Wes Ball recently joined us for a round table interview following the imminent release of his directorial debut, The Maze Runner, adapted from James Dashner’s widely celebrated book series.
How did you approach the characters’ contrasting emotional journeys?
WB: For me, personally, it’s an experience. You’re on this ride with this main character Thomas – you’re experience the movie through his eyes. We’re only cut away for one scene in the movie. The rest is all in his point of view. I like that idea of not spoon-feeding everything to the audience, and I liked being on this journey with them and making it entertaining; making it intense and have cool-moments to grab onto – but hopefully at least have the audience fall in love with these characters in some small way too, so that we can continue telling the story for the rest of the movie. I was saying this to someone else the other day; my job coming in was to give the studio a franchise – they have a series of books, and that is what they want. They want a franchise. My goal as a film-maker is to make a good movie. The puzzle is how you do both of those things. We do the best with the resources what we have, and we had a great cast that you latch onto, and hopefully we will just get to continue on with the questions that still linger and the ideas that we don’t quite fully get to explore. We get to really tackle them in the next movie where everything grows up and picks right up where the last one left off, and you get basically this four-hour movie and this crazy journey that the characters go through. Things come along and just grab me – there are the couple of movies lately that are very much like a roller-coaster ride – I think there’s something cool about that.
How long were you shooting for?
WB: We shot for eight weeks, which is a very short period of time to do a movie. It was intense, but fun. Some of those limitations help you; working in those parameters sometimes forces out creative ideas, but sometimes it’s frustrating that you have to compromise so much. That’s all we had, and what we tried was to do the best with what we had.
What can you tell us about your further involvements with the franchise?
WB: I have options with what to do next. Fortunately, enough people inside the industry have seen the movie and they can see that I know how to use a camera at least, so it is interesting. Right now we’re prepping the sequel. We’re gearing up to go, basically. The fan screenings and test screenings so far are showing that they, for the most part, like the movie, and want to see the next one – which is kind of by design. I’m trying to deliver a franchise for the studio here. At first I wasn’t looking to do the sequel, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with the cast again. They are just so great.
We’re just ten weeks out from shooting right now. [20/08/14]. We’re in New Mexico, we’ve got crew coming in, the script is in about its third draft already; it’s frickin’ massive, and awesome. We’re changing it a little from the novel; I’ve already told James Dashner, the author, that there are just some things that don’t work for me in the movie, so we’re are rearranging it slightly to make sure it has a nice trajectory of beginning, middle, end. The books can be a little more meandering than what a movie can be.
We’ve got some kick-ass, really cool movie monsters. Like I said, the movie takes place right where the last one left off. There’s this really cool sense of growing up in the movie; it’s way more mature, deeper and sophisticated, and it’s going to be (if we get the chance to do it) intense. By far one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do, for sure. Again, its scale is way bigger than the last one. In terms of its shooting time, resources, money and all of that stuff, but also in terms of scope – the first movie is very much contained in comparison. It’s just a small little movie; there’s no horizon in the movie. It’s just basically three locations in the maze – which is a challenge all on its own. It’s hard to keep things moving when you have just three split places to go shoot.
The next movie’s a journey movie. It’s about these kids on-the-run; it’s a fugitive movie. These kids are in these terrible, dangerous environments, and are still trying to figure out what the hell is going on (along with all these crazy dangers) to find their way in the world. The first movie, for me, is very much like high-school; how you don’t have an identity, and latch onto one to navigate the dangers outside your home world, essentially, and 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 is about. It’s kind of like college; all of this experimentation – it’s about these kind of ideas of growing up as a person and discovering how you fit into the world as a larger whole. Plus, then there’s all of the cool mythology stuff that we get to really start hinting at. I got a lot of criticism for this in my short – about things that I don’t quite wrap up at the end, and we get to continue kind of doing that in the next movie. All of those things that we set up – they all make sense in the next movie. It’s fun to think about this kind of thing in those terms. I grew up on Star Wars – I mean, you can watch those things and it feels at least like it was all planned. There’s something cool about that, and thinking about it, TV does it so well. The stuff they’re doing is like a ten-hour movie (Game of Thrones) – I love that idea for movies. If people can be patient with us, and kind of take the ride, then it’ll be a lot of fun to go into this next one. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do it, but who knows, you never actually know what’ll happen. We’re proceeding as if we know it is going to happen though.
What attracted you to post-apocalyptic films like Ruin and The Maze Runner, as a director?
WB: Well, first of all, if someone’s going to offer you a job, you take it no matter what. For me, the post-apocalyptic thing – when I came up with that idea, nobody else was doing it. 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 self-reliant; a world of treasure. In Ruin, it’s kind of an Indiana Jones story in the future, essentially. It’s a world that has come to an end, and there’s this character that goes out and finds all sorts of treasure on this world, and sees all of these crazy sci-fi things they can do. It’s like that Arthur C. Clark quote: “anything you don’t understand is basically magic”. What’s interesting about The Maze Runner though, is that you don’t actually know it’s a post-apocalyptic movie. When you first go into it it’s like you’re in The Lord of the Flies, or something like that. Spoilers of course; you kind of see that that’s where they are for the next movie, and the next main location – but I guess that’s kind of why the studio gave me this book – I guess after they saw Ruin. I can’t say that it’s totally intentional, but it just kind of worked out.
How closely did you work with James Dashner?
