Interview with Max Aruj

As a next-gen composer to hail from the offspring of those who gained their musical chops under Santa Monica’s House of Zimmer, LA native Max Aruj has long been part of a vital team for the likes of Zimmer, Henry Jackman and Lorne Balfe on numerous projects from “The Dark Knight Rises” to “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Ad Astra” and “His Dark Materials.” A Jack of all trades from arranging to production and additional composing, Aruj scored his first feature with Eytan Rockaway’s “The Abandoned,” a 2015 film about a female security guard menaced by seeming supernatural forces. Continuing to compose for such dark suspense films as “American Killing” and “Warning Shot,” it would be the theme of menace that afforded Aruj and co-composer Steffen Thum their breakout score for 2019’s “Crawl.” A critical and audience sleeper that sees a woman fleeing for her life through the alligators that swarm her monsoon-drenched house, Aruj and Thum’s terrifically atmospheric, yet emotional score delivered the terror of jaws aplenty. 

Composer Max Aruj

Now Aruj’s talent for exploring menace impressively takes on three decidedly different stylistic shades, at first with a brighter, action-oriented tone for “The Ice Road.” Liam Neeson’s latest age-defying action film finds him and his teammates racing through the wilderness to save trapped miners as Mother Nature and business baddies throw everything in their dangerously slick path. With the relentless timeline set by writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh (“Kill the Irishman”), Aruj paves the kinetic way with rhythmic tension, building to an adrenalin-fueled double set piece between environment and corporate killer. 

The wages of mob business sin fuel Aruj’s searing dramatic score for his reunion with Rockaway in “Lansky.” Given an independent film with a the successfully ambitious scope to covers the events of such films as “Mobsters,” “Bugsy” and “The Godfather Part II,” Aruj’s powerfully thematic score spans the flashback years as an author chronicling Lansky’s life is sucked into his sin in the present, the music seeing the “Mafia’s accountant” in lethal, yet tragically human terms. Then in his return to the world of Assassin’s Creed, Aruj (along with Wardruna’s Einar Selvik) conjure the ancient, piercingly sinister sounds of pagans at war with both Christianity and the most fearsome videogame Viking heroine to rule them all. Diversely scored, yet united with Aruj’s formidable voice, it’s a triple threat that shows the composer’s talent is now at the forefront. 

Max Aruj (second form left) and Lorne Balfe (fourth from left) at the recording session of 2015’s “Home”

Tell us about your formative musical years, and how they led you to work with Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe? What did you learn most from that experience?

I played jazz and classical piano from when I was a young lad and I played in bands in middle school and high school. I took music theory in high school and loved it, which really got me interested in writing. I then majored in music composition at the University of Southern California. Towards the end of school, I started working at Hans’ Studio and on my first day, I met Lorne. I ended up working for him for around ten years!

I learned so many things from Lorne and Hans that I’d have to write a multi-volume encyclopedia to contain them! In short, to go from scoring short films in college to scoring full-length action films, you need to grow as a musician, professional, and as a person. Music must come first of course, but weaving in people skills, technical skills, and life skills is the only way to last as a professional. Watching the best and being a part of the massive amount of work needed to get the job done, is humbling.

How did you finally break out as a composer in the indie world?

Practice! Getting better and better at writing music and building up credits earns you a little attention. “Crawl” was the first big movie I got under my belt, which showed I could handle a studio movie. Things moved on from there, and I was entrusted to do a Liam Neeson movie. Additionally, past collaborators such as Rockaway asked me to do his next film. Constantly working and networking provide the perfect web of opportunity.

“Crawl” was indeed a sleeper that got you and co-composer Steffen Thum notice and a score release on Intrada. What was that experience like with director Alexandre Aja, particularly when it came to capturing a sense of water-logged menace?

We got brought onto the project pretty late in the game. They had been working with another composer, so we had to start from scratch with not much time. The brief was that we needed to create a classic thriller score while also feeling modern. “Jaws” naturally becomes part of the conversation: we need to feel the menace of knowing a shark is near lurking before we even see it. Coming up with our gator bends was step one (gritty orchestral bends, with synths mimicking the orchestra). Then, we had to structure the scenes around the building tension. Weaving in our father and daughter themes had to happen seamlessly and subtly, because if we did it too crudely, it felt corny and forced.

