Interview: Artist Chris Foss on Superman, Alien, Dune, and The Joy of Sex

You may not know artist Chris Foss, but you know his work. From creating an entire generation of sci-fi book covers, to his concept work on Superman, Alien, Dune, and more, Foss has been steadily working behind the scenes for years. His art takes center stage in the new book “Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss,” so were lucky to chat with the modern master on the phone about his work… Including creating the definitive sex guide of the ‘70s:

MTV Geek: How did Hardware come together, and why was this the right time to publish the book?

Chris Foss: It’s funny enough, fashions are like pendulums, because my golden period was probably the very late ‘60s, the ‘70s, and the ‘80s. And of course, in those days, there was no television, laptop computers were still a bit of a fantasy, and in those days we had loads and loads of illustrators with paintbrushes hacking out the stuff. In America, you had legendary illustrators… It transpired that I was the only guy that could paint things that didn’t exist. Even today, most artists have to have photo reference to draw things.

So I quickly cornered the market for science fiction book covers in the UK, and how the world has changed… Mobile phones didn’t exist, and of course, ten years later when they did exist they were the size of building blocks. I used to sit there with my paintbrushes, hacking out these images, and I had quite a nice market… And then slowly, technology has taken over. I did have quite a nice time designing for films, like FLASH GORDON, ALIEN, and SUPERMAN.

Slowly, but inexorably, computer technology has taken over. I’ve even introduced it to myself. I’ve just done a very big job for MIT, it’s simply marvelous, I was just on the phone a few minutes ago… Distances drop away. It’s like he’s just up the road from me. And when the painting was finished, I think he drove for fifteen minutes to quite a good photo studio. They scanned it, digitalized it, and within the hour, the work was ready for printing in America. Quite extraordinary.

Geek: It’s interesting you’re talking about this, because as someone who is drawing the future – the fictional future – I imagine you have to very much keep current in a certain way. Do you have to constantly stay on the cusp of science?

CF: [Laughs] No, no! Completely, utterly, and totally the opposite! I am the last of the great Luddites. I don’t even have a television set. I read a lot, but I find the electric screen a complete waste of time. I find it totally irritating. People tried to get me on computer technology… And obviously, you can now do some wonderful things. I can – and have – for films, designed spaceships, I just draw the plan, and they can rotate it, do all sorts of marvelous things; which even ten years ago, General Motors had a program to rotate cars…

And of course, I was very interested, because in the old days, you drew a piece of artwork, and that was it. If the client said, “Well, could you just turn the spaceship around d a bit,” it meant a completely new painting.

Here in England, I did this book signing where the line was out the door. It was all a generation in their forties and fifties, all of whom had kids who avidly collected my work. So there is this extraordinary resurgence, which I’m very happy with. I mean, my daughter’s just come down… We do these limited edition special posters, she had done an order of ten. Very expensive, but brilliant quality, for me to sign. Then the BBC did a feature on me on their website, and my website got nine thousand hits in the one day.

Geek: So—

CF: Actually, it would be nice if you gave the website a plug.

Geek: I definitely will.

CF: ChrisFossArt.com.

Geek: I’ll put it right at this point in the interview, don’t you worry.

CF: Apparently, I’m even on Wikipedia, you can look me up?

Geek: You are! I looked you up before I got on the phone.

CF: Do they say nice things?

Geek: They did say nice things, yes.

CF: Oh, good. Not that, “He’s a debauched old fool who falls over regularly,” or anything like that.

Geek: Nope, but I can reedit it if you like? [Laughs] Just to get back into it, the scifi cover art died out for a bit, but it really seems to be making a resurgence now, particularly on the Internet. Why do you think that is?

CF: Alex, you tell me. You tell me. I’ve always been represented by galleries, and many years ago now, one of the owners, he said, “Chris, you just don’t get it. This science fiction thing, it’s not going to go away.” You know, I’m getting on a bit now, I’m already sixty-five. You have other interests, you want to paint other things…

Like, I don’t know if you know, but it was quite famous in the States, I illustrated a book called The Joy of Sex. And obviously that’s another angle of my work, which I quite enjoy doing. I do a lot of bigger work, and portraits. They didn’t want the portraits in the book [NOTE: He means HARDWIRE], they wanted to concentrate on science fiction. And yet, this science fiction, it’s like a weed. You cut its head off, and it comes back stronger than ever.

