Giger: Swiss for ‘Genius’ (Interview circa 1997)

HRGigerSquareDrop the name HR Giger into conversation using its correct pronunciation – Gee-ger, like ‘eager’ – and you will almost certainly get a blank look in return. Repeat it using the American mispronunciation – Geiger, as in ‘Geiger counter’ – and almost every science fiction and horror fan will say, “Oh, Geiger!” – before enthusing at length about the artist’s work.

Giger may never be acknowledged by the art world as the natural successor to Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, but even outside the science fiction, horror and fantasy genre, Giger is widely known as the artist who designed a terrifying panoply of monsters for the film Alien. Giger may not be quite a household name, but his Oscar®-winning designs for Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror opus are unlikely ever to be forgotten. Why? Because fifteen years before Steven Spielberg and others made the world believe dinosaurs could once again walk the earth, a thirty-five-year-old Swiss artist named HR Giger convinced us that a creature more advanced, more adaptable, more terrifying, and above all more dangerous than anything on earth not only existed, but was coming to eat us. Indeed, if the Swiss ever get around to inventing their own language, those who admire his work would not hesitate to suggest that ‘Giger’ might make an apt translation for ‘genius’.

Hans Rudi Giger was born in Switzerland on February 5th 1940. At the age of nineteen, he began work as a construction illustrator (a kind of junior architect), attending Zurich’s School of Arts and Crafts at the same time. However, despite this early artistic promise, the first illustration which might conceivably be classed as ‘Giger-esque’ did not appear until 1963, when Giger was already twenty-three years old. Entitled The Beggar, it depicted the disturbing image of an unnatural human arm-and-leg fusion, which Giger has since named ‘Armbeinda’, proffering a hat as if to ask for money. As his school and local underground presses began to publish his surreal sketches, his bizarre style quickly earned him notoriety within the Swiss art world, and by 1967, following the first of many exhibitions of his work, he had enough commissions to devote himself fully to his own unique brand of fine art.

Giger’s work first came to international attention with the publication in 1971 of A Rh+, his first portfolio (named after his blood type), and, two years later, his album cover design for progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer. His American fan base had soon grown dramatically, and it would not be long before he became involved – thanks to a recommendation from none other than Dali himself – with gonzo filmmaker Alexandro Jodorowsky, who thought Giger would be perfect to conceptualise a film version of Frank Herbert’s mammoth science fiction novel, Dune, which Jodorowsky was planning to direct. Money proved difficult to raise for the ambitious project, however, and Giger’s vivid, extraordinary designs for the project remained quite literally on the drawing board. Nevertheless, it was as a direct result of his work on the stillborn Dune that he came to the attention of British commercials director Ridley Scott, who was set to follow his well-received feature debut, The Duellists, with a science fiction thriller written by Dan O’Bannon. It is impossible to say whether this movie, under its unlikely working title of They Bite!, would have been made, let alone regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. But as Alien, there can be no doubt whatsoever that it did.

Unfortunately, Giger’s ride through the turbulent world of film design since the international success of Alien has, as is widely known, been less than smooth. Following his triumph at the 1980 Academy Awards ceremony, the artist was surprised to find the film world’s most prestigious accolade more of a curse then a blessing – at least in his native country. As he explains: “The Oscar® was not very good for me in Switzerland, because the museums stopped taking paintings of mine and didn’t invite me to make shows with other people. They thought I had sold out to Hollywood.” In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth, for although several poor quality films (such as Galaxy of Terror, Deep Space andThe Intruder Within) cheerfully plagiarised his work for their monsters – or, more usually, their video covers – it would be another six years before Giger was officially engaged on a film that actually made it into production.

This occurred in 1985, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was preparing to capitalise on the success of the Spielberg-produced smash hit horror film Poltergeist with a hasty sequel, that Giger was engaged on a project that, at least on paper, looked worthy of his talents. Unfortunately, Giger’s conceptual designs for the film were far more ambitious than the special effects technicians of the day – and, in all fairness, the film’s budget – could accommodate, and as a result, Brian Gibson’sPoltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) was a great disappointment to fans of the first film – and Giger in particular.

