“Trust Your Vision”: An Interview with the Filmmakers of the Cult Classic “Liquid Sky” (1982)
By Sasha RazorApril 14, 2018
When I first saw Liquid Sky as a teenager in a peripheral post-Soviet town, I couldn’t have guessed that its iconic depictions of the New York scene were fashioned by a crew of recent emigrants from the Soviet Union: the director Slava Tsukerman, Nina Kerova (who co-produced and co-wrote the film together with Anne Carlisle and Tsukerman), cinematographer and special effects supervisor Yuri Neyman, and Marina Levikova, who designed the costumes and sets. Nor could I predict that, years later, I would be interviewing the very people who created the visual code of my adolescence. I met with Marina Levikova and Yuri Neyman in their home in Sherman Oaks, while Slava Tsukerman joined us from Manhattan by phone.
SASHA RAZOR: Liquid Sky is exceptional even among cult movies. It played in theaters for several years after its premiere, and the lines at the ticket offices never shrank. Can you explain the success of your movie? Were you aware at the time that you were making a cult film?
SLAVA TSUKERMAN: There is always a multitude of factors that play into a film’s success, but I’d like to point out the period in which Liquid Sky was made. I jokingly describe this moment in history as a time when every housewife was dreaming of becoming a punk. Not only was our audience receptive to the idea of a punk Cinderella story, but also the myth of the UFO was literally in the air, because Spielberg’s early films had just come out. It might be immodest of me to say this, but I believe, in most cases, that a professional filmmaker knows what he or she is doing and can predict the results from the onset. What I wanted to make was a metaphorical parable that would encompass the main mass culture myths of the early 1980s: sex, drugs, rock and roll, and aliens. As my teacher Lev Kuleshov used to say, “A monkey catches flies from the air.” And these ideas were, indeed, in the air.
I came up with the idea of Liquid Sky when my wife and I befriended Anne Carlisle and her group of friends (they did not call themselves punks, they were the New Wave). Some time later, we decided to write a script where they were to play most of the roles. I found the New Wave style — which combined elements of very different worlds, such as Weimar Germany, Japanese Kabuki theater, and the American 1950s — to be very interesting and most fitting as a base for a parable of our time. Anne Carlisle was already the top New Wave fashion model, and her portraits were all over the Tokyo subway. Then Yuri and Marina emigrated from the Soviet Union. Yuri was a great director of photography [DP] and a top special effects specialist. I had known him since he was a boy and always wanted to work with him. Marina had worked as a designer on several major films. Their arrival gave me a chance to make a visually oriented low-budget movie.
YURI NEYMAN: I may add that we were making exactly the movie we wanted to make the way we wanted to make it! How often does something like this happen? Marina and I had just emigrated from the USSR, and we were thrilled to make our first film in the United States. Also, we were a team and understood each other instantly. You see, punk, as such, was not an extremely visual culture, so we needed to find very specific artistic ways to visualize it, to represent punks on screen. It helped tremendously that all of us were raised and educated in one of the best cultural traditions. If one said, “German Expressionism,” or “Bertolt Brecht,” we all knew exactly what that was.
MARINA LEVIKOVA: We were also one team doing one film! We trusted each other’s tastes and knew that things would turn out exactly as they should. We succeeded in capturing the 1980s New York punk scene because we saw this world with fresh eyes. Everything was novel to us, be it crossing a New York street or seeing Jean-Michel Basquiat painting his murals on the sidewalk. We have an amazing series of photographs from that time that Yuri took while scouting locations. When we went to punk clubs, which were nearly impossible to get into, the bouncers always invited us in because we stood out so much from the crowd. I think fondly of this time in our lives as a moment of pure creativity.
You have mentioned that you all had a common artistic training and background. Can you talk more about your cinema education?
ML: I had amazing teachers since childhood, because I grew up in the Gulag system, in a settlement called IntaLag. It was a place of exile and imprisonment for members of the Soviet and foreign intelligentsia. I studied art with Alexander Sergeevich Malishevsky, an art director from the Ballets Russes, who had worked with famous European artists, including Léon Bakst, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, and others. So I was at home with the modernist tradition even before this knowledge became commonplace in my generation. Later, after graduating from the Art Institute in Moscow, I worked with such great directors of Soviet cinema as Sergei Yutkevich and Elem Klimov. I met Yuri while I was making costumes and designing the stages for Mayakovsky is Laughing (1975), directed by Sergei Yutkevich, and we started planning our “escape” from the Soviet Union.
