No one expected legendary sci-fi artist H.R. Giger to go in such a way — dying due to injuries from a fall. After all, he seemed immortal, if only for his iconic images of an air-brushed bio-mechanic merger that became the beastly berserkers of the Alien film series.
Yet in mid May 2014, the Swiss-born and based visionary suddenly died after years of obsessively building a world around him that expressed his unique ideas on paper, canvas and in whole rooms full of his furniture and wall constructs. By focusing on this vision, he built up a fanatic following of collectors, viewers, filmmakers and fellow creators influenced by his core idea.
And though there has been ample documentation of his life over the years, a new documentary, Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World, fortunately was being made of his more recent years which thankfully captured a more current Giger not long before his untimely demise.
Besides this doc's release, the Museum of Arts and Design (at Manhattan's Columbus Circle) marks the one-year anniversary of his passing by presenting The Unseen Cinema of HR Giger -- a weekend-long event which presents rare and never before seen films made by and about HR Giger.
Partnering with the HR Giger estate and the HR Giger Documentary Film Festival, Giger’s personal archive was sourced for these films which reveal his behind-the-scenes practices. Here's a rare glimpse into his personality, process, and vision.
Born in 1940 to a chemist’s family in Chur, Switzerland, Hans Rudolf Giger moved to Zurich in 1962, where he studied architecture and industrial design at the School of Applied Arts. By '64 he made his first works, mostly ink drawings and oil paintings, garnering him a solo exhibition in '66, followed by his first poster edition being published in 1969.
Once he discovered the airbrush, Giger developed his unique freehand painting style, leading to the creation of his most well known works -- the surrealistic Biomechanical dreamscapes -- which are at the cornerstone of his world. To date, 20 books have been published about Giger’s art.
But it was Giger’s third book, 1977's Necronomicon, which served as the visual inspiration for director Ridley Scott’s film Alien, earning the artist an Oscar in 1980 for the Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his work creating the film's title character designs and the stages of its lifecycle, plus its otherworldly environments. Giger's other film work includes Poltergeist II, Alien 3 and Species.
Giger also produced album covers for Blondie's Debbie Harry and Emerson Lake and Palmer; they have been noted as among the best in music history. Giger has made sculpture as well, and in 1988 created his first total environment space, the Tokyo Giger Bar, and a second one in Chur in 1992.
Inaugurated in 1998 in the Château St. Germain, The HR Giger Museum fills a four-level building in the historic, medieval walled city of Gruyères, Switzerland. It houses the largest collection of his paintings, sculptures, furnitures and film designs, from the early '60s until the present. On the museum's top floor is Giger's own private collection of more than 600 works by artists such as Salvador Dali, Ernst Fuchs, Dado, Bruno Weber, Günther Brus, Claude Sandoz, François Burland, Friedrich Kuhn, Joe Coleman, Sibylle Ruppert, and Andre Lassen, among many others.
In its adjoining wing, The Giger Museum Bar opened on April 12, 2003. Giger’s designs emphasize the pre-existing Gothic architecture of the 400 year old space. Giant skeletal arches cover the vaulted ceiling, and together with the bar’s fantastic stony furniture, evoke the building’s original medieval character, giving the space a church-like feeling.
During his last four years, Giger was honored with a series of museum retrospectives. 2004 saw the opening of a six-month exhibition at the Museum Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, France -- the largest exhibition of his work to take place outside of Switzerland.
Thanks to his Alien creature designs, Giger had been established as one of the word's best known artists.
So Dark Star became a cinematic marker that the 74-year old creator left behind for audiences to contexualize and comprehend his life and legacy. Though Giger’s no longer here to share either his museum or environments, director Belinda Sallin's intimate documentary did elaborate on his creations and offer insights into who he was in his later years.
Born in 1967, this Swiss German studied German literature, philology and communication science, worked as journalist/editor and, in 2009, co- founded an independent production company. Currently she lives with her husband and two sons in Zurich.
Though Sallin made films before, this feature doc is her real international debut -- and what a debut it is. She discussed all this recently in an exclusive phone interview conducted from her Swiss home.
Q: How would you contrast the young Giger from the old Giger?
BS: I like them all very much. I’ve seen the young Giger in the archives. But I really appreciated the older Giger that I knew for two and a half years before he died. I was very surprised when I met him the first time. I don’t know what I was expecting. I was expecting a man that was more dark and distant and he was the opposite.
This was a great experience to meet him because he was so nice, friendly, and charming. I don’t know how he was when in the '50s or so, but the older Giger is like the young Giger in the films, a shy person. Somebody who retired, who doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. For me, they went together well, the old Giger and this young one in the archive.
Q: When did you start shooting this? It seemed like it would be a process to get him involved. It’s hard to interview him.