The same year, James Cameron’s Aliens proved a far more popular sequel than Gibson’s disappointing effort, but Giger was equally unhappy with the way Cameron’s film turned out. First of all, much to his regret, the artist was not engaged to work on the film at all; instead, Cameron’s close colleague Stan Winston was asked not only to slightly modify Giger’s original alien design, but also create from scratch the alien queen herself; ultimately, Giger received only a token credit for ‘original alien design’. Secondly, like many people, Giger felt that the sequel had emasculated his creature, turning the xenomorph from near-invincible predator to mere ‘cannon fodder’ for the Colonial Marines’ robot sentry guns.

As it happened, Alien 3 director David Fincher agreed with this point of view, stating in one interview that he thought Cameron’s film “worked because of the sheer scale and how little you saw of these fleeting glimpses in the strobes of the machine guns firing,” but that he saw Alien 3 as an opportunity to “make the alien scary again.” As well as wishing to rectify what he called “qualitative errors” made in Aliens, Giger had his own reasons for wanting to work on Alien 3: sincePoltergeist II, the artist had been involved in several other aborted feature films, including Ridley Scott’s proposed science fiction film The Tourist, and, for low-budget filmmaker William Malone (Scared to Death, Creature) a film called The Mirror, an ambitious horror film inspired by Giger’s 200,000-selling artbook Necronomicon. Perhaps a little too ambitious, as Giger explains: “It would have cost a lot of money to do it well. But Bill Malone usually makes his films on a very small budget, and I couldn’t think of a way to do this film as a low-budget production.” When, in 1988, as a direct result of the box office failure of George Romero’s Monkey Shines, Orion Pictures dropped The Mirror, it seemed as though Giger was in for a run of seven years’ bad luck.

This began in earnest when, in July 1990, David Fincher and 20th Century Fox approached the artist and invited him to design several new life forms for Alien 3, including an aquatic face-hugger, a bovine chestburster and an all-new, quadrupedal version of the adult alien. Fincher, already the third director to be officially assigned to the troubled film, implied that Giger would be given the same degree of control he had enjoyed on Alien more than ten years earlier, and the artist had no reason to doubt him. He immediately began to work “like crazy”, furiously sketching and faxing designs for a four-legged creature he described as “more elegant and beastly” than his original – “more like a lethal feline, a panther or something.

“[The] new creature is more sensuous and seductive,” he stated at the time, “not at all monstrous or ugly. The lips and chin are better proportioned, giving the creature its more erotic appearance.” Working on his own initiative and spending his own money to ensure the film had his best possible input, Giger and his regular modelmaker Cornelius de Fries built several maquettes and a full-size sculpture of the new creature, offering further assistance to the production at only the cost of materials. By this time, however, contact with Fincher and his producers had been severed, and Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis of Los Angeles-based special effects house Amalgamated Dynamics Inc (ADI) had been engaged to redesign the alien for the film. “When I heard that Woodruff and Gillis had their own version of the alien,” he later lamented, “I began to think that they didn’t appreciate mine, and that they probably had already sold Fincher on their ideas.”

In fact, the final version of ADI’s creature looks suspiciously like Giger’s design, yet despite having worked for six intensive weeks on every aspect of design for the creature, the artist once again received only an ‘original alien design’ credit – suggesting that he had not been involved in the film at all – and denied a second Oscar® nomination and public recognition of his hard work. Deeply disappointed and hurt by the Hollywood machine, Giger reluctantly decided to decline future film work – unless he had an opportunity to work with a director (in particular, fellow Europeans Ridley Scott and Clive Barker, or taboo-breaking Davids Lynch and Cronenberg) whom he felt sure would give him the freedom to fully realise his bizarre and inspired designs on screen.

It was therefore a surprise to many of his fans when, in April 1994, the newly-revitalised MGM – the studio that had previously commissioned Giger to work on the ill-fated Poltergeist II – announced the imminent production of Species, a “suspense-filled science fiction thriller”, and that “renowned artist HR Giger” had agreed to conceptualise the title creature. Clearly proud that the Species team – Friday the 13th Parts III-VIII producer Frank Mancuso, Jr and Roger Donaldson, Australian director of No Way Out and The Getaway remake – had managed to persuade him to come aboard the project, MGM president Michael Marcus went on to describe the artist’s appointment as “an enormous coup.” So what had persuaded Giger to change his mind about Hollywood?

