Los Angeles based composer Max Aruj worked on two exciting projects this summer: the crime drama Lansky profiling legendary gangster Meyer Lansky from Vertical Entertainment and the Liam Neeson-starring action-thriller The Ice Road from Netflix. ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames spoke with Max about his ever-evolving career and his musical process.
Max got his start in the industry working at the widely known film music hub Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica, CA, where he’s worked closely with composer Lorne Balfe on numerous projects, including Ad Astra, Black Widow, and HBO’s His Dark Materials.
Max first collaborated with Lansky writer-director Eytan Rockaway on the psychological thriller The Abandoned. Their established working relationship allowed them to delve even deeper creatively this time around. For The Ice Road, Max collaborated with director Jonathan Hensleigh and his goal was to really play into the classic action tropes and create a next-level, bombastic score.
Jeff Ames: What drew you to the world of film composing?
Max Aruj: Well, I loved classical music as a kid and I loved movies and it just seemed like a natural marriage of the two. I remember I loved Fantasia — that just blew my mind. I think from there I was somehow drawn to it. The Matrix and Vertigo, those are my favorite scores. It just spoke to me and years later here I am doing it., but I was just drawn to it.
You worked alongside Lorne Balfe for a while. How did that gig come about?
It started with an internship at Hans Zimmer’s place during college and I met Lorne on the first day and after I had proved myself basically for a year doing intern stuff — like food and coffee — Lorne asked me to come work for him the next summer. I worked for him every day — no days off — and we formed a great working relationship. After a year of going back to school, I was finishing and they offered me a job, which was an amazing moment.
During this time, you worked as a sound editor, score advisor and score technical assistant on films like The Dark Knight Rises, Mission: Impossible – Fallout and video games like Assassin’s Creed, how did those jobs prepare you for solo gigs like Crawl, Lanksy and The Ice Road?
I think the idea that every single piece of music in the movie, whether it’s a small traditional cue or a massive action scene, needs the same amount of care. The way I think about it is, the orchestral score is thirty instruments. Every single part that’s rendered needs to be just right and perfect. So, as an assistant, you start out and its a technical task, but then as you get more and more trust from the guys and experience, you begin doing arrangements and then you’re writing, and it’s just the idea that everything is important. And it all needs to be treated with the same level of dignity.
Talking about Lansky, you had worked with director Eytan Rockaway before, was that what ultimately drew you to the project?
Oh yeah, it was the relationship. That’s kind of the goal as a composer is that when you work with someone they come back to you. And that was the case with this one. He emailed me over a year and half ago and told me he had this film called Lansky that he wanted to work with me on. He sent me the script and I was immediately drawn to it. It was a gangster movie, it was about Lansky — it was just cool and emotional. I love Martin Scorsese and The Godfather and all these great gangster movies so I was excited to work on one myself.
How did you approach this score? Was there a feeling of needing to separate yourself from other “typical” gangster scores?
When we started the project, Eytan said he wanted to go with 80s colors — kind of a Vangelis sound — because older Lansky, played by Harvey Keitel, is in the 80s and he’s looking back at his life in the 30s and 40s. So, we used that pallet — and we hoped that would immediately set us apart, and I think it did — and then we paired that with themes, with thematic music. So, kind of how The Godfather has this kind of operatic tapestry, I think we did the same in that we have themes for Lansky and we also have his theme in relation to Judaism, so we tried to keep it thematic related and I think we accomplished that.
Was there an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone in terms of instruments or musical style?
I think something I hadn’t done before was, in this genre and style of film — it’s a very serious drama — and the objective was to write a theme we could use throughout the film, and I have to say I’m proud because I think it works throughout. I’ve worked on a bunch of other films, but on this one it was so hard to find just the right tone in that it was supposed to be serious and dramatic. I think I accomplished that on the first track of the album — that’s Lansky’s theme — but it was just walking the lien ever so delicately to make sure I wasn’t pushing anything too far or too fast.
So, Lansky is more of character study, but The Ice Road is a straight-up action picture. I read that you wanted to lean on classic action tropes — what led you to this approach?