ST: Being a Jew in the Soviet Union, I knew that my chances of getting into VGIK [at the time, the All-Union State Institute of Filmmaking and the only film school in the country] were next to zero. Instead, I pursued a degree in architecture and civil engineering, partly because Sergei Eisenstein, my favorite filmmaker, had a similar education. But, even as a teenager, I got hold of Lev Kuleshov’s famous textbook The Basics of Film Direction (1941) and learned it by heart. It is a mystical coincidence that, when I did get into VGIK after getting my first degree, Kuleshov was my professor of film directing. After graduating, I was sent to work in a studio that was producing science documentaries, but the films I was making were rather experimental in nature and blurred genre boundaries. I immigrated to Israel in the 1970s and then to the United States, because I wanted to be at the center of international culture. I explored and studied New York life for half a decade prior to shooting Liquid Sky.
YN: I developed an interest in cinema and photography rather early. As a schoolboy, I loved a popular book on photography written by the Hungarian photographer Jenő Dulovits. I think that the artistic impact of this book is traceable in my work. I shot my first film, Lucia+Stepa, in high school. It was about a short boy falling in love with a tall girl. This was when I met Slava, who was a friend of my mentor, cinematographer Valeri Bazylev. Both Slava and Valeri were already VGIK students.
ST: And I remember Valeri introducing Yuri as a genius cinematographer. In high school!
YN: Yes, then later at VGIK I received an excellent cinematographic education that followed a system developed in the 1930s by Vladimir Nilsen, one of Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematographers and a close associate, who perished in Stalin’s purges. The same system, which later became VGIK, was at the foundation of all Eastern European film schools: in Łódź, Prague, Babelsberg, Bucharest — and even in Havana. It’s funny, because our generation of VGIK students was the last one to undergo pseudo-military drills, where we had to swim across a pool without getting our cameras wet — heavy Soviet Konvas cameras — or walk across a balance beam with a glass of water placed on our cameras without splashing it. Nonetheless, we knew about what was happening in Western cinema, art, music, literature, et cetera. Here is the proof on my shelf: Andy Warhol’s print reproduction, which Sergei Yutkevich brought to me as a present after we finished Mayakovsky is Laughing. I was his DP. It even has Yutkevich’s signature on it. Little did we know that we would meet Andy Warhol in person just a few years down the road.
Can you tell us a little about Sweet 16, the unrealized film in which Warhol, who was himself a son of immigrants from the Ukrainian-Slovak border, was supposed to play a role?
ST: I always admired what Warhol did in art, but I found his films too experimental and aimed at an elite audience. I wanted to make Sweet 16 in the spirit of Andy Warhol’s art, with its unique combination of vanguard concerns and wide popular appeal. The story was about a girl with an artificial body, a girl who lives forever. I came up with a character for Andy: a salesclerk at a plastic flower store. The character claimed that Paul Cézanne preferred to paint artificial flowers. He believed that artificial flowers were better than real ones, because they did not wither, they stayed young forever. I came to Warhol with this screenplay, and he happily agreed to be in the film.
We had already started working on the casting of Sweet 16 when our investor showed the script to a seasoned production manager who estimated that such a film would be impossible to produce on our budget of a half-million dollars. Of course, the investor believed the voice of experience, and, sadly, the film was cancelled. What they did not take into consideration was my resourcefulness: I would have managed to film Sweet 16 despite the limitations.
During the casting of Sweet 16, I met the future characters of Liquid Sky, including Anne Carlisle. These people became our friends, our team members, and a source of infinite inspiration by simply playing themselves.
What about your work on Liquid Sky? The movie had exactly the same half-million-dollar budget as Sweet 16, which is not much, considering the types of special effects you were using. How did you manage? Are there any tricks to your trade?
YN: I had no preconceived ideas for how Liquid Sky would look when the three of us started to explore the visual concepts for the film. Punk visual art was nonexistent, so there were no visual references to use. I started my journey by taking photographs in various punk clubs and apartments, and experimenting with color composition and special effects until the film’s visual style started to form in my head little by little.
Even before we had the final script, I started to prepare myself and the team for developing innovative special effects, as I knew that they were going to play a huge stylistic and technical role in the movie. I built most of our equipment myself, by remodeling used equipment, such as old Disney cameras. The main camera that I used to shoot the film is a legend in its own right.
