In many ways, Liquid Sky was the cult movie of the ‘80s. Its outrageous new wave fashions and synth-heavy soundtrack, its eccentric plot (about a race of microscopic aliens who infiltrate the New York dance club scene to score heroin, and an androgynous model whose sexual partners die mysteriously), and its remarkable performance by lead actress/co-writer Anne Carlisle (who plays both the female protagonist and her male adversary) put it in a prime position to ride the transition from the Rocky Horror midnight movie era into the burgeoning frontier of home video weirdness. Yet despite its obvious period trappings, its commentary on sexuality, gender roles, and assault feels strikingly modern– and by “modern,” I mean right now, at this exact moment, in 2018. Like the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, lack of availability has caused Liquid Sky to go unseen by a generation of cineastes, but that’s poised to change with a gorgeous new blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome. What’s more, the Boston Underground Film Festival kicks off tonight with an ultra-rare 35mm screening, hosted by director Slava Tsukerman himself. I was fortunate enough to speak with Tsukerman on his upbringing behind the Iron Curtain, his unlikely friendships in the New York art scene, and his plans for the future of Liquid Sky.
BOSTON HASSLE: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your background. You were born in the Soviet Union, is that right?
SLAVA TSUKERMAN: Right. I was born, educated, and actually started my film career in the Soviet Union.
BH: Oh, interesting. What sort of work did you do over there?
ST: Well, you see, in the Soviet Union, there was only one film institute. No separate film schools. One film institute with all the top filmmaking professors, with different divisions for different professions. And they were taking, like, twelve, fifteen students to start directing a year, from the entire socialist world, the third world, and Russia. So it was very difficult to get there, and you couldn’t work as a filmmaker without a diploma. It was impossible– “You should have diploma!” I was the right age to go there after high school, but there was terrible anti-Semitism– because I’m Jewish, I had no chance to get there. But I wanted to be a filmmaker. I think the first time I made something that I’d call “film,” I was eight years old. So I decided that, because I had no choice, I needed to get some other education, and because Eisenstein was an architect and a civil engineer, I decided that I should get the same thing. So I went to the civil engineering institute, and I graduated, but it was Krushchev’s time, with a lot of activity, and something which was called “amateur filmmaking” appeared. And I made, with the friends I made at the civil engineering school, we made amateur films. We shot a fiction short on 35mm film, which got first prize at the National Soviet Film Festival, and was released for general release in the Soviet Union. So I was a unique person, the only person in Russia, after Stalin’s time, who managed to make film before studying film school. So after that I became a student at film school.
After film school, because I had already had an education, they had special rules for me. They sent me to work at the studio of science documentaries and educational films, but I wasn’t really making educational films My friends and I created a new genre, philosophical films, which would mix everything– fiction, animation, and special effects– and they were about complicated questions of philosophy and science. Even some film stars were in my films. And I had great success with it– a lot of prizes. And then a moment came that emigration started. It became possible to emigrate– with risks, but it was possible. Me and my wife applied for emigration. There was only one way, to emigrate to Israel. We emigrated in 1973. Three years we spent in Israel. I started shooting in Israel within three months after we came there. My first documentary for Israeli TV got the first prize in the Hollywood TV Film Festival, which existed back then, and it was a very big event, because no Israeli television film ever won any prizes before that.
So I was very successful in Israel. I realized very fast back then, in Israel, you really couldn’t make a really internationally accepted film. The country was very small. No audience would see these films. And especially, for me, it was a big problem, because I had grown up behind the Iron Curtain in Russia, and knew nothing besides Russia. And in order to make films which would be accepted all over the world I needed a new worldview. So I’d already had the first year of life in Israel, and I’d already traveled to America– to Hollywood for festivals, and to New York. And I came to the decision that the best place for somebody who wants to make independent films is New York. So we moved to New York, with the idea that I would have a new life and find investors, and that would take me four or five years maybe, and then I’d make my first film. And it happened exactly that way– I made Liquid Sky after about five years of life in New York.