When I first spoke with [director] Jonathan Hensleigh, he was super clear about what he wanted. He wanted a fun action movie with themes he could remember that was hitting things and following the action and — beginning, middle, and end — was a full and complete story. When I found out Liam Neeson was in it, it was excited because he’s awesome and everything he does is great — but, for example, whenever our hero does something heroic or saves the day we wanted to hear his theme. So, writing a theme that worked at different spots of the movie that I was able to weave in throughout the film, that was playing into those tropes where when the hero saves the day we hear his music.
Similarly, when the bad guy is reveling in his evil behavior we need to hear his music. So, it’s being very academic in that you need to have a melody that works from beginning to end. It can’t just kind of work, it needs to work fully.
Ames: So, which genre do you typically lean towards? More dramatic fare like Lansky, or the big action films like The Ice Road?
I don’t have a preference, I love it all. Having a sense of variety in the workload is really important because then when you hit the new genre it feels fresh again — the ideas and approaches that you may gain from working on a different genre.
These two kind of happened simultaneously, The Ice Road mostly happened after Lansky, but there was a little bit of overlap. But it was all welcome. It was all fun.
In that same vein, when you’re working on so many projects at one time, are there elements that carry over from one project to the next? Like, you develop a concept in Lansky that you further develop in The Ice Road?
I’m happy to say that didn’t happen on these two projects, but I do remember working for Lorne and seeing him switch between multiple projects within a day. I remember thinking, is this guy crazy? It takes many years to be able to sit down and partition your creative mind and say, “Okay, now I’m going to work on this film Lansky and in three hours I’ve got to get back to this big action picture The Ice Road because the director needs to see it the next morning.” As a film composer you get put in these situations sometimes and all that hard work and all those years of banging away for Lorne, you develop all those skills and abilities to do so.
Ames: Do you have a favorite track from either score that you’re particularly proud of?
Well, Lansky is definitely track one, entitled “Lansky.” That’s the main theme you hear throughout. I’m really happy with that one. It took a while to get there but as soon as Eytan heard it, he knew that this was the one that would take us through the film.
On The Ice Road, it would be track seven, titled “The Ice Road” and that’s the main theme for the film; and also the hero’s theme that you hear throughout. I think these two tracks really embody the films and I’m proud of both of them.
When do you know a track is done? With all of the technology, you could fiddle around with these things forever!
Exactly! Years ago I wondered the same thing. Like, when do these people know the track is done? Lorne would just stop. After some experience, I think the answer is kind of like a painting. There needs to be a foreground, a middle ground, and a background. From a technical standpoint it needs to be low, middle, and high, and after you have the contents — whatever they may be — you have to make sure all of these other elements are complete and sounding complete. It’s like studying orchestration in college or wherever, you’ll typically double certain instruments with one other, and when you’re building up in range you have to make sure you’re not losing all the middle range and it’s just being very disciplined about it.
Again, to be technical, you can open up your key editor in your program and see what notes are actually playing — am I missing bass, or what have I done here? Is this supposed to be a major chord or minor chord? Working with that stuff all day, you start to know how to hone the skills of completing a track to make sure it sounds good; and from a technical standpoint, let’s just say you’re looking at a score, it looks good as well.
Was there a specific composer or soundtrack you grew up loving? You mentioned The Matrix and Fantasia earlier …
Well, I really loved The Matrix and Vertigo, but the score I grew up with … I’d have to say Gladiator. To me, at that age, that score just kind of defined cinema. I felt like I was put in a different world. It’s just one of the best movies ever made, no doubt.
The Matrix was another one where, in that scene where Neo is walking on that ledge and you hear those dissonant strings, you feel like you’re going to fall off!
Do you have any additional projects you’re working on?
Yes, I’m working on a documentary called Does My Vote Count, which is about the election, obviously. I’m working with some American hymns and different state songs and interpreting them in different ways and were going to weave that in following the story of the election as well. It’ll be an emotional journey that, when you listen to it, you’ll feel like you’re a part of the process.