Kuso is not for the faint of heart. The directorial debut of 33-year-old filmmaker Steven Ellison, better known by his musical alias Flying Lotus, is as profane as it is inspired, phantasmagorical as it is scatalogical. Set in the aftermath of a horrific earthquake that tears opens a transdimensional rift across Los Angeles, Kuso follows the stories of several survivors reconciling with the strange new horrors that plague their daily existence. The film is a serpentine patchwork of roughly four individual shorts, interspersed with psychedelic segues bookended by blistering spoken word performances courtesy of rapper-producer Regan Farquhar. One half musical, one half waking nightmare, Kuso is designed to offend, siphoning the raw quintessence of transgressive cinema. It is an anarchic work of unrestrained artistic bravado that flaunts obscenities as readily as it skewers sensibilities, a film as grotesque as it is eerily poignant.
In the lead up to the film’s premiere via Shudder on July 21st and screenings across select cities in America, Paste caught up with Ellison to discuss the origins behind the project, what the future holds for his career as a creator, and how a chance encounter with Shia Labeouf spurred him to finally realize his dream of becoming a filmmaker.
Paste: You’ve amassed a worldwide fanbase through your music over the past decade. However, some of your listeners though may not be familiar with the fact you attended the Los Angeles Film School before you broke out as Flying Lotus. What do you remember from your time there, and how do you feel that experience shaped your career not only as a musician, but as a filmmaker?
Steve Ellison: I got a real good technical education from going there—ya know, like the technical language of filmmaking and what crews do on shoots. And I learned the kind of hierarchy and organization that goes into making a movie, but there was a weird thing going on there and it was I guess a mindset that they tried to instill in us that kind of fucked me up. Before I went to that school I felt more free in my ideas and I spent a lot of time unlearning what I learned. So it was a good thing and a bad thing. But I am grateful for the experience, the hands-on experience. I think they’re trying to breed a certain kind of filmmaker that I wasn’t, or at least that was the case when I was there. I felt like an outsider, but I guess that’s how artists usually feel, right?
Paste: You’ve scored several independent film and audio-visual projects prior to producing Kuso, such as Eddie Alcazar’s 2016 short film FUCKKKYOUUU or your work with Xavier Magot on the “visual mixtape” for your rap alias Captain Murphy. How did those projects, specifically scoring a short film and curating visual samples, prepare you for eventually producing your own feature-length film?
Ellison: Well, I think the best part of working on all these other projects was just getting the experience to be there, to see how bigger productions are run. And I got so inspired by working on the FUCKKKYOUUU project because that initially just came out of us listening to my music. It was never like, a commissioned project. It just kind of happened naturally out of Eddie and I just chillin’. I got to watch the spark in his eyes taken to Sundance, and that was hugely influential. Just the fact that he was able to put it together. He put it together so fast because he was just super inspired that he felt the spark, he didn’t wait and let the idea linger. He put his own money into it. So I saw what that would do, I saw what potential that had, and that was really, really inspiring to me. Just watching that thing come to life. And ya know, I was also a part of it, contributing ideas and to the music and sound editing. So by the end of that project I just figured, “why not just make one of my own?” That became [the first short] Royal pretty much, and I just kept going after that.
Paste: The earliest news of you working on a film goes as far back as 2015, with you stating the ideas which would eventually become Kuso first came together during a trip to Japan. You’ve named the country as one of, if not the, major inspiration behind your film, with even the film’s name “Kuso” itself being the Japanese word for “shit.” What is it about Japan, specifically its culture and cinema, that inspires you?
Ellison: There was one time I went to Japan—it was probably like before 2015—and I saw this poster when I passed by a movie theater. It was a poster of these two cats, and they were kind of like magical cats, just floating around and looking mischievous. I just came up with this whole story of who they were and what they were about. And that actually ended up becoming part of the movie in its own way, like with the two furry aliens in [the short Mr. Quiggle], that was pretty much the story I came up with about those cats. So that’s pretty much the oldest idea I had for the film. I started working in 2015, started working on animation and designing characters and building the world via “the disease.” I started coming up with five minutes of animation, and then Royal came after that, and then I had a twenty-minute thing, so I was like, why just do a twenty-minute project? I got to keep going, so it kept evolving in real-time. I didn’t have a whole script for what Kuso was going to be; I was just chipping away at it until I thought it was done.
Paste: You’ve been a not so low-key cinephile throughout your entire career, citing such directors as Takeshi Miike, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lucio Fulci and Nobuhiko Obayashi as influences on your work. If you were to curate a list of films to watch in a similar vein to Kuso, which films would you recommend?
Ellison: Absolutely. I would say if you like Kuso, you should definitely watch Obayashi’s Hausu. Maybe Funky Forest—I think that’s like the closest thing to Kuso in a way. There’s a movie I love called Meatball Machine, Tetsuo: The Iron Man ... yeah I don’t know, that’s a good question! There’s a lot of things I pull from, like Ren & Stimpy, some graphic novels and ero guro manga ideas in there.
Paste: You’ve talked about how important it is to you to produce films that depict marginalized ideas and dimensions of the black experience that are otherwise underserved by mainstream projects. What sort of voices do you feel are being pushed out to the fringes, and what sort of creators are you looking to reach out to and empower through Brainfeeder Films?
Ellison: Well, I just want to see minorities doing different things. I want to see all types of characters that I haven’t seen before. Not with like every black character having to be from the hood, or every black character trying to escape the ghetto. I’m so tired of shit, like c’mon man we got more stories to tell. And, I want to tell ’em. I feel a responsibility to show some different things I think about and have seen. I found my opening I guess right now. No one else is going to be that person, so I guess I should go on and be that guy because who else is going to do it?
