He's won mainstream attention for his work with Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead and Erykah Badu, while pioneering the Los Angeles underground hip-hop scene. Now the electronic composer and producer Flying Lotus, also known as Steven Ellison, has released his first feature film, and it's knocking audiences for a loop.
In "Kuso," the artist pushes new boundaries. Ellison's post-apocalyptic fantasy imagines Los Angeles in the wake of a massive earthquake, its citizens plagued by strange viruses and even more bizarre biological phenomena. The mix of live action and animation includes appearances by comic performers Hannibal Buress and Tim Heidecker, and funk pioneer George Clinton, playing a doctor who plies a highly unconventional method to treat sexual phobias.
The film, now showing on the horror-movie streaming service Shudder, won notice as "the grossest movie ever made" after its polarizing premiere sparked walkouts at the Sundance Film Festival in January. For Ellison, though, it's both a reflection on the world around him and an intimate encounter with the weird ruckus inside his head.
Living in Los Angeles, ideas for the film's grotesque effects were easy to come by, like the D-list celebrities who work out alongside him at a Studio City gym.
"Let me be honest with you man, I've been terrifying people for years."
"I see a lot of actors with these crazy 1.0 plastic surgeries," Ellison said. "These people look like monsters sometimes, and I think that really inspired me. But then I just started to dig deeper into my personal anxieties and then it unraveled naturally."
The film's themes and extremes evoke some of Ellison's favorite filmmakers, including John Carpenter, David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Japan's Takashi Miike, edged in satirical commentary and original music from Flying Lotus, Aphex Twin, Busdriver and Thundercat.
"It was really about nightmares," continued Ellison, who bankrolled the 2-½ year project himself, supplying $400,000 for the production. "The things I find terrifying: being trapped in tunnels, being afraid of earthquakes, being afraid of disease and being afraid to live in a world where people fully embrace their horrible nature."
Ellison's allies see something beyond shock value.
"Steve isn't setting the wild moments up as outstandingly gross punchlines," said Sam Zimmerman, curator for Shudder. "They're of a piece with this world he's created — a gnarled vision of our culture — that's as rich with verbose musical numbers and animation as it is with bodily fluid."
Ellison, who dropped out of film school in the early 2000s to "make beats," comes from a musical lineage. His aunt was Alice Coltrane, the composer and wife of the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. His interest in film was encouraged as he worked closely as a composer with experimental filmmakers such as Kahlil Joseph ("Until the Quiet Comes"), Alma Har'el ("LoveTrue") and Terence Nance ("An Oversimplification of Her Beauty").
"He has a deep dialogue with the meaning of expectations," said Har'el, whose lyrical films explore unique characters at the edges of non-fiction form."Expectations of structure, sound, meaning. You can hear it in his music and if you can get past the body horror you can experience it in his Cronenberg-Python-Afro-Futurist cinema. There's not a lot of artists that will dare to go into the darkest corners of their subconscious and come out laughing."
As for those who associate Flying Lotus with the transcendental qualities of his music, they shouldn't be surprised by anything he does. He described his filmmaking sensibility as "punk rock."
"Let me be honest with you man, I've been terrifying people for years," Ellison said. "When I first started putting music out people weren't ready for that [stuff] either, people had to warm up to that [stuff], and then it became a thing. When I first started out it was a bare landscape. People wouldn't know if they could dance to it. They didn't know what the f--- to make of it. So I'm not new to this [stuff], I ain't new here at all."