“My job coming in to this was to give the studio a franchise. My goal as a filmmaker was to make a good movie, so the puzzle for me was how to make both of those things happen” – Wes Ball
Wes Ball knows the score when it comes to the franchise machine. His debut feature film is The Maze Runner and shooting has already begun on the sequel, leaving the third as a practically done deal. Around a crowded round table with the remnants of lunch being picked at by assembled journalists, sits Wes Ball.
How long were you shooting for?
We shot for 8 weeks, which was a very short time to do our film. It was intense, but it was fun too. Some of those limitations help you, working in those parameters can help force out some creative ideas, but sometimes you can be frustrated at the compromises. That’s what we had, and what we tried to do the best with.
This is your first feature film and it’s shot very emotionally, especially since we’re given no information about the world outside the Glade. How did you go about putting that emotion on-screen?
I interpreted it as an experience. You’re on the ride with the main character (Thomas) and we see everything through his eyes. There’s only one scene in the movie where we cut away from what Thomas sees, it’s through his point of view. I like that idea of not spoon-feeding the audience, and I liked being on the journey with them and doing the best we could to make something entertaining, intense, fun and with moments that make you grab onto your seat. I wanted people to fall in love with these characters in some small way so that we can continue telling the story for the rest of the movies. My job coming into this was to give the studio a franchise. They’ve got a series of books and they want a franchise, and that was my job. My goal as a filmmaker was to make a good movie, so the puzzle was how to do both of these things happen. We did the best with the resources we had, and our great cast, and hopefully, we’ll get to tackle the ideas the ideas that we don’t fully explore in the first one. The next one picks up right where this one leaves off, and you basically get this four-hour movie and this crazy journey the characters go through.
What can you tell us about the future of the franchise, and your involvement? There’s definitely enough groundswell for a big future. Are you waiting for the phone to ring?
Well, I have options of what to do next. Fortunately enough people inside the industry have seen the film to know that I can, you know, use a camera? Right now, we’re prepping the sequel. The fan screenings have shown that people definitely want to see the movie made, and that’s partly by design. At first, I wasn’t going to do the sequel, but I couldn’t pass up on the chance to work with these actors again. We’re  weeks away from shooting right now. We’re in New Mexico and we’ve got stages, crew, script on its third draft already, it’s freakin’ massive. We’re changing a little bit from the book and I’ve spoken to James Dashner, the author. We’re rearranging things slightly to make sure this really has a nice trajectory because books more meandering that a movie can be. So, we’ve got kick-ass movie monsters and it picks up right where the last one left off, there’s a sense of growing up in the movie, it’s more mature, deeper, more sophisticated. The scale is way bigger than the last one, in terms of resources and time too. The first movie’s very contained, there’s no horizon in the movie.
Metaphorically, and literally, contained. (How’s that for symbolism?)
There’s basically three locations in the maze, which was a challenge on its own – keeping things moving when you only have three places to shoot. The next movie is a journey movie. It’s about kids on the run, they’re fugitives in a dangerous environment trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. The Maze Runner’s high school: [Thomas] is thrust into a new world, with no identity, but he latches onto one, navigating dangers, then you find yourself in another new world and you’re out of the frying pan and into the fire again. The next movie is more college, experimentation, about growing up and discovering who you are as a person and how you fit into the world. There’s the mythology that we hint at too that gets delved into more. If people can be patient with us and take the ride, it’ll be a lot of fun.
Your earlier short film, Ruin (which has since been picked up by 20th Century Fox to be transformed into a full-length feature) also has a fascination with dystopias. What attracts you to the post-apocalypse settings for films?
I think there’s something romantic about the idea of the reset and the idea of a world where you’re self-reliant, a world of treasure. It’s the same thing as the Arthur C. Clarke quote “Anything you don’t understand is indistinguishable from magic”. With the Maze Runner, you don’t know it’s post-apocalyptic. It’s a little bit Lord Of The Flies maybe.
