Steve Ellison, the artist primarily known as Flying Lotus, wants to "show people the ugly," so the Grammy-nominated producer made a film. His directorial debut, under the name mononym,"Steve," comes with Kuso, a new body horror comedy that follows the lives of disfigured men, women, and children living in Los Angeles after a catastrophic earthquake. Projected through a network of discarded televisions, Kuso bounces from screen to screen in a series of interwoven vignettes that depict intimate character profiles set in a post-apocalyptic universe.
The film has made a lot of noise since massive walkouts during its first screening at Sundance back in January prompted critics to call it both "grotesque" and straight-up "disgusting." The Verge went as far to label it "the grossest movie ever made." Within the film's 95-minute runtime, among other things, an erect penis is stabbed with a giant steel rod, a man gives birth to a cockroach anally, and a talking neck boil performs oral sex.
Beyond the profusion of bodily fluids, the costume and set design seen throughout the live action sequences are perhaps the most eye-grabbing components of the film. Kuso combines eerie animation, comedy, bizarro special effects, dynamic prosthetic work, with, expectedly, a kickass score featuring contributions from Kamasi Washington, Aphex Twin, and Akira Yamaoka. The film is also riddled with brilliant cameos from Hannibal Buress, Tim Heidecker, Anders Holm, and George Clinton. Creators recently spoke with Steve over the phone to talk about his hands-on approach to filmmaking and some of the things he learned during this two-year making of Kuso.
Creators: The physical layout of each scene, from the furniture to the props, creates a thoroughly complete image that's hard not to appreciate. How did you and the other writers work with the art department to bring this vision to the big screen?
Flying Lotus: I was so in the trenches with this film. I got to get real specific about the details. Like, the early Tim Burton movies are so him, and I knew I was gonna do that with this movie; I knew this was gonna be the one I got super dirty with. This is the movie where you see things from my sketchbook come to life. I really wanted it to be that kind of project. I really wanted to dig deep for it, but I also had really talented designers around so it was a combination of both. I had this vision of this taking place in kind of like a pre-internet world, a world where the technology hadn't really blown up yet. I wanted to show that mid-90s kind of vibe. Everything kind of stems from that place—it was a lot of fun, though. I love doing all the little details, designing the characters outfits, designing some of the prosthetic stuff, and the monsters.
What was your introduction to animation and video like?
I was just messing around in Photoshop, learning how to make things look weird and funky. And then I just kept doing it. I would have my friends send me pictures and stuff and then I would just do up their faces all crazy, just for fun. It was something else to do other than just draw in my sketchbook. And then it just kept evolving into this thing.
I imagine making electronic music and editing sound translates pretty well to using programs like Photoshop and After Effects. Was that your experience?
Absolutely. That's why it didn't feel completely unnatural to go in that direction. It just felt so similar, it just felt like now I'm editing visual, photoshop layers instead of audio. But I mean they are also so different. I think early on, when I was just fucking around with PS and AE, I saw how much the stuff I made was bothering my friends. They would be like, "Ugh, oh my god, what is that?" And I was like, "Well, something about this is doing something for them right now."
Was it your intention to make a film that would elicit that sort of reaction?
I didn't set out to make this vile film that people couldn't even sit through. More so, I wanted to show people the ugly. I wanted to show people some ugly at a time when everyone is trying to look pretty and everybody wants their face on everything. I wanted to show you your ugly ass in all its glory.
I saw that Eddie Alcazar is one of the producers on the film. Does Kuso feel like a sort of natural progression from the short you made with him last year?
It was all a perfect storm that led up to this. But yeah I think the last pieces of the puzzle came when I worked with Eddie Alcazar on FUCKKKYOUUU. To me, that film was hugely influential in my wanting to make a movie and mustering up the courage to actually do it. He and I became really good friends after that project, and while we were working on it, we pretty much came up with it together. He had the idea, I had the music. But it didn't happen until we met and were in a room together. We just kept exchanging ideas and it became what you saw. And I felt so close to that. I felt like, "Man I can do this. I'm ready. And you know what? Eddie can help me. If he says we can do it, and he knows some people, lets just do it. Fuck it." Then I got some money and so we were like, "Let's make this shit." And then Royal [a short film by Steve] happened, and the rest is history. When we first had the idea, I was already working on some animation stuff, and I had some time off of music, too, so I didn't have to focus too much on that. I had the time I could just carve out for doing something new. So it was sort of like a perfect storm.
A lot of the editing and sound design featured in Kuso reminds me of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and other Adult Swim classics. Did these programs influence your work at all?
Absolutely. I think Tim and Eric and Adult Swim were hugely influential. You know it's funny, I started showing Tim clips of the movie and he'd be like, "Wow! We never pushed this far in the show." And I was like, "Yes! I got you, motherfucker." And it was super fun. Tim was a such good sport about everything. He was so awesome. I would tell him, "Man, I'm like your child. This is the result of your efforts, too." But also, and a lot of people don't know this, but people like Dave Willis from Aqua Teen Hunger Force helped write some of this with me. I mean, Aqua Teen Hunger Force was hugely influential in the film, too. The scene with the aliens and the girl on the couch and shit. That's Aqua Teen right there. So it's got a lot of Adult Swim-ness in there definitely. We also worked with the editor from The Eric Andre Show, Luke Lynch, so he helped me out a lot, too. There's a lot of different influences in there.
You've also talked about the influence of Japanese cinema in your work, specifically horror films. How did that genre play a role in Kuso's aesthetic?
I think more than anything, what I got from Japan was their openness to the ideas; the abstractions, I love that. I also think I picked up the way I like to use the camera, and the way I like to direct scenes. I feel like I learned a lot of that stuff from watching Japanese films, period. Whether it be like [Akira] Kurosawa or Takashi Miike. Those guys are on two different sides of the spectrum, but I always followed how they put scenes together. You know, like, Seven Samurai, I love that movie. I think a lot of that influenced my decision-making with the cameras and stuff. There's one film specifically that I think is the closest thing to Kuso: Funky Forest. I feel like if anybody likes Kuso, if you're a fan of the movie, you should go check that out. It's a really cool film.
In the past, you've talked about using film as a platform to address some of your fears and anxieties, as opposed to railing about them on Twitter. How does filmmaking provide a unique outlet in terms of your self expression?
I think with films you get different interpretations of an idea, and you get a lot more room to play with different perspectives and different voices that can agree or disagree with one another. With Twitter, I just try to keep my mouth shut. Motherfuckers will try and make a headline out of anything, so I have to be careful with that. But with films, I can explore a lot of different things. And I've found that by working on this film and finding my way through this process, I've kind of figured out my place in the universe in a way. I feel like, "Oh, ok. I have to be this guy now. This is my opening. There's nobody in this lane so I'm gonna be this guy right now because there's something missing and I can fill it."
Is the film intentionally ambiguous?
I didn't want everything to be spelled out, but I did leave all the piece there for people. If anyone cares enough to watch it again, you might see something you didn't notice the first time that will make it all make sense for you. I definitely left all the pieces there, or at least I tried to without spelling out.
Are you surprised by the reception thus far?
Completely surprised. The fact that it even went to Sundance, I mean, that's every up-and-coming filmmaker's dream. Regardless of whatever happens, to me that was super fun. At the end of the day, whether or not it was a positive thing, no other movie got talked about as much as the 'grossest movie of all time' or whatever they want to call it. So I was really proud of it just existing in the landscape. It's so hard to even make a movie and just the fact that it can exist and be seen is huge to me. You know I'm new to this shit, so it feels like a miracle that we've gotten this far.