While H.R. Giger claimed not always to have known what inspired him, the seminal Swiss surrealist’s vivid “biomechanical” paintings and sculptures remain deeply unsettling testaments to his consummately uninhibited imagination. Documentarian Belinda Sallin honors Giger’s uniquely disquieting genius in Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, a thoughtful portrait of the artist’s relationship with his work.
See also: Our review of Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World
In her film, Sallin reflects Giger’s materialist philosophy and attitude toward his art by focusing on the people the man saw routinely during his last days, and their impression of his work (Sallin’s film was shot days before Giger’s passing in September 2014). The Village Voice talked to Sallin about Giger’s Oscar-winning art design for Alien, his mysterious “Spell Room,” and his idiosyncratic way of unbuttoning his dress shirts.
When you surveyed the wealth of archival material at your disposal, what jumped out at you about Giger the person, and his behavior? And is there a story about the way his tendency to wear his shirts with one or two buttons undone, and bare chest beneath, like a rock star, became, over the years, a personal style?
There’s no story about the shirt, unfortunately. Or at least I didn’t hear one. As you mentioned, it was just his style, completely natural, without any affectations.
What jumped out at me about Giger’s behavior was in the archival footage: Somehow it surprised me — I recognized the same character traits in the early films. For example, in Passagen, a [documentary] shot by Fredi M. Murer in the early Seventies, I saw a timid, modest artist who shied away from the limelight. I knew H.R. as an extremely modest person who took his work more seriously than he took himself. I don’t know if his humility and modesty increased with age, or if he’d always been that way. But I saw in the archival footage that the huge publicity that came with winning the Oscar — H.R. apparently had to push those character traits into the background for a while. I really appreciated meeting an older H.R. who so closely resembled the way I had perceived the young Giger in the early films from the Seventies: authentic, down to earth, very honest. It’s quite possible that he’d been that way all his life, but that the media had made him out differently for several years. I can’t gauge that, having met him only two and a half years before his death.
Giger tended to downplay the importance of dreams on his work. He made it seem as if they were important, but not the key to understanding his process or where his work came from. What aspects of his artistic process did you want to highlight?
The ingenious ones. [Giger’s agent] Leslie Barany says in the film: You cannot really understand this process, this comes from somewhere else, from another world. I think H.R. also didn’t understand his process. That’s why he could talk about his work’s influences — dreams, for example, or his first skull — but not about the process itself.
It seemed as if you limited your film’s cast of characters to the people who were still actively involved in Giger’s life, the ones he saw and visited with during his last years. Was that a conscious decision?
Absolutely. It was my intention to show the world in which H.R. lived: his extraordinary house, the way that he literally lived in his art — with all his family and friends. It was not my intention to create a conventional biography. This would have been a completely other concept, with a completely different cast of characters, perhaps even with art experts and so on. You can read such biographies on the internet, or in numerous books and publications. It has already been done. I wanted to show the world he lived in now. So I focused about the man I’ve met, not a man I could have known from hearsay. So everybody you see in the film was deeply related to H.R. until he died.
How did you get such great candid shots of him interacting with his work, like the scene where he surveys his “Spell Room,” and his sculptures? Did you shadow him extensively?
No. H.R. Giger’s health was weak. That meant that he was only available for very short periods of time. I had to carefully consider what I wanted from him, and decide which scenes I wanted to shoot with him. Then we discussed each scene in great detail with the crew beforehand, sometimes even acting them out on camera. Interestingly enough, the scenes took on — despite these preliminary talks — a very authentic feeling with H.R., in my opinion. We all knew there was only this one take, no retakes, no discussion or direction. I give H.R. a lot of credit for almost always conforming to my wishes. He often dutifully did his part in order to make this film a reality. But it was a new experience for him to have a crew work on a film about him for such a long time. H.R. had seen dozens of TV crews come and go. A few quotes, a few shots, and that was it. He repeatedly asked if we need to shoot that much. But in the end, he always seemed to be understanding when it came to my requests.
Still, I never dreamed H.R. would visit his museum for the last time with us. Actually, he didn’t really feel like going to Gruyères. After all, it was pretty taxing on him. It took a great deal of persuasion on my part. In the end, he only spent a short time in the museum. He didn’t want to stage anything at all, but we managed to film him in his beloved “Spell Room” for a few minutes. This scene is very precious to me now.
Is there anything you wish you could have asked Giger that you didn’t get to?
No, I’m just honored and feel very privileged that I had the chance to know him two and a half years before he died. In my opinion a lot of his personality and especially of his work stays enigmatic and mysterious. I can accept that very well.