Flying Lotus Talks 'Kuso,' Which People Are Calling The Grossest Film Ever
Steve Ellison, July 2017. (Getty)
By Christopher L. Inoa
Steve Ellison is a 33-year-old man from Los Angeles, California, who got to show his debut feature at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film, Kuso, made headlines because of the many walkouts that occurred during its press screening, with one critic from going so far as to proclaim it as "the grossest film ever made." If you have never heard of Steve, then you might know him as the bald, bearded, gold chain wearing cartoon character Captain Murphy, who released a mixtape (Duality) in 2012. Or you may know him by his more famous moniker, Flying Lotus.
After years of producing and touring around the world, Steve wanted to take a break from being Flying Lotus; he wanted to learn a new skill, one he’s always had a passion for: animation. If you have been following his career, it comes as no surprise, as so many of his music videos feature animated elements. While at least one of those music videos can be viewed as grotesque, none of us were really prepared for the level of gruesome and graphic imagery we would see in Kuso, the $400,000 feature he self-financed.
Set after a massive earthquake hits, we're shown a series of semi-connected stories showcasing the lives of the residents of this new L.A. One that isn’t filled with glamorous movie stars but people covered in pimples, boils and scars. It’s the L.A that lives in Steve’s mind, “I wanted to show people how ugly they are, how ugly they can be” he said.
A few hours before he was set to appear at the first screening for Kuso, at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, we chatted with him about that ugliness, the film, and his dreams of making a Twisted Metal movie.
So how did Kuso start? Because you had a short film you were working on before called Royal, which later became Kuso. It started off as a cartoon, that's how all this happened. I was learning After Effects and I came up with this kind of story line about a racist black cop in L.A, in this world where people are getting this skin disease and he's slowly understanding it before everyone else. And that kind of spawned Royal and after that I got 20 minutes here so let's keep it going.
And where did the title Kuso come from? I don’t remember exactly the moment. I feel like I wrote it out or I looked up the Japanese word for "shit" and it was Kuso and I thought that is perfect, what a great name.
How does it feel knowing that people are calling your film "The grossest film ever made”? AYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY
HAHAHAHAHA. I'm going to put that whole thing in. How many Y's do you want me to put there? A lot bro, I'm ringing the alarm anytime anyone asks me that.
How many times have you been asked that question? I've been asked variations of the same question. Was it your intention to make the grossest film of all time? Yo man, did you set out to make the grossest film of all time? Yo bro (in a surfer accent) were you like, trying to make the grossest film of all time?
No is the answer! Everytime. I never did. I wanted to show people the ugly. That is what my intention was. I felt kind of sickened by everything trying to be beautiful, everything trying to be perfect, everyone looking hot, I was sick of it.
Does that feeling come from living in L.A? Yeah, absolutely. That's a big part of it. It's also a reaction to the films that I've been watching. I'm from a different era of filmmaking: Paul Verohoven and David Cronenberg, people who were really into practical effects. I wanted to go back to that. I just wanted to have fun with the first film I made.
I read somewhere that you were also inspired by the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky... So much, man I have so many movies in my brain, I digested a lot of movies bro.
What were the films that directly inspired Kuso? The closest thing to Kuso is a film called Funky Forest. If anything it inspired the flow of my film. There’s another movie called Meatball Machine, which is hugely influential. It's another of those body horror movies and of course, Tetsuo, the Iron Man.
With this being you first time making a movie, did you seek advice from people on how to set up shots, block actors, etc? Yeah. I'm so blessed to have friends who are amazing filmmakers. I hit up Edgar Wright for that exact thing, like man, do you have any advice on how to block a scene? I had Chris Cunningham come down to my set and Quentin Dupiex, who was my biggest mentor; he’s the guy who did Rubber, Wrong, Wrong Cops; I'm in a bunch of his movies doing cameos. Those were my first experiences on real movie sets, where shit was going down. He was very inviting in that process and I was like, I can do this shit, I can actually do this shit.
Kuso wasn’t even the first movie I tried to make. I had a bunch of things that were brewing and I tried to get projects off the ground, and he was always down to offer advice. The biggest piece of advice he gave to me was “you should just approach making movies the same way you do your music. However that process is, try to find that same way to make it relate and then it will work for you.” I would think about it so much because he was right. He was absolutely right.
And what about when you started production, how did that go? I just had this general anxiety that people were just gonna think that I don't know what I'm doing and people just think that I'm an idiot. I think everyone goes though it. It wasn’t until the end of the movie making process, that I was comfortable smoking weed on set. I think once I started doing that it might have opened up the vibe more.
So something I've noticed in a lot of your music videos and now in Kuso is the use of animation. How important has animation been for you as far as making music and now a film? Oh man, Animation is huge, I’m such a big fan of the process, just the art of it. I just wanted to learn how to do it for so long. I worked so hard that I was able to carve out enough time that I went really deep into learning animation for a while and just stopped being Flying Lotus for a minute.
I'm really glad I took that time because the things I learned ended up applying to Kuso so much because I had to do my own visual effects and I had to learn how to do them through After Effects. Even if worst-case scenario, no one gives a fuck about this film and this goes down as the worst time of my life, I will at least know how to use After Effects HAHAHAHAHA.
I was listening to your appearance on Hannibal Buress Handsome Rambler podcast and you said you were still working on Kuso after the Sundance premiere, so when did you actually finish the film?
I'm still not done. HAHAHAHA
Really? It comes out next week. I'll be totally real with you; I might open it up for the deluxe.