BS: I had the chance to meet the museum’s director, the former life partner of HR Giger, and she opened the door.This was a good step for me. She introduced me to him. When I entered his house the first time, I was overwhelmed. It was a great house where he lived amidst his art.
Then I met him, we got along very well from the first day.I had the chance to live near his house in the same time, so I paid him many visits and shot or came without camera and visited him a lot. He saw that my research was serious and knowledge of his work profound and he appreciated that.
We got along. I accepted some circumstances that he didn’t like to talk a lot anymore and he realized that I was looking for other ways to do this film and he appreciated that a lot. We had a good base of trust. I could do some interviews, even if I said at the beginning of the process that I wouldn’t do interviews for hours and hours because he didn’t like that.
But we had a few times where we could speak together. You see it in the film now where he talks about Li, his life partner, when she died in the 1970s and you can tell how he felt about it. That’s the first time he spoke about Li in this way and I was very touched by that.
Q: It helps that you’re a woman, he has a very strong bond to women. All his subjects are women.
BS: It’s possible, I don’t know because I didn’t ask him if he talked to me because I was a woman. I don’t know. Of course women are very important to his life and I think it’s amazing that he kept in contact with Mia, for example. They didn’t break and fight. They were friendly together until the end.
Women are important in his work, of course, but he shows a lot more. He shows everything, he shows birth and life, and mortality, and death, and male figures, and female figures all together. That’s what makes his work strong.
Q: Like in a Jungian collective unconscious sort of way, was he influenced by Karl Gustav Jung or other psychoanalysts?
BS: I asked him once what his influences were and he said, “My influence is life. Everything influences me.” I know he read the books of Jung and Freud. The books you see in his house, he reads them. Of course he was influenced, but he never liked to talk about his work.
He said it very clearly at the beginning of the process of filming, “Don’t ask me about my work. I don’t like to explain it. I can talk about my influences but I can’t explain my work.” Giger himself didn’t know how it happened.
Q: Did Giger talk about the people he has influenced and how important it was to win an Oscar? Did he talk about his legacy taking away from his work?
BS: Giger made what he had to do. It was not Oscar winning or yes or no. This had an impact on him as a human being, as a person, but not as an artist. He stuck to his path. That’s what I really like about him and his biography. What impressed me most was that he followed his dreams and he followed his path, regardless of what people thought of that.
His art is quite provocative. I can only imagine what people thought about it in the 60s or the 70s about his art. He didn’t bother. He stuck to his own path.
Q: Imagine how powerful his work was in the early ‘80s.
BS: It’s incredible. And still now his art is very provocative. You have to do that over decades and decades and it’s still provocative.
Q: Did you feel he fulfill his ideal of bringing together machine and flesh or was he still seeking a better way?
BS: I don’t know. He didn’t work a lot anymore in the last two years when I knew him. He would draw, and in the film you see at the beginning when he draws because he started with a pencil in his hand. Airbrush and design and sculpting came later, but he started with a pencil in his hand. He had it filmed, so I like it very much. I didn’t know if he fulfilled his wish for the biomechanical.
I don’t know if you know the sculpture he created it in 1968 for the film Swiss Made. It’s quite a weird creature. It’s a creature with a camera instead of a face and a recording machine instead of a chest. It was so visionary and incredible and he did this all his life, completing this vision from 1968 of a human-machine hybrid.
Q: His work would alter space. I remember the Giger Room at the Limelight and it was like another universe.
BS: His house where he lived is exactly like that. You have the feeling that you entered another universe, another world. And not just the house, but also the garden. I wanted to show that when I was shooting with the drone flying away from the house. You see all the new buildings around him, but he stayed there and it’s like a nest from another world.
Q: I interviewed Alejandro Jodorowsky and the director of the documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. They were disappointed that it didn’t get made. Wasn't Giger also disappointed that he didn’t get to work with David Lynch when it was handed over to him?
BS: I know Giger was disappointed. He did a lot of things for this movie, his furniture, for example. He made the Harkonnen chair for Dune. But I don’t know why Lynch didn’t want to work with Giger. Giger didn’t know it, but he was disappointed.
Q: He also suffered night shock syndrome where he wakes up screaming. Did he talk about it?
BS: Yes, there was a time when he had many nightmares. He said life influences him, but also his dreams. Nightmares influenced him. There are many pictures of them. There are monochrome pictures he did of what he saw in his nightmares while he painted "Passages."
Q: In light of what we see in the house, I didn’t realize the extent to which he had strange things everywhere. How did you decided what you could and couldn’t show? It would be a nightmare trying to pick and choose. How did you define the movie?
BS: This is the most difficult work in the process of filming for me, when you’re in the edit room and you have to choose, you have to select the material. I can’t explain to you.
