Last summer, when The Maze Runner was filming outside New Orleans, I got to visit the set along with a few other reporters. If you’re not familiar with James Dashner’s YA novel, it centers on a group of teens who appear in an area known as “The Glade” but have no memory when they wake up. The only way out appears to be through a shifting maze of massive walls that harbor dangerous creatures known as Grievers. Only one of the teens, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), holds the secret to their escape. The Maze Runner also stars Kaya Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, and Patricia Clarkson.
During a break in filming I was able to participate in a group interview with director Wes Ball. He talked about the pressure of making his first film, how he landed the job (which is a great story), how Jurassic Park got him into wanting to make movies, what kind of audience he’s aiming for on Maze Runner, how Blake Cooper used Twitter to land a role, the rest of the cast, doing 36 setups on the first day, and a lot more. If you’re curious how The Maze Runner came together as a movie, you’ll definitely enjoy this interview.
Here’s the trailer followed by the interview.
WES BALL: It’s all pressure, but it’s all good. We’re just trying to make a good movie basically and it comes down to having an awesome cast, which I guess you’ve met several or… How many have you talked to yet? I lucked out and I mean I totally lucked out. These guys are total pros, they come in knowing their lines. They know their thing. They’ve got all of these ideas. My job is to kind of nudge them. Who said it where like “90% of the job is casting,” so all I do is try to come to set and focus on getting all the best shots to cover the story, that’s really it. So I felt very fortunate in that sense. I got an awesome team with Enrique, the DP, or our AD… I mean all of our guys, it’s just perfect, so I lucked out in that sense. So my job is kind of easy now, it’s just making my day and trying to keep the quality up and try to squeeze out as much movie as we can with the money that we have. We are very ambitious on this movie and hopefully I’ll get to show you guys some more stuff later, some of our cut footage that we’ve got so far with three weeks in. It’s exciting. It’s cool. It’s a kid’s movie, but it doesn’t feel like a kid’s movie. It’s really dark.
Is this more like an old school Amblin thing?
BALL: No, which is surprising. That’s my world and I wanted to do that going in, but we’ve gone for this very raw, very real, very edgy kind of movie. It’s very Lord of the Flies. That was my big inspiration coming into this thing. When I came into the studio, I was like “It’s Lord of the Flies meets Lost.” That’s basically how I’ve kind of pitched it and they were like “Yep, that’s it.” So we’ve taken that approach with a lot of hand held, a lot of raw… It’s a kid’s movie with teeth, so it’s cool. It’s a lot of fun to actually play that. For me personally, when I was a kid, that’s like the stuff I wanted to watch, all the R rated stuff. I was like “That’s what’s cool,” so I didn’t want to do bubble gum in this movie, I wanted to do something really cool and edgy. So I think we’re hitting that. It’s kind of exciting.
Did you know about The Maze Runner, the novel, beforehand?
BALL: Basically my story and how I got started in all of this was I did this little short called Ruin. It was a little short film thing. That kind of started making the rounds around Hollywood and then I went into Fox and talked to everyone there. The guy I was talking to at the time was Steve Asbelt and then we kind of made the rounds with all of the executives there. Peter Kang was our executive on Maze Runner, so as I’m kind of flirting with him about Ruin, which is this big epic three-movie massive… it’s my Star Wars basically, I’m kind of flirting with him about that project, they took me over… It was great actually, I remember the day, they invited me to go in their screening room and we watched Ruin in 3D with full surround sound and everything. It was fantastic. They brought all of the guys from Fox in. It was a great day and at the end of that one of the executives pulled me to the side and said “Here, I want to give you this” and he gave me The Maze Runner book. He was like “Take it home. Go read it. Tell me what you think.” So I went home and read it.
I wasn’t sure what to think at first, but I let my wife read it and she doesn’t usually like this stuff and she loved it, so that told me a lot right there. So I really thought about it for the next two weeks, kind of gave them my little take on it, my little pitch with what I would do differently and I read the original script that they had at the time. I went into the Fox guys with the creative executive, Peter Kang there, and pitched them my take on it. They said, “That’s great. That sounds really cool,” the concept I was telling you now basically and then they said “Come back in a couple of week and pitch Emma, you know, the president of the studio your take on this thing.” So by that point, a few weeks in I had gone in and since my back ground is visual effects and graphics and all of that stuff, I had kind of worked up a bunch of cool art work, all little concept pieces.
