Without director Alejando Jodorowsky, it’s likely that the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien would have looked very different. In the late 1970s, Jodorowsky – the Chilean director of such wayward cult films as The Holy Mountain and El Topo – attempted to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, a project that would later collapse after a lengthy and creatively astonishing few months of pre-production.
It was during that brief yet fruitful explosion of activity that Dan O’Bannon, serving as Dune’s visual effects supervisor, first encountered the work of the Swiss artist Hans Ruedi Giger. In Giger’s airbrushed paintings – a nightmarish, almost indescribable fusion of flesh and metal – O’Bannon saw something unique and disturbing, and the images etched themselves onto his brain.
“[Giger’s] paintings had a profound effect on me,” O’Bannon later said. “I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”
When the wildly ambitious Dune project collapsed, O’Bannon returned to a story idea that had been percolating in his mind since he collaborated with John Carpenter on Dark Star several years earlier: a scary movie on a spaceship.
Although O’Bannon and collaborator Ronald Shusett’s Alien script changed considerably in the hands of writers and producers David Giler and Walter Hill, the elegant spine of their story remained, and O’Bannon’s creative input provided the key to the finished film’s unforgettable design. It was O’Bannon who first placed a 1977 book of Giger’s paintings, Necronomicon, into the hands of newly-appointed director Ridley Scott. O’Bannon and Scott didn’t see eye-to-eye on all matters, but they immediately agreed on one thing: the erotic, deadly-looking creature in a painting entitled Necronom IV was their alien.
The path to Alien
The studio heads at 20th Century Fox took some convincing before they agreed to hire Giger as a designer, but the appointment proved to be a masterstroke. Not only did the inspiring creature in that Necronom IV painting transfer spectacularly to the big screen – thanks, in no small part, to the technical assistance of Carlo Rambaldi and his magnificent mechanical jaw designs – but Giger’s dementedly sexy, nasty aesthetic bled into the rest of the film, too.
In a claustrophobic, messy corner of Shepperton Studios, Giger worked tirelessly on his designs and sculptures. Within the space of a few months, he’d crafted alien eggs with leathery skin and vulgar openings that peeled back at the top. He’d overseen the construction of an otherworldly derelict spacecraft with an eerily beautiful, asymmetrical design. He’d created the ribbed interior and its long-dead pilot, nicknamed the Space Jockey.
Giger would ultimately be awarded an Oscar for his design work on Alien, and both artistically and commercially, the film was a success. Yet while Ridley Scott’s collaboration with Giger was productive, the pair didn’t have the opportunity to work again for several years.
After Alien, Scott went on to direct Blade Runner – a project he took on after abandoning his own plans to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune – before helming the lavish fantasy movie, Legend. But in the mid-to-late 1980s, Scott found a project that, he thought, would be perfect fodder for he and Giger to work on together – a spec script called Dead Reckoning.
Throughout the 1980s, Giger had continued to create concept designs for movies, including Dino De Laurentiis’ production of Dune (finally realised by David Lynch in 1984), Poltergeist II, and the promising yet abandoned science fiction film, The Tourist. In each instance, little or none of Giger’s talent came through in the finished product: Poltergeist II showed only vague echoes of the artist’s spooky genius, while his designs for Dune were abandoned altogether (though his influence arguably remains on the screen in an unofficial capacity).
Theoretically, Dead Reckoning could have provided another great showcase for Giger’s imagination, and the artist was excited at the prospect when Ridley Scott called up about the project in 1988.
“For me,” the artist wrote in his book Giger’s Film Design, “there is nothing greater than this. I was enthusiastic about it and immediately accepted, because a remarkable movie always originates from a director like Ridley Scott.”
Written by screenwriter Jim Uhls – who would later write the script for Fight Club – Dead Reckoning read like an amalgam of Alien and Blade Runner. Set in a dystopian, over-crowded future Los Angeles, the story saw a genetically-altered beast run amok on an underground train. “The creature was a humanoid with a genetically-altered brain that was intended to be used as the ‘hard drive’ in an artificial intelligence project,” Uhls explained to author David Hughes in his book, Tales From Development Hell.
The script was purchased by Carolco, who were then buying up properties and talent at a ferocious rate after the major success of Rambo: First Blood Part II. Joel Silver was to serve as producer, and the project seemed perfect for Scott and his distinctly graphic style of filmmaking.
Without signing contracts or even knowing who wrote the script – he only appeared to know the story from Scott’s description given over the phone – Giger began drawing a series of concepts for Dead Reckoning, now entitled The Train. Despite – or maybe because of – this somewhat loose brief, Giger allowed his imagination to run riot.
