Flying Lotus Was 'Just Having Fun' When He Made the Grossest Movie Ever
After a steady stream of Sundance walkouts, Steven Ellison gets real about his new feature 'Kuso.'
Imagine an episode of Fear Factor so grotesque and limit-pushing that the least gross part of it is the cacophony of shit on-screen. That's a hint at the experience of watching recording artist Flying Lotus a.k.a. Steven Ellison's new movie Kuso. A few loosely connected shorts make up the film, which debuted at Sundance to a steady stream of walkouts and is already being heralded by some as "the grossest movie ever made." It stars George Clinton, Bus Driver, Tim Heidecker, and Hannibal Buress.
I had a chance to watch the film at its midnight premiere at the famed Egyptian Theatre on Main street in Park City. The showing was sold out, the theater packed with an eager art house crowd and hey, why not, Tim Robbins. Flying Lotus introduced the film, warning that nearly the entire cast was in attendance and any walk-outs would be hazed. The warning was unnecessary, in the end, because despite the outrageously gross cinematic landscape that awaited us, no one walked out of the screening that night.
Yes, Kuso is disgusting. There is a seemingly never-ending stream of shit and semen and vomit on-screen. There is incest. There is a climax so fucked and graphic I audibly gasped and had to do deep breathing exercises to keep from gagging. But there is also a remarkable freshness in seeing a nearly all-black cast take on a world of mutation and morbid sexuality. Ellison uses shock and awe to create a visual topography that is at turns nauseating and captivating. Beneath the barrage of bile and bodily fluids, though, is a filmmaker inspired by the likes of Jodorowsky and Eisenstein. He even manages to get George Clinton to show his (prosthetic) asshole on-screen and yet somehow that's not the craziest thing that happens, not by a long shot.
I sat down with him at Sundance just after the premiere to talk about the reaction and why this is really just a film for movie lovers.
VICE: So last night was a huge deal for you. How did it feel showing that to an audience at Sundance?
Flying Lotus: It was terrifying, but it was also really just like a big weight lifted off of me cause this was like a big secret on my computer for like a year and a half pretty much, so it's nice to finally unleash it and you know, cleanse myself of it too so I can move on. Yeah, it's great. I went through a wave of all of the feelings.
Before we saw the movie, you kind of talked about hazing people who walked out but, actually, not that many people left.
Yeah, not many people left. I was actually told to be prepared for a lot of walk-outs just because that's how the festivals go, and some people started getting up and moving around, and shifting around, and I started becoming real conscious of it, and it started freaking me out a little bit, but then I did a Q&A after, and I saw that pretty much everybody was still there, and I was like, "Oh, great, cool!" It was fun.
Were you surprised at all with the reaction?
I was surprised, yes and no. I was surprised that as many people stayed, to be honest. I was really grateful for that, but at the same time, I am a believer in the work, I am confident in what I do, I do think it's a unique piece of art in this landscape of movies, and I do believe it's different. For that reason, I feel very proud, and I feel all types of ways about it. Like, "how did this happen?" and "why did it happen?" But at the same time, I'm like, "fuck yeah, I did that," so it's like all of those things at once.
How did it happen?
Uh, pot? No [chuckles]. It happened, it all started with this really stupid GIF that was going around of me and Thom Yorke DJ'ing. I remember I dropped a friend off, and I saw this stupid GIF on my phone, and it was going on so long, and I was like, "This is actually hilarious. Yo, I can make shit like that, I got ideas for these little shits, I could make some crazy stupid little GIFs." I came up with this idea that was a five-minute short animation-thing, and I hit up David Firth, and I was like, "Yo, help me make this animation," and it just kinda blossomed. I worked on animation for like five months, and I was like, "Yo this is getting really hard, maybe I should get some live action elements, and then Royal happened, and I was like, "Now there's 20 minutes of stuff happening, so maybe I should just go and get a feature," and it just kinda blossomed like that.
Where did the idea for that initial short Royal come from?
It kind of just came about from reading a bunch of Japanese comics and getting really inspired by Manga as well as just a lot of Asian cinema. I use that as a huge influence in my toolset, I guess. My biggest influences are from Japan, I think. So maybe that mixed with black characters makes it feel like a strange mashup, but I did feel like, while I was doing it, why haven't I seen this before? It's weird that it's fresh. It's weird that it's unique. It's sad that it's unique. It was also sad that it was hard to find black actors to fill in the roles; people were scared to work with me. You'd think in this time where people are talking about diversity and Hollywood that it would be easier to find minorities to be in the roles, but it was fucking hard. People are scared if it's not their usual. It's been a funny journey, for sure.
Actually one of the things that hit me right away watching was the fact that we got to see black characters doing things that we never get to see. How important was that to you to make that central?
It's hugely important for me to bring the different characters to the screen. I feel like that is part of what I'm supposed to do, part of my journey as a filmmaker is to tell different stories, whether they are just a black perspective on things that aren't necessarily hood movies or Tyler Perry movies or Ava Duvernay movies. Love all those people, but that whole thing has been sewed up already. There's room for me in this arena, so I'm going to do that stuff.
You obviously had the trust of your actors from George Clinton all the way to Bus Driver. How did you eventually get people onboard?
At first, it was just reaching out on Twitter, that was so crucial, being able to DM people like little bits of the movie, like, "This is kinda what I'm doing, you like it or ya don't?"
How much did you let them in on what was coming down the pipe, so to speak?
[Laughs] I tried to be as honest as possible because the one thing I didn't want to get was someone halfway onboard, and then they like read something, and go, "I don't know about this" while we're shooting, and then it becomes a big old thing. I tried to be very honest with people, "I'd love to see your butthole on camera, can we make that happen?" We didn't! But still.
At first watch, you may just have a visceral reaction to everything you're seeing, but after I left, I thought about the post-apocalyptic setting that seemed dystopian and far away but really, given what's just happened on Friday, doesn't seem that far away in reality.
It trips me out that there's more relevance with what's happening in the world. It's really scary. Might not be far from that. What's actually really trippy was that around the same time I was shooting, there was like a really strange thing going around LA where people were like predicting this giant earthquake was going to happen, and you know, we were like, "man, what if we are the reason why this earthquake is happening?" like, "what if we're filming this, and it doesn't happen, but what if it does, and we'll actually get way better production value as we'll go around shooting like decrepit buildings and shit." That didn't happen, though. But I do hope to be there when the big one hits in LA, face my fears head on. I'd hate to be here or something, chilling on the beach somewhere when I hear about the big one hitting LA, I'd be sad. I wanna be there in the thick of it.
I saw a lot of visual inspirations there from Jodorowsky to Eisenstein. What inspired the visuals in the film?
It's hard to say. I feel like at this point we're all bombarded by imagery and influences, so it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, but I'm just a fan of cinema. I've seen like a million movies, so I just use it all from Jodorowsky to Miike. I use it all.
What about the marriage of music and visuals here? Obviously it's a huge part of what you do. Talk a bit about the process of the soundtrack.
Yeah, the soundtrack and the music and the sound design, it all kind of felt unified to me. I tried to keep it all feeling the same, like even the sound effects. It's a stupid thing, but even some of the sound effects are in key with the music. There's like really tricky rhythmic things that happen like weird slap sounds like dsssht… dsssht like on beat and stuff. It's really stupid, but I had to. It's really weird, nerdy things that like the producers who like my music will notice in the movies. "Did you do that?" Yeah, I actually did. It was fun to get into that stage, lay it into the process, and go back to my most comfortable, you know, art form and get into that and really, really dig into it. Even now I'll go back and work on it, on those sounds, and it'll be fun.
You've said that this is a movie for your 16-year old self. Who was that person?
I remember being 16, showing people that normally wouldn't see crazy Japanese movies, but I'd be the one showing them like, "Yo, have you seen this? Have you seen that?" so it's for that kid who's trying to be like, "Yo, man, have you seen this crazy-ass movie?" I'm just having fun, you know, and I'm targeting the people who are still having fun watching movies.
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