Aja has a fantastic sensibility. He was a total pro—he knew what he wanted to achieve and how to communicate it to us. He was able to give us clear and direct feedback immediately after he heard a cue. And due to time constraints, we had to nail it quickly.

Water in its frozen form is one of the villains in “The Ice Road.” What kind of musical tricks did you want to use here to embody the frozen surface, as well as the lethal liquid below it?

Working alongside dubbing mixer Ken Polk was essential to create the dangerous world surrounding the characters out on the ice. The splintering cracking sound Ken created really gets the heart rate up. 

Musically, I’d start by using delicate string textures: sul tasto (bowing over the fingerboard) and sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) to create a glassy feeling. But when things were really ramping up during the action, I used atonal brass textures to cut through the mix.

“The Ice Road” is a fun, insanely improbable ride as much as many of Liam Neeson’s action films. What do you think makes him an appealing star for his age in the genre, and how do you think the score defines that gruffly heroic spirit here?

He’s one of the greats no doubt. He knows how to deliver, which makes scoring Liam so much fun. You can really play into his heroism and strong personality. It doesn’t matter how old he is! Writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh’s script was exciting and bold. Writing big themes: hero, villain, brothers seemed natural. Using these throughout the film allowed us to create a musical through line that follows the characters along their journey.

How did you want to convey the idea of the cold, beautifully desolate environment that makes for movies like “The Ice Road” and its antecedent “Cliffhanger?”

During various obstacles on the ice, the score needs to contain an element of peril. The truckers are unwelcomed on the ice. Every step they take could be their last. Beds of tension mimic the fragility of their environment. Low rumbling synths and brass clusters ebb and flow, which are countered up high by glassy strings, jittering and wavering in and out of tune. “Cliffhanger” also has these sustained moments of dissonance (harmonic tension between notes), which allow the audience to stay focused on the minor physical movements of the characters and never feeling safe.

Rhythm is a big part of “The Ice Road,” especially as there’s a hard deadline for Neeson to reach the trapped miners. How did you want to convey that ever-ticking clock?

There always needed to be an element of the score keeping time. Without giving too much away, all the characters need to act fast in order to survive. Whether it be ticking percussion, or an unsettling ostinato (a repeating musical phrase), something was creating a sense of urgency.

When action scores like “The Ice Road” are based on big, ever-rising propulsive builds to a big climax, how did you want to make your approach distinct?

I wanted to use dissonant classical harmony, as heard in the album’s track #9 “Clear Out” around a minute in, alongside more modern driving action pieces like track #10’s “No Time.” I trade motifs between these styles, and I hope the variety of action that ensues is propelled by edgy orchestral music. I tried to never rely on one texture or instrument group too long, which forced me to be creative within the boundaries I had drawn for myself. And of course, writing what I hope to be memorable themes are the best way to make any section of a score distinct. Pairing driving orchestral along with a signature theme is always the goal.

THE ICE ROAD (L-R): BENJAMIN WALKER SCODELARIO-DAVIS as VARNAY, AMBER THUNDER ROSE MIDTHUNDER as TANTOO, MARCUS THOMAS as GURTY, LIAM NEESON as MIKE. CR: NETFLIX © 2021

The other formidable presence in “The Ice Road” are the powerful trucks. Talk about getting across their weight, and speed.

The score needs to match the power of the trucks. Hence, the big orchestra as heard in track #10 “No Time,” hopefully gets the audience to edge of their seats during this awesome Hensleigh scene.

When the movie shifts gears from nature as “bad” guy to snowmobiling villains, did you want the score to make the threat more personal?

