Arthur Max may not be the most recognizable name in Hollywood, but you’ve certainly enjoyed his impressive body work. Ridley Scott’s go-to man for production design has also worked on David Fincher’s Seven and Panic Room and shared with CraveOnline his fantastic beginnings, working at one point for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon tour.
Max chatted with Crave in celebration of today’s release of Robin Hood on DVD and Blu-ray, a film that allowed the artist to recreate 12th century England. Already underway on his next adventure with Scott, Max telephoned straight from Pinewood Studios where he’s already hard at work doing designs for the upcoming Alien prequel. At one point in the interview, Max even had to (very apologetically) take a break to receive in an incoming call from Scott about the project.
CraveOnline: Tell me a little about your background. You’ve been working in the art department on films for nearly thirty years.
Arthur Max: Yeah, Silas. Thanks for reminding me. (Laughs) Well, I started out with my interests in architecture and sidetracked a little bit into theater design in my college days. Then I kind of got back into architecture again but didn’t really take to the actual practice of it. It took too long and there was too much bureaucracy so you couldn’t just build a building without building codes and planning permissions, etcetera. So I fell in with a circle of friends, some of whom worked in film as editors and directors and camera people. Through them I saw what film sets were about and, suddenly, a lightbulb went off. I said, "My god. This is exactly what I should be doing." It’s much quicker and you don’t have to worry. It’s all temporary. You don’t have to worry about structures lasting very long and you’re only involved in the surface and the superficial details, which are the most enjoyable parts of it.
Crave: Tell me what brought you to England.
Arthur: I was working in theater design in the late 60′s and I had met the Pink Floyd crew at the Fillmore East where I was the lighting designer in residence for a few years, which was linked to my studies through a teacher of mine who was a technical director there and also at the Woodstock festival. So I was hooked into the rock scene doing environmental kind of theater design. They asked me to work for them on a new project of theirs called "The Dark Side of the Moon". So I worked on their first world tour doing stage design and lighting systems for that around 1970 and stayed with them for a number of years through till about ’74 when they did "Wish You Were Here". I had just about sobered up by then and went back to finish my studies. From there I studied architecture in England at the University of Westminster and at the Royal College of Art. I graduated from there and worked as an architecture sitting for a couple of years. As I said earlier, I got a little disillusioned with the profession. So I stayed because I managed to make a life for myself up here.
Crave: Tell me a little about meeting Ridley Scott. You’ve been working together since "G.I. Jane".
Arthur: That was the first motion picture film that I worked on with him, but I had met him before that. I believe it was January of 1985 with the launch of what was called "The New Coke" featuring the Max Headroom character. I think that, this coming January, it will be 25 years. I worked with a lot of directors after that but especially with Ridley, I maintained a relationship. I had become an authority working on commercials and one of the directors I worked with there was David Fincher. He gave me my first job working as a production designer on a feature with "Seven". But I continued to work with Ridley all that time on his commercial company. But when I got to work with him on a feature, I was "official" then. I was "allowed" to work on features in Hollywood because of my credit on "Seven". So the next thing I knew, I was on "G.I. Jane" which was great because I knew Ridley very well by then. Apart from a couple of his projects like "Hannibal" and "A Good Year", I’ve worked on all his projects subsequently. "Robin Hood", I think was my seventh one.
Crave: Certainly not to diminish "G.I. Jane", but you went from that to "Gladiator".
Arthur: Yeah, that was a hell of a leap. The process of even deciding to do it was amazing. Ridley called and said, "I’ve got something very big and very quick. Do you want to do it?" I said, "Sure. What is it?" and he said, "Build a coliseum." I said, "Great. Let’s go to Rome and have a look at it." And it just went from there. Sometimes you agonize for months and months to get a film off the ground and, not infrequently, they don’t happen. But this one was just 20 minutes after the phone call, I was packing. It was great. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Especially for someone interested in architecture. That’s what we spent all our time studying, the classical stuff. Suddenly I had to reproduce it. It was great.
Crave: Do you have a particular fondness for historical pieces?
