Lords of Chaos
The poster for co-writer-director Jonas Åkerlund’s musical biopic, ‘Lords of Chaos,’ which stars Rory Culkin and Emory Cohen.

Youth can often times be led down the wrong path in life, even though they possess the right intentions. They often head in a misguided direction as they aspire to uphold what they believe to be are the right moral decisions. But there’s often at least one voice of reason amongst their peers, who ultimately realizes that their raw emotional and psychological journey isn’t necessarily the best option. That’s certainly the case that arises between Rory Culkin and Emory Cohen’s superficially similar, but ultimately genuinely distinct, characters in the new musical biopic, ‘Lords of Chaos.’

The movie is based on the 1998 nonfiction book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. It was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who also co-wrote the script with Dennis Magnusson. Before helming ‘Lords of Chaos,’ the filmmaker was the drummer for the Swedish metal band, Bathory, in the 1980s. He has also directed music videos for some of the biggest artists in the music industry, including Lady Gaga, Madonna, U2, Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5 and Duran Duran.

After making its World Premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, ‘Lords of Chaos’ went on to play at other international festivals throughout the year, including the BFI London Film Festival. The drama then went on to debut in select New York theaters last Friday, February 8, and expanded to select theaters in Los Angeles today, courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky. The biopic will also debut digitally via such On Demand platforms as iTunes, Amazon and VUDU next Friday, February 22.

‘Lords of Chaos’ chronicles the rise of the Norwegian black metal music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The emergence is shown through the formation of the extreme Oslo band, Mayhem. The group was co-founded by lead guitarist Oystein Aarseth, who goes by the moniker Euronymous (Rory Culkin), and helped define the genre as a toxic mixture of rage and violence.

Euronymous appears to have had a relatively normal childhood while living with his parents and younger sister, and only gets into the metal scene as a teenager. But his life begins to change when he decides to channel the rage he’s been contending with over Norway’s seemingly idyllic life into Mayhem. The band begins to gain recognition when its members decide to bring Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who’s by the nickname Dead, into the group as the lead vocalist. The band’s profile begins to rise throughout Oslo, as Dead thrives on electrifying live performances that focus on shock-rock theatrics. But the frontman’s fascination with self-harm, both on-stage and off, ultimately leads Mayhem into a forced hiatus.

Now without a singer, Euronymous begins to produce black metal bands on his own label, Deathlike Silence Productions, and opens his record store in Norway’s capital. While upset over losing Dead, Euronymous uses the tragic circumstances around the group to his advantage to boost its reputation.

The ploy proves to be a success when solo musician and Mayhem fan, Kristian “Varg” Vikernes (Emory Cohen), decides to record under Euronymous’ label. The collaboration ultimately sparks a deep rivalry between the two men regarding who is the more authentic black metal musician. The guitarist ultimately isn’t prepared for the singer’s intense commitment to anti-social behaviors and beliefs, however, which leads to an intense rift that doesn’t appear like it can be fixed, as they’re both left to ponder their true beliefs.

Culkin and Cohen generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Lords of Chaos’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actors discussed how they were both drawn to star in the film, because they were both interested in collaborating with Åkerlund, as they’re fans of his previous work in the film and music industries. The performers both also shared that totally immersed themselves into the black metal culture, including doing research into Mayhem’s history, and learning the way the musicians played their instruments and wore the clothes they donned on stage during performances, allowed them to more fully connect to the characters they played.

ShockYa (SY): Rory, you play Euronymous, and Emory, you portray Varg, in the new biopic, ‘Lords of Chaos.’ What was it about your respective character, as well as the overall story, that convinced you to take on the roles?

Emory Cohen (EC): Initially, in terms of looking at the script and seeing that it was a Jonas Åkerlund project, I was interested, because I love his film, ‘Spun.’ Then seeing that Rory was also involved also made me interested, because I also love his work. I respected the two guys who I was going to make the movie with, which is what ultimately brought me into the project.

When it came down to the character of Varg, I found him to be interesting, but I didn’t quite get him. But I also knew that the film was an independent project, which is where I do a lot of my work.

