Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell are the directors of Until The Light Takes Us, a new documentary about the scandalous, sensational story surrounding the musical movement known as Norwegian black metal. Started in Oslo in the early 1990s, this particular strain was marked by deliberately scuzzy, lo-fi sound and an appetite for atmosphere over the aggro theatrics at work in so much other metal. The scene was seeded in large part by two characters who figure heavily in the film: Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, who founded the seminal group Darkthrone, and Varg Vikernes, who led the one-man band Burzum. As surveyed in the movie, the two represent different poles within the movement: Nagell is the quiet, contemplative shut-in, and Vikernes is the indignant ideologue who remains unrepentant about his role in black metal’s infamous detour into murder and ritual church-burning.
Vikernes was recently released from jail on parole, but during filming for Until The Light Takes Us, he was serving part of a 21-year sentence for arson of old Christian churches raised on Nordic land, and the murder of a member of the band Mayhem, of which Vikernes was also a part. (Mayhem, for its part, holds much sway in the black-metal world for the cover of a semi-official live album featuring a real photo of its lead singer, named Dead, with his brains blown out by a shotgun.) As Vikernes tells it, the rash of church-burnings that came to haunt black metal in Norway counted as a political statement in the beginning; the crisis only arose after they were copied and the message spun out of control. The same dynamic, in a sense, played out in the dissemination of the black-metal style and sound. In the film, both main characters speak articulately about the movement as they knew it at the start, as well as how it changed when it started attracting waves of attention and copycat crime. In their living room in Brooklyn, Aites and Ewell spoke to The A.V. Club about the fateful swell of black metal, postmodern historical theory, and the ethics of documentary-making. Until The Light Takes Us opens in New York on December 4, to be followed by a rollout to other cities in the U.S. over the next two months.
The A.V. Club: How did the two of you start listening to black metal?
Aaron Aites: We don’t come from a metal background. We come from a noise/experimental music background, The Dead C and Harry Pussy and bands like that. But eventually a friend, who owns Aquarius Records and used to be in my band Iran, wore us down and we checked it out. You know how you become obsessed with a music genre, when you discover something and you get super into it? That’s how we were. We basically bought every CD we could get our hands on.
Audrey Ewell: We were buying all the records and reading the liner notes and going online and finding obscure ’zine interviews with these guys. There were things about it that didn’t quite add up. There were all these crazy, evil, anti-societal statements taken to this ridiculous extreme where it basically seemed to cross over into parody. But at the same time, they were also killing people and burning down churches. So there was this schism between what you would take, certainly, as parody, and then these actual violent acts. The way that didn’t add up was really interesting to us. How did they cross over from creating this world where all the evil that they could muster was coming out in this sort of bravado and then turning to murder?
AVC: What did you hear in black metal that you didn’t hear in other music, and in other metal in particular?
AA: A lot of what we listen to is really lo-fi, four-track kind of stuff—really noisy—and black metal was like that. I hadn’t heard a lot of metal that wasn’t really polished, with lots of studio sheen. It didn’t have that. And the art: Stark, black-and-white, Xerox-quality covers were not what we were used to seeing either. The whole aesthetic was different.
AE: It was really stark and stripped-down.
AA: But there was an intellectual quality to the whole thing, too. You never get the impression listening to the early records that they’re just jamming or playing for fun. Also, it was free of a lot of metal baggage that always turned me off. You won’t find black metal with a girl in a bikini on the cover, or a monster. It challenged all of my preconceptions about what metal was. With a lot of the bands, even calling them “metal” is a bit of a stretch. Like, early Thorns is an example of a great black-metal band, but if you heard it outside of the context of metal, of the scene, you might not even really place it as metal.
AVC: When you say there was an intellectual quality to the music, what do you mean?
AA: On Immortal records, they would end songs on a note; instead of having that note ring out, it was like drrrrrrrrrrrr, and it just stopped. There were all these little signs like that. They never let notes ring out. You knew there was an intellectual framework that was being placed on how they made these songs.
AE: I think the important word is methodology. They had the idea of what they wanted to present, and then a methodology for how they were going to go about actually presenting it. Part of the mission statement—if you could say there was such a thing—was, they were reacting against death metal, which was becoming really commercial at the same time in the late ’80s, early ’90s. When they started doing black metal, and particularly when Gylve started doing black metal, he had already been making successful death metal. He was the first to turn his back on it and went with a really stripped-down aesthetic as a way of getting away from that commodified look and sound. Basically, everything he could do to make it uncommercial, he did. When he sent it off to his record label, they were just like “No, we’re not releasing this.” It was not a popular move at the time.
AVC: You both did a lot of research into black metal from the start. Did that begin for your own purposes, or for the movie?
AA: That was part of the movie process. We identified the people that we would need to be in the movie to make it a good movie, and then we took every interview they ever did and bound them into these Yellow Pages-sized binders. Every main character had one. Varg had multiple volumes.