“Frank Mancuso and Roger Donaldson came to visit me in Switzerland,” he recalls. “I was a little concerned because Donaldson had never made a science fiction or horror film, but I knew Mancuso had made some of the Friday the 13thfilms and a lot of other good movies, and he promised he would call me every night to tell me how the movie was going, and he kept his word.” Although Mancuso would always call at two or three in the morning, this suited the artist, who keeps almost nocturnal hours. “We had very good exchanges of ideas,” he says, “so that was very nice.” Mancuso further assured him that, while Alien had limited the artist to the traditional ‘man-in-a-suit’ method of monster-making, Species’ ‘Sil’ would be realised with a combination of actors (both in and out of costume), state-of-the-art computer generated images (CGI) and three-dimensional models, blending the widest possible range of techniques into one (hopefully) seamless structure. “That is the real magic,” Giger says.

By this stage, Giger was already impressed with Dennis Feldman’s script. “I liked the fact that at the beginning of the story, the aliens send their DNA to Earth, as if they wanted their children to grow up there,” he says, adding that Sil gave him a welcome opportunity to create, for the first time, an unmistakably female alien, a feminine creature both gorgeous and grotesque – beauty and beast in one – similar to those seen in much of his renowned airbrush work. “I always have to fight to keep the beauty,” he explains, “because people are afraid that if you don’t make the monster ugly, with a lot of slime and things like that, it can’t be scary. Whereas I have always said that if you [create] a good enough design, it can be both good-looking and horrific, and that the horror can come from the way it moves and what it does, not just the way it looks.”

Echoing his four-stage life-cycle for the Alien creature, Giger also saw Sil’s many transformations as an opportunity to conceptualise a number of creatures around a central theme. Giger initially prepared some sketches, but – largely due to his maltreatment on Alien 3 – “not so good that they could build Sil from them!” These early designs were approved, contracts were (eventually) signed and Species moved into a higher gear. By this time, although the studio had invited him to Los Angeles to supervise the puppet representations of his work – an offer he would normally have been delighted with – his mother had, at that time, become very ill, and he was afraid to leave her in case she worsened. As it happened, she died shortly thereafter, “but it was important to me that I was there to hold her hand.”

Meanwhile, to compensate for his missed visit to Hollywood, Giger tried to undertake the puppetry work at home in Switzerland, but found that his assistants did not have enough movie experience to do make the pre-production models satisfactorily. “They were not so brilliant,” he admits with a chuckle. “What can I say? We had a bad time!” Nevertheless, when Mancuso and Donaldson returned to Switzerland to see what Giger had done, they were very pleased. However, the more of Sil’s character he created, the more he felt some scenes were not in tune with his depiction of the way she would act. “I had a lot of inventions and a lot of ideas for different things on [Species],” he says, “but they don’t like it when I start changing the story!” Among Giger’s own ideas for the film was the ‘ghost train dream’, in which the adolescent Sil sees a vision of a grotesque caterpillar-like locomotive. Giger says he was delighted that this scene, which echoes the railway-themed designs Giger had previously explored for aborted films such as Dune and The Train – made it into the final cut. (“It is a little short, but it is there,” he says with a mixture of pride and relief.) Furthermore, the artist received a full ‘conceived, designed and fabricated by’ credit for the train, to compliment his main ‘Sil designed by HR Giger’ credit.

Overall, Giger says that his experience working on Species was his best since Alien – although he admits that isn’t saying very much. Praising model-turned-actress Natasha Henstridge and director Roger Donaldson (who has since directed the smash hit disaster movie Dante’s Peak), Giger nevertheless suggests that effects company Boss Film Studio’s patchy CGI effects ultimately let down the film’s climax. “Boss Films made the train very good, and also the underwater dream I call the ‘blue shrimp soup’,” he says, “but although [makeup effects artist] Steve Johnson’s model was very good, they couldn’t do the transparent Sil well because it’s very complicated.” Giger was somewhat cheered by Species’ $100 million plus performance at the international box office, but remains sceptical about Hollywood in general. “So many things can make a film kaput – bad cuts, bad lighting, bad dramatisation, bad direction, whatever,” he says philosophically. “At the end, you are only a small thing on the film. That’s why every time I work on a film I say it will be the last time.”

