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. 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 before Until The Light Takes Us plays Jan. 8-14 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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: 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: 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: 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.
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.