The environment is brutal, but as an obstacle in a story, it is not evil. During these beautiful aerial shots at the beginning, I have the main theme (also the hero theme) slow and majestic. There is a suggestion of impending danger in the harmony. When they have trouble on the ice early in the movie, I think of Bernard Herrmann scores like “North by Northwest,” which set the bar so high. These large orchestral pieces with a sense of pace drive the action and create excitement. These interlocking melodies are endlessly evolving, but never veering too far from their original music motif.

When the villain reveals himself, I tried to make his theme more overtly malicious. The relentless low bend of the strings and synth, followed by the bash tone of the full tune on trumpets hopefully makes it clear this person is up to no good! By this point, there is no need to be just suggestive; it is time to really play into the baddie’s character and go for it.

“The Ice Road’s” big climax involves battles on two different geographical fronts. What’s the challenge of doing a musically cross-cutting scene like that?

When I started working on “The Ice Road,” Jonathan said this was one of the most important scenes in the movie to nail. Both the ice fight and bridge crossing had climaxes that needed to build separately but feel connected. Compositionally speaking, each location needed chords and ostinatos that could build together, higher and intensify up until the very final moments. I even utilized a tempo increase to ratchet up the tension as much as possible.

Though it’s done at a lower budget, “Lansky” manages to span decades in telling stories we’ve seen in “Mobsters,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Bugsy.” Does that place extra importance on the score to give the film historical sweep and production value, even though you’re working with similar means?

Every project demands the composer’s best. Part of excelling in today’s world is giving each project everything you have without, say, the resources to record a week of full orchestra. The composer needs to get creative. For “Lansky,” we decided to use 80’s synth colors and blend it with orchestra. We then recorded string solos to give it more expression, especially for the intimate drama scenes, such as Lansky talking to his son on the docks (Track #11 “Just Like You”). He is trying his best to connect with his son, while trying to hide the darkness of who he really is.

When you got the assignment, did you dig into Lansky’s past and past “mob” scores? What do you think made the best films and soundtracks stand out?

“Goodfellas” and “The Godfather” come to mind of course. “Goodfellas” does not have a score, only song placements, my favorite being “Layla,” by Derek & the Dominos, during the raid at the end. “The Godfather” has one of the finest themes ever written by Nino Rota. Both hope to encapsulate the grandiose nature of the mob world. One could argue “Goodfellas” focuses more on style and tone, by using iconic songs, whereas “Godfather” is more operatic in its construction, using melodic themes to draw us into the perilous nature of weaving family and illegal business into one.

Reading the script for “Lansky,” I knew Meyer needed a theme that was both heroic and emotional. I hope to achieve that, as presented in track #1 “Lansky,” and throughout the score. I also wrote a darker theme for Lansky, as heard in track #7 “Bund Meeting,” for a scene during which Lansky interrupts a German-American Nazi rally.

Harvey Keitel, who can often deliver ragingly intense characters, plays Lansky in an ironically understated, folksy way. What do you think that performance brings to the score?

Everything Keitel says has weight; thus, I needed to let him give his performance, and not let the music get too dramatic too quickly. As the story progresses, the music grows more emotional, but if the music is too early or late in any intimate scene, it can miss the key moment and feel out of sync. So much care went into the minute melodic and chord changes during moments in each conversation. A lot of work went into keeping that way from early cuts into later cut, which was a challenge.

For a man who was all about brain power over his compatriot’s brawn, how did you want the score to get into Meyer’s head?

The score needed to be “threatening,” such that the implication of disobedience was enough, rather than say a Godzilla-type theme which would need to evoke sheer power. A simmering tension worked best; Lansky could really control his temper, until he didn’t want to anymore! The score needed to be patient, like him.

Talk about how you wanted the music to contrast Meyer, who’s perfectly fine with his shortcomings, with his biographer David (Sam Worthington) who finds himself being dragged into a moral swamp that he can’t deal with?

Eytan’s script made it easy to merge these two storylines. When writing Meyer’s theme, I was keeping David in mind too. They are both dads, striving to be better people, in every sense. They faced different obstacles, but both were just human: flawed. David also faced temptation and made decisions that put his loved ones in a bad situation. So his theme needed to feel like it was reaching for something. It needs to be triumphant, but also bittersweet.