So I came in and pitched Emma for like an hour and a half. Everyone was making me sweat as I’m going in to meet Emma, because you know Emma is tough. She’s just a tough person, but turned out to be the nicest person ever. We talked for like an hour and a half. I think we hit it off right away. I showed them all of this artwork and at the end of that meeting, she’s like “Great, you’re our director.” That was it. That was on a Monday morning, so then Tuesday comes about, Tuesday morning or something I get a call saying “We want you to direct this movie, but we are going to withhold the offer right now, because we see we have you on the books coming in on Wednesday to pitch Ruin.” So I come in after that Tuesday after basically hopefully getting a movie, I went in and pitched Ruin that Wednesday morning and we sold that in the room. So by the end of that Wednesday I had two movies with Fox. It’s crazy. It’s nuts.
BALL: Yeah, it was an intense week. So from there basically from that point on, that was probably a year ago maybe we started writing the script pretty much from scratch, talked with James Dashner a lot, the author. I’ve made him really involved in this process, because I want to get it right. I want to really service the fans and give them what they are all expecting, but at the same time making it its own thing, its own movie. So from there basically went into prep, did all the concept art, and started making this movie a couple of weeks ago. It’s pretty freaking awesome.
You mentioned Lord of the Flies and Lost, but as a movie fan are there any movies that have influenced your style?
BALL: Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park is probably the movie that got me wanting to make movies. It’s fun, but it’s not totally gruesome. We are doing something really dark here, but there’s not really a lot of blood. It’s totally a PG-13 movie, so a lot of kids are going to go watch this movie, but they’re not going to feel like they are getting talked down to. It’s not a kid’s movie, it’s just a cool movie that kids can go see. So a lot of those movies. Terrence Malick I think… Someone said that. How’d you get that name?
I didn’t say Terrence Malick.
BALL: Oh, you didn’t. I thought I heard you say Terrence Malick. I’ve been talking a lot of Terrence Malick on this, because we are going for some of those kinds of shots in this movie oddly enough, Thin Red Line, and all of those kinds of movies. We are doing some pretty weird abstract stuff in this movie.
Sounds pretty cool for a kid’s movie.
BALL: It is, but like I said man, kids don’t need to be talked down to. I think kids now are smarter than they have ever been. It’s like they are little adults now, so we’re going for the more mature crowd.
So what’s the demographic then if you’re saying kids?
BALL: Well you know, around 13. The demographic with the books is ten all the way up to twenty or something like that, but I’m going to my age too. I’m going into the thirties too, so I’m trying to cover that whole gambit and I think we got it. I think that’s what separates us from all of the other movies out there with this young adult craze that’s happening right now. We are kind of the only, at least for now, boy adventure, like the kind of stuff I grew up watching like Jurassic Park and stuff like that, a really fun boyhood adventure that happens to have our one girl who kind of becomes one of the boys. We don’t do the damsel in distress thing. She’s tough. Her opening scene or intro into this movie is fantastic. We came up with it basically a week before we started shooting. We rewrote the scene. It’s a fantastic scene and how it introduces the character you’ll have to wait for that, I guess. But we are going for something that’s fun and cool. We are not pandering to kids in this movie.
Can you talk about how you’ve had to manage your expectations? Based on who we have talked to and what we have seen, it’s obvious that you have a very clear vision for this film, but it is your first film, so I’m sure at some point somebody has come to you and said “Wes, we can’t do this…”
BALL: Yeah, every day basically. I mean it is compromise, but that’s my job, to keep pushing that as far as I can. That’s the way I look at it basically and I think we are trying to get a whole lot of movie for the money that we have and I’m very happy with what we do. Honestly I look back on a lot of the projects I’ve done with my little shorts and stuff and I’ve always tried to push myself into that corner where it’s sink or swim and that’s kind of where I’m at right now and so far, I think based on the dailies, we’re doing it. So I’m really happy. I’m excited about that and we are starting to cut scenes together, but I’m not quite in that mode as much as we are trying to get ahead of all of that stuff, but so far the dailies are fantastic, so that’s the good thing. That’s the art form. That’s the film business, kind if both things and I knew that going in that that was going to be a thing I had to wrestle with, but that’s just part of the process.
BALL: (Laughs) So I’m on Twitter a lot and I’ve gotten in trouble a couple of times already for revealing too much, but I’ve had a lot of people come up and say “Can you please cast me? Here’s my audition tape” and there’s this one kid in particular who just kept bugging me and was like “I’m totally your Blake!” I finally said, “Okay, fine. Get your audition tape. Go get in touch with Denise Chamian,” who is fantastic and the best casting director ever. I mean I owe her so much for this movie. She has really helped us steer this into a movie with real actors, not just pretty faces. I mean they are all pretty people, but they are fantastic actors. Just a little side shoot here, I had this dream of this being like Taps or one of those movies that you look back on where it’s like “Oh, there’s him and him.” It’s like we are seeing all of these people, like Kai in particular where it’s like no one knows her from her UK work. I think we are going to introduce her in this world and I think we are going to fall in love with this girl. She is fantastic. It’s the same thing with Dylan. I think he’s a star and you’re going to see a lot of him soon. Amel is this fantastic actor. Will… I mean all of these guys. Thomas… I hit the jackpot on this stuff.