The old Debrie Parvo L — a superb French camera designed in 1908 — belonged to Maya Deren, the experimental American filmmaker whose family left Kyiv in 1922, to escape the Jewish pogroms. Of course, at VGIK I learned about her experimental work from the 1940s and 1950s, but I was shocked when I was introduced to her husband, Alexander Hammid, in New York. He gave me the camera used to shoot Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) — now a classic of experimental cinema — and allowed me to cannibalize this truly exceptional camera in order to shoot in color and do special effects. I don’t know how Hammid agreed to this, but I’m glad that he did! Now I have this camera in my office and show it to my students as an illustration of the saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Also, when it became known that Anne Carlisle would play two roles in the film — Margaret and Jimmy — we had no choice but to undertake a very risky technical solution: to film her using a very old split screen technique on the original negative. Under normal circumstances, nobody would ever do this, but we were on a budget, and I gave my word to Slava that I could pull off this high-risk operation. This is what they did back in the 1910s. You have probably seen it in The Queen of Spades (1916), directed by Yakov Protazanov.
I recently rewatched the movie, and it’s clear that Marina had a lot of fun with costumes and interiors. As a teenager, I wanted to wear these outfits and tried to emulate the style. Marina, how did you do this?
ML: I didn’t have sketches for everything, but I had a plan and knew what I was doing. I was lucky in the sense that I got to design both the set and the costumes, so I got to control the full look, all on a very limited budget. We had just emigrated from the Soviet Union with $100 per person in our pockets, all that we were allowed to take by the Soviet government, so any, even a small, budget, seemed like a real fortune to me. I designed the costumes by buying scraps of fabric downtown, deconstructing secondhand outfits, and assembling them all together with gaffer tape, sometimes on the actor. A woman who worked with me kept saying that my costumes would not last, but I only needed them to last for one scene. And you know what? I still have a suitcase full of those costumes right here in my apartment. Also, not too many people notice that the costumes were designed according to the three different colors of the main set: yellow for the day, purple for the night, and turquoise for sunsets and sunrises.
Slava, what about your work process? How did you work with your crew, and how much control did you exercise over the film production? What is your idea of authorship in cinema?
ST: Yes, on the one hand, cinema is a collective art with every crew member and even the environment impacting it, but on the other, the director is responsible for the film’s integrity. He or she should have a clear vision and should be able to see and hear the film even prior to the filming process. So, it is important to distinguish between the basic things that cannot be altered and things that occur unexpectedly and have the potential to improve the film.
I always have a very clear idea of the visual style of my future films. I always choose my DPs with a vision close to my own. Still, a good cinematographer always has some personal ideas. I always have amazing discussions with my DPs — I love it. I think it’s the only way to get the best results.
When we were shooting Liquid Sky, Yuri and I had a few of these discussions on the set, but we were extremely lucky that our crew did not speak Russian and did not know what we were arguing about. We had a young production manager who asked me why I just couldn’t order Yuri to do what I wanted him to do, so I had to explain that I wanted my film to be good and Yuri to do his best as a cinematographer. My job was to use his vision without losing the film’s objectives, to merge our visions together. So these conversations were absolutely necessary for me.
You see, one can’t just give orders to an artist. It’s difficult to inspire creativity and it’s easy to destroy it. Producers can’t just give orders to directors, and directors can’t just give orders to DPs, designers, and to all the other creative crew members.
What about your work with the actors? What was it like to be working with Anne Carlisle?
ST: Working with Anne Carlisle, who played two leading parts in the film, was very easy because these characters were created using her own personal experience. Still, there were occasional problems to solve. For example, when we were shooting in our most expensive location, a nightclub, there was a blackout in downtown Manhattan and we lost one day of shooting. In order to get out of the situation, I needed to change the blocking of one scene. Unexpectedly, Anne found this change unacceptable from the point of view of the character that she played, or, to be precise, this character’s psychological motivation. So I found myself under tremendous pressure and could not afford to lose time in arguments. We only had so much time at this location and could not return there. The most logical thing to do under these circumstances was to order her to act regardless of her ideas of the psychological motivation. My crew expected me to do precisely that. But I just couldn’t. I felt that this would kill my movie. A film is dead without its psychological truth. I pulled Anne outside to the street, so that nobody could hear us, and in a couple of minutes we found a solution to the problem.
Are there any decisions that you regret?
ML: Yes, I regret that we didn’t get Keith Haring to do the backgrounds for one scene. Keith agreed and really wanted to work for us, but because we wanted him to paint over the original interiors and then clean them up, he declined. He was simply against destroying his artwork. I feel sorry about it to this day, that we missed the opportunity to work with such a great artist.
How did you perceive the success of your film at the time? How did your career develop after this film?
YN: Even though we applied some effort to promote Liquid Sky — I was in charge of a group of youngsters who gave out film flyers to people waiting in lines in New York movie theaters — when we saw the huge line at the premiere, we couldn’t believe that this line was for our own movie.
