It’s 9pm and I’m preparing to talk to Chris Foss over the phone. We’re talking late because he’s preparing for his new show in Guernsey at the Coachhouse Gallery. He’s been working tirelessly curating and creating 100 paintings for his 1st - 20th November exhibition. I’ll be there and if you're in Guernsey I recommend you go.
Chris hasn’t just had a career like most of us. He’s one of those very few people that we read about in creative history books or watch in documentaries - it’s difficult to overstate his impact on science fiction. After our 2 hour talk I felt like I understood his impact on Sci-Fi more than he does. Before I even asked Chris about working on Alien, influencing Marvel or arguing with Stanley Kubrick I simply asked him “What have you been up to recently?” His reply, “Some American rapper, I can’t remember his name, wanted to work with me. I think he was actually running for president but then COVID hit and it didn’t happen”. “Do you mean Kanye West?” I replied, “That’s it, have you heard of him?”…..
Hi Chris, What does a normal day look like, from a creative perspective?
Well Aaron, I spend my day chasing the sun...
I bought this wonderful summer house and I've turned it into a studio. You see, for an artist, the difference when you can paint in daylight, without any artificial light is stunning. The colors are so much brighter. So, I've built four different studios on the property and depending on the light I will start in whichever studio is the best and then literally follow the sun around. My day is governed by the weather.
You're one of the most famous science fiction painters in the world. When did you know that science fiction ships and science fiction would be your unique voice?
I remember exactly when funnily enough! As a young name, 19 years old, I was illustrating for the now famous, new at the time magazine call Penthouse. That work actually lead to illustrating the book 'The Joy of Sex'. But at 19 I didn’t pay much attention to space stations! A friend said “hey, are you goanna see that new 2001 film?” So I took some a bit of extra time off at lunch and went to see it. It was quite simply breathtaking, and I've been painting spaceships ever since. It’s how my life in spaceships took off.
So, you actually went full circle, first being inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 to then, working with the man on AI. He was infamously very difficult to work with, bordering on abusive, was this your experience?
It very much felt like that from the beginning. He asked me to come up and meet him in Dorset. For some reason Stanley insisted I had to be driven to his house in a Hurricane (a car). When I arrived, I said, “my God, I nearly got killed on the motorway” and his sidekick replied, “we'll finish you off Chris”. I then worked 6 and a half months on AI. You're right, working with Stanley is fairly well documented, he spent his life grinding people into the ground. The truth is he paid me insane amounts of money, so I stuck with it. It was the only way he could get people to stay. He’d created such a surreal work environment; everyone they’re walked around like automatons. He had beaten the shit out of people mentally. I actually said "Stanley could kill someone with his voice” at the time. One of Stanley's favourite tricks was to make artists paint out the bit of their work they liked the most. And so, he came in on one occasion, and he said, "this picture is not working". By this point I’d had enough of his abusive behaviour. I hit the desk and I jumped up - “This picture is not working because the concept is crap, the execution is crap, and IT WILL ALWAYS BE CRAP.” I’m not sure how many people had spoken to him like that?! The next Monday I phoned in to say that my car needed attention, I had to drive 160 miles up from Dorset so I asked if I could come in the next day?” A producer called back and said, “Actually, Chris, you don't need to come back” That was the end of my time with Stanley.
Note - (Kubrick died during the making of A.I, Steven Spielberg finish the movie)
How did you get to design the Nostromo in Alien?
I'd been working on the first, now cult, unmade Dune movie with Alejandro Jodorowsky, Modius, H.R Giger, Salvador Dali and Dan O’Bannon. If you’d like to learn more about that, I throughly recommend a great documentary called “Jodorowsky's Dune”. Once that was over, Dan scrambled to find a script to work on. He resurrected his shelved script called “They Bite”. This would become Alien. Dan insisted, bless his heart, on me coming over to do the spaceship designs. So that's how I ended up in Los Angeles.
James Gunn wrote the below about you on Facebook “Chris Foss’s art was a part of my original presentation to Marvel when I pitched myself as director and I explained the visual direction I was going to take with the film. They were immediately on board, and we ended up hiring Chris Foss to help design some of the spaceships in the film. He was, of everyone, my biggest visual inspiration on Guardians.”
What was your experience of working on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy?
Aaron, I honestly had no idea. I never actually talked to James and honestly didn’t realise the role I played. The Art Director I was working with was working on about six different films at the same time. He was running around like a headless chicken.
I couldn't believe it. I remember him going to Los Angeles to build a presentation on the Friday and back in the London office on Monday. Everything is now built on computers these days and here's this guy, me, with just a piece of paper and pens. I had a very enjoyable time drawing and painting designs for the film. Honestly i was just creating ships with not very much direction!
What did you think of the final film.
I haven’t got around to seeing it yet!
I think you should sir.