Today it was announced that Swiss surrealist HR Giger, who designed the monster and sets for Alien, has died at the age of 74. Back in 2009, VICE paid him a visit in his house in Zurich and talked to him about his life, inspiration, and work. You can read the interview below.
HR Giger, regardless of how many museum or galleries he fills with volumes of his other work, will almost certainly go down in history as that strange Swiss guy behind the Alien movie. During the 1970s, Giger produced a book called Necronomicon, which established him as the foremost fantastical artist at the time. Salvador Dali was so impressed by his work that he invited him over to Spain for a visit and stole Giger’s girlfriend in the process.
In the 1980s, Giger got involved in the movies and got an Oscar for his work on Alien, but after a couple of awful cinematic collaborations in the 1990s he pretty much disappeared to everyone except the goths and metalheads raiding his back catalogue for tattoos.
He’s 69 now. Loathed by feminists and obscenity sticklers, Giger, the one-time king of darkness and the person Ridley Scott confessed to being petrified of meeting, is now no more scary than a grumpy old neighbor. He wears Crocs. He potters around the garden, mumbles to the cat, drops himself in front of the tube for the afternoon, and cracks open a bottle whenever he feels like it. His wife Carmen lives next door. Giger punched a hole through the wall to join the buildings. Giger’s side is painted black from floor to ceiling; Carmen’s, one assumes, ain’t so bad.
He divides his time between a castle in the Alps and his house in Zurich where he has a little train track running round the garden and right through the kitchen. When he sketches, he still likes to draw strange alien figures with hefty packages pinning fragile looking ladies to the floor, but his days of nightmarish visions and brutal hallucinations are over. He goes to bed at 5 AM and wakes at noon. The night before the interview, Giger had overdone it at the dinner table.
How was your fondue last night?
Heavy. Oh so heavy. After, I always say, "Oh my God, why have I done that?" But it’s so good.
What are you doing with yourself these days?
You know I haven’t painted since the 90s? I’m quiet now. I like watching television. I like the Wire, and the Sopranos is so good.
Yesterday we met your good friend Walter Wegmüller, who helped Timothy Leary when he was on the run. He spoke about the “freaky times” back in Switzerland in the 1970s. What were they like?
Ah, the freaky times. When Timothy Leary was in Switzerland, he was hoping to get asylum so he could stay here and not go back to prison in America. I was collecting signatures for him. My father was a pharmacist, you know? "What are you doing with this guy?" he asked me. It was funny. Timothy Leary was a very nice man. I didn’t meet him back then in Switzerland, but I met him later in Los Angeles when he wrote two articles for my books. They were very good and he was a very fine person.
Did you exchange ideas?
Oh not much. What could I say? He was a very intelligent man with a lot of knowledge and I’m, well, I’m just an artist.
Did you ever take LSD with him?
Ah, you know you can’t talk about that on record. LSD is still forbidden, so it’s not good to talk about those things.
You’ve said before that much of the inspiration for your art comes from dreams, and more specifically nightmares?
Everyone always wants to know about my dreams. The inspiration is mostly from literature actually. I have read so many things that have inspired me. Beckett was very much an inspiration for me. His theater, especially. I made paintings as a homage to Samuel Beckett [Homage to S. Beckett I,II,III]. They were some of the very few colored paintings I’ve done.
What other writers were an inspiration for you?
Crime writers especially. I started with Edgar Wallace and then all sorts of Western writers.
Your work comes from a much darker place than Beckett or Wallace?
Darker, yes. It came partly from Chur where I grew up; partly from the war. I was born in 1940 so I could feel the atmosphere when my parents were afraid. The lamps were always a bluish dark, so the planes would not bomb us. Switzerland and Germany are close. The targets weren’t always very well marked. I felt the fear of that very much. Later on at a certain time I saw a lot of witchcraft books and stuff like that. H. P. Lovecraft and these kind of people. I’d say my inspiration comes from books mostly, but dreams also.
Is there any way that you can control the dreams and manipulate your surroundings from within the dream?
Yeah, sometimes it happens and I can remember when I’m in a dream. Or I get the feeling like I’m out of my body. A long time ago, about 10 or even 20 years ago, I had that. But it didn’t happen to me often. Probably four or five times. But yeah, that was strong.
Was it frightening?
No. It wasn’t frightening. It was just, well, I was so surprised. A dream where I can’t get enough air, that’s frightening. Or the kind of dream where I was stuck in a grave or something like that, that was frightening. But later I developed these passages paintings [Passage I-XXX] and they were very good for that. I got some sort of relief. I got no more bad dreams when I painted these passages. It was helpful.
Does that happen often?
No, not often, but I did the right thing because at the time these passage dreams were ruining my work. It was the right thing to make me feel better.
Can you tell me about the dream behind Necronomicon your book that Ridley Scott used as the template for Alien?
These things come from H.P. Lovecraft. In the 70s, I was very familiar with Lovecraft.
And the Alien figure itself?
