There's a fascinating story Hans Ruedi Giger (1940-2014) tells about his childhood in the beginning of Belinda Sallin's documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World, in which his father gave him a human skull, gifted to them by Ciba-Geigy. He described how it was scary for him to hold death in his hands at 6 years old, but he pulled it along the street with a string to prove he wasn't afraid of death. This would be just the beginning of his fascination of death, along with birth and sex, as themes in his art, to conquer any fears he might have about them.
Giger was a luminary in the worlds of the punk and pop music scenes, designing album covers and art for bands like the Dead Kennedys, Danzig, Celtic Frost and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Though he directed films in the 1960s and 1970s, the science fiction world best knows him for his Oscar-winning design work on Alien. Additionally, his design work on Species and the famed unproduced Alejandro Jodorowski adaptation of Dune are among his many great achievements. Giger's influence can be seen in the fetish and tattoo cultures as well. His artwork, which could be described as nightmarish and haunting, is also delicate, yet penetrates the soul.
He opened his labyrinthian home to Sallin multiple times as he -- and those close to him -- reflected on his life and career. The documentary is a splendid and candid look at one of the best visual artists of our time. Blastr spoke with Sallin about her amazing journey with Giger and what her documentary explores about the legendary artist in his final years.
From a dinner table he designed, a garden design that could've been born only out of his mind, what were you thinking when you first realized that he's completely immersed in his own art?
This was really fascinating. I didn't want a conventional biography. It was my intention to show the world his extraordinary house and his garden. He literally lived in his art, with all consequences. You can read his biography in books or the Internet, but I wanted to show the world that he lives in, but also be an honest portrayal of Hans Ruedi Giger and his work.
You learn a lot through your lens, but you also learn a lot about H.R. Giger through interviewing his inner circle of assistants, including his collaborators, an ex-wife and Sandra Beretta, Giger's graphic artist, longtime life partner and archivist.
I had hours and hours of talks and discussions with all of the people around Giger. You have talks before filming, you have your research, I did it all at the same time. I think this is something Hans appreciated a lot; he saw that my research and knowledge of his work was profound. I talked to a lot of people, but in the end it was my decision to only include those related to Hans' world that he was (currently) living in. That's why I didn't film anyone that he worked with 30 or 40 years ago, because he didn't have any relationships with them anymore. You can see in the film, Giger was quite weak with health issues and didn't like to speak a lot. But we had lots of discussions and made this film with the people around him.
How much access were you given to his world? Did you feel like there was anything Giger held back or kept to himself?
No, I didn't get the impression that he wanted to keep away from the camera. On the contrary, he was quite approachable, he had a lot of trust. I had the feeling that he was very open. It was great to work there. It was quite unusual in his age with his health issues -- I think it's a little provocative, in a society obsessed in youth, beauty, and fitness -- he's the opposite. He was very aware of that. He knew from the beginning of the shoot what he knew exactly what was doing and wanted to show all of that. In my opinion, with his participation in the film, he made himself conspicuous in the eternal cycle of birth, life and death. You see it all of the time in his work. If you want, his appearance in this film is his last performance.
You allow his art to breathe on the screen and speak for itself, without delving too much about the specifics about any one work or project, whether it was album art for rock bands or movie production. But did he share with you his thoughts on working on Alien, Species, Dune or other projects?
Yeah, we talked several times about his experiences, and it was very funny. He had a great sense of humor. He took his work very seriously, but he was quite self-ironic. He didn't take himself quite so seriously. I felt a lot of times when we talked about Aliens, for example. He was in Zurich, where his house was, and he said, "I would talk to 20th Century Fox for two or three hours, and I couldn't speak English, so I didn't exactly know what they wanted from me, but we got along very well."
Did he ever talk about Fox going to the well multiple times and franchising Alien? Potentially, it meant more work for him, but did he ever get the impression they tapped the well too much or that there was still resentment in the lack of proper creditation in those sequels?
It's not a secret that work with 20th Century Fox was difficult for him. He really liked working with Ridley Scott, they were friends until the end. For Prometheus, for example, they met each other and discussed what new designs they could create. Unfortunately, due to a stroke he couldn't carry them through, but you could see in Prometheus that he understood Giger's art and design. This is not the case with the other Alien films. I didn't look at the contracts, or the financials of their agreement. That wasn't a part of my film, but based on what Hans Ruedi told me, it was difficult working with the studio.