Rory Culkin (RC): I became interested in the project the old-fashioned way; the script was the thing that drew me in. Also, learning about this culture and these guys offered a lot to unpack, and I was excited to unpack it all.

SY: The movie was co-written and directed by Jonas, who you just mentioned, Emory. What was the process like for the both of you to collaborate with him, as the scribe and helmer, to create the suspense for your characters?

RC: Jonas was a great consultant, because he could fact-check everything. He would also immediately call out anything that I would say that wasn’t authentic. Like there was a time when I said, “No offense,” in a scene, which I just threw out there. But he immediately shot that down; he said, “You aim to offend as many people as you can, so you would never say ‘No offense.'” So it was great to have that fact-checker.

EC: He also trusted us. So it was good that we had this incredible mind to how to shoot it, since he’s also involved in the music and music video worlds. He also allowed us to make choices and play off of each other.

We had a good time making this movie, even though it was a hard movie to make. But there were a lot of laughs, and we believed in each other. We’re all still friendly and close.

SY: ‘Lords of Chaos’ also stars a talented supporting cast that includes Jack Kilmer. What was the experience of collaborating with your co-stars, in order to build your characters’ relationships, especially the growing tension between Euronymous, and Varg?

RC: Our experiences were great. Jack was incredibly knowledgeable about black metal, so he was also another great reference.

EC: It was great to work with Jack, Wilson Gonzalez and all of those guys. It was funny in a weird way-I was looking at all of these young guys we were working with, and I almost felt like we were making a version of ‘Dead Poet’s Society,’ since we were working with all of these young men. I know the two films are completely different, but what I thought was nice was that we were a bunch of young guys who wanted to make this movie good. We were also all hungry to learn from each other.

To be able to work together was an honor. I certainly knew Rory and Jack before the shoot. We were excited and nervous, and also wanted to challenge and support each other. It was a good experience, because we were all around the same age, so working together fit pretty seamlessly.

SY: Since it was so natural for you all to work together on the set, did you improvise at all, or offer your own creative input to Jonas?

EC: We didn’t do much improv…

RC: …but there were little things we did in the moment. There’s a scene where we were coming out of the recording studio, and saw these older ladies. I picked one out and said, “I’m going to f*ck that one so good,” which I never thought would make it into the film. (Cohen laughs.) I was just trying to make everyone laugh, which I did, and then Jonas decided to include it in the film.

EC: For me though, I thought Varg was a tough character to improvise with while we were filming. I think in order to improvise well, you have to really invest in the character’s psyche until it melts into your own. What I would prefer to do with his speeches, during which he would say things like, “You said we should burn down all of thes churches,” would be to figure out that they mean to me.

Jonas also never really asked us to improvise…There also weren’t many scenes where Rory and I sat down and said that we wanted tor re-write anything. We were always just down to say the words that were in the script.

SY: The film is based on the real-life story of True Norwegian Black Metal and its most notorious practitioners, which included a group of young men with a flair for publicity, church-burning and murder. What was your research process into the real facts of the case?

RC: We did a lot of research; we read the books and watched the documentaries, and I was also able to look at some police reports. We also got to speak to some people who were there during that time.

EC: In terms of the music, I think it was good that we spent about a week together with black metal coaches from Hungary, so that we could learn to kind of play the songs. We also learned how to strike the poses and perform on stage. It gave me a greater appreciation of what these musicians do, because it’s really difficult.

When you first listen to black metal, at least in my opinion, it sounds like a lot of noise. Then you have to start to actually listen to it for chord changes, and it becomes a lot harder to understand it. You realize how little you actually know about it

SY: With both Euronymous and Varg having performed in Mayhem, what was the process of shooting the musical sequences in ‘Lords of Chaos?’

RC: There was a scene in the beginning of the film where we were performing with pigs on stage. We had real metal fans in the audience, and we ended up throwing one of the pig heads into the audience. That was at the end of the night, so the pigs were kind of cooking on stage for a long time. The kids in the audience started biting into one of the pig’s heads, and it was captured on film and made it into the movie. But it was a real pig head that was sitting on stage all day, and some really determined background artists.