BH: How did you come to start making Liquid Sky itself? Where did the idea come from?
ST: Well, I had a lot of other projects before that, which I couldn’t finance. Then, finally, was the one [Sweet Sixteen, prior to Liquid Sky] which we found an investor who was ready to finance the pre-production. He wanted, actually, to finance the film for half a million. And after we finished pre-production, he invited a seasoned production manager, who said, “There is no way that someone would make this film for half a million!” So the investor trusted the experienced American production manager more than me, who had never made a film in America before. So he just decided that he wanted to spend some money on pre-production, and that’s enough. He stopped financing. And during pre-production, we were working on casting. It was a science fiction film, which was very close to nightlife, and all that. And casting was made by Bob Brady, who was playing the professor in Liquid Sky. He was a professor. He was teaching in the Boston School of Visual Arts, and he had classes with a lot of students. So all these people became my and my wife’s friends, and I was kind of among them. And then the idea of Liquid Sky came to my mind: I wanted these people I already know to play themselves in my new film.
BH: Watching it today, one of the most interesting things to me is how it really feels like a snapshot of the whole New York scene at the time– new wave and Danceteria and all that. Were you at all involved with that scene?
ST: Well, kind of– I was involved, but it was a little bit different than normal. It’s not that I came there to have fun. I came there because I already had this idea for Liquid Sky. And the people became, as I said, my friends, before I got involved. It was very exciting to me. I found all that very interesting, because I thought that young people in this movement– like the hippies in the ‘60s, and new wave in the ‘70s and ‘80s– that’s really the people who created a new style, who changed their life, and the world, and a new style of life was formed. So I found it all very interesting. And we were real friends, in spite of my accent, and being older, and being from Russia. They fit very good with me and my wife, and I fit very good with them. And then, at that moment, we started writing the script for Liquid Sky. Of course, we were going to a lot of nightclubs, trying to learn as much as possible.
BH: One of the most arresting parts of the film is Anne Carlisle, who plays both the male and female leads, and also is credited with co-writing the screenplay.
ST: Yes. Anne, as I said, became our friend. My wife, who was educated as a screenwriter as well, had written a script about a woman who cannot have orgasms. And because she was from Russia, and she wasn’t sure about the quality of her English, she wanted help with the dialogue, to finish the script. And Anne was already a friend, so she invited Anne to help. They were writing, and she actually moved in with us to our loft. Every night, during dinner, we had all these discussions about the female orgasm, and other things like that. And then the idea for the script for Liquid Sky came to my mind. That’s really how it started! [laughs] And because she was really a fashion model, it really was her life. So one of my ideas at that moment was that good independent film should be done around real people, who would play themselves.
Anne was an ideal character for a film like that. From the very beginning, the idea was to build the story around her, and all the other characters would be people who really had some relationship with her, who would play themselves. That was the first idea. Actually, finally, a couple of characters were not played by the original characters themselves, because they were shocked by the script, and it didn’t look like it was the right thing to be involved with the production. [laughs] So we recast a couple of characters. But most of the people were played by the prototypes themselves, and obviously Anne was there from the very beginning. But the second part, the male part [Jimmy], was a real person. There was this boy, and we thought he would play the character. But he was very negative toward the script, [and didn’t want to play] a negative character, and we decided not to use him as an actor. But probably in my subconscious, I knew that Anne would play both parts, first of all because I love an actress playing two parts, and second, because that’s a part of Anne’s personality. When she was a little girl, her mother would dress her as a boy, and called her “Jimmy.” So, immediately, that was used by me. I said, “Listen, let’s make you Jimmy!” [laughs] And then we tried a small experiment– we dressed Anne in the costume, and went to the nightclub, and nobody recognized that she was a girl. She even picked up a girl there! And that made me make the final decision that she would play both parts.
BH: Another thing that struck me watching it is that a lot of the conversation in it about sexuality and gender feels especially relevant right now. I take it that sort of came from the whole scene as well?
