Warning: This post contains big spoilers for Maze Runner: The Death Cure.
For the past four years, Wes Ball, a special-effects artist turned feature filmmaker, has been trapped in a maze of his own making. In 2014, the first-time director called “Action” on The Maze Runner, a relatively low-budget adaptation of a popular dystopian YA novel featuring a mostly untested cast of up-and-coming actors, including Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, and Will Poulter. Released to little fanfare in September of that year, The Maze Runner — which follows Thomas (O’Brien) and his allies as they battle a sinister corporation called WCKD on a future earth ravaged by solar flares and a zombie-creating virus — quickly rocketed to the top of the box-office charts on the backs of young moviegoers. A new franchise was born and after initially flirting with moving on to new projects, Ball returned to adapt the next two books in the series, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure, back to back.
Released exactly one year later in September 2015, The Scorch Trials repeated the original’s success. But plans for an equally quick turnaround on The Death Cure derailed when O’Brien was badly injured in an on-set stunt gone wrong early in production. The film shut down for a year while the star recovered and finally opens in theaters today. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment recently, O’Brien remarked, “It’s something I’m so proud that I ended up getting through. It really meant a lot to me to still finish the film and get through it with everybody.”
Ball is also happy to have seen the Maze Runner franchise through to its happy conclusion, with the finale topping the box office in its opening weekend. In our wide-ranging exit interview, the director dives into Death Cure spoilers, reveals how O’Brien’s accident forever changed his approach to action sequences and discusses why he hopes the dreaded YA label ends with The Death Cure.
Yahoo Entertainment: Having reached the end of the Maze Runner series, how do you think the three films reflect your interests as a filmmaker?
Wes Ball: I have no idea, honestly. It’s hard to self-analyze. I imagine you would see a growth in terms of craft: how I’d shoot scenes, do camera blocking, stuff like that. If nothing else, hopefully because the same team made all these movies together, there’s some consistency, even though each movie is its own little animal. I grew up on Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, so I imagine those elements are in these movies because they are a part of who I am. Movies that are big on adventure but hopefully have some real stuff to chew on.
Watching all three films back to back, one running theme I noticed is an interest in depicting male camaraderie and affection. These guys care about one another and act on those feelings instead of bottling them up.
Yeah, it’s a brotherhood. We set that up in the very first movie, that idea of this family unit. I think that was important to us, because we weren’t going to do a love story; there’s elements of it, but we never did a full-on romance. When the books came out and the first movie came out, the YA thing was really big, and it was usually about female protagonists with some element of a love triangle [between two guys]. I always felt it was cool that we didn’t have to go there; we could focus more on the brotherhood taking care of each other and being selfless.
That’s baked into the plot of The Death Cure as well: The whole movie is built around Thomas’s attempts to rescue his friend Minho (played by Ki Hong Lee), which isn’t really the story that’s told in the novel but plays into your idea of a band of brothers who won’t leave one another behind.
Right, plus it’s a great carrot to dangle in front of those characters. In the book, they go to the city, and then they leave the city, you know what I mean? If we had done that, we would have just been going place to place without a real strong through line. As a movie experience, it just felt right to center it around one of their own that they’re gonna have to go rescue. Then, of course, the act of doing that brings them face to face with their past and with different characters they have to meet again, including Teresa, the betrayer. And along the way, Thomas’s perspectives would be challenged: Is WCKD really bad? What are they really doing? Rescuing Minho was a cool narrative device to let us bump against these things that we wanted to explore.
As you mentioned, the love triangle is a staple of YA fiction. The studio never pressured you to add a love triangle involving Thomas, Teresa (Scodelario), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) to the proceedings?
No, honestly the studio’s always been really great. I feel like I’ve been spoiled, because they let me make the movies and they were rarely on set. We’d obviously talk about how to make the movie better, but it was never “Hey, can you reshoot this?” at the final hour. We haven’t done any reshoots on these movies, ever. I would love to! I would love to do reshoots, but it’s not worth the expense. But, yeah, they’ve been nothing but supportive. Maybe part of it is because we all knew very early on exactly what we were making, and maybe it’s also because the cost of these movies is relatively cheap for what they are. The combined cost of all three movies is what most single tent pole movies cost [the reported production budget for the trilogy is $157 million], so there’s not a lot of risk necessarily. So because of that, maybe we didn’t have to use some of the usual YA things and do things a little differently in places.
Fans of The Maze Runner books haven’t necessarily been thrilled with some of the changes that you’ve made to the story, particular with The Scorch Trials. How did you navigate their responses as you made each film?
