Back in August, Wes Ball sat with us to discuss his debut feature film, The Maze Runner, out in cinemas in the UK now…
How long were you shooting for The Maze Runner?
WB: We shot for 8 weeks, which is a very short period of time to do a movie. It was intense, but it was fun. Some of those limitations help you, working within those parameters sometimes forces out creative ideas, and sometimes you’re just frustrated at compromising so much… It was what we had, and we tried to do the best with it.
This is your first feature film, and it’s shot beautifully. The sparing use of close ups really throws us in with the characters on their intense emotional journey. How did you go about achieving that?
WB: I interpreted it personally as an experience. You’re on this ride with this main character, Thomas, you really experience the movie through his eyes. There’s only one scene in the movie where we actually cut away from what Thomas sees, it’s all through his eyes, his point of view. I like that idea, of not spoonfeeding everything to the audience, and being on this journey with them. We did the best we could to make something that’s entertaining, something that’s kind of intense and fun, with cool moments for you to grab onto, and hopefully also for you to kind of fall in love with these characters in some small way, so we can continue telling the story for the rest of the movies. I was telling someone else this the other day, I said “my job is basically to give the studio a franchise”. They have a series of books, and that’s what they want, a franchise. But my goal as a filmmaker is to make a good movie. So the puzzle was how you do both those things. We do the best we can with the resources that we have, and I think we had a great cast, that you really latch on to, and hopefully we’ll get to continue on with the questions that still linger, the ideas that we don’t quite get to fully explore, to really tackle them in the next movie where everything really grows up and picks up right where the last one left off. You’ll get to watch, at some point, a four hour movie of this crazy journey these characters go through. Things come to mind like Gravity, this type of movie, very much a roller coaster ride, and I think there’s something cool about that.
You keep mentioning the future movies. What’s the plan regarding production, are you waiting for the phone to ring?
WB: (laughs) I’m okay, basically. I have options about what to do next. Fortunately enough people have seen the movie inside the industry, and I think they see that hey, I know how to use a camera at least? It’s interesting. Right now we’re prepping the sequel. We’re gearing up to go, basically. The fan and test screenings so far are showing that people like the movie and want to see the next one, which is kind of by design, you know, that was the plan. I was trying to deliver a franchise to the studio here. At first I wasn’t gonna do the sequel, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with the cast again, they’re so great.
We’re ten weeks from shooting, right now. We’re in New Mexico, we’ve got stages, we’ve got crew coming in, script’s come round—it’s third draft already—it’s frickin’ massive. It’s absolutely awesome. We’re changing a little bit from the book, I’ve already warned James Dashner, the author. There’s certain things that just don’t work for me for a movie, so we’re kind of rearranging things slightly to make sure this has a really nice trajectory, a beginning-middle-and-end, because the books can be a little bit more meandering than what a movie can be. We’ve got some kick-ass movie monsters, and the movie takes place right where the last one left off so there’s a really cool sense of growing up. It’s way more mature, way deeper and more sophisticated, and if we get the chance to do it, it’s gonna be intense. It’s gonna be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do for sure, because the scale is way bigger than the last one, in terms of resources and time but also in terms of scope. The first movie is very much contained, it’s a small little world, there’s no horizon in line. There’s basically three locations in the maze, which is a challenge on its own—it’s keeping things moving when you’ve only got three separate places to go shoot.
But the next movie is a journey movie, a fugitive movie with these kids on the run, in a terrible, dangerous environment, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The first movie for me is very much about high school, about how you don’t have an identity and you latch onto one and you kinda navigate the dangers outside of your home world, essentially. Then you find yourself in this new world, out of the frying pan and into the fire, what the hell do I do now? That’s very much what the next movie’s about, it’s kinda like college—it’s about experimentation, these ideas about growing up and discovering who you are as a person and how you fit into the world. And then there’s all the cool mythology stuff that we can start hinting at, all the things that were in the movie that—and I got a lot of criticism for this in my short, about things that don’t quite wrap up at the end—we get to continue doing that in the next movie. All those things that we set up, they all make sense in the next movie. I grew up on Star Wars, and it’s like, when you watch the movies, it feels like it was all planned. And TV does this so well, they’re like ten episode movies, like Game of Thrones. I kind of love the idea of doing that with movies, so if people can be patient with us, and kinda take the ride, it’s gonna be a lot of fun.
