Kuso, Flying Lotus’s provocative and grotesque directorial debut, opens with a scene in which a newsreader goes rogue during his live broadcast and begins to sing over sprawling jazz. His skin, like that of many characters in the film, is crawling off the bone and there is a manic look in his eye. He is singing about a world gone mad in the wake of a major earthquake in California. It’s a gripping and unsettling introduction to the mind-melting world of Kuso.
Equal parts blood-soaked horror, electronic musical, and surreal fever dream, Kuso tells the story of four survivors after an earthquake in California. It stars George Clinton, Anders Holm, and Tim Heidecker as some of the film’s unsettling array of freaks and weirdos; Hannibal Buress voices a fur-covered alien. It’s got one of the year’s most impressive soundtracks too, with new music from Aphex Twin, Thundercat, as well as FlyLo himself. The film’s real mission, however, feels similar to that of the newsreader: to take you by the scruff of the neck and make sure you pay attention. What plays out is often repulsive and even vomit-inducing, as some Sundance audience members found out to their cost earlier this year. Reporting from that festival, The Verge called Kuso “the grossest movie ever made.”
The film began in October 2015 when FlyLo, aka Steven Ellison, found a GIF of himself and Thom Yorke DJing that piqued his interest in animation. From there it evolved into an all-consuming passion, with Ellison dedicating two and a half years of his life and a large sum of money to the project. Ahead of its release on July 21 on the Shudder streaming service, Ellison told The FADER about confronting his darkest fears, trying to cast Donald Glover, and how he brought his twisted vision to life without compromising.
How do you think people will react to Kuso?
I know some people are going to fucking hate it. But some people will love it too. It’s not for a lot of people but if the right people find it, they’ll see something they have been wanting for a long time. Those people’s prayers are being answered. It speaks to a specific type of film fan and I’m excited to connect with them. This isn’t a movie for Flying Lotus fans necessarily. It’s going to bring new people to me.
How would you describe Kuso to someone who hadn't seen it?
One day I watch it and it’s a slapstick comedy, one day it’s a musical, and others it’s a bizarro horror. It’s kind of all over the place in that sense. I think, if anything, the music fans will be happy. They can always close their eyes and listen to the music.
The story follows four different characters confronting their darkest fears. These four characters we follow have elements of my personality in them; my own fears are in this film as well. It’s revealing in that way and it’s fun to put it out into the world.
You have said that you might not have made Kuso if you knew how hard it was going to be. Can you talk through the process of getting the movie together?
I felt like I spent so much time alone, chipping away. I had a lot of help but not as much as I really needed. I pushed all the favors as far as I could and sacrificed time, money, and relationships to pursue this project. I had to keep my head down and I missed a lot of things that were going on. I didn’t think I’d be working on it every day for two and a half years.
You mentioned the financial aspect of making this movie. How much of your own money did you put into it?
I put in some money that I had made from playing festivals and working with Kendrick Lamar, around $400k. It was pretty scary. Thankfully I was able to sell the movie to Shudder and make the money back so it’s already a success story. I am happy to say that the movie is pretty fucking close to being exactly how I imagined it. I’m really happy with that. Being independent can lead to compromise though, whether that’s on your cast or your music. If you jump into filmmaking you’re compromising period. It will never go 120% your way.
“Despite how gross it is, there’s still a lot of art in this movie. I’d hate for that to be overlooked because there’s some disgusting stuff in it.”
The movie’s cast includes Hannibal Buress, Zack Fox, and George Clinton, among others. Was there anyone who you wanted but couldn’t get?
I really wanted Donald Glover to be in the movie, but this was right before Atlanta and he’s just been on fire since then. I wanted him to be part of an ‘80s video dating service in the movie. Donald would be one of the guys that [one of the characters] was interested in. The timing didn’t work though. He’s going to be fucking Simba now, I’m so excited for him.
You said on Twitter recently that you think Netflix was too scared to buy Kuso. Do you stand by that?
I absolutely do. A lot of people had the chance to get Kuso but it’s not a Netflix movie. There are so many movies on there, and everyone wants to be on there, but you just end up getting buried. Unless they make the content they’re not going to dish any money out. I wouldn’t have made my money back if I went with Netflix. They’d have said, “Take $20,000 and be glad you got on our service.” Fuck that. What’s dope about Shudder is that they want to make this their flagship. They’re willing to invest in a movie like this, and they really believe in it. They’re going to push it like I worked on it.
Some of the earliest coverage of Kuso came off the back of a screening at Sundance where there were reports of people being sick and passing out. Was that great PR for you, or was it harmful towards your film?
Let’s be real, they didn’t talk about many films at Sundance this year but they talked about Kuso. That’s amazing. I’m not excited about the narrative because it’s sensationalised and it creates an expectation. That is frustrating because despite how gross it is, there’s still a lot of art in this movie. I’d hate for that to be overlooked because there’s some disgusting stuff in it.
How did you decide on the sound of the movie and start pulling in the featured artists?
It was just a case of asking with a lot of them. When I was writing the scene that has the Aphex Twin song on it I was listening to a lot of his shit and writing to it. So I just hit him up and he was really cool about [contributing a new song]. It was the same with [Japanese video game composer] Akira Yamaoka. I love the Silent Hill soundtrack and he was just so open to me using his stuff.
Is there likely to be an official release for the soundtrack?
Probably, at some point. It will happen eventually. Not on July 21 though.
What do you hope people take away from watching Kuso?
I hope it becomes one of those things that people can count on for some silly fun. They might find things that they come back to. I have no idea. I know I had fun making it and so did the people I worked with. I hope that translates and people dig it.
What’s next for you? Do you have your next project lined up?
I’m just working on music now. I just got off tour so I’m about to get into some creativity. I want to say there will be new music in the fall but you have to trust the process.
And more movies?
Yeah, I’m developing a couple of projects at the moment. If Kuso goes well then hopefully they’ll want me to make some more films. Hopefully on somebody else’s dime this time.