Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell

Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell discuss Until the Light Takes Us

Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, Until the Light Takes Us, 2009, still from a color film, 93 minutes. Right: Varg Vikernes.

Until the Light Takes Us is a film about several Norwegian black-metal musicians who earned international attention in the 1990s following a wave of church burnings and murders. It opens December 4 in New York, Providence, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, with many other dates to follow. Directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell discuss the film here.

BEFORE WE WENT TO NORWAY, we did extensive research. The two people we felt we absolutely had to have in the film were Gylve Nagell [of the band Darkthrone] and Varg Vikernes [of Burzum]. Both were notorious for not giving interviews, which made it daunting. We approached Gylve first, not only because he was one of the originators of Norwegian black metal but also because he was someone who had largely steered clear of the media frenzy in the wake of the church burnings, murders, and court cases in the mid-’90s. He was not involved in the crimes and he didn’t take part in the interviews that many of the musicians were doing at that time.

Approaching Gylve first did two things: First, it let the people in the scene know that we didn’t want to make a sensational crime drama or investigative film, because he was really the last person to speak with if that was the film we wanted to make. Second, we really clicked with him––he’s easy to talk to, he’s interested in art, and his knowledge of music is almost encyclopedic, so we had a lot to discuss outside of black metal and the film. With Varg, however, it was a 180, a totally different experience.

We spent eight months corresponding with Varg, trying to get him to do the film. He was not at all receptive. He kept sending back letters that said, “Even if you made exactly the movie that I myself would want to see, I still won’t do it.” Eventually, he agreed to a meeting to discuss the film, so we flew up to Tromsø Prison. Once there, we were able to explain what we were trying to accomplish, and he was very eager to do it.

One of the things that made Varg open to participating was that we had a very detailed plan: We didn’t just go to Norway with cameras and wing it. We had a very serious fifty-page outline for what we wanted to do with the movie. We were able to answer any questions anyone had about the film thoroughly and in-depth. The key was getting Varg and Gylve to be comfortable—and getting good interviews.

The story of black metal dovetails with postmodern theory and contemporary art. The fact that contemporary filmmakers and artists like Harmony Korine and Bjarne Melgaard are working with the tropes and ideas of black metal and are putting it into a new context (and thus redefining it) is a process we wanted to explore with the film. The film itself is an extension of that recontextualization. It allowed us to explore black metal, get into that story, find out what happened, and get to know the people who propelled that narrative. But at the same time, we were able to follow a different thread about what was going on with contemporary artists, which took it into a whole new realm.

There’s a scene in the film when Gylve visits Bjarne’s exhibition in Stockholm and he’s surrounded by all these photographs of musicians that he knows. He meets Bjarne, and there is a palpable degree of discomfort. It was a very complex thing for Gylve, because it’s his life––he has a perspective on black metal that no one else in the world will have.

A lot of people ask us how we were introduced to black metal since we come from an experimental-music background and didn’t grow up listening to metal. Our friend Andee Connors, who runs Aquarius Records in San Francisco and occasionally plays in Aaron’s band, Iran, sat us down and forced us to listen to it. Though we weren’t really open to listening to metal before, we ended up loving the music, and the more we got into it, the more obsessed we became. It has an aura of secrecy, it’s somewhat guarded, there are all these extreme statements and actions and at the same time certain voices of clarity and intelligence. The whole thing didn’t add up, and that intrigued us. We decided to search for a documentary on the subject, but we couldn’t find one. That’s why we decided to make this film. Because we wanted to see it.