material who have said that it’s a load of rubbish!

Well, yes and no. There’s like a black metal attitude that’s been going on, that I kind of like expected them to have. But a lot of people that are actually very close to the scene did not feel the same. The important people to me, making this movie, were involved from the beginning. There’s been a lot of rumours about who was supporting and who wasn’t, but I never really paid attention to it because Necrobutcher and Hellhammer and Euronymous’ parents and Per (Ohlin)’s brother were supportive from Day One. I needed them not only out of respect, but I needed to get the rights to the music and all that stuff, and they were on board from Day One. I never had a problem with them, and that was the only thing that really mattered to me. I was expecting everything else! It was exactly according to the plan

It seems like the same people who hated the book are the ones who don’t like the film! I noticed that the film does start with a card that reads, “Based on truth, lies and what really happened.” Where within the triangle does the movie actually sit? Because it is a movie. It’s not a documentary.

It’s funny because the first poster that I did said, “Based on the truth” and I was like, OK, I’ve got a lot of truth here. I’ve got one person here telling me his truth, that’s one story. Then I read this and that’s another truth. There’s so many truths going on. Then I’m like, OK, I’m stretching this a little bit. I should probably add some lies in here. So my second poster said, “Based on truth and lies”. And then I started to think, Well, there’s some things in this movie that actually happened! We can’t really bullshit about that. Churches burned down and four people died and a lot of people were sad. So I added “What actually happened”. In another six months, I may have something else to add to that beginning – I don’t know, but it felt like we’re sitting right in the middle of that triangle. There is a lot of truth to it and I know we’ve done a really good job at staying as close to the reality as we really can. But I also know there’s moments where I had to step away from that and make a movie. We also know that we see these people die and these churches burning that actually happened. I would say that we’re right in the middle of that.

Of course you’ve got connection to the extreme metal scene and this is a story that we are all quite familiar with. But when it came to the cast, how far across the story were they when it came to cast them for the film?

Pretty much nothing. Our actors are very young and they grew up in a different time and a different world. I think that, as many other young people, they’ve seen the logos, they’ve seen the images. They’ve kind of heard of it, but they didn’t knew much about it. Jack Kilmer (Per “Dead” Ohlin) knew most about it, and he liked the music as well. It didn’t matter to me. These actors are trained to become characters and learn about the characters, and of course, for them, these characters were great to work with because there was a lot of source material. And they all became very attached to their characters. I’ve never seen anything like it, actually, because at the end of it, it was tough for them to separate from their instruments and their wigs and the whole lifestyle that they created for a very short amount of time: we shot this movie in 18 days. Everything was very intense and short.

When I was watching, it reminded me a little of Sid and Nancy in some ways. Not so much in the visual style, but in the story telling, depicting something very nihilistic. But whereas Sid Vicious was portrayed as rather sympathetic, the way you present Euronymous, he comes across as a bit of a loser with a Messiah complex – he’s not a very likeable person at all.

I know for a fact that he wasn’t a saint. I know for a fact that he wasn’t very likeable. A lot of people had problems with him. But I also know that he was a man with a big facade and a lot of roleplay, and he was very young! I tried to mix that a bit into his character. And of course, the comedy behind these characters lies in how serious they all are. When we take a step outside of their bubble, it becomes a little silly. He was no saint, and he had a huge part of the responsibility of what happened. He was one of the main triggers in everything that happened, and that was very sad and he left a lot of sad people behind. It’s a sad story. He was definitely no saint.

In some ways he comes across as being a very Manson-esque character in that he was goading people into doing things without doing them himself. There’s the opening scene where he gives Necrobutcher the knife and tells him to cut Mannheim, but he doesn’t do it himself. And he puts the gun to Dead’s head – it’s like he was trying to get other people to do all these things without getting his own hands dirty. And that leads to the whole thing where Varg questions his real commitment, because others are burning churches down but he’s not doing it himself.