Paste: When you premiered the first clip of Kuso at last year’s Sundance NEXT fest, you credited yourself under the name “Steve” instead of your more well-known moniker Flying Lotus. Was this a deliberate decision to differentiate your film career from your music? As a creator, does the distinction between a Flying Lotus film and a Steve film matter to you at all?
Ellison: Yeah, there’s definitely a difference. First off, when I started on the project, I wanted to do it without any pressure. I didn’t want to feel like I was making a Flying Lotus music video, some “extended music video” or “visual album.” I really just wanted to have a clean slate. So I was like, I’m going to pick the most anonymous name next to Jon which is Steve, my own name! [laughter] I was just going to be Steve and that’s it, like the most boring name of all time but I’m going to make that name mean something. It was about having that clean slate, but also, too, I don’t think this is how people would imagine a Flying Lotus movie. Kuso’s not how I would imagine a Flying Lotus movie. So I just wanted a sense of separation, without pressure so I could establish a new thing for myself.
Paste: In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Pink Flamingos director John Waters expressed the opinion that the era of midnight movies is“dead” in the wake of online instant streaming services tied to major marketing campaigns. With Kuso being your first self-funded film distributed through Shudder, what are your thoughts on the commercial vitality of midnight movies? What qualifies as a midnight movie now in the 21st century?
Ellison: I think that midnight movies suggest that you’re not alone. It suggests that you’re watching it in a cinema at midnight. It’s a social experience—that’s what I think that ultimately suggests. You’re watching it with a bunch of people at some type of gathering with your friends. It also suggests there’s going to be some gross horror shit, I guess [laughter]. But John Waters, he’s great and all, but he ain’t the authority on midnight movies. I don’t think they’ve died. I think, if anything, because of the internet and that people are so open now and have seen so much stuff that I think that there’s a new era now. Adult Swim helped usher in a bunch of new ideas after midnight, so yeah I think there’s a lot of great ideas on the horizon. It can be done cheap and still look beautiful. I feel like so many people are down about film now, while I’m just so excited to make movie right now. There’s a lot of ideas, a lot of characters I haven’t seen yet, and that’s the heart of films—characters. So I’m excited to show some people some new people. Introduce folks to some new folks [laughter].
Paste: Throughout the promotion of Kuso, you’ve said that you wanted to make a film for your sixteen-year-old self and that the initial idea behind Kuso was “pretty much everything that I’m afraid of.” Knowing that, I have to ask, What is it that scares you?
Ellison: The whole film kind of stems from my initial anxiety about the “The Big One” because I live in LA. I was in the Northridge quake in ’94. I was like ten years old at the time, and for me it was a traumatic experience. It was something that I think, for anyone living in LA at that time, we all have that anxiety. We all know that one day there’s going to be some big-ass earthquake that’ll be much, much worse. I wanted to make a film about that anxiety first. Get through those ideas and then move on to everything else.
Paste: Was the act of creating a film for yourself, producing it yourself with no distribution at all to speak of, one of those things that terrified you?
Ellison: Yeah. I think I’ve talked myself out of making a movie for years. It’s not like all of a sudden I was, “I’m gonna make a film now!.” I’ve had several ideas that I thought I could turn into a film. I’ve written scripts before. It’s not my first foray, so it’s been a long time coming, and I think a lot of that time was spent in self doubt. In just like, the fear of failure. The thing that stops a lot of people held me there for a long time. Especially since I already had success in music. I mean with that, why do anything else? I had a really interesting moment with Shia Labeouf over this same idea. He came over my house with Alma Har’el, this director that I had been working with. She insisted that I show him some of my film, so I showed him some of my animation and he looked at me and said, “Yo, why are you doing this? Why are you making this? Why not just do music? Music is going so well for you? What are you afraid of and why do you want to make movies so bad?” And I was like so offended where I was like, How could you … you should know! Of all people, you should know! You’re a man positioning yourself to be an artist, so you should understand what it’s like to want to do something else. To be more than just one thing. That whole encounter with him inspired me to the point where I was like, “I cannot fail now. I’m gonna finish this shit.” It was really inspiring in that way.
Paste: Woah, that’s a trip.
Ellison: Yeah, we almost got into a fight in my house. He was real upset man, and by the end, the conversation got really frustrating. But, to be honest, I felt like it was so important that I don’t feel bad about it anymore. I needed someone to kind of question me, and I think he knew that too in a way. He felt like he needed to challenge me and my reasons for getting into his world, I guess.’Cuz it’s like him coming up to me and playing his album, right? So I get it. I get where it comes from, but at the same time I was like, I’m not fucking Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here. I’m not going to be that guy who’s fucking around out here—I’m jumping in full force, beating up the biggest kid in the room and that’s that. With sensitivity, I have nothing but respect for that guy. He’s going through his own intense, personal journey and that was part of our conversation. I wish the best for him, and I was really inspired by him. I’m thankful for that.
Paste: With Kuso in the can, what sort of film projects would you like to explore in the future? You’ve floated several ideas publicly, an afro-futurist sci-fi movie in the vein of Space Is the Place, and even a desire to adapt the video game series Twisted Metal.
Ellison: Yeah, I would love to do that! Honestly, I hope this is the start of many things. I’ve started writing a new script already, but there are a couple of other ideas I’ve got floating around, too. Whatever happens next, whatever takes off first, I’m down. I’m just living it out day to day. But I got to finish my album before I start on my next movie [laughter]. That’s where I’m focused now. I’ve been making a lot of music right now so yeah, I think I’ll have my record done pretty soon.
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications such as Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.