KUSO (meaning “shit” in Japanese) is the feature film directorial debut of rapper, music producer, and founder of the Brainfeeders recording label Flying Lotus, who prefers to be known as Steve Ellison when sitting in the director’s chair. Distributed by Shudder, the Netflix of horror fandom, KUSO is an intensely grotesque, yet darkly artistic set of interconnected stories about individuals coping with anxiety-inducing events that unfold after a devastating earthquake hits Los Angeles. We had a blast talking with Ellison about imagery, anxiety, and the humor that lies within KUSO. The potential cult classic will premiere on Shudder July 21st.
Blumhouse: Your main claim to fame is being the founder of the Brainfeeders record label and you have even incorporated some experimental music in KUSO. How has your experience in the music industry influenced you as a filmmaker?
Steve Ellison: For me, this film project came right on time. I’ve been working on music for so long and so intensely. Then I fucking lost a Grammy Award to Justin Bieber, so I had to do something else. But I ended up making a lot of music for this movie too. The movie shouldn’t surprise my fans, but I’m sure it will.
BH: There is a lot of terrifying acid-trip-like imagery in your film. From where did these visual ideas stem?
SE: A lot of the imagery came from bad dreams and anxieties that I’ve had. I think of the initial feeling of seeing trippy-faced creatures comes from growing up with having bad skin and feeling like a monster. At the same time, I live in Studio City where some of the earliest plastic surgeries took place. The very first lip injection lady goes to my gym. I see these people and it’s kind of scary. Who fucking convinced these people to do that shit to themselves? People around here [Los Angeles] can be real vain. I just wondered what the world would be like if everyone embraced their ugliness, all the things that make them disgusting and everything that makes them awful human beings. That’s the world of KUSO.
BH: Your film obviously has major themes of fear and anxiety as a universal human condition. Virtually everyone in KUSO is trying to cope with something. What are some of your greatest fears and how do you overcome them?
SE: Everything that I’m afraid of I put in the movie. I just tried to work them all in there. Fear of earthquakes, claustrophobia, it’s all in there. I feel so good about having art to run to. It’s been there for me so that I’m able to work out a lot of these feelings. Instead of just being on social media and trolling people, I can bring them some art that will hopefully inspire some dialogue. We can talk about the prosthetics or how disgusting KUSO is, but there are some other things in there that I hope people will explore a bit more.
BH: It goes without saying that there is a ton of content in this film involving bodily functions of the sexual and digestive nature. Why the fixation on things entering and exiting the body?
SE: I still laugh at farts. They are always going to be funny, they’re never going to go out of style. I think it’s the American way. Part of the American pastime is laughing at your own farts. And then when you do that one and you just wish that someone was there to hear. Like “No one was there to catch that one?” What a waste.
BH: During your the premiere of KUSO at the Sundance Film Festival, it was reported that there were a large number of walkouts and it was called the “grossest movie ever made.” What was your reaction to this kind of reception?
SE: Well, it wasn’t true. It was a big lie and I was really frustrated by that. But at the same time, my movie got a lot of coverage and a lot of movies don’t get coverage at Sundance. So, I’m not too mad about it. But it’s not really a Sundance movie. It’s only a Sundance movie to get the reaction that it got. The walkouts only happened at the press screening. VANITY FAIR is not going to want to write about KUSO. Why would they stay? The public really liked it. The public screening was great. No one left and it wasn’t a big deal. Of course a lot of people are going to leave at the press screening. The talk of the walkouts were a bit exaggerated, but it’s okay. It did help to set the tone for anyone who was curious [about KUSO]. So, I appreciate that because the one thing that I was worried about was that people were going to go check the movie out without knowing how hard it is [to watch]. My concern was that people might think it was just another one of my beautiful music videos or something. I did want to leave some space for the Flying Lotus stuff to be what it is and to be able to say what I wanted to say [with KUSO] as well. That’s why I tried to do it under the name “Steve” and try to establish a new film persona with the most boring name of all time.
BH: Can we expect future film projects under the direction of “Steve”?
SE: I sure hope so. This is really why I made [KUSO]. So I can get the next movie. So, anyone out there who is looking for some new blood, holla at ya boy. I want to make a big-ass Marvel movie at some point. With that money that I’ll make from the big-ass movie, I’ll just make a bunch of small movies for the rest of my life and have fun doing that. That’s the plan.