There aren't many filmmakers who get to take a crack at a major young adult franchise with their first feature film, but director Wes Ball managed to do just that with The Maze Runner, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD December 16. Based on the popular novel trilogy by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is set in a mysterious and massive maze known as The Glade, where a number of young men find themselves inexplicably trapped, with no memory of how or why they were put there. Dylan O'Brien stars as Thomas, the latest addition to The Glade who may be the one to lead them out of the maze for good.
After working as a graphic artist for several years, Wes Ball makes his directorial debut with The Maze Runner, an ambitious project that managed to win over fans and critics alike, taking in over $330 million at the box office during its theatrical run. I recently had the chance to chat with Wes Ball, who took a break during his production schedule on the sequel The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, to chat about the various challenges this production had to offer, the process of picking such a diverse cast, and much more. Take a look at what he had to say in our exclusive interview for The Maze Runner below.
Can you talk a bit about how familiar you were with the novels before this adaptation came around? Had you read the novels before they approached you to direct?
Wes Ball: No, I actually hadn't. I was talking to the studio about my little short film thing, and they kind of pulled me aside and gave me this book that I had never heard of. I read it over the weekend and kind of latched on to it, and I was seeing how it was adapted and stuff, telling them my ideas. They gave me the job, so I got lucky.
We ran a few behind-the-scenes featuerttes before the film's theatrical release, and it seemed like you did a lot of this practically. It was a really impressive set to look at in these featurettes. Was that something that was really important to you, that you got as much of this world as possible in camera?
Wes Ball: Yeah, that was a big deal. My background is in VFX, and I know from experience that the best VFX are when you have something real in the frame, that you can either extend or work off of. It was really important to get as much as possible in camera, for real. There's just something different about real light, real textures, and not only that, but for the actors, it's paramount. They need something real to interact with and be inspired by. Otherwise, you're standing in a green screen world, and there's nothing there. Yeah, it was really important for us to do as much in camera as possible. Of course, we had to do a lot of VFX stuff, but it was more about extending and enhancing the world around it, rather than creating the whole thing.
Can you talk about how involved James Dashner was in crafting the story for the screen, and how valuable that input was for you guys?
Wes Ball: Yeah, it was mainly important, honestly, for the fans. I was a fan of the book after I read it, and I wanted to make sure the fans were happy too. No book can be completely and perfectly adapted, but I wanted to make sure that we got the spirit right, and a lot of the favorite scenes right. I went on Twitter and asked the fans, 'Hey, what's your favorite scene?' I just made a checklist of what everyone was expecting from it. Then after we worked on a draft or two, that's when I approached James finally, and I asked him to read it and tell me what you think. I showed him some concept art and all this crazy stuff. He's such a movie geek anyway, he was very warm and open to any kind of ideas that we had. He really became a champion for us to do our thing. He was always offering his input, but, at the same time, he let us make the movie we wanted to make.
Can you talk a bit about the casting process? I was really impressed with Dylan (O'Brien) and Will (Poulter) and Kaya (Scodelario) and the whole cast, really. Can you talk about how extensive that casting search was, and how long it took you to find the right people to play these characters?
Wes Ball: Oh, it took a long time. Dylan was the last guy we hired, basically, and that was obviously our lead role. It was a difficult one to find, but Kaya was probably the first person that I knew I wanted right away. I loved the idea of her playing this character of Teresa. She was the first person I went after, and then it was Will, because I just loved Son of Rambow. Then everyone else were just these little discoveries that we found. It was all about finding real people. We weren't necessarily looking for pretty faces, we wanted to find really good actors, who you could believe in and latch onto, emotionally. That was really the challenge, finding those kinds of people who fit the roles. I think we got really, really lucky to find really great people. A lot of the credit goes to Denise Chamian, our casting director too. That was the main thing from the beginning, just making sure we found very real people. At one point, I know J.J. Abrams a little bit, and I emailed him. After watching Super 8, I told him, there are two people who direct kids the best, you and Spielberg. Do you have any tips? He said the same thing, it was about finding real people. It wasn't about finding people who could act, you have to just find people who are inherently the people you're looking for, because then they'll bring a whole new kind of spirit that's genuine. Dylan was kind of the "rich kid" choice for me, at first, because I had trouble seeing him as Thomas, but he's such a good actor. I knew he could do the leading man stuff, the action-oriented stuff, but the vulnerable boy stuff, how were we going to handle that? I brought him in and did a screen test with him, and it was obvious that he was going to be our Thomas. We really lucked out with Dylan.
You got a really good sense of, before Thomas' arrival, how the Gladers had bonded and created this life for each other. Did these actors have a lot of time before shooting started to build that rapport? Was Dylan there also, since he is the outsider coming in?
