Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell are making their moviemaking debut with Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about the Norwegian black metal scene. The film gives an inside look into black metal’s origins and subcultures. In order to dig deep into this world, both directors lived in Norway, at times with different black metal musicians, for two years interviewing and filming several prominent figures of the music genre.
Through different interviews and footage, Aites and Ewell attempt to clarify the rumors and negativity that have surrounded this misunderstood music genre since it began in the early 1990s and examine the beliefs leading to the rebellion of religion and present culture. Aites and Ewell spoke with MM about the process of making this film and why they chose to focus on black metal.
Michael Gerali (MM): Until the Light Takes Us is the directorial debut for both of you. How did it help to have a co-director? Were there ever times where it seemed to hinder the process?
Aaron Aites (AA): It really helps to have someone else there who’s as all in on the project as you are, who you can discuss things with as you make the film. It can be difficult at times as well.
Audrey Ewell (AE): On the one hand, I don’t think that either of us felt totally fulfilled in getting to do just what we would have done alone, but on the other hand, we have different strengths and weaknesses and balance each other. I hammered on story, story, story and character and research and getting what we needed to make the game plan work; Aaron was the one to tie it into a postmodern context and that sparked us both to look at in ways that tie it into the larger world and ideas that make the film more than just a scintillating story of murder and arson and Scandinavian metal. He also has the ability to talk to musicians in their language, and to connect to people and engender trust in a way that makes them feel comfortable on camera.
I am very result-oriented, and worked a lot on mapping out questions and even strategies that would lead to the results we wanted. In general, Aaron was more dominant when we were shooting and I was more dominant when we were editing. I was the more logical of us, Aaron the more intuitive—at least on this film. We have different roles on the narrative that we’re now writing. Our creative partnership is as fluid as our real world relationship. There is a lot of conflict, but we get excited about a lot of the same things, and we feed on that to build worlds.
AA: Trust is the key not only to making it work, but making it work for you. And we trust each other.
MM: Why did you choose to make black metal the focus of the documentary? How have your views changed since living with them?
AE: Our friend who owns a record store introduced us to it, and as people who were not previously into a lot of metal, we were fascinated by the music and the story and were looking for a doc on it, purely as consumers. It didn’t exist yet. The schism between the evil parody of their words and the actual violence was compelling; it was a puzzle that didn’t quite fit together. When we looked further and realized that they drew a connection between the cultural imperialism of Christianity in the first and second centuries AD and the wave of globalization that occurred in the late ’80s early ’90s, and that they chose churches as an almost purely symbolic target, it was just too much. We had to make this movie.
As far as the guys themselves, we researched it all so extensively that there were fewer surprises than one might guess. We were surprised that Gylve, one of the originators of the genre, counts Jesus Christ Superstar among his favorite albums (as do we) and that he regularly visits museums. We shouldn’t have been surprised, because we knew that he was into house music and breaks the mold in many ways (while still being the quintessential and totally authentic metal dude), but he was truly a complex character and is a very interesting and well-rounded person. Which maybe surprises others now more than it surprises us.
MM: What was it like living in Norway for two years while you filmed the documentary? What were some of the challenges of filming there?
AA: When you’re living in a foreign country working on a project like this, the only people you come into contact with are people who know you exclusively as “the American filmmakers.” It’s hard to be completely removed from friends and family for such a long time. It’s also very difficult to remove yourself from that work mode, when everything you see around you is Norway and you are constantly reminded about what you’re there to do. I think that isolation was probably our biggest challenge. Of course, Norway is also a very, very expensive place to film, so keeping the budget down was also a big challenge. Other than that, the rest of the challenges we faced were the same as on any other film, but slightly exacerbated by not knowing anyone there. Access to the subjects, budget, technical issues, finding crew, equipment, support and locations were all considerations.
MM: Considering the mystery that surrounds the black metal movement, were you concerned about distribution—or did you think that making the first film to shed an honest light on black metal and its artists would be a way to attract distributors? What was the distribution process like?
AA: Well, of course we were (and are for that matter) concerned with distribution. It’s not as though distributors were waiting with bated breath for somebody to make a documentary about black metal. Almost none of the people at distribution companies we’ve talked to know what black metal is and several of those that do have some idea about it want to market it as a shocking true-crime drama, which doesn’t really work for Until the Light Takes Us (which is more of a dark, elliptical art film).
AE: On the plus side, we have a strong international core audience, an arresting story involving murder and church arson, a portrait of two compelling characters, and it’s done from an outside perspective, (i.e. not a film for fans, by fans), which opens it up to a much wider audience. We’ve have found some great partners with theatrical distributors in the U.S. and Australia and we’re currently negotiating all rights deals in Germany and Japan, and talking to buyers in other markets. For us, trust is a huge issue. It’s very important that the film not be treated like an exploitation film, and we’ve passed on several offers where we felt that was too much of a concern. It’s very hard right now for all films, but especially documentaries.
MM: How do you think this documentary will affect the black metal scene and the negative connotations associated with it?
AA: One of the things our film focuses on is how changes in perception have an effect on the black metal scene and the people who started it. There’s a nod to that in the first scene of the film, where you see Audrey attaching a microphone to Gylve and can hear me behind the camera adjusting the shot.
AE: We acknowledge our role in the process, and follow that idea through in the contemporary art thread of the film. We show how black metal has become the basis for contemporary artists such as Bjarne Melgaard and Hamony Korine, and how an image, such as our poster image (originally a photograph of a musician, used as artwork on a truly obscure album, then appropriated as contemporary art, now a movie poster), is used again and again and eventually is entirely removed from its original context. The film allowed us to explore ideas of simulation and simulacra, which you very much see in the story of black metal and its many contextualizations, and in shining a light on that process, I think that the only effect our film may have on black metal is that it may allow people to step back and look at its many phases and see them in light of the process itself. The black metal of today is a far cry from the black metal of the early ’90s, and we wanted to examine the process of how that came to be. Or course, that process is by no means limited to this particular story, it goes much deeper in our society and has a lot to do with the re-creation of history. It’s sort of a hidden mechanism in society that informs our reality, but doesn’t get a lot of space or discussion. That’s our cup of tea.
MM: What’s next for you two?
AA: We have a few projects in the works, but the main one we’re working on right now is a suspense-thriller (tentatively) titled The Living Day.
AE: It takes place on a present-day commune in Vermont. I was born on a commune, and the film takes some pieces like that out of my life, and borrows from Aaron’s relationship with his father. It’s about family and it’s about the idea of ownership. And it’s got some weird elements that have to do with the society that these people have made. It’s so much fun to build this world.
AA: It has pitched really well so far and the response has been great. Now that our workload on Until the Light Takes Us is becoming more manageable, we’re excited to get moving on it.
Until the Light Takes Us opens December 4 in New York with a national release to follow. For more information, visit http://www.blackmetalmovie.com.