True to form, Giger’s next encounter with a major studio was an unhappy one. Shortly after completing his work onSpecies, the artist was approached by Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher and asked to design a new Batmobile. Immediately setting to work, Giger produced a number of different concepts – winged and skeletal, just like those used in the final movie and credited to production designer Barbara Ling – in his familliar, ‘biomechanical’ style, only to never hear from Warner Bros again. “I did about fifteen designs,” he laments, “but I never got any money and [although] Schumacher told me he would visit me, he never came.” A year later, Giger discovered that his services would not be required for production on the fourth Alien movie, Alien Resurrection, a fact which he describes simply as “disappointing”.

Nevertheless, Giger’s relative satisfaction with the way Species turned out probably explains his initial agreement to participate in the sequel, currently in production and slated for release in mid-May 1998. Directed by Peter Medak (The Krays) from an original screenplay by X-Files scriptwriter Chris Brancato, Species II opens with the successful completion of the first manned mission to Mars by a group of astronauts led by the handsome and charismatic Patrick Ross. Back home, a new ‘Sil’ has been grown in a control experiment designed to reveal possible weaknesses in the life-form in case it should ever return to Earth. However, when the three astronauts return home to a heroes’ welcome, they soon discover that Ross has been infected by the malevolent alien, which is determined to seek out and mate with its female counterpart in order to propogate the species on Earth… The film reunites several of the original Species cast, including Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger, as well as introducing new characters played by Mykelti Williamson (Con Air), Justin Lazard (TV’s Central Park West), Academy Award® nominee James Cromwell (Star Trek: First Contact) and George Dzundza (Crimson Tide).

In a detailed press release earlier this year, MGM announced that Giger would, in collaboration with Steve Johnson once again, design “a new Sil that will be reminiscent of her predecessor … and will be crafting a second alien, which will be distinct and yet reflect the fact they they have the same origins.” Unfortunately, Giger says that he has since parted company with the project. “The last time, it was great, because Steve Johnson and I did the job together,” he explains. “This time, Steve had in his mind to do his own version [of the creature], and I couldn’t continue because he was engaged first, so he didn’t make me happy!” Giger says that he worked with Johnson for several months, but decided “it made no sense” to proceed further when he realised that the new creature was not his own design. “Steve Johnson is very good,” he adds, “and he said, ‘If you don’t like my work, you don’t have to sign [it] or be responsible for it.’ But I said, ‘It’s not whether I like it or not – it’s not my work, so I can’t say [it was].’ He knows that exactly.” Nevertheless, Giger says that he will probably receive a ‘consultant’ credit on the finished film, and wishes Johnson and the rest of the Species II team well. “I hope it’s still is coming out well, because the director is very good.”

Undeterred by such disappointments, Giger is continuing with a film project of his own, a cinematic adaptation of his own unpublished graphic novel, The Mystery of San Gottardo. Based, intriguingly, on Giger’s first ever surrealist sketch – the ‘Armbeinda’ figure mentioned above – The Mystery of San Gottardo is a bizarre tale set in Switzerland’s Gottard mountains in the 1920s, and featuring as protagonists two leg-and-arm combinations separated from their wheelchair-bound torso/head ‘parents’ as part of a bizarre ritual inspired by the legendary Mythagora. While Giger has had little success in his attempts to bring this ambirious project to the screen, the storyboards are scheduled to be published next year by Taschen, a popular German publisher noted for its artbooks, and which has already published a number of Giger volumes, including his recent autobiographical work www HR Giger com.

In addition, the artist has a number of other long-gestating projects in the works, including a major Giger museum to be opened in a Swiss castle in the year 2000, and a new volume entitled Giger Under Your Skin, a study of the many people with Giger-inspired tattoos. “They are my living museum,” he says proudly. “My favourite science fiction writer, William Gibson, the author of such books as Necromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, immortalised my works as blueprints for tattoo artists in his novel Virtual Light, in a conversation in a tattoo shop in the future. It seems that [in tattooing], the word ‘bio-mechanical’ – a term I coined to describe many of my paintings – has come to represent a futuristic style in which the body is shown as transparent, revealing that we are all robots under the skin,” the artist explains. “I admire and respect the people who wear these tattoos,” he adds. “They are the sincerest fans of my work because they collect for pleasure, not for profit.”

(c) 1997, 2014 David Hughes. All rights reserved.

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