This signing in London was extraordinary. There were people there who, for over forty years had collected my work. Those posters my daughter brought down for me to sign? Half of them were physically painted… She’s over forty-two now, and half of them were painted before she was born. In those days, I was just a struggling illustrator, and you did it to stay alive. I had a family, I had a mortgage, just the same as if you drove a taxi, you painted pictures to make money. It’s quite emotional today, because she came down – I live in the country – and I live quite near to a little boarding school that I went to, I think, when I was eight, through to when I was about twelve. Because in England, you know, we have these boarding schools. You go away for like an eight week term, and this was two or three miles away from my home. And we board there, and would eat at this little pub, which at the age of eight, I used to walk past to this stream to get crayfish. And then we went up the stream, we just paddled, and there were still fish in the water. And I thought, if the green giant had told me, I would be up here still, with a daughter who’s forty years old… How can you believe anything, you know? Does that make sense?

Geek: I actually have a year and a half old daughter, and I can’t imagine that some day she’ll go to work, or call me on the phone, or anything like that.

CF: Exactly! And can you imagine – I know nothing about your life – but could you imagine, she gets to be about forty, and you’re sitting maybe in an inn, or a village that you used to be in as a kid, and you’d look at quite familiar surroundings and think, “Wow.”

Geek: Now, not to make an awkward transition, but you mentioned Joy of Sex… How did you end up on that? Did they say, “Hey, this guy draws great spaceships, let’s get him to graphically illustrate human sexuality?”

CF: Well, Alex, it’s the most extraordinary thing. My life has run on tramlines. It’s scary. Serendipity has governed my life. I always wanted to be an artist, and from quite a young age, I earned a living from painting pictures. From about the age of fifteen. I wanted to go to art school, but of course my parents were both school teachers, and said, “No, no, you go to University, and then you go to art school.”

I was completely stupid, Alex. I went to quite a good University – Cambridge, you’ve probably heard of it. I had one of the best tutors in the land. He was the grandson of Babbage, who invented the computer. I used to have tutorials with one of the Royals, he’s now getting on a bit himself. If I pulled my contacts, where would I be now? Instead of which, I was this ballsy lad, and I just wanted to get on with my painting – the guy at the art school used to give me materials.

There was a new magazine that came out… By then I wanted to be a strip cartoonist, and I was sending stuff off to papers, and occasionally I’d get work. At the age of eighteen, I was beginning to get some recognition, as a stick cartoonist. And this new magazine called Penthouse started. Round eyes, Alex. This is in the late ‘60s. England…England in the ‘60s, it was like the Stone Age. Sex was—Sex just didn’t even exist. Bob Guccione had pamphleted almost every house in the land with naked ladies, and of course, he was being sued up in his little flat; and he was living with London’s top stripper, who I think was with him right through to the end.

So could you imagine, as an eighteen year old, you have round eyes. He sent me this letter saying, “Hey, we think your stuff is really good.” Down I came to his flat – his apartment, as you’d say. And he commissioned me, and in fact at the age of eighteen I was doing this huge, big, six page cartoon thing in Penthouse. And of course, I had a head like a balloon. I reckoned I’d made it. Unbelievably, I just walked out of my first year. I couldn’t be bothered with this puny little University. I was going to go off and do big things.

Down I came to London, and Guccione put me on the retainer. I had worked for quite a famous sculptor for a bit… We had a row, because my daughter was being born; in those days, you mostly had telephone booths. Most houses didn’t have phones, so of course, I was terrified my daughter was going to pop out in the middle of the night. So it was all very stressful, I walked out of George the sculptor, and dear Bob Guccione put me on retainer. And for about a year, I was developing some quite dramatic books for him. This is where my erotic work came from.

