H.R. Giger interview: ‘When I was a young boy, I was obsessed with skulls and mummies’

We caught up with the Swiss painter and Alien's creature-designer to discuss gross things

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  • Photograph: Mia Bonzanigo

    Giger, during Alien's preproduction

  • Necronom IV 1976 H.R. Giger

  • Production designs. Alien III, Sideview 1978 H.R. Giger

  • Production designs. Alien Monster III 1978 H.R. Giger

  • Production designs. Pilot in Cockpit 1978 H.R. Giger

  • Photograph: Mia Bonzanigo

    Giger on the Alien set

  • Photograph: Mia Bonzanigo

    Giger on the Alien set

  • Photograph: Mia Bonzanigo

    Giger with director Ridley Scott

  • The entire alien lifecycle in a hieroglyphic. Hieroglyphics 1978 H.R. Giger

  • Giger's Frankfurt exhibit, currently in progress. 2009 Matthias Belz

  • The Alien Room at the H.R. Giger Museum, Gruyeres, Switzerland. 2008 Matthias

Photograph: Mia Bonzanigo

Giger, during Alien's preproduction


They don’t call it Alien for nothing, and while we could talk about Sigourney Weaver in her undies for days, the nightmarish star of Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark (this week at Film Forum) is mainly the vision of one man. Giger, 69, a Surrealist airbrush artist (also the designer of classic album covers for Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Deborah Harry), spoke to TONY exclusively via phone from his home in Zurich; currently, a retrospective of Giger’s work is under way in Frankfurt.

I know you’re a big fan of New York City. When were you last here?
Oh, God [Laughs]. When was that? In 1981 or so, I did these steamy New York City paintings.

And now it’s the 30th anniversary of Alien.
I know. Amazing to realize.

It was your first Hollywood film. Did they give you a lot of freedom?
It was wonderful to work with Ridley. I already knew his style from The Duellists [Scott’s 1977 feature debut]. He had seen my Emerson Lake & Palmer cover—that and an image from a book I did called the Necronomicon. He was convinced that this was his alien; he could see it immediately. I referred to those images like a Bible.

I hear you used a real human skull for the first life-size model.
Yes, that’s true. Don’t ask me where I got it.

Was it a fun collaboration?
It was. But I was away from Zurich for six months. I had two cats and my house was completely empty. So every two weeks, I went home for the cats, but they got sick—winter colds!

Meanwhile, what was it like being on the London set with these monsters of yours?
Ridley didn’t want to show the actors the creatures until just before they filmed their scenes. That resulted in some great reactions.

Where does all this gooey stuff come from, creatively?
That’s the most difficult question to answer. When I was a young boy, I was obsessed with skulls and mummies and things like that. In Chur, Switzerland, where I grew up, one museum had an Egyptian princess in a sarcophagus.

And a few decades later, you won an Oscar for Alien.
It got me more shows. I’m a painter, really. To be successful, you have to go to Hollywood, and I didn’t like to travel. So not much movie work followed. Fine by me. Seriously, it was nice getting the Oscar, since there wasn’t much money.

Even think of turning your Oscar into a sculpture?
Ha. That’s forbidden, actually.


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