As told to
Whether Steven Ellison – better known as musician Flying Lotus – realises it or not, his career has been coloured by cinema from the start. Even his big break in the music industry was serendipitous in that movie-esque, verging on saccharine, too-good-to-be-true fashion.
In 2006, Ellison spotted a television ad calling for song submissions during Adult Swim, the late night programming block of Cartoon Network. Rather than cracking open a frosty Bud Lite and sucking up the latest episode of Robot Chicken, he decided to send some tracks to the network. The submissions were selected, Ellison adopted the moniker Flying Lotus, and the rest, as they say in the movies, is history.
Okay, not exactly. But it is a crucial backstory when it comes to understanding how and why he made a film so polarising that a handful of critics have branded it ‘the grossest film ever made’. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) Kuso is a portmanteau feature depicting base human desires, filthy sex and enough bodily fluids to fill a reservoir. It even stars P-Funk all star George Clinton as a back street surgeon with a very special (and revolting) healing technique. For a musician who, seemingly, gives zero fucks about what people think, why bother with all this to begin with? Who cares about the critics, or anyone for that matter, when you’re ‘Flying Lotus’?
Here, Ellison takes up the story, discussing the shock reaction to the film at Sundance, about running through lines with the great George Clinton, and how Twitter is killing real emotions…
Flying Lotus: “I’ve never really liked making music videos. The way my brain works, I like narrative. I like dialogue. Music videos don’t really offer that. They’re also meant for a really short attention span. I grew up with films. I watched a lot of movies. I appreciate the time and saying it’s not a fucking internet thing. It’s a movie that you have to actually give an hour and a half to. It’s not a two-minute clip where you’re already itching to click something else. But that’s just how my brain works.
“I had experience in working on different stuff, but I didn’t know I was going to have to do sound design for the movie, produce it, fund it, puppeteer it, edit it, score it, all that shit. And do visual effects, and visual effects animation. I didn’t think I had to do all of that. I know I was going to have to do some of it. You know, I don’t recommend anyone ever do that, but I felt like I had to challenge myself. I had gotten to a point with music where I felt I really had to step outside of that and challenge myself. But it happened, somehow. A movie miracle.
“Brainfeeder films is my company. We had to make a film company so I could get insurance and stuff and so I had complete creative control. I made the movie I wanted to make 100 per cent and, you know, Shudder, our distributor, they also allowed for me to do whatever I wanted and it was really sweet. There are still some things I will do in the director’s cut physical copy, or whatever, but this is really fucking close to what I originally set out to do.
“The thing about the Sundance shit was that the film was sensationalised. The actual screenings of the film with a regular audience – people were laughing and having a great time. When I did a press screening for stuffy journalists, of course, it’s not for them. A lot of them walked out, but with regular screenings it was fine. The stories that went around were like, ‘Oh people walked out’. Unfortunately, shit like that will shape the narrative of your film before it even has legs. But that’s also what got a lot of people’s ears poked up. Like, ‘Oh, what is this?’. It’s frustrating to have your whole narrative shaped off of one festival, but at the same time, I didn’t hear about too many movies at Sundance. They talked about Kuso a lot.
“I approached Craig Robinson to play the doctor at first, which could’ve been awesome. But having George Clinton as that character was so cool. The best part of it was that he shows up on set, day one, and he looks at me and he’s like, ‘Hey man, you know I’ve never acted before right?’ And I’m like, ‘Err, don’t terrify me George’, and then I’m like ‘It’s okay man, I just want you to be you, and I know as long as you do you you’ll be fine’. He’s like, ‘Okay, that’s great. Second thing, I don’t know any of the lines yet’. I was like, ‘Alright, okay, it’s cool, we’ll figure it out…’
“A lot of that stuff he had to do we’d do it in little pieces at a time. Because he didn’t know the lines and, you know, everyone was trying to figure out what the fuck to do. And I’d never directed a movie before. We’re all working together to make it happen. It flowed magically, man, it felt really cool. By the end I couldn’t believe that we actually got the scene and the puppet and all the stuff actually worked.
“The world is real sensitive right now, and it’s something to be mindful of whether you push those lines or not. Everyone is racially sensitive and sexually sensitive and gender sensitive, so you’ve gotta know when to push the buttons and when to just let somebody else say that thing. I think that people need to see certain things and things need to be expressed or these things might manifest themselves in different ways. I think art has always been a great release for social frustrations. I think we have to be mindful of what we put into the world because of what people perceive.
“The truth is, everyone online is itching to be offended. Twitter is bullshit. People just wake up and look at Twitter and they want to be offended by something, they want to react to something and stand on their little soapbox and talk shit and have something to contribute. But you know what? In reality, the sad part is, people won’t say shit in the real world. People don’t say a goddamn thing. It’s like people don’t even emote in real life anymore – they have to use emojis. I feel so sad that, in real life, people don’t smile and people don’t laugh. They just ‘haha’ and ‘LOL’. That’s not laughter.
“If I was making art films I would definitely consider museums as venues, but I’m trying to make comedies so it’s a different – we’re different. We have different trajectories. Kuso is not a museum film, but if I did make a project like that then sure, that would be awesome. I have ideas for installations too, but it’s not something that I want to pursue at the moment. But I’m helping (filmmaker and collaborator) Kahlil Joseph with his next project too, so I’ll be in the museums somehow. I’ve started developing a couple projects as a follow-up to Kuso. There’s actually a TV thing in development, too, but we’ll see what happens. Just taking it easy, finishing projects, slowly chipping away at things.”
Kuso is released exclusively on Shudder 21 July.
Published 21 Jul 2017
Steve “Flying Lotus” Ellison delivers a sick suite of gag-inducing shorts at the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival.
By Anton Bitel
Undead Nazi soldiers and gratuitous nudity overflows in Zombie Lake, now out on DVD.