Well it all comes from the same place. I had already done Necronom IV and V, these monsters with the long heads. That’s what Ridley Scott saw. I showed them in a gallery in Paris. Jodoworsky visited the gallery and so did Ridley Scott and later on I got an invitation to do some work for movies. First, it was Jodoworsky for Dune then later on it was Ridley Scott for Alien.
What ever happened with Dune?
Dune never happened with me. I was asked to do it two times. Once with Jodorowsky and then another time with Ridley Scott, but the daughter of Dino de Laurentis had the rights for Dune and she gave them to David Lynch. And David Lynch was not very happy with me.
He said that I had stolen his ideas, that I’d stolen his baby. I said I liked his baby from Eraserhead. I always said very nice things about him but he was a little strange. And he was jealous because I exhibited in a New York gallery and he couldn’t. He was sour. But I like him.
Do you have a favorite Lynch movie?
Yes, I mean all of Twin Peaks. That was really fabulous. And of course it all started with Eraserhead. All the films he did were wonderful.
How much control were you given during the production of Alien?
Well Ridley Scott directed it and I hadn’t much to say. Ridley Scott knew exactly what he wanted. I was happy that he accepted my book and he showed it to all the crew like it was the bible. He said, you have to do it exactly this way, and I was happy with that. I like him very much. He’s a great guy.
Giger's preliminary sketches for the Batmobile.
Certain other projects you did after Alien, like Poltergeist II and Killer Condom weren’t as well received, why did you choose to work on them?
After Alien things didn’t turn out so well in the movies because I didn’t get involved enough. I didn’t want to stay in another country. I had spent several months in Shepperton Studios working on Alien and wanted to be home. Later on when it came to doing these other projects I spent only a few days in the country for each one. When the movies eventually came out I thought, "Oh shit." But I couldn’t change it. There was no more time. So I thought that’s the wrong way to work. If you work on a film you have to be there all the time and be always looking at what they’re doing otherwise they’ll do what they want. In film, everybody wants to bring his own ideas in and make his own style, so it’s terrible. I was very depressed when I saw that.
Which film made you the most depressed?
All of them. I was only pleased with Alien and with the other things I was not very happy with.
After all your involvement in Hollywood, are you filthy rich?
Ah no. I’m actually poor. I had to sell several paintings to pay for the castle. That was shit. I had to sell some very nice, very important paintings.
When did you get the castle?
I did a show in Gruyeres in 1990 and fell in love with the town. I heard that they wanted to sell the castle, so I got it at auction. It was very difficult as I’m really not rich, you know? I got the money from many different places. I was always looking for something, a place for my paintings and sculptures, and I think a castle is the right place for me, no?
Is the castle a work in progress or is it finished?
More or less I’m finished, but it’s not done so well. I mean it was done on a really small budget. I can always make it better, but what I’m doing now is putting on shows in different countries to get publicity for the castle. And to find out where my paintings are.
What happened to your paintings?
Some of them were sold and I don’t know to where, and some of them got stolen. It’s horrible.
Were they stolen from your house?
Some, yes. And during the transport to shows. That’s shit. The two paintings for Emerson Lake and Palmer, for their Brain Salad Surgery album, were stolen.
What can you do in that situation?
Nothing. I tried. I said I’ll pay 10,000 francs if someone knows anything about them. I don’t know where they are. It upsets me so much. I like those things and I did them in 1973 and Emerson Lake and Palmer even came to Switzerland to see them.
If you were rich, what would you like to do with the castle?
I’d like to buy back some paintings. There was an idea for a train set running through the castle, but it’s too crazy. It’s fantastical. It costs too much to make such a train and you could never pay if off. It would be very funny to have, but I still have to pay for the castle. I have two million I have to pay back to the bank for the castle, and that’s heavy.
The castle gets a lot of visits from young rockers and goths. They seem to look on it as a bit of temple of darkness. Do you get any bizarre requests from them?
Oh yes. I get a lot of strange people who come to see my work in Gruyeres. It’s very nice. You know people from the village they know my fans when they see them. They’re all in black. They want to marry there, do photo shoots, all kinds of stuff.
Do you think they ever have sex in the castle?
Ha, it’s possible. I don’t know. We don’t have everything so tightly controlled.
Apart from art, is there anything else you collect?
I have weapons. I never want to be without weapons. As protection. I like weapons. From a child I always had weapons.
What’s your favorite weapon?
I have a small 5mm, 22 caliber, it’s a small revolver. That was what Li (Giger’s first wife) shot herself with. It’s very small. I have three revolvers with gunpowder in the barrel. You can fill them up. That’s fun.
Would you recommend the film industry to a fine artist?
Oh no, not at all. It’s very hard to work for film and you never have time to finish things in a really good way. Films make you crazy. You know once I wanted to work in Switzerland for the film industry. That was for the movie Species. Oh that was wrong.
Why was it so bad?
These guys I was working with, they didn’t want to work on Saturday and Sunday. It was terrible. They blamed me because I wanted them to work late. Film is great. I mean, I see what they do today and it’s wonderful. They know how to do it, they have all kinds of things, but it really makes you crazy.