Steven Ellison – aka “Flying Lotus” – has been blowing people’s minds in multiple mediums since his music debut in 2006. Now he’s moving to the big screen with his debut film, “Kuso.”
The controversial, boundary-detonating film is on the streaming service Shudder and in select theaters now. When Rico sat down with Flying Lotus at our studios a few days back, their conversation started like this:
Rico Gagliano: Our guest of honor this week is musician and filmmaker Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus…
Flying Lotus: Hey.
Rico Gagliano: A brief resume: he has earned multiple Grammy nominations for his truly brilliant mashups of jazz, electronic, and hip-hop —
Flying Lotus: And I got beat by Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift!
Rico Gagliano: It sounds like you’re over it.
Flying Lotus: No, I’m still bitter, a little. No, they deserve it, you know. [laughs]
Rico Gagliano: [laughs] You also wrote interstitial music for the Cartoon Network…
Flying Lotus: Yeah…
Rico Gagliano: You appeared on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and you have now released what website The Verge calls “the grossest movie ever made.” It’s called “Kuso.” And, sir, welcome.
Flying Lotus: Hey, thanks for having me.
Rico Gagliano: Before we get into the movie (because there’s a lot to talk about there), I should note — casual fans of your music may not know this — you actually did go to film school.
Flying Lotus: I did, yeah. Yeah, it was cool. It was cool for a while, L.A. Film School…
Rico Gagliano: But you dropped out, right?
Flying Lotus: No, I dropped out of the next school I went to, which was the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I was still studying film there, but I was also getting into making music on a computer, which was kind of foreign…
Rico Gagliano: At the time.
Flying Lotus: …Yeah, yeah. So I started just, like, skipping class.
Rico Gagliano: What filmmakers were you influenced by? I mean, I could give you my guesses.
Flying Lotus: Well, I was the prime target for the independent film revolution, you know?
Rico Gagliano: In the ’80s and ’90s?
Flying Lotus: Yeah, the ’90s. It was when Kevin Smith and Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, they all came out with their stuff, and they were freaking people out with their low-budget movies and, as well, using their platforms to shine light on all these obscure films that no one had heard of. And that’s how I started getting into some of the more left-field filmmakers.
Rico Gagliano: Watching this film, I would’ve said definitely David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
Flying Lotus: They’re all…yeah. I mean, I ate a lot of movies, bro. I ate a lot of movies.
Rico Gagliano: Well, let’s talk about your movie, and people may understand why I bring up those particular filmmakers —
Flying Lotus: You don’t have to spoil the movie by doing this. Just letting you know.
Rico Gagliano: I feel like I owe it to our audience to tell them what we’re dealing with on some level, should they decide to go see it!
Flying Lotus: OK, sure. [laughs] Yeah, all right.
Rico Gagliano: It’s set in a surreal, kind of post-apocalyptic world after a major earthquake. There are these multiple nightmarish storylines involving horrors so extreme that I can’t even really summarize some of them on a family show…
Flying Lotus: This is a family show?!
Rico Gagliano: … It’s kind of a family show.
Flying Lotus: Man, fuck the family! [laughs]
Rico Gagliano: Well, now it isn’t! Now it’s for certain members of the family.
But all the characters [in this movie] have boils all over them… there are a lot of bodily fluids… there’s a lot of extremely lowbrow humor —
Flying Lotus: I didn’t realize that I had a thing for fluids! Someone pointed that out. I didn’t know it was a thing, though. I guess I do.
Rico Gagliano: Even after watching the movie through, it did not occur to you there’s an awful lot of bodily fluids shooting out of various people?!
Flying Lotus: You know what I think, though? It’s the smells that really do me in. A smell, certain smells, will just eff up my whole night.
Rico Gagliano: But it’s interesting — that’s one sense you can’t engage with film.
Flying Lotus: I can’t do anything with that, right?! It’s like, we don’t have the Smell-O-Vision popping off yet, man! But if we could…
Rico Gagliano: Is that next?
Flying Lotus: Dude [laughs]. I’d be so stoked to mess with smells.
Rico Gagliano: Well, but before we go there, I do also want to note that there are moments of real beauty in this movie…
Flying Lotus: Thank you!
Rico Gagliano: …And the direction of the performances — it’s clear that this isn’t just grindhouse, B-movie schlock.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, that was unfortunate. It’s unfortunate people had this expectation of it, because of some early reviews and stuff of the movie that would only talk about how gross it was. They don’t ever mention how artful it can be at times, too. So, thank you for letting the family know about that.
Rico Gagliano: But that also leads me to a question, which is… well, you kind of answered it: That wasn’t, then, your core idea — to make the grossest movie ever?
Flying Lotus: It wasn’t my core idea to make the grossest film of all time. It was more like, “I’m so tired of everything trying to be nice and clean and friendly and safe and PG-13 or whatever.” And I also knew that if I made a real middle-of-the-road movie for my first movie, no one would give a shit. And it was that kind of punk rock attitude. And kind of like, “I’m going to go into the room and beat the biggest person in the room.” That was more my attitude. It was like, “No: You’re going to hear me.”
Rico Gagliano: I mean, people are paying attention. Is it the attention that you would want?
