“Trust Your Vision”: An Interview with the Filmmakers of the Cult Classic “Liquid Sky” (1982)

I do have a very good idea for the script, on which we are working with Anne Carlisle. 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. 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. I’m experiencing a kind of creative renaissance right now, so I’m working on several projects. Based on your experiences and observations, what professional changes should cinematographers expect in the future? I think it’s the only way to get the best results. Are there any tricks to your trade? We have an amazing series of photographs from that time that Yuri took while scouting locations. Still, a good cinematographer always has some personal ideas. Translation: “To dear Yuri, an artist of great talent, but that of the pop art character, from loving S. 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. 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. In high school! Nonetheless, we knew about what was happening in Western cinema, art, music, literature, et cetera. Also, we were a team and understood each other instantly. The cinematographer of the future will be more of a cinematographer-artist-designer-technologist, who should be on top of artistic and technological developments. It was a place of exile and imprisonment for members of the Soviet and foreign intelligentsia. 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. You will need to subjugate many people to your vision. 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. 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. 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. 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. In order to get out of the situation, I needed to change the blocking of one scene. Besides the sequel, I’m also working on a thriller and on a drama about Berlin in 1945. Anne Carlisle was already the top New Wave fashion model, and her portraits were all over the Tokyo subway. 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. I recently rewatched the movie, and it’s clear that Marina had a lot of fun with costumes and interiors. 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. ML: Then Bloomingdale’s made a collection based on our designs, and I saw my costumes in the windows of shops and in crowds. 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. YN: I developed an interest in cinema and photography rather early. 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. 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. 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. How did your career develop after this film? And all the other princes and their princesses would come, and they would say, ‘Delicious, delicious.’ Oh, how boring.” Photograph by Yuri Neyman. I have met people who left the profession after making one film because they understood that it was not for them. A film is dead without its psychological truth. 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. Little did we know that we would meet Andy Warhol in person just a few years down the road. 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. 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. 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. Their arrival gave me a chance to make a visually oriented low-budget movie. ML: I had amazing teachers since childhood, because I grew up in the Gulag system, in a settlement called IntaLag. It even has Yutkevich’s signature on it. So, very often, the people who survive in this profession are not the most talented folks but the strongest and most stubborn. Photograph by Yuri Neyman. 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. Have you noticed how many remakes and sequels to 1980s films have come out recently? Everything was novel to us, be it crossing a New York street or seeing Jean-Michel Basquiat painting his murals on the sidewalk. 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). 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. A woman who worked with me kept saying that my costumes would not last, but I only needed them to last for one scene. What they did not take into consideration was my resourcefulness: I would have managed to film Sweet 16 despite the limitations. Of course, the investor believed the voice of experience, and, sadly, the film was cancelled. Were you aware at the time that you were making a cult film? Naturally, I can’t give away the plot, but I can hint that in our sequel, Margaret will return to Earth. 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. My crew expected me to do precisely that. Photograph by Yuri Neyman. YN: I have worked on many films and commercials since Liquid Sky, but it was not an easy road. It helped tremendously that all of us were raised and educated in one of the best cultural traditions. The main camera that I used to shoot the film is a legend in its own right. I jokingly describe this moment in history as a time when every housewife was dreaming of becoming a punk. 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. 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. Its upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release is a perfect opportunity to examine the factors that contributed to its phenomenal success and to trace the unexpected life trajectories of its makers. I explored and studied New York life for half a decade prior to shooting Liquid Sky. It’s difficult to inspire creativity and it’s easy to destroy it. 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 was taught that my prince would come, and he would be a lawyer, and I would have his children. ST: Not quite. The last piece of advice that I can give is not to compromise and to trust your vision. What was it like to be working with Anne Carlisle? This is what they did back in the 1910s. Print from Yuri Neyman’s archive. I still have a suitcase full of those costumes right here in my apartment. Slava, what about your work process? It played in theaters for several years after its premiere, and the lines at the ticket offices never shrank. Punk visual art was nonexistent, so there were no visual references to use. And on the weekends we would barbecue. What about your work with the actors? (1992), Fatal Deception: Mrs. What about your work on Liquid Sky? I shot my first film, Lucia+Stepa, in high school. ST: First of all, I would recommend to any filmmaker, not just film directors, to study the history of cinema. You see, one can’t just give orders to an artist. Then Yuri and Marina emigrated from the Soviet Union. 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. And there I was, the new kid on the block. I think fondly of this time in our lives as a moment of pure creativity. After this, I shot many films, including Back in the U.S.S.R. You have mentioned that you all had a common artistic training and background. Nor could I predict that, years later, I would be interviewing the very people who created the visual code of my adolescence. As a teenager, I wanted to wear these outfits and tried to emulate the style. 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. The most logical thing to do under these circumstances was to order her to act regardless of her ideas of the psychological motivation. Photographs taken in New York punk clubs in 1980s by Yuri Neyman. 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. It’s often credited as a forerunner of independent cinema and it certainly influenced the visual style of its era. 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. Is this sequel your only current project? So I found myself under tremendous pressure and could not afford to lose time in arguments. 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. I came up with a character for Andy: a salesclerk at a plastic flower store. Still, there were occasional problems to solve. Marina, how did you do this? Marina and I had just emigrated from the USSR, and we were thrilled to make our first film in the United States. A drawing for the makeup and costumes made by Marina Levikova. 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. We trusted each other’s tastes and knew that things would turn out exactly as they should. Both Slava and Valeri were already VGIK students. APRIL 14, 2018