“Lansky” plays up the angle of Meyer as describing himself as a “wandering Jew,” and brings out his religion much more than his other depictions. How did you want the score to capture that ethnic quality of him when it came to dealing with Nazis and supporting Israel, which would ultimately “betray” him?

Lansky had a strong connection to his Jewish heritage. Track #11 “Hymn for Meyer” connects him to his culture, and also his complex relationship with Israel. As a Jewish person myself, I hoped to evoke a tonality that made us feel like Israel was the homeland. So much of what he did was to protect Israel, and after all that, he was not treated the way he thought he’d be. This theme (and a few other cues in the movie) features incredible singer Yaniv Joshua Hoffman. His voice contained a sense of longing we needed to solidify that connection.

Would you say there’s an overall religious quality to the score, particularly in the organ sound that conveys the wages of sin?

Inherently yes, the weightiness of good and evil is religious. Lansky, like so many other tragic figures, wanted at all, but it came at a price. Musically speaking, it harkens to opera. When I first read the script, I knew this would be the case. These strong characters need dramatic music. I employ the organ only once, and in a way that I hope is unusual. That instrument has an immediate reaction from the audience, so cannot be used lightly.

Tell us about playing Meyer as a family man in spite of his deteriorating marriage.

The score needed to have both a sensitivity and aggression to it. He could be both so kind and so cruel to his own wife. Walking that line and knowing how far to go musically was difficult. Lansky had a code of ethics only he could justify. The people around him had to endure whatever role he assigned to them. He was a complicated man.

Could you talk about scoring the relationship between Lansky and Bugsy, and where it ultimately leads.

Bugsy was his childhood friend, and longest-standing business associate. They always worked and socialized together. Their bond was multi-faceted. Together they are a threatening team, as heard in track #3 “Bookie.” Having said that, his greatest ally also was subject to the Meyer Lansky code of ethics. They come to grips with the weight of time in track #14 “A Tailor’s Son.” Their relationship has changed; the tone of the music too must change.

Young Meyer (John Magaro)

In the end, how much did you want the score to humanize Meyer, or make him a tragic figure? And on the flip side, how did you want to show that this was a man who lethally, and often mercilessly pulled the strings from the past to the present?

Eytan’s script was constructed with great care such that it does both. His direction was the same. The score needed to capture deep sensitivity when we see him with his son; he had a big heart. But perhaps even the same day, he had to exercise a different set of skills only the underworld required. Keitel and John Magaro, who plays the young Lansky, skillfully dance between the two.

How do you think the film and its music might change mob movie fans’ perceptions of Meyer Lansky?

Keitel does the heavy lifting here. Meyer was a bad boy who played by his own rules. And he was smart, a rare combination some might say. He was able to exert self-control at any moment. In some ways, he was the perfect gangster, always able to keep focused. I think his skillset spoke for itself, he lived a long life! I don’t think the average audience member knows how fascinating he was, and I hope the score highlights all of these interesting sides.

Tell us about getting into the video game universe as part of Well Played Universe, and how the musical rules for that genre are different.

Every medium demands specific construction of the music. At the same time, a medium can’t restrict the composer from making a piece of music that has intention. With virtual reality, the amount of the piece music takes to unfold is typically longer. It cannot push the experiencer too far, too fast. And even while I am answering this question, I realize I have the same answer I did for my response about Harvey Keitel’s performance, in that the music should react to the dialogue and actor’s emotions, not any sooner, or else it loses the impact. So really, the composer should always be following the story, no matter the medium. In a setting where music needs to be looped or truncated, if a user takes longer or shorter than expected, I simply need to work in modular cells of music that can connect different sections faster or slower as needed. I don’t think this changes the fact that music needs to have a purpose to some capacity.

Could you talk about your past associations with the “Assassin’s Creed” universe, and what linked them as well as made them unique in terms of their settings?