How closely were you working with the writer of the novels, James Dashner?
After the studio saw Ruin, they gave me Maze Runner. I wanted to do something different with it but obviously I wanted to stay as close as I could to the book, respect the fans and give them what they want to see. After I wrote the second or third draft, I brought James in and told him what I wanted to do. He understood that we wanted to make a movie and that a movie isn’t a book – they don’t have to replace each other, they can operate side by side. I would go to him and ask “Do you think fans would miss this if I took it out?” and “What about this tweak, and that thing, and that cut?”. He was really excited when we brought him out to The Glade, he could see his entire world. I also brought him out to the scoring sessions with the composer John Paesano. He trained under John Williams, worked with Hans Zimmer and he’s got this unique mix of old-school charm with modern edginess, and James got to see some of the scenes with a full orchestra in the background, which was…phenomenal. There’s something special about a live orchestra that you don’t get in cinemas.
The soundtrack plays a big part in the film, it directs the mood like a soundtrack should. Could you tell us a bit about the soundtrack of the film and how you used it?
I day-dream really well with soundtracks. I typically design scenes to soundtracks, so when I was looking for someone to compose this movie I wanted someone different from the “Hans Zimmer sound”. That’s no knock against what people are doing these days, but a lot of people have followed him with the driving engine, adrenaline, pulse type soundtracks. I wanted themes, character emotion and that kind of thing, and John Williams used to do that. The Jurassic Park soundtrack was the first soundtrack I ever bought. I spoke to John a lot about that, and coming from that school, he understood. If you listen to the score in its entirety, there’s a true character and whole story playing out on its own. I hope it’s not too over-the-top, but there’s all these different genres that emerge through the textures of the sound. Again, we’re basically setting it up for the next score.
Were there any other challenges in production?
Being tied to source material meant that I couldn’t do what I necessarily wanted to do. This is a franchise, and there’s a certain structure that needs to be in place. That was tough to navigate personally. Secondly, there was the problem of resources. I think all directors have this, you can never do all the things you want to do, you have to compromise, but sometimes, I really felt it. We’re actually a fairly small budget film for what we’re trying to achieve, so that was difficult too. My imagination tends to be very expensive. Sometimes good things come out of that restriction though.
Well, even with the restrictions you still physically constructed the Glade, which looked remarkable. How difficult was it?
We went out and scouted for somewhere that had real character. Eventually we found this place: we were travelling through this guy’s cow patch and up to a line of trees. I thought “Guys, is this it? This is what you want to show me?” But then it dropped down into this swamp, so when you emerge into that and walk out of the hill, you come into The Glade. There was this little fence of trees on the edges, and it felt like the walls. The hedge was about a hundred foot tall and it wasn’t solid or anything, but you felt closed in and it felt right.
It was fantastic. The thing I said to myself when I was making this film was “I’m not making Twilight”. I wasn’t this teeny-bopper, polished, bubblegum thing with bright colours. I wanted to make something that was dark and moody and sweaty and gritty. It was important that the sweat in the film was real sweat. I think there’s a cool beauty in that.
And finally, what was the favourite scene that you directed?
That’s like choosing your babies, I don’t know. There was one particular scene from the book that got me wanting to make the movie. The scene in question has this cool idea of having kids needing to make adult decisions for the group. That was a scene that was so intense, brutal and merciless, you know? If they were going to let me do that, put that kind of scene into a kids movie essentially, I just wanted to do it. It helped me to not see it as a kids movie, but rather a movie with kids in it. There’s little character scenes too, just two kids on a log talking and seeing that type of life happening. It was a learning experience for me as a filmmaker, but we shot it so fast that it’s all crammed together and I’m dying to see the making-of’s of the days on set and think “Oh yeah, that scene, I remember how that one went”. Right now, it’s all kind of a blur.
The Maze Runner is in UK cinemas now.
For more from Peter visit his website at roomtoreview.co.uk