Arthur: I do now. (Laughs) I can’t honestly say I did at the time. I really hadn’t thought about it. I mean, I studied classical architecture and I worked as an assistant in England on films of a period nature. But they were like 18th century and 19th century and much more accessible. Suddenly, I’m doing these worlds. But I think the training had prepared me for it and also the people I knew and had worked with previously. I knew all the right people because I had worked in Rome quite a bit on commercials. I knew a lot of people at studios and Italian art directors. Plasters and very skilled painters got involved. All the best English art directors and craftsman, I had already worked with. So I just pulled them all together and it was fun. We had some of the best people. It was the first time they had done one of those things in like 40 years. It was almost like reinventing the wheel. The sense of digital technology was just burgeoning. It started to get good enough to do things with. It wasn’t just overly simplistic and obvious. We took advantage of it as much as we could. Plus building the enormous sets. It was very exciting. We had a great time doing that one. But we had to make everything. Even in Rome there was hardly any furniture to speak of. None of the costumes really existed. Everything was made. Really, in the sense of what art direction is, it was the ultimate. We had to create the whole universe. The world, soup to nuts. Though we did find some more stuff. Some existing ruins. There was a Napoleonic fortress we used as the outer wall of our Roman forum because it gave us a great start and saved a lot of time and money. It gave us such great textures, having been there for 200 years or more and having been weathered by the ocean. We used that a springboard. There were also some interiors that we unearthed that had been blocked up with stone that we were allowed to tear down and we revealed some inner chambers that had been closed down for years. They appear in the movie. It was just a great, great journey. The battle scene gave us permission to burn down a forest. We had cooperation from the forest commission in England because they were about to harvest a whole mature pine forest for cash. So we said, "Okay. How much? How much for these trees?" And what we didn’t use to build the sets, we chopped up and sold to firewood merchants and burnt a few ourselves. It was good fun. That area has now become an awesome backlot since we used it first. We opened the door there. There were even scenes for "Robin Hood" we could hardly fit in because of the crunch of film work going on. I think "Wolfman" was there filming there when we wanted it. So there’s a lot of history on history. Not only the history of the subject matter, but the history of where we worked and who we worked with. You build up a repertoire of places and people to go with them. It’s kind of like a repertoire company. For people who are not unlike carnival gypsies in terms of lifestyle, it really becomes a family. Your relationships are not only professional, they’re also social. You eat together and you travel together for long periods of time. It can be very joyful and it’s sometimes heartbreaking. There was a painter who worked with us on "The Kingdom" and "Body of Lies" who recently passed away. He was a great talent and we’ll miss him. Those are the people you’re close to. When you’re working on a location, and are away like that for long periods, you really get to know people. Moreso than when you walk into an office and see a person during the day and never on weekends. It’s a life. A total life. It’s a total immersion. You work and, hopefully, it’s reflective on the screen. I care about them and what they do and about getting it right. It’s just as easy to get it right with a little extra research. Just to do what is convenient isn’t really always convenient. It’s actually really hard sometimes.
Crave: You’ve had the chance to go to some pretty interesting time periods and worlds. Do you have a dream project?
Arthur: Well, I like to think that as long as I’m working on something new and interesting and not repeating myself — I’m prepping a sci-fi at the moment, which I’ve never done before. That’s exciting. My dream project would be going back to my New York roots and doing something in the period of the 40′s and 50′s, based on my experience at the time. I’d like to try to get that right because I’ve never really seen it. No disrepect to anybody like Martin Scorsese, but the New York of my youth I haven’t seen anybody get right yet. So something like that, I guess. We got close to it on "American Gangster". It really wasn’t my era, but I was there at the time. I was a student in the 60′s in New York. It was fun recreating New York. I’d like to do that again because it was personal. But anything new and different, I’m ready. It keeps you on your toes. You don’t want it to be too easy.
Crave: You mention a science fiction. Is this the "Alien" prequel?
Arthur: Yeah, we’re in development on that. I’m in Pinewood now doodling spaceships. I’ve got a little art department and we’re trying to get it off the ground.
Crave: That’s not just the first sci-fi you’ve done. That’s the first sequel. How is it different working from a frame of design that already exists?
Arthur: Well it’s not really a sequel. It’s a prequel. So we can deconstruct the original. That’s an interesting challenge to anticipate. Where it all came from. It’s origins. It’s almost like archeology. You’re designing in reverse time.
Crave: How does technology affect your job? Even going back to "Gladiator", computers seems to play such a huge role in creating film environments.
Arthur: We’ve always tried to use them as much as possible, but not at the expense of the traditional crafts. It’s just another tool in the tool box. We still build giant sets all over the place in the worst possible weathers. We’re in inaccessible locations sometimes where you have to build the road to get to it yourself. And then extending it even larger to get the ultimate balance between tactility — something that you can really feel and is actually there and the immense scale that you can get with sense of proportion and realtion to the subject that people, I think, in the audience expect to be bigger and bigger every time they go to the movies. Because they think of the ancient world and the movies are their only access to it. Most of it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just ruins. But in traditional media, planning for previsualizations. It allows us to dream really big dreams and actually achieve them. It’s possible when just 20 years ago it wasn’t.
Robin Hood is available now on DVD and Blu-ray!