What attracts you as a filmmaker to make apocalyptic films such as The Maze Runner, or your short Ruin?
WB: Well, first of all, if someone’s gonna offer you a job, you take it, no matter what! For me, the post-apocalyptic thing—I’m talking about Ruin right now—when I came up with that idea no one else was doing it, and I’d been working on Ruin for many many years. I think there’s something romantic about the reset, the idea of a world where you’re kind of self-reliant, where it’s a world of treasure. In Ruin it’s almost like an Indiana Jones story in the future, essentially. It’s a world that’s basically come to an end, and it’s this character who goes out and finds all kinds of treasures out in this world, and the crazy sci-fi things that they can do. It’s that Arthur C. Clarke quote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. What’s interesting about The Maze Runner though is that you don’t know it’s a post-apocalyptic movie. When you first go in there you think you’re in Lord of the Flies or something like that, you don’t see any of those things. We obviously—spoilers of course—see that’s kind of where they are for the next movie. I guess that’s probably why the studio gave me this book after they saw Ruin. I can’t say that it was totally intentional, it’s just kinda where it worked out.
How closely were you working with the author of the books, James Dashner?
WB: When I came on, they gave me the book to consider. I was talking to them about Ruin, I wanted to make it into this big franchise thing. We had these little screenings of the short, and they gave me this book, The Maze Runner, and they gave me the script they had also, and I decided that I wanted to start over from scratch and do something different with the book, and fortunately they let me do that. I wanted to stay as close to the book as I could, because obviously the fans are the first people to see this movie and they should be happy, we should respect their desires and what they wanna see.
After I wrote about the second or third draft, I brought James in, and I told him what I wanted to do, and he’s always been so supportive of us. He understands that we have to make a movie, which is different from a book, and they don’t have to replace each other, just kind of operate side by side. For the most part he would let me do my thing, but I would always go to him and say “what do you think, are fans are gonna miss this, if I take it out?” or “what about this change, or this tweak”, that kinda thing. I brought him out to the Glade when we were building that, and he got this kid-in-a-candy-store look, it was fantastic, to see his little world coming to life. It was amazing.
I didn’t let him see the movie after I finished it, but I let him come out to the scoring session. That was fantastic. There’s something so special about it. Basically, John Paesano is kind of a newcomer himself as a composer. He’s trained under John Williams, worked under John Powell and Hans Zimmer, and he’s got this really unique mix of old school charm with this modern edge. So I had James actually come in to see some of that, and the movie had no dialogue, it’s just the scenes playing with a full orchestra in the background. It’s amazing, there’s nothing like it in the world. You never quite get that feeling again when you play it in a theatre, it’s just something special coming live, especially the choirs, freakin’ phenomenal.
On the topic of the soundtrack, it really sets the tone from the get-go, with the theme that comes in early on and keeps repeating at key moments of the film. Did you give John (Paesano) any pointers?
WB: Yes! I love soundtracks, I’ve been listening to soundtracks since I was… whenever Jurassic Park came out. That was the first soundtrack that I ever bought, and since then I’m a total dork, that’s all I listen to. Soundtracks. I have a huge collection of these things. It’s just something for me, I daydream very well with them, thinking about scenes. There’s a pace and a structure and a rhythm to it, so typically I design scenes to soundtracks.
When I was looking for who was going to compose this movie, my big thing was that—and there’s no knock against what people are doing these days, but—Hans Zimmer, when he came on the scene, everything kind of became the Hans Zimmer sound, which is very much this driving engine, this adrenaline, this pulse, and I wanted themes. I wanted character and emotion, and John Williams was the guy who used to do that. So I talked to John (Paesano) a lot about that, and he obviously comes from that school too so it worked out really well I think. There’s some really strong themes there, and it helps to tell the story. Hopefully it’s not so over the top that it gets in the way, but it’s a nice kind of marriage with the picture.
