We meet the director behind the drug-fuelled, neon-drenched 1983 new wave film that helped shape fashion
Cult film Liquid Sky was Russian director Slava Tsukerman’s take on the traditional Hollywood fairytale story, but while it begins in a similar way to many a classic 80s movie – with a wide-eyed protagonist seeking to live out the American dream – that’s where the similarities end. “In traditional American cinema, Cinderella always finds her Prince Charming,” explains Tsukerman, who moved to the USA from Israel in the late 70s. “In Liquid Sky, the post punk Cinderella of the 80s is not able to find her prince among the humans surrounding her – ironically he turns out to be a shapeless alien, who comes to earth from outer space in a small flying saucer.”
The ‘post punk Cinderella’ in question is Margaret, an aspiring, sharply-cheekboned model (played by Anne Carlisle) whose likeness to Bowie doesn’t go unnoticed – “I’m truly as androgynous as David Bowie himself,” she confidently declares. Margaret moves to NYC in the hopes of making it big in fashion, quickly meets and moves in with bisexual nymphomaniac heroin dealer Adrian, and befriends fellow angular-jawed model Jimmy, who's also played by Carlisle.
What follows (to not give too much away) is an unsettling, violent, visually incredible journey through the bowels of the New York fashion scene, as Margaret develops a huge cocaine habit, finds herself taken over by aliens, and inadvertently killing anyone she has sex with (“I kill people with my cunt,” she exclaims upon the grisly realisation). There are neon drenched nightclub scenes, truly weird spoken word performances, an incredible and totally surreal runway walk-off, and a progressive line-up of gender fluid characters wearing sharp, wide-shouldered suits, primary-coloured leather, and needle-thin stilettos – as styled by production and costume designer Marina Levikova.
The film became an instant cult hit and has gone on to inspire countless creative figures in the time since its release. Lady Gaga and Karen O are heavily indebted to its Blade-Runner-on-crack visual legacy, while Burial has sampled sounds from its various musical scenes (on 2014 track Come Down To Us). Legendary Lafayette Street boutique Liquid Sky even took its name from the film and, perhaps unsurprisingly, became the place to be in the early 90s – a store so cool, Chloë Sevigny was one of its sales assistants.
Now, as the film celebrates its 35th anniversary and is being re-released in cinemas around the world, we sat down with director Slava Tsukerman to hear more about how he made the darkly feminist film, and the lasting impact it has had on pop culture.
ON THE FILM’S THEMES
“The idea behind Liquid Sky was to create a parable, which would include most of the hot topics of the period: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, violence, and aliens from outer space. The story is, at its heart, a spoof of those traditional Hollywood scripts, and the movies portraying the quest to live out ‘the American dream’.”
ON KNOWING IT WOULD BECOME A CULT CLASSIC
“When I was explaining the idea of Liquid Sky to my friends – many of whom went on to help me create the film – they liked the idea a lot. Among my group then was film distributor Ben Barenholtz, who launched the careers of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, and some of the most original filmmakers of our time. Ben practically created a system for getting cult films out there: midnight shows were his idea, for example. He was the first person to read the Liquid Sky script when it was finished, and he said to me ‘I have the impression that you’re planning on this becoming a cult film,” and I told him he was right. I knew it would become one. And it did.”
ON REALISING THE INFLUENCE IT HAD ON FASHION
“I think a metaphorical film like Liquid Sky cannot use visual elements of reality without modification, the way they would be used in a documentary or a more true-to-life film. Although we did a lot of research in nightclubs, we couldn’t use the direct aesthetics we saw there without changing them. We were also very influenced by modern art, and trends within that at the time. I encouraged Marina to create a special, unique style for the costumes, based on existing fashion that might be seen in the clubs, but more metaphorical, more exaggerated, and more stylised. I hoped that the audience would pick up the style we presented because it would mean Liquid Sky really had become a cult film, and it happened. I remember how happy Marina and I were when we walked past Bloomingdale’s windows and there were mannequins in there that looked exactly like characters from Liquid Sky.”
ON CREATING THE FLUORESCENT, ARTIFICIAL ATMOSPHERE OF THE FILM
“One Canadian critic wrote that Liquid Sky demonstrated ‘the neon underbelly of Andy Warhol’s world’. I think this critic really understood me: Andy Warhol was my idol at the time. Besides references to Warhol, I had this vision of an apocalyptic world and most of the exterior scenes were shot at dawn, at the so-called ‘magic hour’, which created the atmosphere of the permanent mystical, fluorescent, artificial night. As for the interior, Margaret’s penthouse was covered with mirrors and neon lights: the mirrors were reflecting the neon lights and the other mirrors, making it look like the room had no walls, like it was suspended in space. It gave the whole thing a very mysterious feeling.”
ON BASING THE FILM’S SCRIPT ON HIS FRIENDS’ IRL EXPERIENCES
“To balance the theatricality of the film’s story and its visual style, I wanted the characters in it to be as realistic as possible, so many of the actors in Liquid Sky are my friends playing roles based on their own characters and events of their real life: we wrote the script around them. Anne was the ideal actress to play the lead character in the film – she really was a new wave fashion model, with half of her hair blue and half of it red. From the very beginning, the idea was to build the story around her, and as one of the co-writers of the script she was happy to turn her real life into art. Some of our friends read the script, though, and didn’t end up taking the part because they were too shocked by it. The actor that was supposed to play Jimmy wasn’t happy with how we had presented him and we decided to re-cast the role.”
ON ANNE CARLISLE PLAYING BOTH MARGARET AND JIMMY
“When the actor first playing Jimmy stepped down, we tried to find another actor to play him, but in my subconscious, I probably always knew that Anne would play both parts. I always suspected that the character of Jimmy was a part of Anne’s personality. When she was a little girl, her mother would dress her up as a boy and called her Jimmy, so we used that when we created the part. Eventually I said to Anne: ‘listen, let’s make you Jimmy!’ We did a small experiment – we dressed Anne in my clothes and went to a nightclub, where no one recognised that she was a woman. She even picked up a girl there! And that was it: we made the decision that she would play both parts. Androgyny and gender fluidity and sexuality were all important aspects of the film and having Anne play Margaret and Jimmy lent it additional depth.”
ON WORKING ON A SEQUEL
“I’ve always wanted to do a sequel to Liquid Sky, and we’re working on it at the moment. I don’t know when it will be out, though – it depends on when we find someone to finance it. There are two things I can tell you though: Margaret is coming back to today’s New York City and Anne Carlisle is going to play her.”