The sketches from this period, as published in Giger’s Film Design, are some of the most captivating pieces the artist ever produced. Giger began to imagine what a train of the future might look like, and the results are typically outlandish: he thought that passengers would be housed in pods, a little like the hypersleep chambers in Alien, and moved in and out of carriages with a crane mounted on the ceiling.
Other drawings showed passengers lying down in larger vessels like cutlery drawers, and loaded and unloaded from the train’s carriages by truck. Still others depicted the train as a bio-mechanoid creature – akin to those he’d come up with for Jodorowsky’s Dune years earlier – with a skull-like head and arm-like appendages that speared commuters as they waited on the platform.
These, presumably, were a mere fraction of the sketches Giger produced in the nine months between 1988 and 1989 – we can only wonder what his designs for the creature running around on the train might have looked like. But the project itself ultimately proved to be short-lived; Scott left Carolco over creative differences, and his attempts to have The Train made at another studio came to nothing.
Ridley Scott ultimately abandoned The Train and went on to make Thelma And Louise and 1492: The Conquest Of Paradise. Joel Silver continued in his attempts to get The Train made, however, and the screenplay was later rewritten and called Isobar. Roland Emmerich was set to direct, with Sylvester Stallone and Kim Basinger attached as its stars.
Despite rewrites from Dean Devlin and Steven de Souza, no one could quite nail down what the creature on the train should do or look like – in some drafts it feasted on adrenaline, while in others it had tentacles and sucked the moisture from its victims. An astonishingly high $90m was set aside for Isobar in 1990, yet the film never made its way out of pre-production; as recently as 2006, stories were circulating that Isobar was about to start shooting, based on Dean Devlin’s screenplay from 16 years earlier. To date, nothing more has come to light.
Giger’s brush with The Train left an indelible impression, meanwhile. When he was hired to design the female human-alien hybrid in 1995’s Species, he still had biomechanoid locomotives whirring about in the back of his mind. Having read a draft of the Species script, and noting that it contained a prominent nightmare sequence, Giger began to find a way to work one of his train designs into it.
“When I saw in the script of Species that the [young] Sil escapes on the train and has strange nightmares, I had the idea I could work my Ghost Train into her dreams,” Giger told Cinefantastique’s Les Paul Robley. “They had not planned money for it in the budget, but they promised to consider it. I was so fascinated that I started with train ideas right away. Mancuso said, ‘Be careful,’ but I told him I will do this train anyway.”
Giger worked long and hard on this nightmare scene, creating plan drawings of the train and an entire storyboard of what he planned as a 30-second sequence.
The scene remains in Roger Donaldson’s finished film, albeit more briefly than Giger envisioned it, where we see the young hybrid Sil (Michelle Williams) chased by a train formed from skulls and bones. It’s a surreal moment that only gives a scant impression of the rich detail present in the artist’s sketches and models – according to Cinefantastique, Giger sank $100,000 of his own money into making the 20-foot-long locomotive and its accompanying station.
The idea of a biomechanoid train continued to obsess Giger even after his work on Species was completed, which led him to construct a large-scale ghost train that ran through his kitchen and all the way around his back garden – much to the chagrin of his next-door neighbours.
Prometheus and beyond
Ridley Scott and HR Giger would meet again briefly during the production of Prometheus in 2012. Giger’s contribution to the film in terms of new design was relatively small, but his concepts from Alien still formed its foundation: tellingly, the identity of the Space Jockey, the huge pilot and his exotic, horseshoe-shaped ship, were the basis of its story.
Giger is 74 now, and rarely paints. He’s unlikely to work on movies again, he says, because “everybody wants to bring his own ideas in and make his own style, so it’s terrible.” Of all the movies he helped design, Alien is the one he worked on most obsessively – and the only one he’s proud of. The equally demanding and keenly visual Ridley Scott, it seemed, was the perfect foil for Giger’s dark visions.
Had Dead Reckoning (or The Train) come to pass, it could have given sci-fi cinema one last great collaboration between Scott and Giger. But it’s also likely that Dead Reckoning would have been a pale retread of Alien and Blade Runner, without their freshness or bleak originality. Alien represented a chance meeting between a great director and artist, as well as such talents as Ron Cobb, Sid Mead, and Jean Giraud, and the chances of such creative lightning striking twice were, perhaps, small.
Giger now owns an old castle in Gruyeres, which he bought by selling some of his paintings. If he could afford it, he told Vice a few years ago, he’d like to have a train set running through its grounds. “But it’s too crazy,” he said. “It costs too much to make such a train and you could never pay it off…”
A quarter of a century on from the aborted Dead Reckoning, and those biomechanoid locomotives are still rattling around in Giger’s shadowy mind.
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