“I still see the H stage, the studios at Shepperton, filled with smoke and oil burning. Outside, the sun was shining and we entered the studio and were suddenly in the mist…”
~ HR Giger, Cinephage magazine, 1992.
In 2012 the Swiss tabloid Blick asked HR Giger if he ever regretted not having children. “No,” he answered, “my pictures are my children.”
And what a progeny.
That Giger was one of the twentieth century’s foremost talents is no hyperbole. That he fathered a radically different and disturbing aesthetic is no exaggeration. That he influenced and will continue to influence generations of future artists needs not be prophesied. Biomechanics is HR Giger.
Of his art and interests, Giger explained that his fascination with the morbid came early, during his childhood in his hometown of Chur. “When I was about 5 years old my father got a human skull,” he explained. “That was something special. I was very young, and it was a little frightening. But I was proud to have a skull. My interest in skulls and bones came very early.” New friends brought new interests: “An old friend of mine, Sergius Golowin, a specialist in myths and fables and magic, gave me a book by Lovecraft in the late 60′s and introduced me to Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead. He said the entire corpus of my work could easily be pages out of the Necronomicon. I very much admire Lovecraft.” Additionally, Giger name-checked the “Ancient Egyptians” as being among his influences, telling Tatuaz magazine in 2008: “When I was about 6 years old, every Sunday I went to the museum in Chur, where in the basement they kept a beautiful mummy. She had an old odour, and it fascinated me. Later, when I started to draw and use an airbrush, that for me was a memory of great inspiration … The Egyptian art is a lot of death.”
Giger’s involvement with Alien owed itself to the tenacity of its writer, Dan O’Bannon, who had met Giger in France when Alejandro Jodorowsky was attempting to make Dune in the mid 1970’s. The two Lovecraft aficionados clicked, so much so that O’Bannon went home to the United States with a head full of biomechanic creatures writhing in his grey matter that were eventually expelled onto the page as Alien. “I love geniuses, and have been privileged to work with several,” O’Bannon wrote in his essay Something Perfectly Disgusting. “One was HR Giger; I met him in Paris and he gave me a book of his artwork. I pored over it through one long night in my room on the Left Bank. His visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality, and aroused in me deep, disturbing thoughts, deep feelings of terror. They started an idea turning over in my head. This guy should design a monster movie. Nobody had ever seen anything like this on the screen.”
O’Bannon had not only set out to write Alien with a “Giger monster” specifically in mind, but also fought the film’s producers to get Giger personally involved in the production of the film. The producers themselves, unimpressed by the notion of some “whing-ding” from Zurich working on their movie, preferred to hire someone from Hollywood; someone with other movies under their belt and reputable contacts in their phone book. Hiring an unknown European artist seemed laughable. Enter Ridley Scott, who found Giger’s Necronomicon thrust upon him by an eager O’Bannon. Scott looked through the book and was astounded. He threatened to walk if Giger was not hired. The producers acquiesced. Ridley explained that “My enthusiasm with regard to the film increased significantly as I realized we had the ability to create a monster that would be superior to most of those from the past.” Giger’s signature mesh of bone and machines, interlaced with decay and sexuality, would give Alien the unique ingredient it needed to distance itself from other standard sci-fi fare.
Alien’s production was a difficult experience for Giger. He struggled with changing scripts, excised concepts, the film’s designs and the producers’ demands, routine conflict with other artists and artisans and even irritation with dishonest taxi drivers – but there were internal difficulties as well as external ones: sleeplessness, fatigue, frustration, boredom, persistent nightmares and more. In May of 1978 Giger enthusiastically wrote in his diary that “I am on the Alien trip!” But subsequent journal entries revealed how fraught he was with the film’s demands: “I’m so worried about not finishing the monster on time that it’s making me sick.”
Mia Bonzanigo, described then as Giger’s “secretary-girlfriend-muse-model” by Cinefantastique, revealed Giger’s state of mind during those scorching summer and autumn months in England: “He used to have nightmares and would even talk in his sleep because of the terrible pressure imposed on him by the production,” (Giger and Mia, who can be seen in some of Alien’s behind the scenes footage, would marry after the film’s production. They later separated.) There were other problems. In July ’78 he wrote that “I like the H stage less and less. It all looks pretty shitty.” By August, before shooting had even fully commenced, he was writing that “All I want is to be back in my garden in Zurich with Mia … The work bores me.” There seemed to be more disasters in September: “The costume of [the] Alien was ruined … The four wings or tubes were broken and had to be attached with wires.”
Hard work had always been an ethic for Giger; he readily acknowledged that the life of an artist was likely to be busy and possibly largely thankless. But fame was not his aim, merely personal satisfaction with his own work and creativity. “I have worked hard,” he summarised in the 2012 interview with Blick newspaper. “Especially between 1972-1992 when I painted my large-scale airbrush paintings. Sometimes when I am a little depressed, I flip through my work catalogs and see what I’ve done. It gives me enormous satisfaction.” As for those troublesome days on the set of Alien, where “Everything is wet and full of slime and oil,” gratification was not far beyond the toil: “At least,” he assented in his journal, “there’s one satisfaction. It will be a good film.”
Death did not trouble Giger. “I’ll never count the friends who come to my grave,” he told Blick. “I myself never go to funerals, because they just depress me … I think that everything ends with death. I think, unlike Carmen, not even in rebirth. The idea that anything goes on or that I even want to come back to this world is terrible.” Above all, family and friends aside, it was the legacy of his work that concerned him. “I do not want to live again. Once is enough. It’s also all so terribly exhausting. But, even if I’m gone, my art lives on. I’m glad, and I hope that it finds recognition in future generations.”
The Giger circle has been kind to Strange Shapes and myself. No consolation can truly dull the pain of their loss, but we offer them anyway. Our condolences go to Carmen, his wife of eight years, his friend and agent Les Barany, and the many close associates and assistants that gathered around, helped and contributed to the last years of Mr. Giger’s extraordinary life.