Considering it’s just his debut feature film, it’s something of a surprise to see The Maze Runner adaptation fall into the hands of Wes Ball, but he’s done an accomplished job with this enticing piece of cinema. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Wes to discuss the project, and his thoughts on extending this franchise even further…
I knew exactly how I wanted to do it. It’s an experience, you know? You feel like you’re with that guy, in that elevator, and you’re immediately connected to that character, before seeing the entire movie from his point of view. It just seemed like the right way to go for me. I love the idea of an audience sitting there in darkness for a few minutes while the elevator comes to life. It’s going to be awesome.
Did the studio need any convincing to start in such a way?
Not really. They have been very supporting. Partly because our budget is quite small so there’s not a lot of risk necessarily, so we got to take some chances. They took a chance on me big time, so they’ve been a great partner. I’m a very collaborative person anyway and they know I’m not crazy, so there’s been a lot of great communication between us. They have ideas, I have ideas and we listen to each other and come up with the best version. So yeah, it’s been a very smooth process.
With all due respect, they really did take a big chance on you. You must have been pretty thrilled when you received that call to tell you the job was yours?
Yeah it was awesome. They told me in the room actually. I went and pitched to them and told them what I wanted to do with Maze Runner, and they were like, ‘yep, let’s do this’. Not long after that my little short film Ruin was set up for a feature film too, so it was a whirlwind week. I felt like someone needed to pinch me, it was crazy.
Was directing the eventual aim for you?
Yeah I always wanted to work in movies, but I thought I would be more on the post side of things. I thought maybe an editor or something like that, I’ve always been fascinated by visual and special effects, it’s how I started anyway. But I was in film school when I made my first short film and played it in front of an audience, and the reaction was insane. It was a spoof on The Matrix and it was so ambitious, and the 40 or so people in the theatre went nuts for it, it was so fun. That enthusiasm you get from an audience for something you’ve made is intoxicating. As soon as that happened I thought, okay, I’m directing. From thereon, which was 15 years ago, I’ve just been pursuing that.
Having a passion in the visual effects side to cinema – does that serve you well now as a director, particularly given the nature to the project you’ve undertaken?
Yeah it becomes a tool that you can use to tell a story. That was important. Knowing the process, knowing the tools and knowing I could save money doing it, was a huge key. I grew up with those tools emerging and I’ve been around it forever, which is very valuable now as our movies rely on effects.
These days having more skills in your locker is so important. Especially given the birth of YouTube, etc, anybody can be a director.
It’s interesting. I bet you anyone, like Spielberg, for example, could pick up a camera and know how to shoot it, and they know the tools. They might not be masters at it like the people they work with, but they know how to use it and do something good with it. So it’s been so useful to have knowledge. As long as it doesn’t become just practical, that was important to me.
The story itself seems quite elusive, putting the viewer in the same position as Thomas. We see things from his perspective but he doesn’t know what’s going on. Is it fun to play with the audience’s perceptions in that regard?
Yes it is, and the mystery is very much the engine to our movie. You’re asking questions, ad we’re slowly giving the answers. Even by the end we don’t answer everything. We take a little bit of a chance there of leaving it open to explore in a second movie, if we’re that lucky. There’s a ballsy start, but it’s how we end too – we leave it with more story to tell, and more characters to explore. But we’ll see – hopefully we’re that lucky to do something like that.
When you make a film based on such a popular series of novels, it must bring about a whole new weight of expectation, because there is this established fan-base that know what they want…
They do, but they’ve been very supportive. I’ve tried to keep them involved and in the loop on Twitter and stuff like that. When I first got the job I asked them what were their favourite scenes from the book that you wanted to see in the movie. They listed them out and I made sure they’re in the movie to the best of my ability. They’re really happy with the cast so it’s the best kind of pressure. It makes you reach for something that will make them happy, but at the same time you have to keep your eye on the fact that you need to make a movie and it’s got to work as a movie. So I’m not replacing the book, I’m just making something to live parallel alongside the book.
In a way, can it be tough to implement your own directorial vision and yet tread carefully enough to avoid a backlash from the fans?
I didn’t have any problems there actually, which is weird. It all just popped in my head when I was reading the book and it was easy to come up with the visual aspect of it all. It was a smooth process.
To call Maze Runner ‘young adult’ is a disservice because along with The Hunger Games and Divergent, there are some brilliantly dark and deranged tales out there, aimed at any age…
It’s a weird thing. People just label it that. It’s not like it’s a new occurrence, we’ve had this forever. People like labelling things, and it definitely puts a target on our back, so it’s interesting. I’ll take any comparisons to The Hunger Games for sure, but hopefully we transcend it a little in the movie. I wanted to make a cool movie with kids in it, not a kids movie. I try to make something like The Goonies, or Jurassic Park or Raiders, something adventurous and fun that I grew up on. I wanted to tap into that, I didn’t think about the whole YA thing.
This is your directorial debut, is there anything that took you by surprise? Anything you found harder, or easier, than you had initially envisaged?
I tell you one thing, I have a newfound respect for anybody who makes a movie that makes it up on screen. Because it is so hard. There are so many things that are against you, so many challenges that are out of your control. It’s crazy. I’m not so hard on movies any more because I know how difficult it really is. In terms of surprises though, it was working with actors. I came in the a VFX background so knew how to pull stuff off technically, but working with actors was a real joy. Finding the truth in these scenes and making things feel real, honest and true, to create moments that just come to life. I was not expecting that, and have the urge to make a little character movie now. So maybe some day I will.
The cast features a range of young, British actors…
Half of my cast is British, man. Only one person gets to speak in their accent though!
How did they all come to be involved? Were you aware of the likes of Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario and Thomas Brodie-Sangster already?
Yeah when I first came on I immediately pictured Kaya. I wanted Effy from Skins. Will, too. As soon as I came in they were two people I knew I wanted. Then I found Thomas, I was like, oh, the Love Actually kid. He is so good in the movie. Everyone is, but I hope that in a few years people will look back at this movie and, if nothing else, say, ‘wow look at all of those future stars when they were younger’. They’re all committed and gave 110%. I couldn’t have been more fortunate. They were all game for anything. Dylan will be a star too. An obvious star, he’s a relatable guy you couldn’t help but like, who is very humble and talented and funny and good looking. Bastard. If nothing else we have characters you care about and want to see in the next one.
Will is a brilliant comic talent too, but in this it seems we see a darker, tougher side to him?
He’s got some charm, but he’s the aggressive character. It was interesting for him as he got to show us a different side. You’re like, is that the kid from We’re the Millers? But people forget how tall he is and actually intimidating he could be, but he’s the nicest guy ever, like a gentle giant. What was fun about him is that in the book he’s described very much like a bully, the Slytherin house villain, But we wanted to move away from that and make him more of a grounded antagonist. It was fun to explore that and make him an honest and true character. But it was tough, we have six or seven main characters in this saga, to give them all their due. You know, every fan has their favourite, so it was not easy making sure they each had their own weight.
So, in regards to the potential sequel – is this a franchise you’d like to remain in and explore further?
Yeah, and while my head is not there right now, we’re starting to right a script now, sitting in rooms all day trying to make it super special. I’m not going to do it unless it’s freaking awesome! We’ll have to make some changes again, of course, but hopefully we’ll have a whole new set of fans from the movie that we’ll also need to appease, not just the fans of the books. It will be a different kind of sequel, which is fun, we don’t want to do something that has the same notes as the other, we want to explore new ideas and new challenges for these kids, and it’ll be cool if we get it.
The Maze Runner is out now.