ML: Then Bloomingdale’s made a collection based on our designs, and I saw my costumes in the windows of shops and in crowds. It was a very special thing to see something I created entering everyday life. After Liquid Sky, I worked as a music video production and costume designer for David Bowie, Carly Simon, Nile Rodgers, among many other artists. I also worked as an illustrator for many magazines and brands, from Rolling Stone to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Currently, I’m working as a production designer in animation.
YN: I have worked on many films and commercials since Liquid Sky, but it was not an easy road. Critics rarely comment on the work of cinematographers in films, and despite the praise, such as, “New York has never been photographed better in a movie,” I had very few feature film offers. Mainly commercials and music videos that required “bright colors.”
And this is quite understandable, because filmmaking is based, first and foremost, on personal trust. And there I was, the new kid on the block. I had an agent in Hollywood, I was accepted to the Cinematographers Union, American Cinematographer ran an article on Liquid Sky, yet there were no tangible offers. It was only after I shot another small independent film in black-and-white, Tom Goes to the Bar, and this film got an award at the Berlin Film Festival, that I got a real offer — to shoot D.O.A., a feature film with Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, and Charlotte Rampling. After this, I shot many films, including Back in the U.S.S.R. (1992), Fatal Deception: Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald (1993), Civil Brand (2002), and others.
I also taught cinematography — film and digital — at various schools: SUNY, UCLA, and AFI, where I created the History of Cinematography curriculum. Then, together with Vilmos Zsigmond — a very distinguished cinematographer from Hungary who won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who unfortunately passed away two years ago — we opened a school, Global Cinematography Institute, where we teach about the current and future state of our profession.
Based on your experiences and observations, what professional changes should cinematographers expect in the future?
YN: It’s interesting that you ask this question, as I was just recently moderating a panel titled “The Future of Cinematography” at Camerimage, a festival of cinematographic arts in Poland, where we discussed many questions related to this issue. First of all, the future of our profession is in the merging of traditional and innovative medias and techniques, such as previsualization, virtual lighting, gaming, and more. The cinematographer of the future will be more of a cinematographer-artist-designer-technologist, who should be on top of artistic and technological developments.
Slava, what about you? After Liquid Sky you directed several documentaries, including a film about Nadezhda Alliluyeva titled Stalin’s Wife (2004), and the feature films Poor Liza (2000) and Perestroika (2009). You also announced in 2014 that you were making a sequel to Liquid Sky. Do you have any updates on your work?
ST: People had asked me many times to make a sequel to Liquid Sky, but I never agreed until recently. The reason why I could not agree to the job is that they all wanted me to stay as close as possible to the original story, but I did not see how to adapt it to a different time and context until now, because the times we live in remind me a lot of the 1980s. Have you noticed how many remakes and sequels to 1980s films have come out recently? I do have a very good idea for the script, on which we are working with Anne Carlisle. Naturally, I can’t give away the plot, but I can hint that in our sequel, Margaret will return to Earth.
Is this sequel your only current project?
ST: Not quite. I’m experiencing a kind of creative renaissance right now, so I’m working on several projects. Besides the sequel, I’m also working on a thriller and on a drama about Berlin in 1945. The latter film is a romance between a Russian woman and an American man. The topic of Russian-American relations is so pressing these days that I hope to find a producer for this project soon.
Slava, do you have advice for aspiring film directors?
ST: First of all, I would recommend to any filmmaker, not just film directors, to study the history of cinema. A long time ago, I was a guest at Jay Leyda’s class on film history at NYU, and I was surprised by the fact that there were no film school students in the class. Leyda, this celebrated film historian who knew Eisenstein, explained to me that “future filmmakers” do not care about film history.
The second thing that I recommend is to understand exactly what the profession of film director entails and how difficult it is. You will need to subjugate many people to your vision. Needless to say, all members of the crew and cast are going to have their own vision of your film, not to mention the producer, who thinks he has the exclusive rights to your vision. In order to save the integrity of the film, a director needs to withstand tremendous pressure every minute. Besides, a film director should be able to endure the moral and physical exhaustion of filming for days and days, often working 24/7. So, very often, the people who survive in this profession are not the most talented folks but the strongest and most stubborn. It takes an enormous amount of energy to finish a movie. I have met people who left the profession after making one film because they understood that it was not for them.
The last piece of advice that I can give is not to compromise and to trust your vision.
Sasha Razor is a PhD student at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.
Sasha Razor holds a PhD in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the screenplays of Russian prose authors in the 1920s and 1930s.
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