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Flying Lotus on How His Film Debut Kuso Is More Than Just “Gross”

On a recent July afternoon, Flying Lotus and I were sitting at the offices of Shudder, a video on demand service for horror films. Flying Lotus, whose real name is Steven Ellison, was speaking about his full-length directorial debut Kuso, which is available beginning today on the streaming service, following its two-year gestation. Ellison was disappointed with the typical headlines Kuso has gathered for its gross-out scenes, which include ejaculate smears, demonic breasts, and most infamously, fellatio-giving talking boils.

“There’s more than just the gross element,” he said. “There’s a lot of shit in the film that hasn’t been talked about, and a lot of things that I think should be discussed as well. There’s still a lot of artistry I don’t want to be overlooked.” The prolific musician and occasional director’s pearl black eyes continually wandered toward the empty chair at my far right, as if looking for some cue in the scenery to trigger a new thought.

When I asked him about what he didn’t want to be overlooked, he gave a coy laugh, and flipped the question to ask what I’d pulled from the movie. After I muttered something about “making sense out of chaos,” he pivoted his head to make eye contact.

“For some reason, I get the feeling that Kuso is not your movie,” he said.

He’s right: My horror knowledge doesn’t extend very far past Rosemary’s Baby, Get Out, and a Wikipedia description of The Exorcist. But Kuso is hard to sell as “your movie” to most people, even the “straight-up Flying Lotus fans,” as he described them. The 90-minute jambalaya of amicable, B-movie level live action and hallucinatory animation is set in the aftermath of an LA earthquake, which disfigures its population not with broken bones, but skin growths and rotting flesh. It follows four intersecting plot lines: an incestuous couple, a boy drawn to an anus-shaped entity, an unconventional therapist portrayed by George Clinton’s butt (yes, that George Clinton), and a deranged woman stuck in some netherworld.

Perhaps predictably, the discussion about Kuso has mostly revolved around its shock value. After its Sundance debut, The Verge reported that a “large chunk of the audience” left the screening and ran with the headline “Kuso is the grossest movie ever made,” a description that’s dominated coverage in the months since. Ellison expressed ambivalence about the reaction: The reports are overblown, but it’s publicity.

“It was a super-sensationalized story and I’m worried that someone will see the movie and go, ‘Hey, it ain’t that gross.’” he said. “I didn’t even fucking go out to make the grossest film of all-time—somebody just said that shit.”

Instead, Ellison came to Kuso via a process of elimination by deciding what type of movie he didn’t want to make. “I don’t want to make a fucking period drama,” he said. “I don’t want to make a fucking hood movie. I don’t have the budget to make a superhero movie. I want to have fun making this movie—what would be the most fun way to make a movie? I knew it was going to be so difficult, and I didn’t want to make my life even more miserable with a sad story. I was like, ‘Lemme make something for the young ratchet-ass 16-year-old kid who like horror films and give them something to latch on to.’”

The prestige Ellison has attained as a lead artist as well as a producer working with musicians like Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar hasn’t led to round-the-clock anticipation for Kuso, even though his visuals have been a large part of his musical appeal. (David Firth, who animated the gory 2014 video for You’re Dead!’s “Ready Err Not,” worked on Kuso both an animator, and as the voice the aforementioned talking boil). The gap in enthusiasm was partly by invention: He’s purposely credited as his birth name, Steve, and didn’t initially promote Kuso as featuring new music from himself, Aphex Twin, Thundercat, and Akira Yamoaka.

“I just didn’t want the pressure of the Flying Lotus stuff,” he said. “I didn’t want that at all. That’s why I waited so long to tell people that most of my new album is in the movie, because I didn’t want people to just focus on that part of it, you know? I wanted the film to exist on its own, and let it have its own legs in that way. At the time, I needed to do anything else because I felt like I had burnt myself out of making music. I’d just finished an album. What are you gonna say right after that?”

The move to the director’s chair was more difficult than expected. Ellison can sit in a room by himself and work on a beat until it’s ready, whereas the process of filmmaking involves dozens of variables, coordinated with dozens of people. “I feel like I’m scarred by this movie,” he said. “I ended up doing way more than I thought I would, and I had a lot less support than I thought I would. Not to knock anyone who worked on it—I’m thankful we got through it, but I thought I was gonna have a bit more financial help, I thought I was gonna have access to more actors that I didn’t have access to. It was fuckin’ hard. Every part of the process was difficult as shit, man. But I was glad for my real friends, the people who were there for me—they had my back, and they did their shit.”

Throughout Kuso, there’s a freedom that comes with Flying Lotus’ willingness to defy convention. That brazenness is the source of the flick’s biggest strengths and weaknesses. There are intriguing motifs threading throughout Kuso’s absurdities, particularly how most of the conflicts aren’t directly about the characters’ obvious disfigurements. In a waiting room scene, she tells a patient that she isn’t convinced that it’s the earthquake that’s making everybody weird. “Could be other stuff, too,” she says in a soft voice. Her face is a monstrosity matted with peeling skin and her eyes are pupil-less; the patient is here to receive treatment from George Clinton’s anus therapist, because he’s afraid of breasts. 

In another storyline, a white kid with progeria-like symptoms shits himself in class, but a black child gets punished for the mess by being thrown into a hole. The indifference toward the supernatural circumstance seems to speak to the idea that, well, the world was irreparably messed up to begin with. It’s simply child abuse plus boils.

Kuso’s gross outs and black humor doesn’t always compel deeper thought. You needn’t strain yourself to find the metaphorical consequence of a penis penetrating a boil to completion: It’s either your thing or it isn’t. There’s also an extended rape joke in the film’s first third that rings distractingly crude. Ellison appeared to be motivated by a raucous playfulness, rather than the pursuit of perfection. He was prideful when he took the stage for an audience Q&A following the film’s screening at Brooklyn’s House of Vans later that evening. “Why?” a bewildered viewer asked, addressing—well, everything about the movie.

“No one was going to write black characters the way they ain’t seen it,” he said “I had to be that guy.”

The crowd was presumably less uptight than Sundance’s. In the dark, I noticed one young man cradle his head in between his knees as that boil gave that blowjob. Other than a few shrieks and gasps, that was about it: There was no mass walkouts, and if anyone threw up, the sound of food chunks hitting the pavement was beyond earshot. The credits rolled and another brave viewer exhaled. “It was less disgusting than I thought it was gonna be,” he said.

It reminded me of something Ellison had remarked on during our conversation, when we’d talked about Kuso’s unexpected elements. “I think if anything, I tried to make it resemble my music in that way,” he said. “I don’t want people to have an idea where it’s going to go. I want it to be a journey for people. I wanted it to feel like anything could happen.”