“…but to show ugly in a time where everyone is trying to be beautiful.” Our conversation with ‘Kuso’ director Steven Ellison.
Kuso is not the most disgusting movie ever made. This is contrary to reports but, I dunno, gastric sound effects, facial boils and a few Kafkaesque sex scenes can’t really compete with Triumph of the Will or, like, Last Tango in Paris, in terms of being morally disgusting pieces of cinema. Kuso, instead, is a rich and campy social portrait of life after The Big One, an anthology of arresting apocalyptic shorts directed and put together by Steven Ellison, the celebrated beatmaker and jazz musician who got his start making bumper music to a nascent Cartoon Network programming block called Adult Swim in the early aughts under the moniker Flying Lotus. Since then, he has recorded with everyone from Thom Yorke to Kendrick but his interests have always been in touch with the kind of short form cinematic humor that airs after 11 pm.
In Kuso, we meet couples coming to terms with each other’s fetishes and anxieties, friends watching TV while the world around them crumbles and charged monologues about gentrification and race in America that feel like the squealing of our own world come asunder. Most dramatically and already released as a short that aired before screenings of The Greasy Strangler last year, Kuso features an uncannily realistic sex scene with a boil. Like, if you were to have sex with a talking boil that had a British accent and knew what it wanted, Ellison has captured it.
I had to chance to talk to Ellison shortly before Kuso was released on Shudder, the AMC-run streaming service that our Meg Shields called “the diamond in the rough of the streaming world.” Check it out here.
Are you excited for the wide release?
I’m nervous. It’s like the first time the public will have seen my movie. Not like a film festival thing, that don’t count. No offense. But it don’t count.
When Kuso hit Sundance, a lot of reviews called it the ‘grossest movie of all time.’ Was that response something you set out to accomplish?
Of course not. I didn’t set out to create the grossest film of all time. My philosophy is, if I’m going to do a scene that’s gross, I’m going to push that shit. If I’m going to do a scene that’s silly, I’m going to push it. I’ve seen so many movies when they cut away and that’s great too, you don’t have to show things. But, for this, I wanted to make a Ren and Stimpy-kinda movie, at heart.
I did think of things that would scare me, things that I have anxieties about and push those things but it wasn’t, like, ‘I want to make the grossest film of all time and this is it.’ Because if I did, it would be way different. It would be more malicious. But my movie, it’s not a malicious movie. I’ve been watching this show, called Goliath, it’s on Amazon. Really interesting, it stars Billy Bob Thornton. He’s this old man with a burnt-out face. And he comes on to this woman, who’s a really young, hot, lawyer. And, their scenes together, for me, are some of the grossest of all time. Like, a scared old man having sex with a young woman, that’s gross. So, if I was making the grossest film of all time, it would definitely be an ageist film or something.
I read somewhere that ‘Kuso’ originally had some more ‘racial stuff’ in it.
There was. It was in one of the animated sequences that got cut down, it’s about this weird cop, who’s holding a walkie-talkie and gives this crazy monologue. But that whole thing was [originally] much more fucked up. That was going to be the one part of the movie where people would get upset if they do get upset about it. But with the climate and the way the world was moving, I felt like I should just not do that. People feel so emboldened to be racist and be loud about it right now and I didn’t want to touch that.
Did you feel like ‘Kuso’ has a message about race in America in the same sense that, say, ‘Get Out’ does?
I thought Get Out was okay. But wasn’t like, my favorite movie of all time. I thought it was cool. And that’s the thing, I didn’t like that race message stuff.
Does it have a message?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t want to push it too hard. I just hope if somebody likes it enough, they’ll decipher it. I left a lot of clues in there, for anyone who gives a shit.
A lot of the movie’s setpieces highlight things you don’t really see in movies very often. Did you want to push people’s fortitude?
