Chris Foss has had the sort of career many young men would dream of. He has worked as a visual consultant on some of the most influential movies of our time, including ‘Alien,’ ‘Superman’ and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s famously scrapped version of ‘Dune.’
He even had the chance to tell off a director he once admired greatly: Stanley Kubrick. The two butted heads constantly when Foss was brought in to work on Kubrick’s ‘AI,’ resulting in a blowout that ultimately led to Foss being frozen out of the project altogether.
Foss got his first big break illustrating for Penthouse magazine when it was in its infancy. Shortly afterwards, he was asked to illustrate the groundbreaking book ‘The Joy of Sex’ — which was a risky venture at that time in England — but the rabble-rouser in Foss delighted in the controversy. The classic book is now celebrating its 40th anniversary, and even Foss is surprised by its longevity.
Of course, he is probably best-known for his prolific production of iconic book covers for science-fiction novels by everyone from Isaac Asimov to E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. British publisher Titan Books has just released a collection called ‘Hardware: The Definitive Works of Chris Foss,’ which showcases some of his most memorable pieces, from the covers to his conceptual work for ‘Alien,’ ‘AI’ and the ill-fated ‘Dune.’
Foss spoke with Moviefone from his London home about everything from sneaking around the ‘Alien’ set to his famous blowout with Kubrick.
How did you react when you were asked to illustrate ‘The Joy of Sex’? Were you worried about an obscenity lawsuit?
Yes. In England we were very, very stuck in our ways. We had a famous obscenity trial called the Oz trial, around a magazine called Oz that did a schoolgirl’s edition. Then up came this project, and the editor I was dealing with used to give me these little furtive briefings. He said it’s a sex education book. It was quite unheard of to have actual sexual situations being so openly published. We got them to write a good contract whereby they agreed to defend us if it was ever taken to court. There was always a risk in the UK of some prurient little so-and-so making a show-trial out of it.
What was the process of working on it like?
I would sit in the publisher’s office while he would describe these rather erotic positions. The other artist Charles and his lovely German wife actually posed for all of the positions. We had this hilarious situation where I’m trying to shoot it all in a flat where the power was being turned off at regular intervals [due to the miner’s strike at the time]. We would try to get through X number of positions, like a checklist.
Was ‘Dune’ the first film you did concept work for?
It was. And I wish it had not been the first because I thought all films were like that. ‘Alien’ only happened because of ‘Dune.’ And ‘Dune’ in turn fathered so many other films and concepts. Alejandro was this extraordinarily quixotic person, and quixotic in every sense of the word.
From there, did you move on to ‘Superman’?
We were all waiting to restart ‘Dune’ after Christmas; we had total loyalty to ‘Dune.’ And then the ‘Superman’ people came along. My initial reaction was, ‘What a stupid thing, to make a film of a strip cartoon.’ And there you go, history’s proven me different. They wined and dined me and insisted I come and worked on ‘Superman.’ I thought, well, I’ll do it until ‘Dune’ starts up, and of course ‘Dune’ never did. So I worked on ‘Superman.’
Meanwhile, Dan O’Bannon, who was going to be the special effects man on ‘Dune,’ went back to America and had no money and slept on his friend’s sofa. They dug up some of their old stuff, including a script called ‘They Bite’. Then the moneymen said ‘Hey, there’s money in this science fiction, what have we got?’ So ‘Alien’ went from being a fledgling concept to having huge amounts of money pumped into it. Incidentally, the great famous scene where the alien pops out of the guy’s stomach is based on Dan, who had the most terrible food poisoning and had to be taken to the hospital and imagined that an alien was trying to burst out of him!
How did that experience compare to working on ‘Dune’?
Well, of course, the contrast could not have been bigger. I ended up being installed in a Hollywood producer’s house and so I saw the whole background to the thing. And the whole thing was as two-faced as it came. It made me realize what a wonderful thing ‘Dune’ was. Then the last one I worked on was for dear Stanley Kubrick [on ‘AI’], and that was an experience. I was installed up in his mansion in St. Albans.
What was that like? I know you were really influenced by his early work.
In a way, it was quite sad. Stanley is legendary for treating people quite badly, wanting just to beat them down. As you can well imagine, I won’t take much stick from anyone. So he was fairly confrontational but always backed down.
What do you think the secret to his success was? As a creative person, how could he get such great work treating people like that?
Well this is the puzzling thing! The staff were all failed actors, and he beat them down and convinced them that they were nothing. It looked like a 1920’s horror film, everyone was sort of hunched over. One day I came back after what we would call a rather good lunch, and Stanley is standing in my room scowling at the picture, and this has been repainted more times than you’ve had hot dinners.
He said, “This picture’s not working,” and I absolutely blew up. I said, “Stanley, this picture is not working because the concept is not working, because the film is not working, because there is no clear concept!” And he hit the wall and said, “OK, no clear concept, no clear concept” and walked out. And then the next week when I called to say my car wasn’t working, I was late, they said, “Well actually, Chris, you don’t need to come back.” But you see, in ‘2001,’ there’s no ending! A friend of mine had been hired to visualize concepts because Stanley could not work out ‘2001,’ and it has no ending, as you well know.
It sounds like ‘Dune’ was your favorite film project. Of the others, do you have any favorite moments?
We had terrific fun in Los Angeles on ‘Alien.’ We were hidden away in funny little washrooms because me and Ron Cobb, the other artist, were non-union. One day we were working in our funny little set of rooms, and this voice comes up: “This is the police, come out with your hands up!” And we got down below the window and said, “Don’t shoot! We’ve got hostages!” This guy ran up the stairs and it became obvious they were doing a take of ‘Starsky & Hutch.’
You mentioned in the book you have an idea for a movie, ‘The Crab.’ Can you tell me a bit about the concept?
I don’t want to say too much because people always steal these things. Basically these two girls have found a highly mutated crab on one planet, and realized it could be quite valuable and decide to take it to another planet to make some money. And of course this thing still keeps mutating. Two problems they have is a) it keeps devouring all forms of plastic, which of course is the standard material and he’s actually eating bits of the ship and b) it’s growing at a rapid rate. And that’s the actual theme of the thing.
Would you direct it yourself?
Who knows? With films you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time with the right money.