What will diehard H.R. Giger fans learn with your film?
You can meet Hans Ruedi Giger in his home. You've never seen that before. You can't read that in a book or on the Internet. His home is a piece of art in and of itself. I was very honored and privileged to have Giger accept me into his home. I think it also reflects the inside of him; you see this duality of darkness and you'll discover when you meet him. He is nice and kindly and welcoming man.
Did the film scope accomplish everything you wanted it to, or did H.R. Giger's passing alter that?
Yes. I did everything I wanted to do. We even did promotional photo shoots for the film five days before he died. I was quite calm, because I thought, "We did it," and I didn't have to worry anymore. He could lean back, calm in his seat, and wait until the film is finished. Of course, it was shocking and very, very sad [to hear of his passing], because we were in the middle of editing. It didn't affect the film; I did it like I wanted to from the beginning, but emotionally it changed a lot because there are a lot of scenes that are precious to me. For example, we wanted to shoot his museum in the Chateau St. Germain in Gruyeres, Switzerland. On that day, he didn't feel very well and didn't want to come. I told him, "It was important that you come, to see you in your own museum." Finally he came, and it wound up being his last visit into his own museum.
It's not often that we are able to capture the thoughts of a man who is able to reflect on his entire life at the very end of his lifespan. What did you get the impression that he was was most proud of in his life and his career?
There's not a specific event or painting, or artwork that he would say, this is the one and this is not. It's a constant way he went down. So no, there's nothing I could tell you that was the most important. I think this is a quality of H.R., he appreciated all of his work.
Given the time you spent making this film, you must have made a personal connection with H.R. Giger. What did you get out of this experience?
I was so surprised when I met him for the first time, because he wasn't like what I expected. If you have some prejudice, for example, you have an image in your head that he is this or that. Then you meet someone who is the complete opposite. He's in my heart now, he was such a nice character, such a nice person, and I appreciated him a lot. What impressed me the most is that he followed his dreams, regardless of what people thought or said. It must've been quite hard in the '60s or '70s, but he stuck to his own path. This is very inspiring to me.
He did what he wanted to do. He used all the tools, the mediums he wanted to. He made films, album covers, comics, videogames. He had a huge spectrum of all his tools. Unfortunately, he didn't get the acknowledgment he deserved, but in the end he was a satisfied person. This is huge. I think it's great when you can say at the end of your life, "I did what I wanted to, I saw what I wanted to see, and I'm satisfied."
Is there anything else you can say others may be able to get of this film or H.R. Giger's work, especially the repeated themes of birth, life, death and sexuality?
I was in Paris a few days ago at the art house for contemporary art, and among other things concept art, and there's some beautiful and meaningful things. But I would see things that the artist doesn't know what they want to tell me.
With the art of H.R. Giger, it's the opposite. The art has to tell you a lot if you're engaged with the images. So it's interesting to me that his figurative images inspire these philosophical sorts of needs, like, what are my fears? What is evil, and how does it manifest itself? The aesthetics of his work may help [confront these questions]. Giger visualizes fears in ways that if we engage with them, we no longer have to fear them, that we can accept them. This is amazing.
Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World is from Switzerland, and the language is Swiss-German. It is distributed by Icaraus Films and KimStim and is on limited release in over 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada for a brief window at an art house near you:
May 15-21 - New York, NY - Landmark Sunshine
May 15-21 - Los Angeles, CA - Landmark NuArt
May 15-21 - San Francisco, CA - Landmark Opera Plaza
May 15-21 - Berkeley, CA - Landmark Shattuck
May 15-21 - Providence, RI - Cable Car Cinema
May 22-28 - Long Beach, CA - The Frida Cinema
May 22-28 - San Diego, CA - Landmark Ken
May 22-28 - Dallas, TX - Texas Theatre
May 23-26 - Austin, TX - Alamo Drafthouse
May 23-28 - Houston, TX - Alamo Drafthouse
May 28 - June 4 - Washington, D.C. - Landmark E St
May 28 - June 4 - Vancouver, BC - The Cinematheque
May 29 - June 4 - Denver, CO - Landmark (TBD)
May 28 - June 4 - Columbus, OH - Gateway Film Center
May 29 - June 4 - Philadelphia, PA - Landmark Ritz
May 28 - May 31 - Fort Worth, TX - Fort Worth Museum of Contemporary Art