A brief history of neon-soaked cult film Liquid Sky

Published April 16, 2018

“I kill with my cunt.” So says Margaret, a gender fluid Connecticut-bred WASP-turned New York fashion model caught in an unusual dilemma. Her predicament: aliens from outer space, who have come to Earth in search of poaching the pleasure effects of a heroin high, have perched on the roof of her grittily appointed penthouse. As it turns out, pheromones released via human orgasm are more potent. Margaret’s new neighbors are killing every sexual partner she takes. Anne Carlisle, a School of Visual Arts student and model who was hanging out at places like the Mudd Club, co-wrote the film and stars as Margaret—and, in a dual role twist, an androgynous junkie male model named Jimmy.

Set against a psychedelic, orange-soaked cityscape, where the Empire State Building appears as a foreboding monolith, and with a cast of high-camp, dramatically attired downtown club kids, Liquid Sky is one of those rare, much-talked-about cult films that has become a treasured artifact of a certain time in New York, exhibited in late-night theatrical showings, passed around VHS tapes, and poorly done YouTube rips. Its premise is so seemingly random—and preposterous—that it works, dealing with the romantic mythology of doomed, ascending beauties, their vices, and their art. It’s something that could only happen in New York.

Quad Cinema has recently debuted a new restoration of the film. Slava Tsukerman, the director, co-writer, and composer of the film’s droning electronic soundtrack looks back at Liquid Sky’s renegade origins, and confirms another addition to the cult of Liquid Sky: a sequel is on the way.

HEROIN, ALIENS, AND NEW YORK CITY:

SLAVA TSUKERMAN: That’s exactly what the starting point was—the combination of all that together—the idea to create a fable plot which would include all the myths of the time: Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, aliens from outer space.

Some of them are conscious, some of them are unconscious. We really thought about that. The characters are supposed to represent all the different, I wouldn’t say “classes,” [but] different parts of society. So we really tried to include everything. Obviously it was done in America in an American material. The other thing was, I liked New Wave very much, because the New Wave had all these international elements in the style. Some of the things which I loved and I probably couldn’t find in America were Brecht and Japanese kabuki.

COMING TO AMERICA:

I left Russia in 1973 with my wife [Nina V. Kerova], who was working with me. She studied screenwriting and film criticism. We were working together and went to Israel. But also, I was from behind the Iron Curtain and knew absolutely nothing about anything. The young Israeli kids were studying in London and New York and Hollywood. They knew everything. I couldn’t compete with them. So I realized that the only place for me was New York. I thought it would take four, five years to make a film about life [in New York]. You cannot make a fiction film if you don’t know life around it. It will be bad. By the time Liquid Sky was made, I already had four or five projects [on the go], which didn’t happen.

GETTING LIQUID:

Liquid Sky was [initially] another project, a science fiction story called Sweet Sixteen, about a girl who in an accident lost her body. Her crazy scientist father saved her head and made her a mechanical body. She lived with a mechanical body, 16 forever. We started casting and found the best casting director—Bob Brady, who is in Liquid Sky playing an acting professor; he is playing himself.

Bob Brady had classes at the School of Visual Arts and classes at home. Every evening a lot of his students would get together for dinner at his loft, it was like a big society. Anne Carlisle was one of them. Some of them, many of them, became our friends. My wife and I moved to the same building. Our investor for Sweet Sixteen invited one of the best production managers in New York, gave him my script, and asked what he thought. He said there is no way to make a script like this for half a million [dollars]. That’s what the investor was planning to invest. He trusted the production manager more than me, who just came from abroad and never made a film in America.

At that moment I thought, I need a new project to make for half a million. My wife was writing scripts about a woman who cannot get an orgasm. Because my wife was from Russia, she knew English pretty well, but she didn’t feel like that was enough to finish the script in English. Anne Carlisle became our friend so we invited her to help her finish the script. Anne moved in with us, and at that moment the idea of Liquid Sky—of an alien coming from outer space came to my mind, but in the evenings we were eating dinner and we were discussing the script problems, so our conversation was around the female orgasm and things like that. [laughs] So that’s how Liquid Sky [came into existence].

I invited Anne to write it together. My wife later joined us as well. The idea from the very beginning was that a lot of low budget films are bad because people write scripts not thinking how they will create it and they have this naive belief that for half a million they can make the same film that Hollywood makes for 15 million. You cannot compete. So the power of low-budget scripts is writing films for actors you already know.  A stylistic, artistic point of view—I very much liked the idea of it. And the fantastic, non-realistic film, all the characters will be real people. The script will be built on real characters, and the people on which the script is built will play themselves. So that was a part of the general idea. We wrote for them using their own expressions, their own lives.

THE WARHOL CONNECTION:

Andy Warhol was going to be in Sweet Sixteen. I loved him. It wasn’t difficult at all [to meet him]. I called, his manager Fred [Hughes] spoke with him, and gave him the script. He liked the idea of the script. The role was written especially for him. It was the role of the owner of an artificial flowers shop, and he had a monologue explaining, because the girl had an artificial body, that everything artificial was better, and artificial flowers live forever. So that was the monologue written for Andy. He liked it and agreed to play it. So that was very easy. It wasn’t difficult at all to get to Andy’s surroundings or the Factory. Bob Brady, some of his students and friends were Andy Warhol’s actors. So it was very close. [For Liquid Sky], as I understand, one of our models was his boyfriend. But it just happened, we didn’t plan it.