AE: Yeah. Hellhammer’s was really big too.
AA: We gave Hellhammer his. He really enjoyed it.
AE: Part of doing it was an attempt to exert control over a medium in which you inherently have a certain lack of control. If you’re making a narrative film, you have a script, and the actors have their lines, and you basically know what’s going to be said. With a documentary, if you go into it having a roadmap for what you want the film to actually be, it’s really helpful to know what likely answers are to questions you’re going to ask.
AA: We went with a blueprint, literally a 50-page blueprint for what the film was going to be that included shots… Of course, it didn’t end up exactly like that. But we’re pretty anal, so we like to go in with as much of a plan as possible, and if we have to throw that out in the process, fine. But it wasn’t the kind of documentary where you sort of wing it and then just find it in the editing room.
AVC: You guys moved to Norway expressly to make the movie. Were you at all nervous or uncertain when you went over there?
AE: In the beginning, there wasn’t that much on the line. There was just an idea and a certain amount of research. We didn’t think it was going to take as long as it did. We didn’t think we were signing ourselves up for a two-year odyssey.
AA: We wouldn’t have done it if we’d known how long it was going to take. I wouldn’t have.
AVC: A key character in the film is Gylve from Darkthrone, who had been reticent to talk about the story of black metal in the past. How did you approach him to be in the film?
AE: We called the label, they sent our request to him, and he called back. We set up a meeting at a bar. We didn’t know Oslo very well at this point, so we went to the area where we thought the bar was, and the only place we could see on the block was a strip club. We were kind of aghast that he wanted to meet us at a strip club, and at that point, I think we were maybe reconsidering whether this was a good idea. [Laughs.] So we go into the strip club, and we’re waiting for him to arrive for like 20 minutes. It’s fairly uncomfortable, frankly, sitting in a strip club waiting for someone who you’re planning on making a central figure in your film. Finally I got a phone call and he’s like, “Where are you guys?” We’re like “What do you mean? We’re at the bar,” and he’s like “No you’re not. I’m at the bar.” So we went and met him at the actual bar, which was a really nice bar.
AA: We got along really well right off the bat. He’s into all kinds of music, and we really just hit it off with him instantly. Once we described in depth what we wanted to do with the film, he agreed that night.
AE: When we went over there and actually approached him about doing this, we were pretty nervous that he wasn’t going to want to, because he’d never been filmed before. It didn’t seem like an obvious thing for him to agree to do.
AA: Beyond that, he was like, “I’m never going to watch the movie, so film whatever you need to. Film as much as you need to. Put whatever you need to on the screen. Don’t ever worry about me watching it and being weirded out.”
AE: It was basically the most you can ask of someone who you’re asking to take part in your documentary. We were able to really connect on other levels, outside of just talking about black metal. Like, one of his favorite records is Jesus Christ Superstar. We love that album too.
AVC: He seems pretty devastated in certain ways by everything that happened. Did you get the sense that he just wanted the story told in full after all this time?
AA: I think that’s the case with both him and Varg. When Varg eventually agreed to do the film, he really wanted the story crystallized and put “on the record” as it actually was, as the scene was moving further and further away from anything that would identify it with what they tried to create initially.
AE: That’s a lot of what the movie’s about. Not specifically the evolution of black metal, but the re-creation and re-contextualization of media and art and everything in modern culture. We’re really interested in a lot of postmodern theory and ideas, and we see a lot of parallels with black metal and the story of black metal. Ideas of simulation and simulacra—a copy of a copy of a copy of a thing eventually becoming the reality, regardless of how degraded it is or how little it actually resembles the original. You really see that with black metal.
The whole story of Norwegian black metal starts with a simulation. They simulated something that never actually existed as an intentional thing. So they created an intentional thing, this lo-fi Norwegian black metal. And then once the crimes happened and the news media reported them as a Satanic uprising, kids around the country quickly took that as their cue and started “Satanic black-metal bands.” It became the reality—the reality based on a copy of a thing that never really existed. I don’t know how you find a better example of a lot of ideas in postmodern theory than this.
AA: And the story goes into Norse mythology and things like that that are essentially lost to time. There’s not really a great record of ancient Norwegian culture, and most of what does exist is from Iceland, because that was left a little more isolated. The whole idea of losing the thread of the historical narrative and trying to regain it, but you can’t once the thread is lost—these are basic tenets of postmodernism. We try to highlight it too, by going into modern-art quarters with Harmony Korine and how it’s all been re-contextualized now as high art. And then of course the final level is the film itself, where we contextualize black metal yet again.