Flying Lotus: Umm… I don’t know yet. I’ve not had this experience. I’ve never made a movie before. I don’t know about getting death threats and stuff. You know, I don’t know if that’s…
Rico Gagliano: Has that happened?
Flying Lotus: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know about it. I don’t know, but I know that some filmmakers have gotten death threats and stuff over their films. They’ve been banned in countries or whatever. I don’t know what’s that like. You know, I don’t know.
I mean, I come from music where it’s like, if you don’t like it, you can just skip it, and you’re like, “Eh.” But people who don’t like movies, they genuinely hate them, and they want to talk about how much they hate something. “Because I sat there for two hours and watched this horrible thing!” I’m not used to that. So, we’ll see what happens.
I know that there’s an audience for this because, you know, I was that kid who liked the craziest movies, and I want to serve that kid now. I want someone to see this and have to show it to somebody. It’s like the cassette in “The Ring,” you know? “You’ve got to see this shit! You’re going to die, but you’ve got to watch it.”
Rico Gagliano: Well, the last line of the movie, actually, which is actually very powerful, is: “Skin me alive. I survived, and I can barely believe it.” And I wondered if that was as much aimed towards us, the audience. It’s like, “You made it through this movie.”
Flying Lotus: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, when I was talking to Busdriver, the guy who made the poem…
Rico Gagliano: Busdriver is the guy who delivers that line.
Flying Lotus: …Yeah. I really just tried to explain all my anxieties about what I personally had gone through in ’94 when I was 10 years old and the big earthquake happened and just terrified me. So, he pulled from that, and he made this amazing poem that really summarized that feeling and that anxiety.
Rico Gagliano: At the beginning of the movie, the same character says, “Once you’re dead, then you’re dead. There is no coming back.” And he says it over and over again. It’s like the overture of the film. And of course you’ve also got your last album, which was called “You’re Dead”…
Flying Lotus: Ohhh, you’re getting it! [Laughs]
Rico Gagliano: I mean, you are a young, super successful guy. What is your preoccupation with death?
Flying Lotus: I think that line, it comes from… I mean, I’ve had a lot of death in my life. People passed away that were really close to me. That had a huge effect on me. I lost my parents. I mean, I didn’t know my dad, but my mom, she passed away when I was in my 20s. And every time something like that happens, it just rewires my brain and what I think of the world and my place in it, and my responsibilities, and what I’m here to do and say. I guess for everyone, it throws you for a loop.
Rico Gagliano: But it’s a very specific way you address it. I mean, obviously, you address it with this movie that is extreme in a lot of ways… including humor. There’s a lot of really silly humor in this. Where does that come from? How does ridiculous, juvenile humor fit into it?
Flying Lotus: Coping. Just coping, really, trying to make the most out of it, make a joke out of it, make sense out of it. I think one of the things that just — in the making of this movie — one of the things that really just hit me is, like, “Man, people are just so afraid to take a joke lately!” Everyone’s getting so offended easily. You can’t say certain things anymore about race and about sex and whatever. It’s just, like, “Remember, we’re just dumbass people, ugly-ass people…”
Rico Gagliano: Particularly if you’re covered in boils that are leaking everywhere.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, yeah! Just take a joke.
Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask everyone on the show…
Flying Lotus: Uh oh.
Rico Gagliano: The first one is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?
Flying Lotus: If you meet me at a dinner party, don’t ask me what it was like to watch everyone walk out of my movie at Sundance. Because that didn’t happen! That was not true.
Rico Gagliano: It did not happen?
Flying Lotus: It did not happen! The premiere was amazing. Everyone stayed and had a great time. There was a press screening. A lot of them walked out.
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Flying Lotus: Yeah. That’s the difference. [The movie] wasn’t for Vanity Fair, OK? It’s not for GQ Magazine or whatever, but don’t say…
Rico Gagliano: I would definitely agree with you on that!
Flying Lotus: Right? OK. And that’s fine. But don’t say like, “The premiere and all the… everybody walked.” That’s a lie. Journalists aren’t everybody.
Rico Gagliano: We’re kind of…
Flying Lotus: I’m just kidding.
Rico Gagliano: We’re some people.
Flying Lotus: You guys are people, too, but kind of. [Laughs.]
Rico Gagliano: Thank you. It’s important to say in this day and age, I think!
Our second question is: tell us something we don’t know. And this could be about anything. It could be about yourself, or it could be a piece of trivia about the world.
Flying Lotus: You know they’ve got championship tag now?
Rico Gagliano: Is that true?
Flying Lotus: That’s a real thing. I was looking at it on the way over here, bro. They’ve got world championship chase tag. It’s amazing. It’s like parkour.
Rico Gagliano: It’s like parkour with tag? So, there are people, like, jumping through windows and rolling off of rooftops? This is a video I’m being shown… You’re right! It’s guys playing tag through some sort of gymnastic equipment. Oh, my God! They’re leaping all over the place.
Flying Lotus: They’re amazing!
Rico Gagliano: All right, we’re definitely putting this video on our website.
Flying Lotus: That’s a thing. It’s a thing: Championship tag.
Rico Gagliano: I will say the audience [in the video] is not enormous, so this hasn’t reached soccer stadium sized crowds yet…
Flying Lotus: It ain’t world championships, that’s for sure. This is, like, Ohio championships right here.