LIQUID SKY’S LEADING LADY (AND MAN):

It’s all taken from [star Anne Carlisle’s] life. It’s very personal for her. One of the pluses of working with Anne—it excites her, to use her own life. There were moments where we were touching some really touchy subjects, but she never said no, she was always ready—it was not only an artistic project, but a self-analysis as well. We were shooting in this penthouse and she was living there. When we were finished shooting, she moved out immediately. She couldn’t stay there, it was too personal.

THE PENTHOUSE:

When we started writing, Anne was renting a small room which had an exit on the roof. She met a friend, a designer, who said, “Well, are you interested in a penthouse, it’s on the roof. I am living in one and I’m moving out. If you want to rent it I can introduce you to the landlord.” She introduced them and it seemed to be perfect. So, it was the first investment in the film. The script wasn’t finished but we had a location and Anne moved in. We knew how many problems we would have because it really had no door to the roof, and you couldn’t walk on this roof because of construction. So Nina (my wife) and Anne went to the landlord and said that they were two students who were going to make an 8mm film, but he should know. “Oh, I don’t mind.” So she moved to this apartment and then we started shooting.

[It was at] 28th and Broadway. Everybody had the idea that it was downtown, East Village. Nobody realized the real address. The view is the real view from the apartment. The other thing that we had a very big problem finding was the apartment where the German professor was looking through the telescope. We needed a real apartment from which we could see our building.  We found one with a fantastic roof, but the landlord said, “No, everyone wants to shoot from my roof.” [Dino] De Laurentiis was shooting King Kong and giving him something like a million dollars to shoot on his roof. He was very, very proud that this fucking filmmaker was giving him a million dollars to shoot on his roof. Finally we found some roof a little bit worse than this one.

ILLEGAL ACTIVITY:

It was technically difficult [to film] because it doesn’t look like a very small apartment on the screen, but it is small, and we really did everything against the rules. We made the door to the roof, and we wouldn’t be able to shoot unless we put lights outside on the roof, so it was a huge crowd, a lot of different stuff. We were shooting with real neon light, we were shooting with real outside light. In order to match, it meant changing gels many times a day, which the crew hated. And it was illegal as well, because we had no right to do these things.

Our investor, who wasn’t a filmmaker, but knew real estate really well, asked me if we were going to shoot more than half the film in this apartment. It was obviously illegal, so what would you do if they throw you out of this apartment? My producing partner was my wife, Nina. I said, “They will never throw us out. Because Nina is in charge.”

One of the jobs for the students helping out was standing on the stairs. For this apartment, you got out of the elevator and walked up a flight of stairs. So he was standing there and waiting if a landlord or some inspector would appear. Then he should call Nina. Nina wasn’t there, she was at 14th street at the office. Call Nina, and Nina would take care of it. It was before cell phones. I don’t know how this boy was supposed to find a phone and go from 28th street to 14th. But it did happen. In the middle of shooting, the door opened, and a fire inspector appeared. The room was completely full of people—actors and the entire crew, lights were on the roof, and in the middle, if you remember from the film, was this tree made of broken mirrors. He was completely bald. He cut his head on the tree and blood was everywhere. He couldn’t imagine what this was.

The entire crew and actors were completely silent, because in their point-of-view, it was the end. I was standing, with no idea what to do, and then Nina appeared. I still don’t know how it happened so fast. So she came up to this guy with blood [coming out of] his head and said to me, very quietly, “Keep shooting.” She took his hand and pulled him out of the room.

PERMANENT SUNSET:

Magic hour—that was my idea from the beginning. In order to get real mood, we’ll have to have magic hour from the beginning. In Moscow, magic hour is very long. In New York, it’s just three minutes. A real three minutes, maybe seven. But we were shooting three takes usually, changing light for every take because it was changing so fast. What it really meant, because all the outside shoots were done in magic hour, it made our calendar twice as long. Another crazy thing was we were shooting the split screen scenes with Anne playing two roles with real film and a real camera. So we would shoot her left side, then change the makeup, which took three hours, and shoot for every take. We couldn’t shoot more than one split-screen shot per day. Another thing I’d like to address is the improvisation. There was no way to improvise when you had depth of focus like that. Everything was rehearsed many times.

THE LOOK:

Because the budget was very small, I tried to manage with minimal crew because I thought I could do everything myself. It’s actually physically impossible. We were using a real costume designer from nightclubs. I realized very quickly that it’s impossible because film design and club design is not the same. Luckily my DP, Yuri Neyman, came from Russia exactly when I was planning to start Liquid Sky. He came with his wife, a costume designer who had just worked with him on one of the biggest productions in Russia. So Marina [Levikova] was with us all the time when we were doing our research in nightclubs and all that. She started as a costume designer and I realized she was really good so she also became a production designer.

There are really many layers of costumes—like the fashion show is completely Marina’s work, every piece done by hand, for Anne’s wardrobe, which was huge, they were bringing a lot of stuff from thrift shops, and Marina was just fixing, changing, matching it to Anne. But some extras in the film really appeared in their own costumes as well. So it was Marina’s touch but there were a lot of real costumes there, which really create the style of the film.

LIQUID SKY IS PLAYING A LIMITED RUN AT NEW YORK CITY’S QUAD CINEMA