AE: Which we try to acknowledge. In the opening scene of the film, you see us mic-ing Gylve, and we’re obviously acknowledging that we’re a part of the process. But the tragedy of the story is what this actually does when you strip away the intellectual elements of it or the theory elements of it and go back to the people who were at the heart of the story, who actually had this process happen to them. You see Gylve, who created this thing as a way to have his own voice, and Varg as well, how damaged they both are by the process that they’ve been through—how they’re now perceived in the world, and the identity that’s imposed on them.
AA: The first book I had that actually introduced me to postmodernism was Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism.
AE: We were reading a lot of Benjamin Barber and [Jean-François] Lyotard.
AA: Another book that was really influential in how we approached the film was Benjamin Barber’s book Jihad Vs. McWorld: How Globalism And Tribalism Are Reshaping The World.
AE: That was entirely relevant to what you see happening with cultures that have a strong history but are being swept up in globalization. That’s what was happening in Norway in the early ’90s. Globalization was moving in with a vengeance. All these forces were coming together at once. MTV was starting to be broadcast in Norway in the early ’90s. 7-11 and McDonald’s were popping up all over the landscape. Norway was very much changing.
AA: That’s very analogous to when the Christians went into Norway [starting around the 10th century] and changed the landscape to suit their culture.
AE: They erected churches on the pagan holy sites.
AVC: Were the people you talked to about black metal receptive to the ideas you were bringing to it?
AE: We felt that our ideas were very much borne out in the actual interviews that we had with these guys. They resonated.
AA: Especially with Varg. None of this stuff was lost on Varg.
AE: We didn’t have that degree of awareness or thought about these things from everyone. When we talked to Immortal, we didn’t talk about this stuff. That’s not where their interest is. Immortal is a band that makes concept albums about a made-up winter realm. They’re amazing, but you’re not going to start talking postmodern theory with these guys. That’s a pointless conversation. They’re brilliant in their own way, but it’s not related.
AVC: You worked on getting Varg to talk for nearly a year. How did you convince him?
AA: Varg was hard. We were there filming for about eight months with him not agreeing to do the film, and at that point, we were starting to get nervous, because it’s very expensive in Norway, and making a film is very expensive in and of itself. We’re filming without his agreement to participate, knowing that we might have to scrap it and go home, because we weren’t going to do the film without both Varg and Gylve. We couldn’t make the kind of film we wanted to make without both of them. Eventually he agreed to meet with me. I had to fly to where he was in prison and meet with him there. The first day was probably three or four hours. Subsequently I spent many, many hours with him.
AE: It had to be done in chunks of whole-day sessions. We’d get permission to go to the prison and interview him over the course of a few days. He was located in a town that was a flight, so we’d fly to Trondheim. Aaron would go in and do 16-hour days of interviews, and then we would go back and go through all the footage.
AVC: Was there a point in the initial conversation where you remember feeling like he was going to do it? Was there something that you said or mentioned that piqued his interest?
AA: Nothing specific. But talking to him about globalization, the sort of postmodern globalization stuff, was really in his wheelhouse, so to speak. I think that piqued his interest and let him know that this film was deeper and better thought-out than some people wanting to make a rock doc.
AE: The first thing he needed to know was that this wasn’t Heavy Metal Parking Lot or The Decline Of Western Civilization. He needed to know that this wasn’t a fan film, that it wasn’t made by fans for fans. That was his top concern.
AA: I can’t stress enough how much planning we did for this thing. That’s the most important part of doing any project. It was pretty easy to answer questions and explain what all the concepts were. That’s what he needed to know in order to trust us.
AVC: How did you get access to him in prison?
AE: The prison system was simply a bureaucracy. So it was a matter of showing that we had the prisoner’s permission, filling out paperwork, jumping through some hoops, but nothing inordinately difficult there.
AA: Nothing that much different than if you want to film in a department store. Honestly, it wasn’t that much different than doing any other location. I didn’t get to choose where we shot him. Every time I would go there, they would take me to a different place. In the opening scene you see with Varg, that was his cell. With a computer in the background, that was his room.
AVC: How notorious was Varg within the prison?
AE: This was a huge deal in Norway. Take the O.J. Simpson murder trial and multiply it by 50. This was an all-consuming national hysteria.
AA: The O.J. trial’s pretty big, but it’s definitely comparable to that. It was on the cover of the papers every day.
AE: And on the news. It was getting to be this highly sensationalized hysterical reporting where nothing was being fact-checked. Babies were being sacrificed one day…
AA: It got to the point where I think anybody who had an idea would call the paper and be like, “My name is Asphyxiator…”
AE: “…and I worship the devil! And I’m in a black-metal band and I’m going to get you!” And that would just be reported verbatim in the news the next day.
AA: They would have all these ridiculous stories. There was this one story that Varg had this cache of guns that he kept in this crypt or some sort of cave. It became a big story: They went to the cave and there were no guns there. Then that was the story. This was all happening in ’93, ’94.
