Bringing James Dashner’s The Maze Runner to the big screen was an immense challenge for director Wes Ball. The YA bestseller is a huge fan favorite and two things needed to be perfect for his film to have any kind of shot at success. The lead character, Thomas, had to be cast perfectly, and boy, did they achieve that with Dylan O’Brien.
Second, the setting of the actual titular maze world had to feel, sound and literally live and breathe like it did in Dasher’s book and the millions of imaginations around the world who devoured his novel. Ball nailed it on that front, too.
We caught up with Ball for an exclusive chat in time for the film’s home video release, where he talked us through the casting process of finding O’Brien, making his maze (teased in The Maze Runner trailer) and how that ending was meant to cause shock and awe, and leave us waiting with bated breath for the sequel, The Scorch Trials.
Movie Fanatic: The choices you made in bringing the book to the screen were so spot on. What was the biggest challenge in the sense of what to leave in and more importantly, what to leave out?
Wes Ball: It’s all tough to be honest. I make a movie for the audience, obviously, and this is a book that could essentially launch a franchise. Those fans were going to be everything to get started, our platform to jump from. Any cuts I made wouldn’t be easy because I knew it would be difficult for fans to see certain things left out. The telepathy thing was the biggest one that fans missed the most. At the same time, I have to make a good movie and if something is going to be silly and not work in a movie, you have to cut it. Our tweaks were, for the most part, all about pacing and keeping that momentum going. There had to be a nice escalation linearly in terms of the mood and the plot. For the most part, I’d say, it’s pretty close to the book.
Movie Fanatic: A lot of this rides on the casting of your lead. And Dylan O’Brien, my God, does he deliver. I love him on Teen Wolf and in The Internship, but why did you think he was your guy for The Maze Runner?
Wes Ball: At first, I didn’t think he was going to be the guy for me. I had a very distinct idea in my head of what Thomas was going to be. He was going to be this vulnerable boy who shows up in this place, who is emotionally naked and afraid. By the end of the movie, he becomes this brave man, or at least young man. I knew Dylan had the latter part of it. I knew he could be this very strong and engaging character, but could he be that vulnerable person? Would he go there? Fortunately, he did. He has the range and is such an incredible actor -- putting aside all the girls that love him because he’s a pretty handsome dude. He’s a very good actor and he’s incredibly humble. He works harder than anyone. You can’t ask for anything better than that and we really hit the jackpot with Dylan because we were searching all over for our Thomas. He has that thing that you just want to watch. And that is what we needed because the story is really told through his eyes.
Movie Fanatic: And without even saying a word, he rides up in the elevator and it is all on his face. In that vein, speaking of that world where the mazes are, millions of people who have read the books have millions of ideas of what they look like, and what that landscape looks like. What was the biggest challenge of the production design for setting that landscape that you had your actors playing in?
Wes Ball: Well, there you go, that’s the key word is landscape. Landscapes are varied, and they evolve. They’re not the same thing. That was the biggest challenge. We all know what a maze looks like, the claustrophobia of it all. But, how do you sustain that for a maze that is evolving throughout the film. That was me just fooling around and determining how you come up with this giant machine and how it would work. It became almost primitive at first with vines overgrown and then it becomes industrial when you get to the edge.
Movie Fanatic: The book The Maze Runner ends a certain way. Take me back to when you shot this. You didn’t necessarily know you would get the chance to make a second movie, The Scorch Trials. Do you go into shooting that conclusion with an optimism or is it, “This is my job to film this movie and I’ll worry about what comes later, later?”
Wes Ball: I had read all the books so I obviously knew where it was all going. At the same time, I kind of love the idea of an ending that leaves you holding your breath still. It’s a ballsy ending for sure. We’re taking the audience and basically punching them in the gut. Some people hated it, and I understand why, but I think we’re so used to these stories that just keep going on that as long as we felt like there was some sort of completion... For me, it was about escape. And they do escape. Many questions were answered, and I tried to answer everything, but it just felt right to do it this way. If we answered all the questions, it’ll be over four hours. It’s kind of a shocking ending, and we just hope that it would work well enough where we could make the next one and we would pick up right where we left off and continue with the story.
Movie Fanatic: That’s got to be the best part now with you filming The Scorch Trials.
Wes Ball: That’s the most fun! We’re really shooting it so the sequel just butts right up next to the last one. It continues on -- you can watch them in order and it would be seamless. I think it’ll be fun for people. It’s not something you dwell on when you’re making the first movie. You’re just trying to make the best movie you can.
Movie Fanatic: I love when a movie has you wrapped up in these characters on a mission. And they achieve the mission and you learn that that mission was just the tip of the iceberg.
Wes Ball: Yeah, man, I love that too. It reminds me of Star Wars. The idea of the movie on the screen, it lives beyond the movie on the screen. There’s room in how it’s portrayed that you can imagine a story beyond that. In Star Wars, that first one, that one line about fighting in the Clone Wars, I was like, “What? What are the Clone Wars?” There’s a whole universe out there. There’s something cool about the idea that there’s a lot more to show than you can fit into a little two hour window. I find that more interesting than something with a pretty little bow on top.