Arthur Max has been a production designer for the last 15 years, yet he’s only worked with two directors. Though, one could argue that they are two of the finest directors currently making films today: David Fincher and Ridley Scott.
Arthur Max has contributed to Ridley Scott’s last four films, most recently working on Robin Hood. Which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray September 21. I recently had the chance to speak with Arthur Max about his extensive work designing the elaborate look of this new movie, and here’s what he had to say:
Move Web: You’ve worked with Ridley Scott on other films in the past. I was wondering if you were on board during this movie’s first incarnation, when it was the revisionist piece that Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris had written?
Arthur Max: No, not really. I was still doing Body of Lies at that point, when it was in development. I got on board when Brian Helgeland’s draft came through.
MW: OK. When word spread of that first draft, it was a very interesting take.
Arthur Max: Was that the one where he was the Sheriff of Nottingham?
MW: Yeah. It focused more on the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Arthur Max: No, I didn’t get involved at that time. There was always an issue of identity and it just evolved a little differently.
MW: Ridley Scott has been known for his films of great scope. Can you talk about this movie and how it compares to others of his you’ve worked on?
Arthur Max: It was always going to be an epic. The language, the visual language of his, in the strategic level, was very similar. There were sweeping cameras with an intimate story contained within it. We’ve done that since Gladiator. I’ve worked with him on a few bigger movies, all-star movies, with casts of thousands and years of making and that approach. We knew what we were getting into, on that level, and also the specific tactical approach was Ridley’s visual style which is just adjusted for every period, whether it be a medieval world or a contemporary world or even a future world. He’s someone who has a highly evolved visual vocabulary and you’ll see the same kind of elements of dark silhouettes in the foreground with wonderful profiles of shapes. No matter how depressed or down and dirty the set may be, it will always glitter in some way. It will dance in your eye. On that level, it’s the same as any other movie, but it has a different puzzle. It’s all about the puzzle, putting the puzzle pieces together, only in this case, where it’s medieval, before you can put the puzzle together, you have to make all the pieces, which makes it doubly difficult. Think of Citizen Kane and those giant, giant puzzles that Dorothy Comingore was putting together in front of the fireplace in the mansion, Xanadu. That’s how I imagine our film is. You not only have to put that puzzle piece together, you have to make the hundreds of pieces by hand, in a sense that we had to make all the furniture and the weapons and the flags and the horse saddles, most of the wagons. There’s nothing left of the 12th Century in England. In Wales, there are bits and in France there are bits, but they’re very far-flung and logistically difficult. We decided the best way was, even with digital enhancement, to build some large set pieces and landscapes on the backlot. The French castle you see in the beginning, the siege castle, was built completely from scratch. There was virtually no digital enhancement because there are so many scenes where you see the castle and you interact with the castle.
MW: It seems that they are moving more towards the practical side as opposed to CGI and fixing everything in post. How do you think that mentality added to this film, that everything was real?
Arthur Max: Well, if you have the freedom of a 360-degree environment for the actors to inhabit, they, and the audience, are transported into the world you provide for them. They come to work in the morning and get into their costume and go back in time. That helps their performances, at least they’ve told me that. When you’re sitting around, hanging around in a 12th Century street, and there’s blacksmiths and wheelwrights and a marketplace, you feel like you’re there. It helps create the universe and I think the performances come in at a different level when they don’t have to pretend, they actually believe themselves to be there. That’s the approach we take. I think we’ve built more sets here than we’ve ever built before, compared to the other epics we’ve done, and in more locations than we’ve had before. I think Gladiator was three countries, England, Morocco and Yalta, we only had one set in each of those places. They were big sets, but we never moved around. In Kingdom Of Heaven, we got off our chairs a bit more and we wandered around in Spain. We had about six or seven city locations and up in the Pyrenees, we built a town. When we went to Morocco, we built one large set. On Robin Hood, we had many stages at Shepperton Studios, a huge backlot set. We built a boat and placed it on the lake. We shot in three or four different woodland estates in different places. We built the French siege castle that I mentioned on a landscape in a different location. We built another town in front of the London Gates and in Windsor. We had a lovely battle scene in Wales where we built a fishing village and launched a ship from the coast of France, which was another big set build. Everything was enhanced digitally, but I think what the approach is, from Ridley’s point of view, is you feel it more and believe it more when something is real to begin with, whether it’s a landscape that’s extended or a building or a ship or numbers of men. You have to have a basis in reality, otherwise, you begin to feel that it’s not really there. I think the audience is sophisticated enough to tell. That’s the way we approach it. We also were interrupted several times due to labor disputes in Hollywood, or threatened labor disputes, in the case of the actor’s non-strike. We had practical problems which we had to deal with. We had incomplete sets in the middle of a field in these English landscapes which we would have to postpone for three months and preserve them.
MW: It sounds like a lot more challenges than the normal film, on this one.
Arthur Max: Well, what is a normal film today? It depends on the genre. They’re either heavily, heavily digital, these films based on video games, or they’re location movies, where you don’t build anything. You go to New York or Paris or Rome and you take what you get. I never get those movies (Laughs). They sound good to me. Then there’s what we do, which is a more complicated form of working with the resources you’re given, between built sets and location work and visual effects, and having to manage your budget between those to get the best possible look we can. That’s what we try to do, really. It’s the puzzle, i was talking about. Where do we do it? What do we do with it? Where do we build it? Do we build partially? I don’t think we did any filming whatsoever for the sake of this one barn we found, which was where Robin meets Marian. Most of that farm complex was built, and the courtyard buildings were all built around this one barn that we found that was of the right architectural style. It wasn’t really medieval, it was medieval revival, a replica built in the 19th century. We thought it was very convincing and we built our set around it because it also had a beautiful landscape with beautiful trees and was located not far from where we built the town of Nottingham, which was built completely from scratch. It was just a field with beautiful oak trees and a rolling landscape. It was private property with a very sympathetic owner who let us film and go completely nuts. He let us dig up his fields and put in streams and build ponds and build 47 buildings. That was a real find. You don’t get to do that very often. What we think is the best way off doing any particular scene is when you get the richness of reality and also the scale of the world we’re in. A large person doesn’t always have a giant room. Everyone else lives in hovels (Laughs).
MW: This is the third film you’ve worked on with Russell Crowe. Can you talk about how your work benefits an actor like Russell, who is very immersive and gets very much into his characters?
Arthur Max: He makes it all come alive. The first time I saw him in his costume he was walking down to one of the stage sets. He motioned to me and said, ‘Good castles.’ The next thing he said to me was, ‘Can I have one of them shipped to my ranch in Australia?’ (Laughs) He shows gratitude and enthusiasm and I think it rubs off. I think he enjoys the scale of the landscapes that he inhabits. The world we create is big enough for the character he’s trying to create and when you walk onto the set and our work, and the way it’s lit and the wardrobe and the background extras and characters, I’m sure it invokes a better performance from everyone. It’s contagious. It’s a self-perpetuating machine. When Russell comes on the set, it comes alive, as it did with Cate Blanchett and the other supporting cast members, the Merry Men. One night we went to dinner and after it was all over, we met in Cannes. After this very nice meal we were treated to, the restaurant closed because it was quite late and Robin and the Merry Men performed in the street for the company of crew who were invited. They sang and played and it was just really great. I haven’t had many other actors doing that.