AVC: Had there been any sort of internal stock-taking in Norway over that media hysteria? Was there a self-inquisition period that followed it?
AE: It seemed to almost go straight to irony in some way.
AA: On the other hand, some newspaper wanted to do an interview with me at one point. I talked to her on the phone and I was like, “No, I’m not going to do an interview with you.” She’s like “Okay, that’s fine. But how’s it going with the movie?” and I’m like, “Oh, it’s fine.” She’s like “How’s it working with Varg?” and I’m like, “Oh, he’s really nice.” Then the next day on the front page of the paper was: “AMERICAN FILM DIRECTOR SAYS VARG VIKERNES IS NICE!” So it’s hard for me to feel like it ever slowed down.
AVC: For a long time in the U.S., the story of black metal had been told largely by the book Lords Of Chaos. How is that book regarded within the scene?
AE: By and large, the guys in the black-metal scene in Norway are not too fond of that book. They’ve just basically said that a lot of the book is past interviews that they’d done in magazines and other things, and that the authors took their previous answers and just put their own questions over it. I can’t speak to any of this, but that is what we’ve been told, that they felt that there was an agenda.
AA: I think the book is good in showing the aesthetic of black metal and some of the quirks. It works well for that, but most of them really seem to hate it.
AVC: The film takes an impressively even-handed approach to presenting some very incendiary actions and ideas. Have you had people say you sympathized with them too much, or failed to vilify them as much as you should have?
AA: Here’s the thing about what art is: To me, art is… you give something to someone and present it in such a way that it can inspire thought and questions. Yeah, people have critiqued us and said that we endorsed this stuff because we made a film about it, and we just let them talk about it. What were we supposed to do—stop the film in the middle and say that murder is bad?
AE: “Don’t kill people. We don’t endorse what happened.”
AA: I hate the kind of films that try to tell you how to think; I prefer art that encourages you to think. That is what we’re trying to do.
AE: I absolutely agree with that. Beyond that, when you’re telling a story that involves people finding their dead bandmate and then taking a photograph of it and using it as album artwork, how much do you as a filmmaker need to punctuate that? Isn’t that clear enough on its own? Do we really need to give a guide map to society when you’re dealing with actions like this? I’m actually kind of astounded by some of the critiques along those lines. One of the people in the film calls somebody else a faggot, and there was a review that came out that called us homophobes. I don’t get that.
AA: Maybe for the DVD we should have a special feature that has an asterisk over scenes. You can click on it when you’re watching someone talk and it will take you to a picture of us like, “We don’t support this” or “We support this.”
AE: It’s really odd, this idea that a documentary film should be limited in form and function, that every documentary should be something on The History Channel. Films that inspire me that are loosely in the doc realm are things like Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, who pioneered the idea of the film essay. That’s what I’m interested in. I don’t care for most documentaries that are just really straightforward stories about people and events.
AA: I have an appreciation for Michael Moore. I like him and I agree with his politics. But it’s not the kind of movie we’re interested in making. I think there’s a place for that too. But I don’t think film reviewers should think—
AE: It’s so limiting to say that a documentary must be like that to have merit. It’s really bizarre. I don’t get that.
AVC: What has surprised you about the reactions you’ve gotten?
AE: One thing that has been interesting in showing the film at festivals, at Q&As afterward, we always get one question. It’s always one of the first questions, but the question takes two radically different forms. Someone always puts up their hand right away and asks about Varg, either “Is Varg really that charming?” or “Is Varg really that horrifying?” With Gylve, the same thing happens. It’s less shockingly divergent, but people either see him as this typical metal dude, or they see him as this guy who’s surprisingly articulate and into modern art, who breaks the metal mold. It’s fascinating that people bring so much to the film and walk away with so many different ideas. It’s interesting to me as a filmmaker.
AVC: The movie traces the way the music was designed to be anti-commercial, by Gylve especially, but itself became something even worse than commercialized. Was that something he felt much anguish about?
AE: Yeah, for sure. One of the last interviews we did with Gylve was a lot about this. He talks about his depression and the agony of life. It was really a kind of charged interview. To actually be there in the room and talking about it the horrible depression that he feels when he thinks about where he is and that he can’t go back. He took his art very seriously and it was taken away from him, largely by a good friend of his who had other goals and took it in a different direction. There’s a tragedy, certainly in that and the effects that it’s had on Gylve.
AA: And Varg.
AE: And Varg. You always have to keep in mind: Gylve’s a guy who made music. That’s what he did, and that’s all he did. He happened to be involved with a scene where his best friend went and burned a bunch of churches and killed another friend of theirs…
AA: You’re simplifying.
AE: Sure I’m simplifying. But there’s still that level there, where Gylve’s an artist in a scene of people, some of whom were criminals. That’s there. To be a survivor of all of that, how could you not be affected?