The name of Flying Lotus’ first feature length film, Kuso, is taken from the online culture of East Asia.
It means shit, or poor quality, but it’s not straightforwardly derogative – its closest relation in English is probably kitsch.
It’s in this context that Kuso is best understood – as a postmodern celebration of so-called ‘low culture’. While the film might repulse some audiences (a handful of critics at Sundance walked out), its battering of the boundaries of mainstream taste is more complex. Ellison knows that for a large part of his fanbase, raised in the desensitised, hyperbolic atmosphere of chat forums and social media sites – so-called digital natives – the film probably won’t be shocking in any visceral sense.
Instead, it gives shape – prosthetic and grotesque – to the kind of weird, absurd ideas lurking at the fringes of our imaginations and in the shadows of young minds. Because when the TV news is filled with footage of rampant disease and weaponised chemical slaughter, how do you make a horror film?
We caught up with FlyLo over the phone from LA to find out.
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Congratulations on Kuso. How does it feel now the film’s out in screenings?
It’s a great feeling man, it’s still not real to me – it just doesn’t feel real yet. I’ve been chipping away at this project for so long, it felt like it existed only in my computer! And now it’s out there and more people have seen it and are getting freaked out – it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun.
It’s surprisingly more relevant than when I first started making it, because of the crazy times we live in.
You’ve spoken about it peering into the American psyche. Given the content, would you say there’s darkness at America’s heart?
I believe it, for sure. I feel like it’s a really sad time for a lot of Americans here. I think we are enduring a deflated feeling that we’re just now trying to make sense of and accept. It was a reality check for a lot of optimists and a lot of people who were jaded before.
You know, my vote doesn’t count. We all made this what it is and we have to fucking sit in it now and figure out how to be better next time.
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I feel like it’s a really sad time for a lot of Americans here...
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Sure. As well as that placing a responsibility on artists to be more vocal, do you think it also opens up a space for more radical ideas?
Totally, yeah. I think we had it pretty good with Obama you know, and I think that it shows in our work, as well. In times of chaos we make better work. It’s unfortunate that it has to be that way, but I think that we feel more involved, we feel like we have to say things, we feel like we have to shout from the rooftops because, you know, the world has gone mad!
I think that’s how new genres are formed; I guess that’s even where dubstep fuckin’ came from in the UK. Y’all motherfuckers were goin’ through some shit, you needed a new sound to express yourselves, and I think that’s always been the beauty of having art and music to run to. To let new feelings out.
There’s been a lot of talk about the film being shocking, but what struck me was the humour. It’s a very funny film.
Thanks man. People will latch on to whatever they wanna latch on to. Sometimes I think it’s way more sophisticated than it is, and then sometimes I’m just like ‘yeah it’s a dick and fart movie’. I always have different feelings about it and I’m seeing it with new eyes, after having seen it a bajillion times editing it, you know. So I’m still learning about it and it’s been the most fun sitting with new people and watching it.
Right, and while it’s a film that might not sit well with a mainstream audience, fans of yours are likely to appreciate it. Was there anything you cut out because you thought it might be too much?
Yeah, there’s a couple scenes that I cut out that I thought might be a little too much. But only because there’s so much in the movie and I didn’t want it just to not have any effect at all. I didn’t want it to be all shocks; I tried to find the balance you know.
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What got cut?
[Laughs] What kind of things did I cut? There’s a story, an animated segment about this black police officer, which I play, who hates black people. He hates everybody, he’s like the worst human alive, but he’s the first person to discover the disease that’s kind of going round now.
So it’s almost like the worst person alive is the only person who knows what’s happening. But it was just too much. The stuff he was talking about it was just a bit too much for the times, I thought.
It’s definitely a sprawling film. Did part of that come from wanting to get as much as possible in, in case you didn’t have the money to make another feature this big?
That’s part of it, that’s a big part of it, but the other part of it was I had to. It felt like no one would take me seriously if I just came out with a very middle of the road romantic comedy. My attitude was more like a punk rock attitude going into it, because I was so bored of all the bullshit movies I was watching. Really regular-ass movies, even in the horror, horror-comedy, that space in between.
The past few years have been real stale to me and I was just tired of seeing the same old bullshit. You know, motherfuckers being afraid to use practical effects, and people who were afraid to, you know, show people things they don’t wanna see. And I was like fuck that. That was my attitude initially. I was like, yo man if I’m gonna make a movie, I’m gonna have to go and beat up the biggest kid in the classroom.
It was like that kinda attitude, like going to jail – you get into jail you beat the shit out of somebody immediately. I was like, I gotta come out swinging, just come out swinging like fuck it – if you want some, come get it!
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I was like, I gotta come out swinging...
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George A. Romero passed away at the weekend. As another film-maker who took big financial and creative risks, birthing an entire genre of horror, was he an inspiration?
Of course. All that stuff, whether you’re a zombie fan or not, he changed the world and the genre. Dawn Of The Dead – that influence has brought so much to people.