I was so thrilled to reconnect with Simon Landry at Ubisoft. The great thing about the Assassin’s Creed musical world is that it has established such a unique language, but it continues to evolve with each iteration of the game. So, coming in, I was used to the collaboration with the franchise, but knew that I had to bring something fresh to the table as well. 

With the “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” DLC “Wrath of the Druids.” How did you want to musically transition the game’s heroine Eivor from England to Ireland in a way that kept the first game’s spirit, yet brought her to a new location?

It took multiple revisions to get the music sounding both like it belonged in the main game, and so that it was a departure. Unique instruments such as: tagleharpa (bowed tail-hair harp), carnyx (bronze trumpet), and Irish whistle, give the score a sonically unusual quality. 

What do you think makes the Druids musically distinctive villains from what Eivor has faced?

Ciara is the main villain in “Wrath of the Druids.” She was personified by a female voice. In particular, we used Gaelic phrases within these massive beds of chugging strings and percussion instruments. Putting the voice through amplifiers and whipping it around gives it a nightmarish feeling as wind whips around the player during their battles. 

How did you want to reach into instruments that are thousands of years old, yet make them contemporarily vibrant? And in that way, how did you want to capture the face-off between magical paganism and encroaching Christianity?

It took a lot of work to get all these instruments sounding good together. Creating an orchestra out of ancient apparatuses takes experimentation. Getting strings to ring out and getting winds and horns in tune was a huge task. But when things started locking in, and rhythmic chugging strings would lock in with these wild carnyx improvisations, it made it worth it. Creating unusual textures is fun, but grueling.

Do you think video game composers should actually be able to play games to truly get into them?

Absolutely. Much like the film world of going to playbacks, feeling the flow of your music actually inthe medium is essential. Often, they’ll send video capture of the music whilst gameplay is being developed, which is crucial to make sure “action” and “stealth” layers for example really speak when gameplay demands shifts in tone.

Max conducts for Gryffin at 2019’s Coachella

How was it to score your projects during the pandemic? Or do you think working with composers who’ve used a lot of symphonic sampling helped?

Less in person meetings definitely makes things more challenging, but in the end, you get there. “Lansky” had no temp score, so building the score took extra time. Typically during the editing process, the editor and director are able to workshop different pieces of music. We all have conversations about how it makes us feel; what about it works, what about it doesn’t. The director comes to my studio, and in detail, we go through every scene, but that process gets more complicated over zoom. 

For every project, I have to work within the budget. Years of programming with Lorne taught me how to get creative with samples. For projects with a smaller budget, or super tight deadline, you need to use samples.

With the trifecta of “Lansky,” “The Ice Road” and “Wrath of the Druids,” how far do you think you’ve come as a composer, and where would you like to go?

I am so fortunate to have three projects of such different styles all come out around the same time. The age-old gripe of many Hollywood types would be: “Everyone thinks I can only do one style.” I’m happy to say I hope these three show otherwise! But on a serious note, after working with Lorne for so long, it’s great to see I’ve learned so much after all my time with him. Writing in all these different styles and managing all the work is something only he could teach me. I’m eternally grateful to him. From here, I’d just like to keep this train going, working on great projects with great people. Writing in different genres/mediums regularly is very stimulating, and I hope to keep it that way.

Buy “The Ice Road” on Lakeshore Records HERE

https://www.amazon.com/The-Ice-Road/dp/B095RZB1PL

Buy “Lansky” on Lakeshore Records HERE

https://music.apple.com/us/album/lansky-original-motion-picture-soundtrack/1572929069

Buy “The Wrath of the Druids” on Lakeshore Records HERE

https://music.apple.com/us/album/assassins-creed-valhalla-wrath-druids-original-game/1563985763

Watch “The Ice Road” on Netflix and “Lansky” on VOD, with “Wrath of the Druids” on DLC. Get Max Aruj’s scores for all three on Lakeshore Records. 

Listen to “Crawl” on Intrada Records HERE

https://music.apple.com/us/album/crawl-music-from-the-motion-picture/1470828201

Visit Max Aruj’s web site HERE

http://maxaruj.com

Special Thanks to Adrianna Perez and Kyrie Hood

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