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Navigating the Maze: Exclusive Interview with Director Wes Ball

The Maze Runner
06 February 2015

American director Wes Ball has a background in visual effects and animation, contributing his skills to films such as Beginners (2010) starring Ewan McGregor, as well as creating his own short films, such as the action-packed Ruin (2011), which uses CGI to create a complex futuristic world where our hero is pursued by Terminator-style machines. Ball plans to turn Ruin into a feature-length film in the near future, and it can be viewed in full on YouTube. The big screen adaptation of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is Ball’s first feature.



The opening of the movie is pretty bold, it’s almost experimental, what did you hope to achieve with that sequence?

It’s an experience. As an audience member you’re thrown into the movie, you’re waking up in the elevator, in this dark room. When I was first thinking about doing Maze Runner, I thought of that immediately. I loved the idea of introducing the sound first, to an audience sitting there in the blackness. I wanted to do more of that, to hold it for longer in there, but we ended up trimming it just a little bit.

It’s funny, for our first test screening I had some sound effects on the blackness, but there was so much cheering and clapping when people were waiting to see the movie, they were clapping over the top of the sound effects. So I went it and put in one big loud one at the front, to get them to shut up so they could listen to the thing (laughs).

It was cool, it’s a fun way to begin a movie, to get thrown in. We tried to do that the whole way throughout, to make it an experience.


How did you feel when you first read the script?

I thought the first script I read was good, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do, it was a bit too far away from the book. So we brought in two writers and kept working on it, to bring it closer to the book, because I thought that was important. That was our fan base, that was where we started from.

So we tried to take it back to that initial source material, while changing what we had to along the way to make sure it was a movie that could stand on its own. That’s the balance, what you can keep and what you can’t.


What was the audition process like? It’s an amazing group of young actors.

I auditioned Kaya, I wanted Kaya from the beginning, as I’d seen her on Skins and thought she was perfect. And Will was on my mind too, those eyebrows man, perfect villain. So I asked for those two guys immediately when I came on, I said that’s who I wanted to get – they had to put themselves on tape and all, but I wanted them right away.


As for Newt, I think when Thomas Brodie-Sangster came in he was auditioning for both Newt and Gally for some reason, but immediately we realized he really is Newt, you know what I mean?

Dylan was the last person we hired, because he’s our star and we really had to make sure we were making the right decision, and thank goodness we did, because he’s a fantastic kid. And Aml, Ki Hong and Dexter and Alex too, everyone had good stuff.

Then there’s the story of Blake, who bothered me endlessly on Twitter, so I told him to send in a tape and we cast him off that. He’s fantastic, I’d give him direction and he’d go right into it and just hit it. The focus of that kid is awesome, I’m excited to see where his career is going to go.


Dylan and Kaya have big followings from their shows, Teen Wolf and Skins, you mentioned Skins – had you seen those shows?

When we were really considering Dylan I was in Louisiana prepping the movie, and I watched the whole first season of Teen Wolf in a night. It was good! He plays a funny sidekick on that show, and I thought it would be fun to see the more serious, vulnerable side of him.

I also watched all of his YouTube videos, he’s a very funny guy. And he’s also very aware of storytelling, his dad is a camera operator and he really understands the process of making a movie.


You did a lot of design work, even before the actors were cast – can you tell us a little bit about that process?

It’s my way in, basically. It’s my writing process – designing and working up ideas and grabbing pictures, and more team members come in and they start contributing too. That’s my process, the visual design of these movies, and it’s helpful for them, they can picture some of these things that aren’t really there.

We’re not going to have as much of that on the next one, though. It’s much more of a world creation, we’ve got some awesome locations out in New Mexico that we’ve found – the cast won’t have to use quite as much of their imaginations, so it’s going to be cool. They’ve gone through this round of shooting, with all the heat and the bugs and the snakes, they’re going to be just fine – they’ve already gone through hell.


What was the toughest day on set, for you?

There were two of them, actually. Physically, when we were filming by the doors. We were filming Thomas going through for the first time, and it was just so hot. Sweltering hot, so humid – I remember that day well.

But, emotionally, it was the last day of filming, which featured a significant death scene. That was a tough one, because everyone was on edge, and we’re all saying goodbye essentially – emotions were high that day, so I’ll always remember that too. It was a quick shoot, eight weeks, so there wasn’t time to linger on anything particularly, it was all a big blur.


How on earth did you shoot this movie in eight weeks?

It’s fun, you just go. In a way, the schedule contributed to the movie. I’d say to the cast members ‘All right guys, we’ve got three hours to shoot this scene’ and they’re on it. ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ We all joined together to get this thing done, and there’s something interesting in that limitation, it forces out some good choices.


And what was the most fun day of the shoot?

I liked all of the Glade stuff, there’s something about being on location that I just frickin’ love. As soon as you go to the stage, there’s no sun going down on the horizon, nothing to remind you to just keep going, going, going. You get a little lazier, a little more comfortable. There’s something about being out on location in the real sun, with real sweat, it’s a special thing that makes it really spectacular.