People don’t realise, yeah sure Night Of The Living Dead might not be someone’s favourite, Dawn Of The Dead might not be somebody’s favourite, but you know what? Your favourite zombie thing was inspired by that. That’s just what it is, you can cut it however you want, but it all came from that.
He also used horror as a vehicle to satirise of consumer capitalism, something you do in Kuso.
Absolutely, that was Dawn Of The Dead, but Night Of The Living Dead had other issues in there and that was to me even more crazy. A lot of the racial conflict, for the time, to make that – that was huge.
You parody rolling news coverage too. Was the absurdity of that something you wanted to strike out at?
Absolutely man. The news is becoming more and more ridiculous. Even people who didn’t really care about politics before, they have to look at the news now, and see if the fuckin’ country is gonna explode. It’s fuckin’ crazy dude.
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I live in a town full of surgical nightmares...
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And then, you got all these motherfuckers out here with their crazy ass plastic surgery and shit [laughs]. I live in a town full of surgical nightmares – that’s part of where Kuso comes from. I live in Studio City, there’s movies and TV filmed around here all the time, and you see these people around who’ve had like, the first surgery.
You know like the first fuckin’ one, older people, and it’s like… goddamn man. The world made you think that you had to do this to yourself? A lot of those thoughts got into the making of the movie; being here influenced a lot of that shit.
When George Clinton’s character, the doctor, is playing beats for Manuel (played by Zack Fox) to rap over, there’s a ravey sounding one, is that the Aphex Twin track?
Nah, I made all those beats. That was actually a nod to Mr. Oizo, it’s some shit that he would like. It’s funny cause he saw the movie and he was like hey what was that beat in there? That was just for him.
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Outside of the people working on it directly, who did you show the film to first?
I’ve been showing it to the same people since I started working on the movie in Photoshop, you know, designing the characters and stuff, so they’ve all watched this thing become what it is now. It’s fun because we had the screening last weekend, and a lot of them who’d been there since the beginning hadn’t seen the final movie yet. So it was really cool for me to show them what it’s like from a computer screen to a big screen and see their faces.
It was big for me; it was probably one of the most important moments in my life. The stakes were against me man, it really did feel impossible at times to do this thing. But it happened. We all made it; we all had to work on it. I made this movie with my friends, it’s not like I had a whole crew. A lot of people were just contributing what they had.
So if you made another film, would you have a bigger crew?
I would totally expand my crew to make it easier. No one’s supposed to go through the kind of things I’ve gone through. When you wanna direct a movie it should be a lot more about directing the movie, and not all these dumbass things I had to do. You have no idea. I’m like the only person who can export video files to the guy who’s gonna cut the trailer, so I gotta make sure I carry a hard drive with me at all times, cause I’m the one editing the movie, and doing the sound design, and doing the sound mixing.
If the cover’s wrong a little bit I gotta be the one to retouch it, it’s so weird dude – it was like a lot of weird ass little details that I would prefer not to have to deal with. But all the creative things I got to do were so fun.
I got to design the characters costumes, I got to design what the wallpapers in the rooms would look like, I got to pick out every little aspect you see on screen and design the magazines, and things that are in the picture frames. It really was a fun thing to do, but it was a lot!
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I got to pick out every little aspect you see on screen...
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At one point in the film a triangle appears as a portal to hell. Can you tell us about some of the symbolism in the film?
Oh no, no, no. You already know what it is. I’m not gonna start going into that stuff, I see what you’re tryna do…
You’re gonna spawn a hundred YouTube videos.
You’ve said how about half your album’s in Kuso. Did you already make the tracks for the record, or were they produced for the film then selected for the album?
It was a bit of both. I try to work in a very organic way. I always feel like everything always reveals itself as it needs to, and on time. As long as you stay in tune and stay checking your spirit, you’ll know. You’ll know when things are right, and that’s what it felt like with the record.
Sometimes I would write a scene and then I’d make music, knowing what I needed to do before I even shot it. Then I would play the music to the crew to get the vibe of it.
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I try to work in a very organic way...
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We’re already in the headspace because the music is there, the tone is there, the texture is there. You’re like ‘oh, this is what it feels like’, before we even filmed anything. So that was really the beauty of it. But then there were some times where I had written the bit and we have to make something.
The world in Kuso is the stuff of nightmares. What’s the most terrifying nightmare you’ve ever had?
I have a lot of them, but I have one that I always remember. I feel like it’s the first time that I ever had a true nightmare.
It was after I’d seen the first Robocop movie, and I had a vision that I was getting my limbs blown off, you know like Murphy did at the beginning of Robocop. They fuckin’ shoot his arms and his legs off, and his whole body off. I had a dream like that as a child, that that happened to me, and that fucked me up so bad! Like, how did this movie do this to me? A movie did this to me! I guess I get to do it to somebody else now.
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Kuso is released exclusively on Shudder this Friday (July 21st).
Words: Alex McFadyen