When Steven Ellison, or “Steve,” the director alias of avant hip-hop mystic Flying Lotus, presented audiences with their first glimpse at his experimental art film Kuso in August, he handed out barf bags.
The short he was showing then, during the Sundance NEXT festival, was titled Royal, the first of several he would stitch together into the debauched, fleshy fabric that is Kuso. That short took its name from its principal “character,” a sentient boil with a thirst for human ejaculate. In the film, Los Angeles has been destroyed by an unimaginably strong earthquake, and all the characters are struggling to make sense of the various deformities they’ve suffered in the wake of the disaster. The talking boil — which also vomits at one point in the film — lives on a woman who’s engaged in an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with her brother.
Considering the depth of this nightmare, you might assume its creator would exude a similar wickedness, but Ellison is all smiles. The 33-year-old LA-born artist was relaxed when Mic spoke with him Wednesday, his red Jordans kicked up on an ottoman as he lounged in a New York City conference room reserved for AMC’s horror-movie streaming service, Shudder. Ellison chuckled at the thought of his film is being widely described as the “grossest movie ever made.”
“It’s not,” he said matter-of-factly. “But to be fair, it was great for us to have that kind of press, because you know, how many films get labeled that? How many films get talked about at all? So many films got played at Sundance, but I didn’t hear about many of them.”
The film’s full January debut allegedly prompted walkouts at Sundance, a fact the director checked on Twitter. He seemed to get a sly thrill from that story, speaking of it like super villain coyly acknowledging that everything is going according to plan. There are methods behind the madness, to hear Ellison explain it.
His work has been trending this way for some time now. Flying Lotus’ most recent album, 2014’s You’re Dead!, sported pictures of disemboweled bodies throughout its liner notes. It came paired with music videos featuring Cronenberg monstrosities. The music — a mix of dissonant jazz fusion and skittering electronic textures — pushed against narrow conventions of what hip-hop and black music should sound like.
His film aims to do a similar thing with movie-making: expand the variety of stories and styles that audiences see from black filmmakers.
Kuso is Flying Lotus vomiting at the feet of the gatekeepers.
Ahead of its July 21 debut on Shudder, Mic talked with Ellison about his influences and intentions for the film, his next album as Flying Lotus — half of which is scattered throughout the movie — and his views on the real-life dystopia we’re all trapped in right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: You started work on Kuso in 2015. What was going on with you and inspiring you at that time?
Steven Ellison: For one, I was really inspired by disease. I don’t why, man. I think we just have anxiety about it in these times. I’m trying to remember the fucking epidemic then. It was just after the Ebola scare again, before Zika. I think that, and general anxieties about the [1994 Northridge earthquake that happened when I was 10 years old] and my own personal fears. I was having weird skin problems and stuff. I just pulled from all that shit and just [presented] it like, “That’s the world.”
When I got to the end of the film the first time, I felt this sense of gratitude, like, “I’m so glad to be back to this world, I’ve got my health.” Is that the kind of reaction you’re intending to get from audiences?
SE: It’s supposed to feel like a nightmare. It’s the best way I could describe the feeling I was going for. It should feel nightmarish; it should feel like a really bad dream; it should flow like a dream. That was definitely something I was going for.
Regarding the Sundance walkouts that first turned a lot of people onto the film — did that surprise you? How did you expect the film would be received?
SE: They didn’t actually walk out, man. It was weird that the film’s narrative got shaped so early. At that point, I was still working on it. It was really frustrating that, like, my little cousin who doesn’t know much about me hit me up and was like, “Man, so like, what happened at the movie, man? I heard they all walked out.”
“That’s not true, dude. That’s not what happened.”
“I heard it’s the grossest film of all time.”
It’s not the grossest film of all time. People are just trying to get clicks, I guess.
What do you think is the grossest film of all time?
SE: Depends. I think sometimes people measure grossness by how malicious it can be, too, like the intent. One journalist was like, “Well, I didn’t think it was the grossest movie of all time. I saw a movie where a man wears another man’s face, and I thought that was the grossest thing I’d ever seen.”
“Great? That’s you, to me that’s not too gross.”
I don’t know what the grossest film of all time is to me. I love Martyrs [a divisive, gory 2008 film from director Pascal Laugier]. I think that’s a brilliant movie. It’s one of the hardest films I’ve ever watched. Especially if you want to talk about intentions.
The music in the film is also getting a lot of buzz — from Solange, from producer Jonwayne. How much of the music did you have already before going into the film, and how much of it was created to specifically fill in gaps for the movie?
SE: I had a few things before, and it was helpful to have some of that stuff. But a lot of it, especially the more score-y stuff, I had to do after the fact. Half the new [Flying Lotus] album is embedded in here. I have to finish the other half now.
Are you thinking of the new album as a Kuso companion?
SE: It’s different. There’s a lot of that stuff in there. Some people will only see or hear Kuso, but it’s definitely a bit more varied.
What attracts you about the dystopian?
SE: I guess it’s just, like, inevitable. It’s the inevitable reality. I like stories where the world has encountered a shared experience. Like, we’ve all been through something together and maybe we can get over our little shit, and now we’ve got this big issue that we can all talk about. I think there’s something about that in stories that I really like.
Looking at the real world, that’s something that occurred to me around the time Donald Trump got elected president. Like, hopefully, this is what it takes to get people working together and being proactive, rather than being divided by petty differences. I don’t know if that’s actually happened.
SE: Yeah, that was a real punch in the nuts. That just deflated me in that moment. For a lot of people, I’m sure. It killed the morale, a lot of the morale we had built from the good old ’Bama times.
Maybe that healing and that resolution is still going to come. Maybe that’s part of some cycle of dystopia.
SE: I think so. I’m with you on that, man. I think we had to test the waters with some bullshit [like electing Donald Trump], just so we could say, “Alright, fuck that, never again.” Hopefully. Either that or the Rock will be our president next. Or Kanye. Oh god, I’d rather take the Rock. Fuckin’ hell man.
Why’s that? Have you met Kanye?
SE: We’ve met a couple times, but that’s going to be about it. He was [nice]-ish. He’s Kardashian’d out now, bro. I don’t know.
I always want to be on his team, and I want to like what he does, but I’m usually left a little flat.
It feels appropriate that your film is getting all this buzz following the success of Get Out. Do you feel like you and Jordan Peele are working toward a similar goal?
SE: [Get Out] played at Sundance the day after me. It was really interesting to be there at the same time as that and see how much that film impacted people. It was cool. He figured out how to do it in a way that’s very mainstream, but it made people feel all types of ways when they saw it. There’s something really important about that. I wish he would hit me up, man. Maybe invite me to make a project in his new company that he started.
But I don’t know, he’s going in a bit of a different direction than I want to. I’m always going to be more of the outsider kind of dude. I don’t know if my intention is to ever make a film for everybody.
That reminds me of something you said in February, that our culture expects black filmmakers to tell a very specific type of story. Is the gross-out factor in Kuso a retaliation against that?
SE: Dude, yes. It kills me. It kills me so hard. I’m not gonna do that. Leave it to everybody else to do that ‘hood story about that kid trying to escape the ghetto, and he’s talented, but the streets are calling — fuck that. I’m over it. Please, show us something else. That was another reason why I pushed this film like I did. I knew that I had to do something a little different. And I knew motherfuckers — like even the black kids aren’t gonna get it. They’re like, “Why did you do it?” That’s the saddest part, you know?
I was surprised to see so many black kids at the screening [on Tuesday at Brooklyn’s House of Vans]. Like, ya’ll might actually get on board with this? It would be cool to see.
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