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Arthur Max Sets the Scene in American Gangster

Arthur Max Sets the Scene in American Gangster

Articles - Cinematography

It took many years and several college degrees before Arthur Max began his work in film. Fortunately, audiences didn’t know what they were missing. Originally a lighting designer for the stage, Max turned his sights to the screen after experimenting with varied forms of theater production. Commercial work shortly led to his first feature film, Se7en, directed by David Fincher. The gritty city streets and the gruesome crimes of the biblically-inspired killer were the bones of this thriller—a genre Max has since become family with, subsequently working on Panic Room and American Gangster. It is this latest movie which brought the art director his second Academy Award nomination. His first came for another Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe drama, 2000’s Gladiator.

Next up for Max is Body of Lies, starring Crowe and, of course, directed by Scott once again. Another Oscar contender for the trio? Well, there’s a full year and a February 24 ceremony before that thought can come into play. In the meantime, Max let MM in on a few of his career secrets.

Mallory Potosky (MM): Your career started out with the stage. Why did you make the move to film?

Arthur Max (AM): I got into theater work as a part time job while studying at NYU in the 1960’s. I then began working as a stage lighting designer and became interested in environmental forms of theater, using multi-media systems and rear screen film projection techniques for use in live performances, rock concerts and ballet. This lead me to produce short films for these events and I became more and more interested in the technical aspects of film production as a result.

MM: What was your inspiration and your goal in creating the look of American Gangster?

AM: I am a native New Yorker and have a deep personal connection to the city. My family had lived in East Harlem since the turn of the Century. My grandmother was still living there through the 1950’s when I was a child, and I continued to visit her during 1960’s, so I had first hand knowledge of the place and the conditions in which people lived. What most people call the ghetto, I called home.

My goal was to not only recreate the squalid physical character of some of the worst streets in the city at that time, but also to reflect the spirit of the people who were living in them. Everything from abject desperation and despair, to a quiet dignity.

MM: Each time you’ve worked with Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe you’ve received an Academy Award nomination. Do you think that has something to do with the things you three are able to pull off together onscreen? It is pure coincidence?

AM: I feel everything I’ve done with Ridley is approached in the same way, which is to try and create a visual language for the world we inhabit. I don’t think the fact of the nominations occurring only with Russell Crowe in the cast has any special significance. I’d like to think it’s not just a coincidence, but if it is, I am glad, as he is in Body of Lies too.

MM: Your next feature, Body of Lies, was also directed by Ridley Scott. That makes six of the eight features you’ve worked on. Has the communication and process of working on his films become easier with each feature?

AM: Of course there has developed a short-hand language over time but the communication has always been there from the beginning. Ridley is a great draughtsman and can express his ideas visually with just a few lines or a complete set of storyboards. He has always known exactly how he wants to shoot a scene, and what’s important to him with regard to every element—not just of the art direction—but also camera, costume and effects. The hard part is to achieve the scale and scope of his vision for his films, which have grown bigger and become more and more challenging.

MM: David Fincher is also a repeat customer of yours. What’s the key to working successfully with a director in order to bring across a collaborative vision onscreen?

AM: Both David and Ridley are both great visual stylists and can consume vast amounts of information very quickly. It’s a designer’s job to feed a director with strong visual ideas until something resonates strongly and gives them a direction to take. It may be only one single image, but it can be the visual basis for the entire film.

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