With the recent UK release of Until the Light Takes Us on DVD & Blu-ray, I was given the opportunity to interview Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, the minds behind the Norwegian black metal documentary that not only sets out to get the facts straight about the scene, and the events surrounding it, but also provides a closer look at the key players in it. Aaron and Audrey were both generous with their time and answers as they provide explanations and insight into their film and film-making.
Flickfeast: How did you get involved in the project and what drew you to the material?
Aaron Aites: We’re huge music fans, and after being introduced to Norwegian black metal by a friend (Andee Connors, owner of Aquarius Records in San Francisco) we quickly became obsessed with it. We basically bought every Norwegian black metal release we could get our hands on, and started to look around for a documentary on the subject that did it justice. We couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. Eventually, the idea of the two of us tackling the subject came up (at the time we were preparing a different film for production) and eventually we just decided to do it. There were many aspects that drew us to the subject, one of the biggest was the fact that the Norwegian black metal scene, at the time, was the most vibrant and heartfelt scene (and I don’t mean “music” scene, but all around art-scene) on the planet. It also gave us a chance to take some ideas that we have about postmodern theory that have intrigued us for a long time and explore them on film.
FF: I understand that you spent two years in Norway before filming, what affect did this have on you and the film?
AA: Actually, we spent two years in Norway making the film, not before filming. But we did spend over a year preparing for filming. We compiled every interview that every one of our subjects had ever given into these giant phone-book sized compendiums, learned everything there was to know about Norwegian black metal, flew to Norway to scout out the look and feel of the country, and wrote a 50-page design doc for the film that spelled out the ideas that were central to the film and exactly how we were going to bring them to the screen (and for the most part, we really stuck to the design doc). Going into a situation like the filming of a documentary, extensive prep-work is invaluable. It enabled everyone being interviewed in the film to be comfortable about working with us (as they knew for a fact that we had extensive knowledge about the subject), and it enabled us to keep track of the big picture ideas we were trying to explore.
FF: I read that it was difficult to get Varg Vikernes to agree to the filming, how did you finally get him to agree to it?
AA: Well, it was difficult for us to even get to the point of meeting with him. We wrote letters back and forth to each other for eight months, before he’d even agree to meet with us. However, once he did agree to meet with us and we were able to sit down and have a detailed conversation about what the film was going to be like and could answer all of his questions, he agreed on the spot.
FF: It appears that Varg is seeking truth but he’s at a disadvantage because his mind has been clouded with unsound ideals. Do you find this to be the case? And if so, do you think he’ll find the truth he seeks?
AA: Varg is seeking the truth, and that’s one of the things that makes him such an incredibly compelling character and so difficult to dismiss, even as some of his ideas careen over the edge into paranoia and even madness. Do I think he’ll find the truth? The problem with the truth is, that if 50,000,000 people believe something is true, it becomes the truth.
FF: Although much of the film is centered around events that took place involving Varg, Gylve turns out to be a show-stealer as the film reveals him to be a reasonable guy who loves and respects art. Did you know this about him beforehand or was it something that came to light while filming?
AA: Gylve is an amazing guy, and the film was always designed (even before we made our first trip to Norway) to center around Gylve and Varg. I knew before the first meeting with Gylve that he was an extremely sophisticated and dedicated artist (simply from a careful examination of his work). I also knew that he was charming, quick-witted, and had well-rounded love of art and music (not just metal) from some of the interviews he’d done. One of the things that made this scene so interesting is the fact that they had a codified aesthetic and list of artistic goals that was in place before they really even began to make records. I guess the answer to your question is “Yes. I knew this about him beforehand.” But it’s difficult to just say that, as he continually surprised us with his insights throughout the production.
FF: During Frost’s live art performance, it’s obvious that many of the hardcore fans get squeamish as things go a little too far for them. I found this to be an interesting moment in the film and wondered what your reaction was to the piece?
Audrey Ewell: That was a crazy shoot. I think the audience probably thought it was a lot safer than it actually was. We filmed about 15 hours of rehearsal and at the end of that 15 hours, it was clear that they did not have safety issues worked out very well. One issue that came up was how much smoke filled the room as Frost was spraying the art with fire. Aaron was strapped to the ceiling with a camera, and he had a gas mask on. I think a lot of the audience thought it was for effect, but it wasn’t. As far as the exhibit and the performative aspect, I think it worked on several levels. It was a solid demonstration of the ideas we were exploring in the film, of simulation and simulacra, identity and recontextualization. And as for violence, I think that our fascination with it takes a different form when it’s right in front of us.
FF: Have you considered doing a follow up on Varg since his release from prison?
AE: Not at all. The film isn’t about one individual, it’s about a moment in time, a subculture in a larger culture, the people who came together and fell apart and created something that hadn’t existed before. Varg is an interesting character, obviously, but while he took a very active role, he was a part of something larger than himself.
FF: How did the filming effect you personally, were your views or beliefs altered as a result of the filming?
AE: No, I don’t think so. We’d done massive research before filming, had written a very large and in depth project plan, knew what we were there to get, knew what the film we wanted to make was, and got it. It took a little longer than we’d expected, but for the most part, it was a matter of getting the material to craft the piece we wanted to make. What was difficult was living for so long in a foreign place where our identities were reduced to “American film team making a movie about black metal.” That was the only way we were related to for almost two years. In my mind, there is more to me than that. But not then, not there. That was a strange experience.
FF: What are your future plans, do you have other projects in the works?
AE: There’s a music doc that we’ll know if we’re able to make in a couple months. And we have a horror/sci-fi in development, that we’re currently developing with our writing partner, Nev Pierce. Can’t say more until we know what’s going on with financing and several issues. We have a lot of projects on several back burners. Right now we’re trying to navigate supporting ourselves and also getting films made, it’s incredibly hard right now.
FF: What advice would you give aspiring documentary filmmakers?
The film world and the independent film in particular has changed and is changing so much in this period. I guess I’d say this: the best way to learn is to do, but be prepared to work harder than you ever thought possible for less reward than you ever thought possible. Don’t think you can make a living at this. But most of all, I’d like to say this: if you have an idea for a film you want to make, consider first whether you really have something to say worth hearing, seeing. There’s a lot of noise out there, and film’s not doing so well these days. If your film doesn’t tell us something about our nature, our culture, our experience on this planet (whether in character arc, plot or form), then maybe consider pushing harder, digging deeper and living more, until you have something to say. And then, if you do, and you make your film, and you’re wondering what to do with it and who to work with: check references! There are a lot of bad people in this industry, it seems to attract ego, avarice, and well, lawyers. Lots of leeches (watch out for the term “consultant”). A lot of liars. A lot of exploitation. And a few good people. Check references! Talk to other filmmakers as much as you can. Most fail at this and lose a lot in the process. Be smart, be careful, take risks, be lucky.
Until The Light Takes Us is available to buy on DVD now and can be ordered from http://www.blackmetalmovie.com