It was never, like, I want to see how far I can go. I would have done other shit if that was my intention. I don’t even want to say the things I would have done. But I don’t want to be Gaspar Noé. I love him. But that’s not me. I want it to still be fun. I didn’t want to go Irreversible on anybody. More than anything else, I wanted to create a movie that a bunch of people could sit in a room and watch together and have a good time. I wanted to make my version of a crowdpleaser. Something for the Adult Swim crowd, the Loiter Squad kids. The new ratchet kids. Something for them. They’ve seen all the crazy ‘80s horror movies and they want something new.
Since the movie is coming out via a streaming instead of movie theaters, do you worry about how that will affect how people watch it?
I think this is a movie meant to be experienced with people, whether you have people at your house, it’s a social movie. Really, I think the movie is best when it’s experienced with just one other person. Because the movie is truly about our anxieties, deep down.
Tell me about how you approached sound design.
I approached it with intention, man. There’s a lot of sounds that are very normal in the movie. And there’s a lot that are hyper-normal, you know heightened. And then there’s some that are just straight up cartoon noises. It was a matter of balancing out how they felt. I wanted it to feel like it could aesthetically change on you at any moment, like a live action cartoon.
How did you hope like your fans would relate to the work?
Honestly, this movie has a lot of my new album in it but I waited for a while to say that because I didn’t want my fans to get the wrong idea. Of course. I even put in the actual machine that I use to make the beats, the real deal [in one of the scenes]. That’s a little thing for the beat heads. But it’s always like, when’s the soundtrack coming out, I’ll listen to that. I had to be very specific about a lot of things like that because I didn’t want the film to be like to be thought of as the music video companion.
One of the largest shocks if the movie is the skin condition that everyone seems to have in the movie. What influenced that?
The idea was, if you don’t have it bad, you’re still getting it. But there are also varying degrees of the disease. It was kind of funny, I worked with a makeup artist that I really liked and I told him that I would need some stuff for skin boils. And it was so sweet. He came to the set with the tiniest little boils and pimples and stuff for little gashes. Aww, you think I’m one of them motherfuckers, huh? No, this ain’t going to work. We need them, like, golf ball sized.
I like the idea of it being about how everyone’s in the shit together. I think part of my intention was not to make the grossest film of all time but to show them ugly, in a time where everyone is trying to be as beautiful. I wanted to show them the ugly that’s inside people and outside people, whatever.Brainfeeder Films
The other thing that struck me was the story with The Buttress (Bethany Schmitt), she is being stalked by a dude (Tim Heidecker) who sexually assaulted her. That felt dark for a movie framed around such comic relationships.
It’s super dark, it’s a terrible fucking thing. For me, that was the moment where I thought, maybe we’re doing too much, saying too much here. But, the actress. She was all about it. She was like the most ratchet human alive, the most down motherfucker. We had to shoot that scene where she takes a pregnancy test on the toilet and she was, you know, actually trying to do it for real on the first take. And she sits down and takes her underwear off. And it was like, let’s do it again, but fake this time.
Did working with actors and actresses feel different from collaborating with musicians?
Way different. There’s much more intimacy making music. When I make music with people, it’s usually just one person at a time, sorting things out together. But when you have actors and you have a crew, every second costs you thousands of dollars. I really wish I could relate them in some way but they’re totally different beats. And I understand why I turned to music when I was in film school because it’s so easy to get your spirit broken there.
How do you hope people relate to Kuso?
The one thing I can hope for is that people cut the movie up. They put parts of it on YouTube, they find their favorite moments and make Gifs out of them. That’s the most I can hope for. That people have fun with it. Remix it and stuff. I’d love to see that stuff. There’s a lot of personal things that’s all tucked in behind fart jokes.
What kind of things did you cut?
There was a whole other sequence that didn’t make the film, a whole thing I wanted people to see –it has an old VHS with nipples on it. It was really cool.
Do you worry that people might turn away from the more squeamish or odd parts of the movie and miss something?
Nah. Because people never really turn away, they do this-
[He lifts up his hand over his eyes and dramatically peeks through]
They never truly turn away.
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