×

“We were making a movie, not a documentary,” production designer Arthur Max says of “Gladiator,” the Ridley Scott epic that took home five Academy Awards, including best picture. 

It’s been 20 years since the release of the movie and a limited edition 4K Blu-ray Steelbook will be available June 16. It’s the second of 13 collaborations between Max and Scott, starting with 1997’s “G.I Jane.” (The two worked most recently on “The Last Duel,” originally set for a Dec. 25 release and pushed into 2021.) Max recalls standing with Scott in the Colosseum in Rome as the director turned to him and said the location was too small for what he had in mind.

“Ridley wanted to do sequences that were unique to him,” Max laughs. “He cooks up the chariot race in the Colosseum,” the designer says of an early sequence in the film. Of course, the real Colosseum was used for gladiator fights, not chariot races, which were held at the Circus Maximus. Having lived in Rome for four years, Max had an inside track when it came to finding a chariot maker: a group that raced them for fun in the Circus Maximus style. “They ended up building the chariots, and we decorated them to look appropriate,” he recalls.

Yet Max says 19th-century romantic and Orientalist paintings were the inspiration for the look of the movie. “In their works, they imagined what ancient Rome was, and they brought it to life,” he says.

When it came to building the film’s sets, the designer wanted to use Mediterranean Film Studios in Malta, but Dino De Laurentiis was shooting “U-571” there, and Max couldn’t use the water-tank space that he wanted for the Colosseum. So “Gladiator” rebuilt Rome in nearby Fort Ricasoli, which juts out into the sea.

A lot of previz was considered, especially concerning how much physical set was needed and what would be covered by visual effects. “We spent most of the VFX budget on the scene where they first enter the arena,” Max recalls, “because of that 360-degree pan.”

Max built only two-thirds of the Colosseum, due to budget constraints. He and his team would design the set according to the perspective of that day’s shot. To vary the look from the angle of the emperor’s box to that of the senators’ box, “we’d change the banners, the statues, insignias and drapery,” he says. When shooting was done, they’d flip the negative and make it look like the other side of the arena had been built. 

To render the Provincial Arena where Maximus first learns to be a gladiator, Max and his team relied on traditional brick-building methods. “We cast 20,000 mud bricks and let them dry in the sun, mixing mud, straw and dung,” he says. “We had steel reinforcements, just in case.”

The Imperial Palace was a happy combination of meticulous preparation and miserable fate. The set, 90 feet by 260 feet, was built on a platform. “It was this beautifully detailed set with all the minutiae of ancient Rome, with fake marble and plaster,” Max says. “We had just completed the roof.” Overnight, the area was hit by one of the biggest typhoons the nation had ever seen, destroying the roof and battering the palace walls that were waiting to be put into place.

“When we came to look at the damage,” Max remembers, “Ridley said, ‘Nice aging.’”