The Maze Runner is another in a long line of better-than-they-should-be movies based on young adult fiction. Today it’s out on Digital HD for your home viewing pleasure and to mark the occasion I sat down with the film’s director, Wes Ball. This is Ball’s first feature as a director, which is crazy not just because Fox gave him a potentially huge franchise on the basis of his short-films, but because he pulled it off as well as he did.
We spoke pretty generally about the movie and I don’t think there’s anything super spoilery here, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, watch it and come back to us.
CHUD: At first I was going to ask you how you got the gig for The Maze Runner but then I watched your short film Ruin and that basically answered the question for me.
Wes Ball: Yeah, that’s what opened the door and that was really the thing. Everyone over at Fox was very excited and happy about it and we had a lot of long conversations about what I wanted to do with that. They were nice enough to do this special screening for me, which was nice because I’d only ever seen it on my computer monitor. It was after that screening that one of the people there pulled me aside and handed me the book The Maze Runner.
CHUD: Were you familiar with the book at all before that meeting?
Ball: No, no I wasn’t. When they handed it to me, they basically said, take this home and tell us what you think. Read it over the weekend. So I read it and a lot of images just popped into my head and from there the seed was really planted. I went back in, told them my ideas and we just went from there.
CHUD: I imagine it would be almost impossible to say no to Fox when they’re offering you your first chance to direct, so was it a relief when you clicked with the material?
Ball: Yeah, I will say, I had to check myself. I told myself that I can’t make this movie unless I think that I can do a good job. I can’t just take the opportunity. So it was a little bit of a stress thing there for a couple days and I asked myself, am I just doing this because they’re offering me the job, or do I really believe I can do something special with this? And ultimately the latter won out, but it was definitely a major decision.
CHUD: There’s also an older stigma about working with kids and how that’s one of the worst elements you could bring to a production. I think there’s a level of media training with younger people that makes that less true than it used to be, but what was your experience like working with this young cast?
Ball: Yeah, I mean, I think that rule probably applies more to 9 and 10 year-olds. But with our cast, everyone was already really mature and we had people on set from 17 to 22. And a few of them were already seasoned TV guys anyway (with a couple movie guys in there). So they were incredibly professional. I think I got a little spoiled, because I didn’t have to deal with any of the things you normally hear about with people not remembering their lines or not being smart enough to know about marks for cameras. So I totally lucked out with the cast. They made my job easy and allowed me to focus steering the story and picking my shots, so it was really a blessing.
CHUD: I’m wondering with your perspective on being inside of this now, why is dystopian fiction so popular, not just with teenage kids, but particularly with teenage kids?
Ball: It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question and I think it’s…it’s part of what I call the “cultural soup.” It’s just part of where we are right now. And I think it has a lot to do with the younger generation feeling like the world they’re being handed is in kind of a tough spot. I don’t want to go into the whole thing about it, but there is the thing of the climate changing. Also just the political and social stuff going on in the world, it’s a kind of uneasy place right now. I think young people really feel that, so a lot of these stories feel really similar or like they’re cut from the same cloth. Like, young people persevering through hardships that surround them or that they’ve been handed, you know? I think it’ll be a marker for people who grew up around this time period. Eventually the cycle will come back around to something new, but for now if I get to make movies out of it, I’ll do the best I can with that kind of stuff.
I have to say, there is something romantic about it for me personally, which is totally strange and bizarre, but I totally think there’s something romantic about the idea of starting over. Some aspect of the slate going clean and being handed this new world and designing it the way you feel it should be. There’s something interesting in a phoenix-from-the-ashes sense. Even that Ruin short I made a long time ago—when I was building that world, it hand’t quite hit that hard, this dystopian, ruined world thing—but there was something really interesting about it to me.
CHUD: It’s funny because the other way to portray that sense of starting over again could fit into a story about exploration—exploring a new world or a new continent, maybe—but more often we’re getting these ideas in a much more grim context. And there’s also a sense that it’s down to a small handful of people to set things right again.