I’m excited for people to check out the score, I think it’s fantastic. And if you listen to it actually in a full run, it’s got true character. There’s a whole story that plays out on its own, the different themes that emerge and different sounds, different textures. We’re basically setting up for the next score, now that he has some of that written it’s fantastic. Like I said, the next movie totally grows up, it just becomes way more subtle and nuanced, and we get to do that as a team again. It’s really fun.
Any particular challenges you had to face while making the film?
WB: It was two challenges, honestly. Being tied, essentially, to source material, I can’t do whatever I wanna do. I have to stay true. This is a franchise, there’s a certain structure that has to come into place, things that have to be set up so we can continue to tell the story. That was tricky, it was a tough thing to navigate, personally. And then second was the resources. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure any director on any scale—you can never do all you wanna do, basically. You’re always up against compromise. But sometimes you really felt it, because we were a pretty small-budgeted movie for what we were trying to achieve, so that was exceptionally difficult. My imagination tends to be very expensive and big, so it’s just finding the bare minimum, essentially. Sometimes good things come out of that process, but those were the tough things for me, personally. Other than that, it was the challenge of making a movie, and that’s a whole different kind of puzzle.
Even given those restrictions though, you managed to create an actual Glade. Did you grow the whole environment of the Glade?
WB: We basically went out and scouted hundreds of cow pastures. Stepped on plenty of crap along the way, too. It was important to find a place that had character, and it was also important for it to be a real place. It needed to have real sunlight, and that was a big thing when I was making this movie. When I came on I was like, “I’m not making Twilight”. I wasn’t making this teeny-bopper polished bubblegum thing, with bright colours and all this crazy stuff. I wanted to make something that was dark and moody and sweaty and gritty. You know, the sweat you see in the movie? That’s real sweat. That’s real stuff, and I think there’s a real cool beauty in that.
So yeah, finding that glade was important, and eventually we found this one place—I think it’ll be on the DVD—I remember the day, actually. We drive through this little cow pasture, this guy’s farmyard, through the grass and up to this line of trees, and I’m like “this is it guys, is this what you wanna show me?” and he was like “No no no, go through down those trees.” So we walked through those trees, and there’s this little hill that kinda drops down into this little, basically a swamp. And you merged into that and you walk out of that swamp and you come into… The Glade. And it was fantastic, that was the place. What was interesting about it was that there was this little fence line of trees on the edges, what it felt like was the walls. They were about a hundred feet tall, and if you looked around, it wasn’t concrete but it was a wall around you, you felt closed in. It felt right. And when I found it it was in the winter, which was tough to decide on, you’re looking at bare trees and you really want it to be green, you had to just kind of pray that it’s all gonna green up when we start shooting in a few months. We made the right choice though, it was a fun one.
What was your favourite scene to shoot or direct?
WB: That’s like choosing your babies, choosing your favourites, I don’t know. I will say that there was one in particular from the book that got me wanting to make the movie, and that was Ben’s banishment. That scene was a cool idea of seeing kids having to make adult decisions for the group. That was a scene that was just intense and brutal and merciless, and if Sue was gonna let me do that, and put that kind of a scene into a kids’ movie essentially, I was like “I wanna do it”. That scene resonates with me in particular, because it was the scene that made me see the movie in a different light, as not just a kids’ movie, but a movie with kids in it. Other than that, there were a lot of fun little scenes, all those character scenes that I really like, that was a big surprise for me, coming from that background. You have two characters on a log, talking. It was amazing, that kind of life where that would happen. That was a learning experience for me as a filmmaker. We shot it so fast it’s all kind of crammed together, I’m interested to see the making-ofs and stuff, to remember those days. “Oh yeah, that scene, I remember how that went!” Right now, it’s all kind of a blur.
The Maze Runner is out in cinemas in the UK now. Read Kat Kourbeti’s review here, and listen to this interview on the latest episode of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can also listen to our cast interview here, and read the transcript here.
Kat Kourbeti – Follow me on Twitter.