As part of my research into this project I found out that he (Euronymous) was throwing out threats to the right and to the left and I know that he was on his throne in his store and getting people to be involved and getting them to do things for him. Exactly how much, well… he kind of makes the rest of the guys look a little stupid because they are going for it. I don’t really believe they were stupid, but as a group they stopped functioning and stopped thinking as individuals and started to function as a group. And Euronymous was the leader of the group. He was. I don’t want to compare him to Manson in any way, because it’s such a different set of circumstances, but that’s what a leader does.

This story is so legendary within metal circles, when you were given the opportunity to make this film, did you have an idea right away of the approach you were going to take?

Not at all, actually. I knew that I was fascinated with it and that it was a very rich story that a lot of people are very attached to. It’s a very weird story, in that they kind of own it, and they claim that they know it better than everybody else and that it’s mine and that it’s so precious to me. A lot of people that weren’t even born when this happened feel so emotionally attached to the story. And I was the same, actually! For years I thought I knew this story better than anybody else. I thought it was mine. Then I realised that there’s so many other people that feel exactly the same! My focus was so much about where it came from, all these other strong characters, and the music, the police reports, the journalists and the trial, and Darkthrone and the parents… There was so many side stories to the main story that I had to go through before I finally ended up in the focus the relationship between these three young boys. It kept going right into the edit, actually. I had short material with all the other members, there was a whole bunch of stuff in there that I just couldn’t fit into the movie. It actually took me the whole process to land exactly where I landed, and I realise now that if this was a TV series, I could have put all that in. But for the movie, I felt that these three boys and the relationship between them, was my main focus.

I have to congratulate you on the attention to detail in the movie. The records in the record store, the shirts they’re all wearing… the detail is excellent.

I didn’t want to give the black metal professors the pleasure of catching me in something wrong! Believe me, there was a lot of work in getting the sneakers right, the hair right, the patches, the posters, all that stuff! I can not do this wrong! The stickers on the instruments have to be exactly the same. One of the best thing for me was Necrobutcher, when he saw the Metallica video that I did during the shoot of this movie, he said he knew this movie was going to be great because it looks exactly like I’m travelling back in time to when it happened.

I wanted to talk about the humour element in the film. Your films always have a humour element, and I think that’s part of the reason why some people have a problem with the film: because they saw it as being a bit goofy. But as you said earlier, they were all so po-faced about what they were doing, to anybody else outside it just looks ridiculous.

It’s that, but it’s also, to me, I don’t think you can deal with youth and metal and rock n roll without having a sense of wit. There has to be in there. Plus, I’m also asking a lot from the audience watching this movie in the first place. It’s very fucking dark. Dennis (Magnusson) my writing partner… I started to write some jokes in the script, and he really encouraged me t put them in there. I was like, “Are you sure we’re going the right way?” And he said, “It’s real easy to cut a joke out in the edit, if it doesn’t work”. We did a version where we took out all the jokes, and it became one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. It was so dark. It became like your Snowtown Murders film, where it was just fucking darkness! That’s one of my favourite Australian movies, by the way.

Even with that, people who aren’t familiar with the story are going to find it hard to watch: just the casual way that Dead kills himself, he just picks up a knife and starts slashing his throat and then wanders over to a desk and writes a note before shooting himself. The unflinching nature of that scene means there is going to be a lot of people really revolted by that.

The murder scenes were probably, in terms of research and figuring out what actually happened, the easiest ones, because we had access to the police reports. Like I said earlier, one of my goals with this film was to stay close to the reality as I possibly could. I didn’t see anything different with the murder scenes. I wanted them to be as close to reality as well. What I noticed was, when we started to show the movie to the audience, these extreme ups and downs in the film really adds to how you feel about it when you see it. If you take the edge off the humour, if you take the edge off the violence, if you take the off the music, it’s an emotional part! It falls flat. I really wanted to honour these really sharp ups and downs in the movie.

 Lords of Chaos will be on screens nationwide on February 22.