WHAT MAKES A FILM a cult classic? He or she should have a clear vision and should be able to see and hear the film even prior to the filming process. It is a mystical coincidence that, when I did get into VGIK after getting my first degree, Kuleshov was my professor of film directing. We succeeded in capturing the 1980s New York punk scene because we saw this world with fresh eyes. Can you explain the success of your movie? 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. How did you perceive the success of your film at the time? 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. Currently, I’m working as a production designer in animation. It was a very special thing to see something I created entering everyday life. I was his DP. In order to save the integrity of the film, a director needs to withstand tremendous pressure every minute. Leyda, this celebrated film historian who knew Eisenstein, explained to me that “future filmmakers” do not care about film history. 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. If one said, “German Expressionism,” or “Bertolt Brecht,” we all knew exactly what that was. I think that the artistic impact of this book is traceable in my work. MARINA LEVIKOVA: We were also one team doing one film! 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. 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. Yuri was a great director of photography [DP] and a top special effects specialist. I don’t know how Hammid agreed to this, but I’m glad that he did! I also taught cinematography — film and digital — at various schools: SUNY, UCLA, and AFI, where I created the History of Cinematography curriculum. 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. 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. Can you talk more about your cinema education? My job was to use his vision without losing the film’s objectives, to merge our visions together. 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. ¤
Sasha Razor is a PhD student at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. These people became our friends, our team members, and a source of infinite inspiration by simply playing themselves. What is your idea of authorship in cinema? 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. We only had so much time at this location and could not return there. 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 was about a short boy falling in love with a tall girl. He was simply against destroying his artwork. How did you manage? So I was at home with the modernist tradition even before this knowledge became commonplace in my generation. You have probably seen it in The Queen of Spades (1916), directed by Yakov Protazanov. I always have a very clear idea of the visual style of my future films. YURI NEYMAN: I may add that we were making exactly the movie we wanted to make the way we wanted to make it! So these conversations were absolutely necessary for me. I built most of our equipment myself, by remodeling used equipment, such as old Disney cameras. How often does something like this happen? Photograph by Yuri Neiman. 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. Photographed in “black light” with the use of specially designed makeup, Anne Carlisle delivers one of her most remarkable monologues in “Liquid Sky”: “You wanted to know where I am from? 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. Some time later, we decided to write a script where they were to play most of the roles. 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. 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. Lee Harvey Oswald (1993), Civil Brand (2002), and others. 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 always choose my DPs with a vision close to my own. This was when I met Slava, who was a friend of my mentor, cinematographer Valeri Bazylev. I came to Warhol with this screenplay, and he happily agreed to be in the film. Marina had worked as a designer on several major films. Instead, I pursued a degree in architecture and civil engineering, partly because Sergei Eisenstein, my favorite filmmaker, had a similar education. It takes an enormous amount of energy to finish a movie. 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). Mainly commercials and music videos that required “bright colors.”
And this is quite understandable, because filmmaking is based, first and foremost, on personal trust. The character claimed that Paul Cézanne preferred to paint artificial flowers. Besides, a film director should be able to endure the moral and physical exhaustion of filming for days and days, often working 24/7. The story was about a girl with an artificial body, a girl who lives forever. I always have amazing discussions with my DPs — I love it. As my teacher Lev Kuleshov used to say, “A monkey catches flies from the air.” And these ideas were, indeed, in the air. ST: I always admired what Warhol did in art, but I found his films too experimental and aimed at an elite audience. 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. I had known him since he was a boy and always wanted to work with him. I felt that this would kill my movie. 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. Slava, what about you? Are there any decisions that you regret? You also announced in 2014 that you were making a sequel to Liquid Sky. I met with Marina Levikova and Yuri Neyman in their home in Sherman Oaks, while Slava Tsukerman joined us from Manhattan by phone. As a schoolboy, I loved a popular book on photography written by the Hungarian photographer Jenő Dulovits. 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 feel sorry about it to this day, that we missed the opportunity to work with such a great artist. 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. I immigrated to Israel in the 1970s and then to the United States, because I wanted to be at the center of international culture. The sci-fi Liquid Sky (1982), set in punk- and New Wave–era New York and starring the formidable Anne Carlisle in dual gender-bending roles, is a prime example. I also worked as an illustrator for many magazines and brands, from Rolling Stone to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Yutkevich.”
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? ML: Yes, I regret that we didn’t get Keith Haring to do the backgrounds for one scene. How did you work with your crew, and how much control did you exercise over the film production? 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. He believed that artificial flowers were better than real ones, because they did not wither, they stayed young forever. ¤
SASHA RAZOR: Liquid Sky is exceptional even among cult movies. ST: And I remember Valeri introducing Yuri as a genius cinematographer. And you know what? During the casting of Sweet 16, I met the future characters of Liquid Sky, including Anne Carlisle. 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. But I just couldn’t. ML: I didn’t have sketches for everything, but I had a plan and knew what I was doing. 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. Slava, do you have advice for aspiring film directors? The second thing that I recommend is to understand exactly what the profession of film director entails and how difficult it is. 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.  
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. I’m from Connecticut, Mayflower stock.