Ball: Yeah, or at least in the case of our story it’s not so much setting things right (with the world) but finding your place in it. And that’s where we’re going with the next film—which I know I’m not supposed to get into—but I don’t see it as a story of them trying to save the world, but trying to find their own existence in it and begin again. It’s the same thing with zombies, when they were kind of a big thing for a while—well, they still are—but it’s this idea that’s persevered because that’s where the audiences’ heads are right now.
CHUD: It’s also interesting because a lot of the kinds of stories we’re talking about, yours included, are being told in a serialized way. From your perspective, when you’re making a movie of a book that you already know has a sequel, how do you manage making this work as a film in its own right as well as part of a larger story?
Ball: That’s the challenge. Obviously we have the source material that we have to stay true to and there’s a larger arc that has to take shape. So you do the best you can. The first film is very much about The Maze, you know? The kids are trapped and how are they going to get out? The next one is: now that they’re out, where do they go now? They’re out of the maze but they’re still lost. It’s just making sure that the story and the characters are all there and the world and the plot, that stuff will change. But I think a lot of the serialized storytelling is down to what’s going on with TV at the moment. You’ve heard, I’m sure, we’re in another Golden Age of TV right now. And you’ve got all of these stories that take place over long stretches of time and characters that you fall in love with and pull you through constantly. So that’s what the main focus was for us: making sure you fell in love with the characters and the rest will find its way.
CHUD: It’s funny, because I was actually going to ask you about TV and that kind of storytelling but you beat me to it.
Ball: It really is and I think people have gotten really used to it. They don’t necessarily need to have contained, simple stories that can’t continue living beyond the screen. That’s what we had with the first movie with the cliffhanger ending. Personally, I could have walked away from that movie if there wasn’t another one and I could have just imagined what might have happened next, but it’s great that we’re getting to continue to tell the story with the next film.
CHUD: This may totally be down to my age and the kind of movies that I like, but I got a little bit of a Bugsy Malone vibe from the movie. Maybe that’s just because it’s a society of nothing but kids. Are you at all a fan of that movie?
Ball: It’s funny because, I can’t say that I am, but that’s an interesting reference. Obviously my big thing is Lord of the Flies, I think that’s an obvious one. I grew up out in the woods building my own little world with my friends. And that romantic idea of building that world for ourselves was just a super appealing thing to me when I first go into the books.
CHUD: Speaking of world building, can you talk about shooting on location and using as many practical sets as you did? I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of the film was practical in those ways.
Ball: There’s actually two different answers. One is, as a VFX guy, the best VFX shots are the ones where you have something real in the frame that you’re just matching to, you know? You’re not just creating it whole cloth in front of a green screen, which never works. Two: the actors, if the look on their face is not real, they’re not going to be able to sell it to the audience. You’ve got to give them something to interact with that’s real and that they can be a part of psychologically. But we were also a very small movie and we didn’t have a giant VFX budget, so you have to build this stuff and do your best to make it real in the frame so you don’t have to spend a ton of money building this world when you’ve got enough stuff to create visually that you can’t build. Those are really the two choices there, but it’s also just really fun going out and—the thing about making these movies is—you go out to these locations and you can’t storyboard every little thing, so you go out and you get inspired and it allows the actors and I to think on our feet and it’s nice to have a world around you that you can frame up and say, “oh wow, look at that!” We tried to create an environment for happy accidents and you can’t do that when it’s all constructed in VFX beforehand.
CHUD: Bouncing off of that last question: as a VFX artist, what would you say is the biggest misconception that critics or the public have about the use of CGI in film?
Ball: That it’s bad! The reason people like to beat up on the whole CGI thing is because it’s often done poorly. But CGI can make things wonderful too when it’s done properly. There’s always the thing of, “oh, I want to see models and miniatures again” and I have to say, those things don’t normally work or hold up to our new standard of resolution now. Or even the level of audience sophistication. So CGI is this huge tool in creating these new worlds and making them believable. And for all that shots that stick out to people, there are a lot more that they don’t even notice. I’m a big proponent of the whole VFX thing as long as it’s done with some level of emotion and rooted in the story of the movie you’re making.