It took days and weeks and hours and hours but finally you have to make a decision. I hope I have chosen best. I hope.
Q: Did the curator and museum director -- who is also his ex-wife -- help in the process since they knew him at an earlier time? Or was it important to show him as he is now looking back?
BS: Nobody had influence on the editing. They didn’t help me in choosing the material. I did this with my editor and my producer. For me it was important that Hans Rudi like the work I do. I did a teaser while I was shooting and I showed him this teaser and he liked it very much. He thought it was nice and I explained it to Rudi that I didn’t want to make a conventional biography. I can’t just say, “This is HR Giger and he was born in Chur in 1940.”
I wanted to go further. We were in the middle of editing when he died and it was a huge shock. Carmen Giger was the first to see it in the editing room before it was released and she sort of approved it.
She said to me after the screening, “This is true, this is honest. This is the Hans Rudi I recognize, I see him.” This was important to me. I would have a problem if she said to me after the screening, “I don’t recognize my husband here” but she said the opposite. She said it was deep and true. So that was important to me.
Q: Giger had an impact on the Japanese and did designs for the film Teito Monogatari. The impact his work had in Japanese animation and in Asia, they have these meldings of machine and man. Did he see that connection or discuss it?
BS: I know he liked Japanese culture, but I don’t know if he was aware of the huge impact he had on artwork in Japan. I know they liked his bar there. It was not so easy for him to work with a Japanese director. I don’t know if he was satisfied by those films made because I didn’t ask him, but I know the huge impact in Japan and in Japan they admire a lot his airbrushed work. They say he’s the master of the airbrush.
Q: Did he sign anything for you or give you any art?
BS: He signed some drawings for me, and I really appreciate that a lot. I didn’t ask him, I would never ask him for something like that. But he signed something for me.
Q: Did he do a sketch before making a painting? How did he design them?
BS: It’s really amazing. I don’t think Giger himself understood the process of his work. It’s coming from somewhere else. This is not Giger deciding. Giger didn’t understand where the paintings were coming from. This is why Giger said at the beginning of the project to not ask about his work, I don’t think he understood it.
Q: Sometimes he sketched and other times he just started airbrushing?
BS: For the airbrush paintings he didn’t sketch at all. Nothing, not at all. He would sketch with pencil, but no sketches for the airbrush work. It’s really out of his mind. The airbrush is the perfect tool for work like that. You don’t even touch the wood or paper you’re working on. It’s like…
Q: In a way, it’s like a mystical experience.
BS: Exactly. I like that he remained enigmatic. It’s cool. We don’t have to explain everything and I like that in this film.
Q: I’m glad he spoke about that experience with Li, his sexuality in his youth had an impact on the work. Would you agree?
BS: After Li’s death, his work became a little darker. Only a few times later he painted the Necronomicon which is a monster and it started the Alien career because Dan O’Bannon, the writer of Alien, had the book Necronomicon, and that’s what he showed to Ridley Scott who said, “Wow, that’s my monster.”
Q: We don’t realize how many ways in which the ideas came from Giger instead of the other way around. It wouldn’t be the same without him
BS: I absolutely agree. This movie happened because of HR Giger.
Q: One of my prize possessions is an Alien toy that were made when the film was first released; it was pull off shelves because it was too scary for kids. But those figurines are incredible. Did the movie scare you?
BS: Oh yes. Someone once asked me what scared me the most in the house of HR Giger and I can tell you it is his cat. It is unpredictable and she liked to jump on the shoulder of visitors.
Q: It’s funny you say that. He’s definitely a cat person. Did he ever suggest that his work was influenced by Egyptian mythology and art?
BS: Absolutely. This is a subject in the film, when he’s in the museum with his older sister and saw a mummy for the first time and was terrified. This is a great moment too, when Carmen explains that when he was afraid of something, he would visit this mummy on and on and on until he was not afraid any more. Until he could master his fears.
It's very inspiring too, to master your fears and engage with them. He was very influenced by his art. It’s not shown very well in the film, but he has this door to the room of his wife, Carmen, and he made this door in the shape of a sarcophagus. This influenced remained with him until the end of his life.
Q: I liked the stories about his lion skeleton and the skull in the bathtub. Are those skeletons still there?
BS: I filmed it. It's in the film. There are no skeletons of animals anymore though. They might be hidden somewhere though.
Q: What’s the next step for you? Do you see yourself continuing your relationship with the Giger folks or focusing on your own artwork or going in a completely different direction?
BS: I have a lot of projects in my mind, a new film project, but it’s too early to talk about, there’s nothing to share. But of course I have a relationship now with the Giger family. I see Carmen regularly because I want her to know what’s going on with the film, and what we're doing. I see Tom and the mother-in-law who works there. I still pay them many visits.