I really enjoyed the two days we shot when we were running out in the maze, that was really fun.  We had this crazy little electric go-kart with a camera on the back, and the guys had this big stretch of concrete, and I just told them to haul ass. Go as fast as you can. And the guys had to keep up with this real car, and we got some really cool shots out of it.



A lot of people have said they were surprised how intense the movie is, does it make you happy to hear that?

It does make me happy to hear that, that was what we had basically. We were a very small movie, we didn’t have the resources other movies like ours have, in terms of time and money, so we had to have character, and intensity and suspense, that experience thing. There are some cool scenes in the movie where you’re on the edge of your seat, biting your nails. That’s fun, that’s all I ask for as a filmmaker, I want to get a reaction out of the audience.


Book fans are going to love it, but I also think just straight up action fans will love it as well – did you have those guys in mind when you were making it?

I made this movie for me, I didn’t make it for the 12-year-old me, I made it for me. I think it would automatically appeal to the 12-year-old, the 13-year-old, we don’t have to pander to kids, they’re much smarter than we give them credit for most of the time. So I tried to do something that was a fun adventure like the stuff I grew up on.

I was very aware of The Hunger Games and Divergent, though of course Divergent hadn’t even come out when we were making this movie, but I was aware of them. I knew we didn’t have some of the same ingredients, we didn’t have the love triangle, we didn’t have the oppressive government in this first movie. This was basically a really cool adventure, with these fun situations around it. A little bit of a monster movie in there too. Hopefully people will give it a shot and see it’s different to what they’ve seen before.


What influenced you when you were designing The Grievers? Because they’re really gross.

It’s tough to design a movie monster, but it was also really fun. It was just me and another concept designer emailing each other back and forth, coming up with this design then passing it over to the Life Of Pi animator, Erik-Jan de Boer – this is the guy that won the Oscar for the tiger in Life Of Pi – and him and his team animated our Grievers, they just brought it to life.

I kept looking back at Alien, Jurassic Park and those kinds of things. The trick was to take what James had described, then making something that would work visually. All the things that he mentions in the book, those things are in our Griever, but they are very much a different design. I hope fans appreciate how close we tried to stay. Very insect-like; biomechanical was the key phrase we tried to hit.


Are there any details or moments fans should look out for when they’re rewatching the film on Blu-ray or DVD? Something they might not have noticed on first watch?

Book fans will probably notice it, but in the last scene there’s a cameo by the author James Dashner. There’s little things all over the place, actually. But check out some of the names on the name wall – it’s something we added ourselves, a right of passage as you become a member of the Glade, you have to etch your new identity into the wall. Let’s just say that the original Gladers that built this Glade are up on the wall too. There’s all kinds of little things.


You’ve done some fan events, what’s that interaction like? What are Maze Runner fans like generally?

Thankfully, it’s been good. They’ve been really nice to us from the start, they’ve enjoyed the casting decisions and given us the thumbs-up. We can’t just get by on the original fans, we need new fans too, but it was important for us to respect the fans of the book who have been waiting for this movie for so long.

James wrote this book in 2009, even before Hunger Games, so there have been fans of this book for a long time. Movies have almost got started, then they’ve been cancelled, and we finally got this thing off the ground.

So we were very aware of what the fans were looking for, and we tried to give them as much as we could, whilst still making a contained movie.


What’s it like watching the movie with an audience for you?

I gotta admit, for me it’s really tough. I’m a perfectionist, so all I see are the decisions and the compromises. No-one sees the movie that could’ve been, the movie that’s in my head – all they see is the movie that’s up there. So it’s tough for me, there’s a quote by Francis Ford Coppola; ‘Movies are abandoned, not finished.’ I very much feel that way on this one, you keep on working on the thing until you run out of time and money. So now I’m escaping into the next movie.

I’ve never gone through this experience before, where you put so much love and care into this thing, so much hard work into it, now I’m offering it up to the world. And they’re either going to say yay or nay on two years of work from a lot of people. After two hours they’re going to have their opinion. So there’s a little anxiety, but I’m also excited, and very proud of what we’ve all done together as a team. And going into the next movie, I can redeem myself in places where I felt I could’ve done better.

You’re a really exciting director, what are your ambitions, what kind of career would you like?

I grew up on James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner; I grew up on the guys who were all about big entertainment, with heart and soul. I think that’s rare these days, I want to do stuff that has a strong heart and has an emotional core, that’s fun to watch.

That’s where I want to stay right now, in the genre world. But at the same time I have some movies in mind that are more character-led, more purely director-centric, but I’m not ready to tackle that kind of thing yet. I just want to do things that are unique and a fun ride.


Are there any other franchises you’d like to get on-board with?

I don’t think so, as a filmmaker I like projects that I can do my own thing with. Who knows? Never say never, but I love mood and design and those kind of things, and if I’m just executing someone else’s thing I find that hard to get into. I do have some franchise-ideas for things, things that could be really cool that could tap into the kind of things I grew up on, Indiana Jones and Star Wars and those kinds of things. We’ll see.



The Maze Runner Film Page | The Maze Runner Review | Win The Maze Runner on Blu-ray

The Maze Runner is out now on Digital HD and on Blu-ray and DVD on 9 February from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment