Flying Lotus on 'the grossest movie ever’ Kuso
Steven Ellison, better known as music producer Flying Lotus, gives us the lowdown on Kuso, his wild, inventive, moving, political and completely gross first feature film
To the best of our knowledge, Royal, the directorial debut by Flying Lotus, is the first film inspired by a GIF. The GIF in question was a black and white photo of Thom Yorke and FlyLo standing behind a DJ booth, which had been crudely animated with a fictitious conversation between the two musicians that imagined the latter dragging the disappointed Radiohead frontman from the turntables after a seven hour set (“Thom, we’re going home. It’s over”).
“It was really silly, but it made me laugh for a long time,” says FlyLo aka Steven Ellison, “and I was thinking, man, I could make stuff like that.” We’re speaking to Ellison on his tour bus while he’s in the middle of his day job as a genius multi-genre music producer, who's currently on tour across Europe. But his side hustle has promise. A trip to Sundance convinced him filmmaking wasn’t a pipe dream. “I saw what won at Sundance that year and I was like, ‘OK, I can make a short film,’ so I went to New York straight after and wrote Royal in no time.”
In October of last year there was this pretty awesome gif going around of me and Thom Yorke djing. pic.twitter.com/l09Y48Gvhq— KUSO July 21st! (@flyinglotus) July 6, 2016
The result was a deliciously perverted story about a couple with some serious dermatological issues and an unconventional sex life. The short premiered in Sundance in 2016, and since then Ellison has expanded Royal to be part of a feature-length portmanteau called Kuso (Japanese for "shit"), which follows various stories from a future LA in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.
Kuso premiered at the following Sundance earlier this year, and Ellison's inspired vision was met with reviews proclaiming it the “grossest movie ever”. Those headlines were not without merit. With Kuso, Ellison delivers a cavalcade of filthy sketches, each sicker than the last. The most inspired section, perhaps, involves a man who seeks a cure for his phobia of breasts from a Jack Russell-sized cockroach named Mr. Quiggle, who dispenses medical treatments from the rim of a doctor’s rectum, in which it seems to reside. Delightfully, the doctor is played by funk legend George Clinton.
It’s a film designed to cause outrage; Ellison must have been delighted with the response. “Initially I loved it,” says Ellison, whose gentle speech is peppered with expletives and hearty laughter. “But then the stories kind of snowballed into things that weren’t true. And then they just started to piss me off.” The number of disgruntled punters at the premiere, for example, had been greatly exaggerated. “It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as they reported, with all the walkouts and all that shit. That was a big ass lie, and I’ve not had that experience before.”
Ahead of Kuso’s wider release, Ellison is braced for more controversy. “I’ve never made a project that’s so divisive,” he confesses. “Some people are just going to fucking hate this movie. That’s fine, but I’m not ready for that yet.” He’s found film-nuts harder to satisfy than music fans. “You know, people can skip a track and still be like, ‘that album was cool.’ Even if you think it sucked it’s no big deal, you’ll check out my next record. But if you hate a movie, you fucking hate a movie. You’re passionate about that hate. You want to make a video about how much you hate this fucking movie. So I’m curious what’s going to happen.”
Perhaps the reason Ellison is so apprehensive is that Kuso isn’t simply a gross-out lark: it’s a deeply personal movie. The apocalyptic, post-earthquake LA he has imagined has deep resonance within his psyche. In 1994, when he was around ten, a huge quake hit the San Fernando Valley, and Ellison’s neighbourhood of Northridge was the epicentre. “I’d never experienced a big earthquake before,” he recalls. “I was a child and that shit shook my whole universe.”
Like many Californians, Ellison lives in fear of ‘The Big One’: the earthquake to end all earthquakes. “It’s in our subconscious,” he says. “People will say to you, ‘I think today might be the day.’ We talk about that shit. You’ll hear lots of dogs barking in the distance one night and you’re like, ‘Maybe I’ll take this sculpture and put it on the floor.’ It’s just something in the back of my mind, and I wanted to put those fears in the movie.”
We suspect Kuso’s reception is also important to Ellison because of what it might mean for black cinema. Black filmmakers have long had the weight of cultural representation on their shoulders; few have had the opportunities to make films as wild, inventive and offensive as Ellison's debut feature.
“It’s sad as fuck to me,” says Ellison when we mention these limitations put on black filmmakers. “How many other black films are there like this? Get Out came out, and it’s huge, but to me it’s not doing anything too different. It’s like an In Living Color sketch. They've probably done something like that on Key and Peele anyway. But there are no black horror filmmakers. There are no black experimental filmmakers. There are a couple of cats, like Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty), he's a great filmmaker and he’s on the come up, but it is kind of barren.”
Donald Glover’s brilliant TV series Atlanta is one recent example of a black writer-director creating something utterly idiosyncratic. “Donald actually showed me the pilot of Atlanta, and I showed him Royal,” recalls Ellison when we bring up Glover. “And afterwards I was like ‘Do you want to be in Kuso?’ And he was like, ‘Let me think about it.’ All the while he’s got this big ass moustache, right, and I was like, ‘What the fuck is the moustache all about, bro?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, well, I had it for an audition.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ ‘Yeah, it’s a big one.’ And I was like, ‘Lando! You’re him! You’re totally going to be him!’”
What was Glover's response? “He didn’t even answer me, but I knew. But I couldn't believe I’d asked him to be in my movie right then. I told him, ‘You can't do this movie now. You’re in the Oprah club.’”
Glover would have given Kuso a bit of star power, but there are still plenty of familiar faces in the cast, including stand-up Hannibal Buress, Tim Heidecker of comedy duo Tim & Eric, and rapper Busdriver. We’re particularly keen to know how Ellison convinced George Clinton to take the role of the physician with a giant bug in his butt. Ellison doubles over laughing at the memory: “Man, I put it to him like this: ‘You want to be in my movie, George?’ He said, ‘Hell yeah!’ And I was like, ‘Would you mind showing your asshole on camera?’ He was like, ‘Huh?’”
Incredibly, that pitch worked. “[George] was super cool, but he came to set the first day and he was like, ‘Hey man, you know I ain’t ever acted before, right?’ ‘Really, for real?’ I said. And then he was like, ‘Where’s the script, because I only know the monologue at the beginning.’ I was like, ‘Oh shit, George, we’re about to shoot right now.’ I shouted, ‘Can someone get George a script? Get him a script right now!’”
It didn't take the Parliament-Funkadelic frontman long to get into the swing of it, though. “George turned out to be amazing. We’d run scenes, and maybe it would take a second or third take, but George was always fucking genuine and interesting. I didn't realise how much I was counting on him being as good as he was. I put a lot of faith in that situation, but I guess I just wanted him to be him, you know, and not hold back.”
Beyond Clinton’s anus-dwelling cockroach, Kuso is a sharply political film. It has much to say about modern Los Angeles and America’s grim history of racism. And while it was conceived and made before Donald Trump made it into the White House, its apocalyptic vision of America feels even more pertinent with that buffoon in power.
“It’s unfortunate that the movie has gained relevance,” sighs Ellison. “I was part of the optimistic left who were thinking Hilary just fucking had that shit. It was all fun and games, but at the end of the day, everyone was going to vote the right way. Now I’m just a cynical motherfucker. I hate all those politicians. It’s all a game to them…” He pauses. Something has just occurred to him: “Those lying motherfuckers should watch my movie.”
While we doubt Kuso will ever make it into the White House screening room (Finding Dory is more The Donald’s speed), we’d love to be a fly on the wall if it did.
Kuso is streaming on SHUDDER UK from 21 Jul