But I was a fan of Picasso – I used to forge Picassos, quite successfully. I used to love all his figure work, and my mother bought a Picasso for seven pounds ten shillings in a small country auction near my house. And this is quite a famous big etching called “The Minotaur Marquee.” And this sat in our house for ages. This man was probably a terrific influence on me. Plus I’d had formal art training, at about the age of nine from a professional artist. So I had a grounding, and obviously was doing this erotic stuff for Guccione.

The Editor of his book division said, “Chris, you really need an agent.” So off I went to this agency he recommended, and the same day I saw this art director at a big firm of publishers. They had lunch together – this is why I think my life goes on tram lines – and said, “Hey, we just met this kid, he’s great, he can draw things that don’t exist.” Which of course, I could – dragons, and other things, and I didn’t reference. And that is how the science fiction side started.

So there I was working for these agents, and began pumping out those things; while in the meantime, these publishers were looking for an artist who could sort of do sensual linework. They ran through all the posh artists, all the senior artists, and then my agent showed them some of the work I had been doing for Guccione. And that’s how I got the job.

And it was absolutely hilarious, Alex, because illustrators used to shoot figure reference. One of my friends, he was big on Westerns – he used to hire all the Western outfits, we used to dress up in all the kit, and have gun fights and things, and he would pump out the covers from that. So obviously, Joy of Sex, we needed a couple bonking. Now, it’s known that it was the other artist and his missus. But, it was during – we had the Power Cuts… Huge huge strikes, all the miners were on strike, it was very confrontational. So we had the Power Cuts, bits of London all the power would go for four or five hours. So I had to shoot the reference of Charlie and his missus bonking against the deadline of when the lights went out. Can you imagine that?

Geek: I have literally no frame of reference for that, so nope.

CF: Quite recently, I was turning out my drawers and found the old contract for that. England was so primitive, no one had published a book, seriously, showing people having intercourse. Just before that, we had a very famous trial in England called the Oz trial. You can look it up. It was a magazine, and they did a school-kids issue, and they got prosecuted for obscenity. And they got banged up, they went to jail.

So it was quite a thing to do it. You just didn’t know, would you get your collar felt. So on that contract, it said they would pay all my legal costs should be arrested.

And I dare to say, I’m quite proud of it. That book, more than any other, changed attitudes, certainly in the United Kingdom.

Geek: I certainly remember growing up, and there was a copy of Joy of Sex in my house, and that was the book my parents would say, “Ummm…. Don’t look at that book.”

CF: Exactly! Your contemporaries, and those a bit older, always used to say with a wry smile, “Yeah, we used to go into my parents bedroom, and they used to hide the book in the drawer.” It was a quieter sort of currency. And they we did “More Joy,” of course, and it was – looking back, I’m quite proud. I was at the forefront of, I think, some quite formative things.

Geek: To get back to the scifi side of things, you mentioned a while back the films you worked on: there’s DUNE, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… But it seems like all of those never went beyond the concept phase for you.

CF: A very nice American film team came over and saw me and I do hope they get to do it… They’re doing a film on the making of Dune, it’s up and downs, because my film work started with Dune. And in a way, it’s a shame, because later I went on to other films, and if I had the experience of doing other films, and THEN had gone to Dune, I would have realized what a lovely bunch of people it was, what a party. Because Dune, the entire credit, belongs to this chap Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was this Mexican, Chilean, Yugoslavian, enigmatic director.

He’d done some really wacky films, by any standards; I think you could call them art house. Alejandro, even now, regards himself as a bit of a guru. He has great, great personality, and I’ve worked with him in – you would call it Hollywood, I would call it Los Angeles – I worked for FOX, and a few others besides, and no one had that charisma that Alejandro had. This is why I said my life ran on tram lines!

So there I am in London, happily pumping out the book covers, enjoying life, and these French people call me… And that’s how I got to France. Now, I’ve been there for forty years. My Father was born in France, and wanted me to know the country… So at the age of seventeen, I had the most fantastic trip to France, got installed in a chateau, got invited to weddings, blah, blah, blah, blah… And then all these years later Alejandro comes along, whisks me over to Paris, does this big presentation…

I hardly knew Paris then – I mean I’ve been to Los Angeles, you sit in the plane for ten hours, you’re so glad to get out, and you think bloody hell, this is just like one of our little English towns. It’s a bit different, sure, I’m sure it’s changed a lot – but in those days it was this quaint, right wing warm place, nothing special… Whereas Paris, less than an hours plane ride away was another world – it was almost another planet.