ST: Yes. Yes, actually, we’d planned already, over a year ago, to make Liquid Sky 2. The script that we’re finishing is all about abuse. It’s very close to what’s happening now. It’s like with Liquid Sky 1— you know, AIDS happened after we made Liquid Sky. And now, you know, we haven’t had time to shoot the film, but we were just writing this script about social male abuse, and then this whole episode happened.
BH: That’s interesting. I’ll admit that I’m a little younger than the movie, but I was wondering about that, whether AIDS had already broken or not at the time.
ST: Well, really, it started before Liquid Sky was made, but no one really knew about it. But it became known after LIquid Sky was made. It became a popular subject.
BH: It definitely felt prescient, with the link between sex and heroin and death.
ST: A lot of things like that, the connection between sex and drugs, was my creative idea– it had nothing to do with reality, it was science fiction. But not only AIDS made it clear that there is a connection, but in a couple of years, scientists discovered that there is some connection in the brain. I just wanted a metaphor. I wanted to put together all the myths of the time, like sex, rock and roll, drugs, aliens from outer space. It was just a collection of all the mythological elements of the time. They’re all connected, because they all belong to the same world! [laughs]
BH: The film played in some cities for many years, right? At midnight screenings?
ST: Yes. In three cities– New York, Boston, and Washington, DC– it played more than three years. And not only midnight shows– every day. When it closed, I think in all the theaters, especially in New York, it was one of the champions. It still was making more money per screen than any other movie. They just couldn’t keep it anymore, because they had a long line of other films to play. I think they could keep it forever. Which, really, some theaters tried to show it at midnight shows forever, but I was against it, to tell the truth. Because I thought that, after a while, the film could be released again, but if it’s playing all the time at midnight, then eventually they’d lose interest. It’s an idea I learned from Disney. Disney had this idea from the very beginning, that all his films should be released every seven years, so that a new generation of audiences could get it. Well, of course, it’s a different type of audience, but I think that Liquid Sky— today, I can see it. We have new audiences which weren’t old enough when Liquid Sky was made, and they like it as much as the audiences liked it 35 years ago.
BH: And, of course, around the same time, the home video market came up. I, as well as I’m sure many other people, mostly knew it from that
ST: Well, I think it’s very important, the new digital release, because the quality of the video release was very, very bad. Because we never had money for that, and, really, the DVD was based on the video master made 35 years ago. The video master was bad to start with, and by then it’d lost color. The DVD wasn’t made from negatives. The definition was bad. And now, we really have it [looking] fantastic… the look of digitized film is unexpected and surprising, even for me!
BH: Speaking as someone who’s only ever seen it on VHS, I saw some of the screenshots from the new Vinegar Syndrome remaster, and it’s really shocking how different it looks.
ST: VHS, by itself, is a very bad format. It isn’t supposed to have good quality, but if it’s made from a bad master, it’s terrible.
BH: You mentioned you were working on a sequel.Do you have any idea when that might come to fruition?
ST: We’re finishing the script. I haven’t finished it, because we haven’t started raising money, and I want to know exactly what kind of budget I can use. Then I’ll finish the script. But we didn’t start doing it for many reasons. One of the reasons is I think that the rerelease of the film will raise new interest. And it’s much easier to raise money for a finished script.
BH: With the new reissue, you’ll definitely probably see an audience that either hasn’t seen it in a long time, or has never seen it at all.
ST: I’m always telling people that we’re doing a lot of things with Liquid Sky. I’m trying to make a stage musical based on Liquid Sky, and we’re making Liquid Sky 2, and if people are interested, it’s very easy to get all the new information, because we have the site, liquidskythemovie.com. On the opening the page of the website, there’s a big button. You push the button, and you get on our mailing list. Everybody on the list gets all the news of the campaign for Liquid Sky!
Slava Tsukerman will be in attendance for a rare 35mm screening of Liquid Sky at the Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, 3/21, at 9:30pm
Part of the 20th annual Boston Underground Film Festival – watch this space in the coming days for more of the Film Flam team’s continuing coverage!