Most aspiring filmmakers who have sunk $400,000 of their own money into their first movie, and then have the chance to premiere it in a high-profile slot Sundance, do not want initial viewer reactions to be swift, violent and highly negative. They do not want reports that numerous audience members had walked, perhaps even ran, out of the theater in Park City during its first-ever showing, unwilling to tangle with some a movie that might be described “difficult,” or “in-your-face,” or “gross-as-fuck.”
To be fair, however, most filmmakers are nothing like Steven Ellison, better known as the music producer Flying Lotus. And most Sundance movies are unlike Kuso, his directorial debut that begins with a scene of erotic asphyxiation, ends with a man being fellated by a talking boil on a woman’s neck, and still manages to find time to feature a sequence invoking a bug coming out of George Clinton’s butt and sprays foamy green goo into somebody’s mouth.
“It was great,” Ellison says. “There was a lot of buzz; the articles went everywhere – music [publications], film [publications], Reddit. I didn’t hear about any other movies at Sundance like that. Not every film gets that kind of shine.”
It’s a midday afternoon in midtown Manhattan, and the producer/director is settled in a teal armchair in a glass-walled conference room at the offices of Shudder, the company that agreed to distribute and release his movie, despite – or maybe because of – its eww! reputation. (It will begin showing on their streaming service and in select theaters starting July 21st.) He’s battling a slight hungover caused by drinking the night before without having dinner, a behavior he describes as “the New York special.”
“I was just so tired of everything being so clean and pretty,” the director adds after a slight pause. “I want to show the world its ugly ass right now.”
His decision to make a movie is not a complete surprise: Ellison attended college at Los Angeles Film School before earning a name as the latest in a long line of progressive producers signed to the revered English label Warp Records. The Flying Lotus sound – fluent in post-bop, funk, hip-hop and bedroom electronics – has attracted a distinguished and interdisciplinary group of followers, leading to collaborations with luminaries from rock (Thom Yorke), R&B (Erykah Badu), rap (Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg) and jazz (Herbie Hancock).
But Ellison says that he planned to return to movies all along: “In the back of my mind, I knew I would go back and do film once I had made enough money or made a name for myself in music.” Shortly after his 2014 album You’re Dead! debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, he agreed to score a film titled FUCKKKYOUUU. Working on the set allowed Ellison not only stirred his creative juices; it also helped him hone in on the approach he wanted to use for his own projects. “Nothing was overthought,” he says. “[Director Eddie Alcazar] shot from the hip. And I thought that might be how I needed to work.
“I spent so much time doubting myself and thinking myself into holes of un-productivity,” Ellison adds. “I do believe there is something to be said for striking in that moment. The longer you sit on ideas, the easier it becomes to talk yourself out of pursuing them.”
Kuso grew out of a goofy GIF circulating on the internet in which Ellison and Yorke seem to have an entire argument about when to end a DJ set without ever changing their face expressions. (“I thought that shit was so funny.”) He started learning the animation program After Effects with guidance from David Firth, an English animator best known for Salad Fingers, a peculiar, popular online series (the first episode on YouTube has north of 30 million views). “I thought he was just an untapped genius,” Ellison states. “He’s built his own universe.”
The two men quickly hit it off, bonding over a shared love for the stuff that makes most people cringe. “I kept on suggesting ideas that were always messed up, and he was really into them,” Firth remembers, speaking over Skype from his home in England. “It turned out [that] as far as I wanted to go into the dark, disgusting side of things, he was always encouraging me to go even further.”
The first result of their partnership was a Flying Lotus music video (“Ready Err Not”); later, Ellison began experimenting with After Effects and creating strange characters with normal faces marred by boils and discolored pockmarks, some of which eventually made their way into Kuso. “I’d show them to my friends and they’d be like, ‘Oh God, what is that?'” he says happily. “I’m like, there’s something about this that’s fucking y’all up! That’s a good sign. Maybe I need to keep building this world. Eventually, it just started unraveling.”
It wasn’t always easy, however, for him to find actors willing to pull the thread. “I didn’t want to lie to anyone and be like, this is going to be a walk in the park,” Ellison explains. “And the way [Kuso] is written is way more fucked up on paper than it is on screen. It sounds malicious when you read it. I think some of [the actors] were a little terrified when they saw what I was doing.”
He managed to round up a cast that included comedian Hannibal Buress as a cheerfully murderous character in a furry suit who enjoys watching genital-mutilation TV shows, and George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic fame as the man who can heal patients with a bug in his ass. “I walked on that set like, ‘What the hell?'” Clinton remembers. “I see a big [fake] ass in the corner – oh, that’s mine. I see a little alien-looking guy. Oh, that’s coming out your ass. Ok, this is a new level. Just roll with it.”
Ellison said he drew from the the elder statesman of funk’s oeuvre for inspiration; Clinton says he was reminded of his own 1978 cut “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers),” as well as jarring shows like Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force. “I had to wrap my mind around me watching a meatball, french fries and a milk shake talk!” the musician exclaims. “Let alone it be something with a whole following. It’s testing my integrity. But fuck my integrity.”
“I walked on that set like, ‘What the hell?’ I see a big [fake] ass in the corner. I see a little alien-looking guy. Oh, that’s coming out your ass. Ok. Just roll with it.”
Though Kuso takes place in L.A. after a devastating earthquake, the disaster is less of a plot device than an excuse for throwing the rule book out of the window: In a post-apocalyptic world, anything goes. But it was also a way for Ellison to escape topical restrictions he believes apply to the work of many black filmmakers. “It kills me to see the same stories [from black directors] over and over and over and over,” he declares. “It has to be about the struggles of the ghetto, the struggles of race … or that’s it. That’s all we got, all our ammunition in life.”
To dodge these constraints, Ellison moved into a space where, perhaps, they might not apply – an absurd, dissipated landscape full of boils and poop. “I want to show people something else,” he says. “I want to show them new minority characters that you’ve never seen before. I want to show them that we got more to say.” [The cast contains a number of non-white actors, and one sequence doesn’t take place in English.]
He was ready to live with the commercial consequences: If fears about the film’s potential to turn stomachs kept distributors away, he planned to tour the country, screen Kuso in various cities and pay for the trip by DJing each night. Then Shudder came calling.
“The walkout thing at Sundance is mythological in a way – it takes on its own life,” explains Sam Zimmerman, co-curator of Shudder (and a Rolling Stone contributor). “Most of the time it’s someone had altitude sickness for being in the mountains, or it wasn’t their kind of movie. It’s either there’s a totally rational explanation, or it’s like, you couldn’t handle it? This is awesome.” He says he was drawn to Ellison’s willingness to combine various elements from genres ranging from early surrealist cinema to horror movies and the psychedelically scrambled work of Alejandro Jodorowsky – the result being some “daring, funny, weird, scary, all-new, all-its-own, wonderful, pulsing thing.”
Clinton admits that the first time he saw Kuso all the way through, he had to look away at some moments. But the Funkadelic leader predicts that the film will find admirers among both “the millennials and all the creative, frightening people … And even the ones that don’t love it, some freak part of them is going to identify with something in it.”
Ellison has a specific ideal viewer in mind: “The young, 16-year-old horror fans in the middle of nowhere that want to see some trippy shit – I want this to be that movie for them.”