Wes Ball: Right from the start, I told everyone that, whenever we found our guys, I wanted just two weeks of them being out there in The Glade, just making the place real, you know what I mean? It was cool. It was basically a little boot camp. We brought all of the cast in, they came fresh in off the bus with their city clothes, and I put them with this guy Giovanni, who was a Ranger or a Marine. It was a survival camp. They got dirt under their fingernails, made fire, walked around the Glade, and got used to it. At the same time, they're all really great people, and there's a great dynamic that happened almost immediately. They were cooking for each other and hanging out with each other. To this day, they're all really good friends. That was really important to create that dynamic so you felt that on screen. I'm glad you felt that. That's great.
I know you can't talk at all about the sequel, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, but you have said in the past that you want this to be a true trilogy. A lot of these young adult franchises are splitting the last book in two. Was Fox always on board with that approach, and can you talk about why you think that's important?
Wes Ball: I mean, who knows, honestly. I don't have all the say in that, for sure, but if I had any say in it, it's three movies. That's mainly because, you know, beginning, middle and end. It just naturally works, the rule of threes. It's that magic number. Four kind of offsets things. All the series' that have four movies out there, something just feels off about it. It doesn't feel right. For me, yeah, it's very important to do it in a natural three. That, or make it six, one of the other (Laughs). That's my kind of thing, but who knows. I said it in an interview at one point, and it got picked up. I've never had an explicit conversation with the studio about it, but they certainly know my opinion on it. Who knows.
I know you're in production on the second one right now. Are you planning on filming the third film next year?
Wes Ball: Honestly, I'm not even thinking about that yet. I wasn't even thinking about a sequel, I was just focused on making the first one, really. We're doing the same on this one. Obviously, we knew that if we made the first one, and it worked out, there were two more books to make. I didn't really decide to do the second one until we were halfway through post, basically, when the studio asked me to make the second one and find a way to adapt that book. It's a much more difficult book to adapt, so now, we're very much thinking about the next two stories, in terms of setting up those arcs, because if we're making the second one, we're probably going to make the third one, right? We're really making sure that we're setting up the rest of the saga, essentially.
I haven't gotten to check out any of the bonus features yet, but is there anything that you really enjoy from the special features on the Blu-ray and DVD?
Wes Ball: Yeah, we've got some commentary type stuff, and I think they put my short film Ruin on there, which is pretty cool, to show people where I kind of came from. Then there's just the usual good stuff, deleted scenes, some of the boot camp stuff is on there, a lot of really great making-of type things, showing how we really made the movie. It was a really fun movie to make with a lot of really great people, behind the camera and in front of the camera. I think you can really see that through the making-of stuff, how fun it was to make this crazy movie in eight weeks. There is also a blooper reel and a lot of other fun stuff. It should be fun for people.
Eight weeks doesn't seem like a long time, for a movie of this scope.
Wes Ball: No, it wasn't, man (Laughs). It was crazy, but we did the best we could.
Do you have more time on the sequel then?
Wes Ball: A little bit. Not too much more, but it's definitely a much, much bigger movie, and we're doing the same thing but... I'm a big believer in that "punch above your weight class" thing, you know. I don't want the movie to feel crazy and bloated and expensive, because it's more risk to the studio, it's more risk on me. When you keep things responsible and manageable, you can make some interesting movies that you maybe couldn't make otherwise. A lot of the choices we made in this movie, they're pretty ballsy and edgy at times. If we were making a super expensive movie, we couldn't make those kinds of choices, because you have to appeal to more people to make your money back. We try to keep things lean and mean and get the biggest bang for the buck. That's kind of my mantra, anyway.
I have a few filmmaker friends who are known for shooting super-fast, and they say that you don't have the time to over-think things, and how that helps things out creatively.
Wes Ball: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes, the limitations bring out even more creative solutions. Not always (Laughs), but sometimes, yeah. It's part of the job and we do the best we can with what we've got.
Is there anything you'd like to say to anyone who didn't get a chance to see The Maze Runner in theaters, about why they should give it a shot and pick up the Blu-ray or DVD this week?
Wes Ball: Yeah, well they probably think it's a certain kind of movie, just based on the trailers, this young adult thing. I think the fact that we tried very hard not just to make another young adult movie and do something a little more edgy and adventurous, a little more boyish, maybe. I think they might actually enjoy it, especially if they like movies like The Goonies and Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park and Alien. Those are my kind of touchstones for this movie, so if people like that kind of stuff, they may want to give it a shot and check it out, because they may have a good time.
That's all I have. Thanks so much, Wes. It was great talking to you.
Wes Ball: Thanks. You too, man. I appreciate it.
You can watch Wes Ball's The Maze Runner when it debuts on Blu-ray and DVD December 16. Wes Ball is currently in production on the upcoming sequel The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, which is set for release on September 18, 2015. It remains to be seen whether or not the third book in James Dashner's novel trilogy, Death Cure will also be making its way to the big screen, but we'll keep you posted as soon as we have more information.