You mean a director’s cut? No, there won’t be a directors cut, what you see is my cut. But there are a few things, some things that nobody will notice.
So you got to put everything you wanted? Totally, no one told me not to do anything.
A lot of filmmakers don't get to do that. I know! I'm in a really unique situation. Shudder has been really good to me.
Did you always see it being on a streaming service? Did you ever think a studio would have picked this up? I know a studio wouldn't pick this up. What my original intention was, just because I didn't want to go through meetings and shit was, I'll just take it on tour. I'll tour the movie like an album. It will come out on my website, you can stream it or I’ll come to the town, I’ll DJ, and then we’ll show the movie in every city. And I'll have made a movie and then done that. It would have worked itself out.
I was just going to do that, because after Sundance there was all this talk about the movie and I was like shit, I can just go on the road right now. I was adding numbers up and I was well shit, I can make a gang of cash doing this. I was on twitter “Yo I don’t even know if I’m gonna sell Kuso right now, I think I'm just gonna keep this shit, next day had an offer HAHAHAHAHA.
So since it’s going to show in a few theaters as well as on Shudder, what is to you the ideal experience of seeing Kuso? Is it in a theater or at home? Every person who makes movies is going to say in a theater right. I would love that
What about just a group of friends on a couch getting high and eating pizza? That's the best. You should be able to be fucked up and happy with your homies or whatever. Or people you don't like. But watch it with someone, that’s where you get the most out of it.
So where does Flying Lotus, the musician end and Steve, the director begin? I wanted to be conscious of putting my name. Because it's not a Flying Lotus movie. It’s not something that I think the average Flying Lotus fan might like. I wanted to have some kind of separation, so it can relief some of the pressure. It was Steve before I announced I was making a movie. I was just a dude who was making his first movie and that’s all that mattered to people. A lot of people I worked with don’t know who Flying Lotus is anyway, so it was like undercover making a movie. I liked that part of it. I think even when I did a rap record, it's the same thing, I just wanted to be in a situation where I didn't feel pressured to have to do a certain type of thing.
A lot of the imagery in Kuso, revolves around the human body, which is something I’ve noticed in a lot of your music videos, what is it about the human body that makes you keep bringing it up in your work? I really like body horror, I’m also a person who had really crazy acne, and so I felt like a fucking monster. I felt like I understood not wanting to look at myself, so I wanted to make a movie where people are so ugly and its all good. People have so much anxiety about it, so I wanted to tap into that.
You casted some well known people, Hannibal Buress, Tim Heidecker, George Clinton, Anders Holm. Did you just pretty much text everyone and just say "hey I’m making a movie do you want to be in it?” Kind of. Honestly, I thought it would get way more support from my friends. The best one was Tim (Heidecker) because there was no hesitation; he was like "When? Ok Tuesday? No problem.”
Was everyone prepared for what this film would end up becoming? With everybody I worked with, I made sure to give them proper heads up, because the worst thing would be is to have people on set and they're like "you want me to do what? Oh hell no I'm out," that would be the absolute worst. I just tried to make sure people know that I wasn't going to go easy on anyone.
I’ve heard that another source of inspiration for this movie is Japanese manga? Yes, definitely. I’m actually trying to adapt some comics right now.
Well speaking of adaptations, you caused quite a stir on Twitter by saying that if everyone went out to go see Kuso, you would adapt Twisted Metal. Yes, let's keep talking about it.
Really, how serious are you? I'm so serious. In the same conversation I was talking about Akira, how I would be down to make that, I actually wouldn't be down to make an Akira movie, because that shit would suck. And honestly, no one should make that movie
Jordan Peele turned it down. You know why? Because he knew people were going to send him death threats and want to crucify his ass. It's best just to not do it, but Twisted Metal? No one will make that movie the way I would do it. I would totally make it like The Usual Suspects but with cars. The Usual Suspects meets Death Race 2000.
Do you have casting choices already? Yeah, I already started talking to Terry Crews on Twitter. I was like "I want Terry Crews to be Axel" and then he was like "yeah I'm a big fan" so I was like "YEAH! LET'S GO MAKE A FUCKING TWISTED METAL MOVIE!" We’re gonna get it popping.
Going back to Kuso, the film comes out in theaters in NY and LA on the same day as Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Girls Trip starring Queen Latifah. FUCK! That's the only one that I'm scared of.
Can you give me your prediction on how much you're going to make opening weekend? I don't know, we're not gonna touch Girls Trip.
What do you think the Rotten Tomatoes score for Kuso is going to be? 35. Here’s the thing, I'm proud of my work. I think that people, they'll say its gross blah blah blah blah blah, but there’s some real shit in there. But who knows? Maybe 30, we’ll see what happens.
You have so many artists contributing music to this movie: Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Aphex Twin, Frankie Reyes. Was that also just texting people to see if they would make music for Kuso or just an extra song lying around? I worked with most of these people specifically for this film. All the musicians I’ve worked with on music projects before, I would just call them over so they can look at stuff and play over stuff. We would just go about it like we would do anything else.
Akira Yamaoka, he did all the Silent Hill stuff, I was really into Silent Hill for some reason around then, and I asked him and he said "Hell Yeah!” He sent me a whole album worth of music. That man is a fucking madman, he sent me all these crazy different sounds and he hadn't seen any footage. This guy just wrote a bunch of stuff just off the feels.
You said you put half your album in this movie. Was that a smart business move? I didn't really think about it business wise, I just did it because it made sense; I'm just doing what makes sense to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.