So the French, they whisked me up, and in due course they installed me, wined me, dined me; I was treated magnificently, and myself and Jean Giraud [NOTE: a prominent French comics artist] were put together to make Dune. We actually made a story board the size of a bible, a massive book, which was every scene of the film as visualized by Alejandro.

2001 had come out – I did, as you probably know, end up being installed by Kubrick in his house during A.I. – but right at the beginning, Guccione said to me, “Hey Chris, there’s this new film called 2001, you’ve got to go see it.” And of course, 2001 left me with round eyes. After 2001, they did a film called Dark Star. One of the principle chaps in that was a man named Dan O’Bannon.

Alejandro wanted Doug Trumble to do the special effects, and of course, Trumble was a big important American, and certainly wouldn’t succumb to Alejandro’s manipulation. So he picked up this gauche American film student, Dan O’Bannon. He was quite hilarious, he said to me once, “Hey, these streets are so goddamn small.” This is Paris, which had some of the widest streets in Europe. Of course, it was only when I got to Los Angeles that I saw what he meant.

So anyway, there we are, pumping out Dune – this extraordinary vision of Alejandro – it would have been the most incredible film. At Christmas, off they went to LA to sell the project – that’s Alejandro and the Producer. And the whole thing is being funded by this young millionaire that Alejandro completely captivated. I went back to England fully expecting to continue. I packed up the house, I bought a French car, my wife and daughter were coming over, and we kept being told to hold.

Then Superman came along… Well, I was expecting to go back to Dune, I was a little bit arrogant. But they said, “No, you must come and work for us.” So I went to work on Superman for a bit. By then, it was quite obvious that Dune was not going to be starting, and Dan was literally sleeping on a friend’s sofa. He and a guy called Ronald Shusett picked up a script called “They Bite” and started touting that around…

There was a very small film company in FOX, because as you know, they’re all like within the companies, there’s smaller companies. And Dan had done some work on Star Wars – which incidentally, pirated some of my designs, as we later discovered! Anyway, They Bite got turned into… Alien.

Dan said, “Hey, we’ve got to get this guy Chris Foss over here.” So off I went to Los Angeles. Again, in those days they had these very powerful unions, so I’m being shuffled around all these sheds. We were put through shed after shed after shed, and they were going through director after director after director, and then of course the thing moved to England when Ridley Scott took over. I did a bit more work, and that was me on Alien.

After that I got picked up by Dino DeLaurentis to do work on Flash Gordon, and of course it was daughter who picked up the Dune project! So it’s all quite incestuous.

Geek: So I won’t take up too much more of your time—

CF: That’s all right, I’d talk the back leg off a donkey!

Geek: [Laughs] That’s an amazing expression. You know you talked about this a bit before, but book covers these days are usually just simple typography, or a logo at most… You don’t get the same kind of rich worlds you and others would create. Do you think that’s gone forever, or will it come back at some point?

CF: I’ll put it this way, Alex: I have never been more busy. In the old days, I would do about three or four covers a week. The projects are more grandiose now, but more and more people are searching for me for this hyper-realist approach.

Geek: Last thing, for a casual reader – who may not otherwise know your work – why is Hardware a must pick up book?

CF: I’m probably the last person to ask! The only way I can illustrate that is, when I did the signing men not much younger than me came in with armfuls of books, of mine, which they had collected over the years. Literally all in mint condition. There have been about five or six books about me and my work; they had the lot, all in beautiful condition. They were lovely people to talk to, and I would say is, for a certain segment of the public, this seems to catch their imagination.

Then, really, you would have to ask them what they get out of it… Because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve been made aware, that I have, it would appear, influenced generations of people… Which is sort of… A humbling thing.

“Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss” is now in book stores from Titan Books!

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