SY: Rory, despite his burn everything belief, Euronymous still had a vulnerable side. To some degree, he didn’t really believe a lot of the things he said, and was only saying what his audience wanted to hear. What was the process of humanizing your character in the black metal world?

RC: That’s definitely right. The things he was preaching led him to the fame that he obtained. I like to think that he didn’t believe what he was saying, and just knew how to say outrageous things that grabbed people’s attention. There’s something admirable about his passion, but I had a hard time relating to what he was preaching.

SY: Emory, Varg initially appears to want to be accepted by Euronymous and the other members of Mayhem, and have his voice also be heard by their fans. But once he begins working with the band, Varg’s demeanor and attitude becomes increasingly more anti-social and jaded. What was the process of showing your character’s emotional descent throughout the story?:

EC: I wanted to start off by making Varg this shy, scared super-fan. So that way, who he becomes later in the film is a drastic change. I’m an actor who also likes to throw in little ticks into my characters, and I wanted a lot of that to be in his eyes. I wanted that to be confusing to the audience, and not have them know what he’s thinking all of the time.

SY: Speaking of the ticks that you infuse into your characters, Emory, what was the process like for both of you to create the physicality for your respective characters?

RC: I think it makes it easier to get into your character’s mindset once you get into the costumes. For this film, it was the tight pants, boots, leather and the wig. That’s the moment that really lets you transform.

EC: I agree. I’ve never actually done wig work, or had long hair, before. So that definitely was a change for me. It made eating on camera difficult, but I figured it out. I also had a prosthetic scar that Varg had.

But I liked that whole element, because I don’t dress in black metal clothing. The clothing we wore in the film was authentic to pictures that we had from that time. It really felt like we were in a uniform, and I think that helped. When a bunch of us guys showed up on set wearing our sweatpants, and then went in our trailers to change and came out looking like a black metal army, we started to feel as though we truly were.

SY: Like you mentioned before, Emory, ‘Lords of Chaos’ was made independently. How did that process influence the creativity on the set, and influence the way the drama was shot?

RC: When you’re making a film independently, you can’t afford to really f*ck around. You don’t have the money or time to be late, or over-discuss a certain scene…

EC: …or over-shoot one.

RC: Right. We had to know our stuff before we stepped in there. We had to do a lot of rehearsal and practice. It was about being a professional, and knowing your part, and not figuring it out on the job.

EC: Yes, definitely. I think that was the best way to make this movie-smaller, so that there was more control, especially for Jonas, so that he could really execute his vision. Also, that way no one was able to get ahead of themselves, and wonder where their big trailer is with the green M&M’S.

We were all in it together, and were there to make a movie. I think that process made it more special. I think it makes it more special when you’re up against more stuff, and you still get the job done.

SY: The biopic was shot on location in Oslo and Budapest. What was the experience of filming the movie in the real places where the story’s set? Overall, as an actor, do you prefer shooting your projects on location?

RC: Yes, I did. What struck me about Norway was how pleasant it is, and how nice everyone is there. When I was there, I was told to look out for this one rough neighborhood, so I decided to walk through it, anyway. I thought it was adorable. (He and Cohen laugh.) From what I saw, the roughest thing was that there was this kid throwing dry cranberries at people!

So it was interesting to see the contrast between that and these guys, and I thought, they came from here?!? They didn’t have much of a reason to lash out the way they did. Shooting in Norway made that very apparent.

SY: ‘Lords of Chaos’ has played at several film festivals, including Sundance, where it premiered. What was the experience of bringing the drama on the film festival circuit?

RC: It was a great experience. It was also interesting, because we initially wondered what kind of audience was going to show up for this type of film. It turned out to be a nice mix of fans of film and fans of metal, so the questions turned out to be pretty different. We got questions like, “Tell me about the process of how you got into character,” and then, “What’s your favorite black metal band?” So it’s been interesting to see what kind of crowd we’ve been attracting to the film, and I’m curious to see how people continue to respond to it.

Photo ofRory Culkin and Emory Cohen
Rory Culkin and Emory Cohen
Job Title
Actors in co-writer-director Jonas Åkerlund's biographical drama, 'Lords of Chaos'

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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