WB: When I came on they gave me the book to consider, and talked to me about Ruin; “what we are going to do is Ruin” – but as a big franchise thing. So they asked me to do a little screening for some people on the lot there, and they gave me this book, The Maze Runner, and the script as well. I decided that I wanted to start over from scratch and do something different with the book, however. Fortunately, they let me do that, but I wanted to stay as close to the book as I could, because, obviously, the fans are the first people that are going to see this movie, and we wanted to make sure they’d be happy, and we wanted to respect what they’d ideally want to see.
After I wrote about the second or third draft, I brought James in and introduced myself, and told him what I wanted to do. He’s always been so supportive of us – he understands that we’re going to make a movie, which is different from writing a book. They don’t have to replace each other, but they can stand next to each other, side-by-side. For the most part he just let me do my thing, but I would always go to him and say “Do you think the fans will be upset if I took this part out?” etc. I brought him out to the Glade when we were building, and he was like this kid in a candy store. It was fantastic to see his little world coming to life. It was amazing. The last thing I did, was letting him come out to the scoring session. That was fantastic. There’s just something so special about it. John Paesano, who scored the movie, is a newcomer himself. He’s the guy who trained under John Williams, and worked under John Powell and Hans Zimmer. He’s got this unique kind of mix of old-school charm, with this modern edge – so James Dashner came in to see some of the scenes without dialogue – with just the scenes playing out to a full orchestra in the background. It’s amazing, there’s nothing like it in the world. It’s absolutely fantastic. You never get quite that feeling again when you play it in theatres. It loses something special, something live – especially from choirs – it’s phenomenal.
Could you talk us through how the original scoring came about?
WB: I’ve been listening to soundtracks since Jurassic Park came out in 1993. That was the first soundtrack that I ever bought, and since then I’ve been a total dork – it’s all I listen to; soundtracks. I have a huge collection of these things. There’s just something for me – I day-dream very well with them. I think about scenes – there’s this pace, a rhythm, and structure to them. Typically, I design scenes to soundtracks. When I was looking for who to compose this movie, (and there is no knock against what people are doing these days) everything was still very much in that Hans Zimmer sound – like this driving engine, adrenaline, this pulse. I wanted themes. I want character in them, emotion, those kind of things. John Williams is the guy to do that. I spoke to John Paseano a lot about that, and coming from that school too, it worked out really well I think. There are some really strong themes in 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 marriage with the picture. I’m excited for people to check out the score. I think it is fantastic. If you listen to it in a full run then there’s a true character and whole story that’s playing on its own. There are all these different genres that emerge; sounds, textures. We’re basically setting it up for the next score. I already have some of that written; it’s fantastic. Like I said, the next movie just grows up and becomes way more subtle, and we get to do it as a team again; it’s really fun – best job in the world.
What were the challenges behind this production?
WB: There were two challenges, honestly. It was being tied to source material – I can’t do whatever I want. This is a franchise; there’s a certain structure that has to come into place, certain things that have to be set up so that we can continue telling the story. That was tricky, and a tough thing to navigate, personally. Second was the resources – I’m not alone in this, I’m sure that any director of any scale would agree that you can never do what you want to do all the time. You’re always up against compromise. Sometimes you really feel it. We’re a pretty small budget movie for what we’re trying to achieve, so that was exceptionally difficult for the kind of big things that I imagined – finding the bare minimum, essentially. Often some good things come out of that process though, but those were tough things for me personally. Other than that it was just the challenge of making a movie. That’s just a different kind of puzzle.
Could You talk us through how The Glade was constructed?
WB: We basically went out and scouted hundreds of cow-patches – stepped on plenty of crap on the way too. It was important to find somewhere that had character. It was also important that it was a real place. It needed to have real sunlight, and that was the big thing about making this movie – that when I came on I said “I’m not making Twilight“. I wasn’t making this tweeny-opera; polished, bubble-gum thing with bright colours and all that stuff. I wanted to make something that was dark; moody, sweaty, and gritty. The sweat you see in the movie; that’s real sweat. I think there’s this cool beauty in that.
Finding that Glade was important, and we did eventually find the place – I think it’ll be on the DVD. I remember the day actually – we drove through this farmyard, though the grass and this line of trees, and I was like “This is it guys, this is what you want to show me?” – “No, no, no. Go through down those trees” – so we walked to these trees, and there’s like this little hill that drops down into this swamp, so you emerge into that and walk out of the swamp and you come into the Glade. It was fantastic, that was definitely the place. What was interesting about it was that there was this little fence line of trees on the edges, and what it felt like was the walls. They were about 100-feet tall, and if you looked around, it wasn’t concrete, but it you felt closed in, and it felt right. When I first saw it, it was the winter, so there were bare trees, but we wanted it to be green, so we prayed that it would all be green again by the time we started shooting in a few months. We made the right choice.
What’s your favourite scene from the film?
WB: *Laughs* that’s like choosing your favourite baby. I don’t know, but I will say that there was one in particular from the book that got me wanting to make the movie. It was Ben’s banishment – I thought that was a cool moment of kids having to make adult decisions for the group, so that was like a scene that was just very intense, brutal, and merciless. If they were going to let me do that, and put that kind of a scene into a kids movie, essentially, I was like “I definitely want to”. That scene just resonates with me in particular because it’s that thing that made me see the movie in a different light – not just a kid’s movie, but more of an adult film with kids in it.
There were lots of fun little character scenes that I liked – it was a nice surprise for me to come from this background and find these two little characters on a log just talking. It was great to just see this type of life happening, and it was a learning experience for me as a film-maker. We shot it so fast that it’s all crammed together, and I’m interested to see the making-of’s, being like: “Oh yeah, that scene, I remember how that went”. Right now it’s all kind of a blur.
We greatly appreciate the opportunity for interviews to this film provided by 20th Century Fox and Substance.