So in terms of Blake, he was this on wild card guy where I said “Get in touch with Denise.” He basically had 24 hours to get the sides, put his little tape together, send it off to Denise, Denise got in touch with me the next morning and is like “Oh my god, watch this tape. This kid is amazing.” We watched the tape and it was like “Oh my god, this kid is fantastic.” He’s 12 years old and you would not know it. That kid is so mature, it’s ridiculous and he’s a real trooper. He was sick last night, but he still came in and did his work. We shot like five and a half pages last night with him and it’s fantastic stuff, so I lucked out.
BALL: In terms of casting?
Was it hard or did someone come out?
BALL: It was tough. I saw thousands and thousands of people. Dylan was actually… I saw him early on, very early on and I overlooked him. It was a big learning experience there, because I overlooked him because of his hair. He had Teen Wolf hair and I couldn’t see past that and so we were looking for our Thomas and it’s a tough role to make, because he comes in as a boy and he leaves as a man, so it cant’ be like this badass action star that comes into this movie. It’s about vulnerability up front and then he comes out of it and comes into his own and then the next movies are about the leader that emerges from the group. So finally Fox says “We just did this movie, The Internship. There’s this kid that’s in this thing. He’s like 20 years old. We think he’s kind of got something.” So I watched his tape and was like “Wait a minute, I’ve seen this kid before.” I looked him up online and there was one picture of him with a totally shaved head and it’s this sweet vulnerable looking kid and I was like “Whoa, interesting.” I said, “Wait a minute, he’s just so familiar” and I looked back at my old audition tapes, which we had thousands of, and there’s Dylan. That guy I said “No, definitely not him.” So we brought him back in and we started to talk with him and I’m like “oh my god,” he’s the coolest dude ever. His dad is in the industry, has done some camera operating stuff, so he’s been around it. He knows what it means to work. He’s a pro. So yeah, it’s interesting, that whole process.
And about Teresa as well?
BALL: I wanted Kai from the very beginning. I just saw her. I had seen Skins and stuff and she was much younger, but you see it in the fan responses. I think we’ve got some tremendous response to our casting so far. Everyone is like “Of course. That’s Gallio” or “Of course, that’s Teresa!” Teresa is always described as “pale, dark hair, tough girl” and that’s Kaya. She’s gorgeous, but it’s a natural beauty. It’s not like a supermodel beauty and I can’t wait for people to actually meet Kaya on this movie. I think she’s going to be fantastic. I’ll cast her in the next movie too, for sure, whatever I do. But yeah, it’s exciting stuff.
What’s the record amount of setups you’ve done in a day?
BALL: Yeah, well as it is my first movie and stuff, our first day we got 36 setups or something like that, which is supposed to be a lot. One day we actually got rained out for half the day and so we lost half of our day. We had six hours and we got thirty-nine setups on that day. That was a crazy, crazy day. That was nuts. That was our Ben banishment scene, which is going to be freaking intense. It’s going to be really brutal and it’s a scene that almost all the fans… When I first started this movie, I tweeted all the fans and said “Hey guys, what are your favorite scenes from the book?” I made sure all of those scenes are in this movie and Ben’s banishment was one of them and that was one of those days where we were just knocking stuff off and personally for me I love when we get into that stuff. We storyboard a lot, but I love when we are just going in there and just almost on the fly making stuff and discovering moments. It’s just fantastic, where you can really go in there and be creative and everything.
Isn’t that counterintuitive though? How do you do thirty-nine setups while also on the fly?
BALL: That’s how you do it. You have your master, you go in and get that and say “That’s great. Come in here, get this shot. Go over here and get this shot.” As we blocked the scene, we’d go in and rehearse it, block it, start getting the lights ready, and then we’d start talking about where we were going to get our shots and our little angles and all of this great stuff and then at the same time sometimes we are running three cameras at the same time. Well today we’re doing two. Well, actually we have three in there, but three cameras all of the time doesn’t help us so much. You start getting on top of each other, so I find two cameras is awesome, because we can get there and just fish for awesome moments, then occasionally have that third camera coming in for the big crane wides and stuff like that.
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