The truth is, two-thirds of our audience of movie fans haven’t read the books. With that said, I do focus heavily on the book fans, because they are the people I made the movies for, really. They’re the reason we have this franchise. So I hear them and I get it. [For book fans,] there’s an element where you feel like you have a secret because you know what’s going to happen and you have a sense of ownership over it in a way. So when things aren’t lining up the way you’re expecting, it can be shocking and almost disappointing.
But if people were to look back on The Scorch Trials with fresh eyes, I think they would see the broad strokes of the book are there. I just don’t have them walking down a dark tunnel for 30 minutes or the metal balls that eat people’s heads — stuff like that. But the general sense of a group of people finding out that they’re still with WCKD and venturing out into Scorch where they meet Jorge and Brenda and are exposed to the Cranks, that all still happens. It’s the same story, just some of the details are changed.
I can only make what I feel is right as a movie experience. If I can’t pull something [from the book] off, I just can’t do it. For example, there’s that Crank party scene in the second movie, where they drink something and go crazy. That was in the books, and I was like, “OK, we’ve got to try and get this scene in the movie.” In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I put it in there for book fans and they didn’t care for it! Hopefully they’ll go into The Death Cure with an open mind. Even though it’s not exactly like the book, I think we’re very true to the spirit of the book.
Let’s dive into some Death Cure spoilers: In the book, we never see what the “safe haven,” where Thomas and the surviving Immune population settle, looks like. In the film, you depict it as a kind of oceanside camp. Why did you decide to visualize it that way?
That was pretty simple for me: It was all about the safe haven being the Glade 2.0 and the story coming full circle. It even has the naming wall that we had in the first movie. That’s an idea that wasn’t in the book, by the way — the names-on-a-wall thing. That was something I put in because it felt right; it was a visual cue for these groups of people living in this place. So we brought it back at the end of The Death Cure, because it’s a shrine to the people they’ve lost. I did choose for the safe haven to be much cleaner than the Glade, because they actually came with supplies. But hopefully it feels like the first 10 minutes of the first movie that people fell in love with. I like the idea that it’s a wide-open world in front of them, with the horizon as far as you can see. That’s a hopeful ending to the series. There might not be any more movies, but you can imagine in your own mind how the story might continue.
You also made the choice to depict the death of WCKD head scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) onscreen. Since she’s not a physical character in the book, I imagine that was to provide her with some definitive closure for the movie series?
Yeah, that’s obviously a callback to the second movie where Thomas said, “I’m going to kill Ava Paige.” We pretty much knew that we were going to have him be in a position where he could kill her, and then he doesn’t. Our big goal in this movie was to show the world of WCKD and reveal that it wasn’t quite what you expected. You think, Oh, Ava Paige is this cliché evil scientist, but we get to show that she’s not — she’s just a doctor trying to do what she can and what feels right. I’ve always seen these movies as a metaphor for growing up: The first movie is about high school, the second is college, and this one is about journeying into adulthood and finding out the world isn’t black and white but gray and complicated. Of course, we do have our true villain, Janson [Aiden Gillen], and he gets to kill Ava and relish in that. But otherwise, it was about challenging some of the perspectives we knew from previous movies.
Obviously, one of the most important scenes in the movie is the death of Thomas’s best friend, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), which plays out very differently from the book.
It does. In fact, Newt’s story in general is incredibly different from the book. A third of the way through, Newt disappears and later writes a letter. Then, almost by chance, Thomas finds him on the side of the road and shoots him in the head. In our movie, that wouldn’t work — it just wouldn’t. You want to stay with Newt for as long as possible and show his slow demise [from his infection]. Ultimately, it’s the catalyst for Thomas to change as a character, in much the same way that Teresa in the second movie tells the story of her mother who got infected and went crazy. This is a story for Thomas where he’s been personally affected by the virus, and he now knows that there’s a way this will never happen to anyone else again if he goes back.
I was also interested in seeing Newt struggle with the monster inside taking over slowly and consuming him, essentially. Every time I went to that visual from the book of Thomas shooting Newt, I felt like it would just be too harsh. So we went this route, where Thomas stabs him after Newt begs him to kill him. Some people will be mad about it, but I think it was the right thing to do for the movie. With our versions of the characters, there’s no question in my mind that Thomas would never willingly kill Newt, ever. It doesn’t matter if he was Cranking out and going crazy — he would do everything in his power to not do that. I could never figure out how to put him in a position where he would willingly pull a trigger and shoot his friend in the head.
You confronted every director’s nightmare when Dylan O’Brien was badly injured on set while shooting the opening train heist. What do you remember about that day?
It’s probably one of the worst days of my life. Dylan is one of my best friends; we’ve been together for quite a long time now, and I hurt him. I can’t help but feel responsible. I told him that I felt this was going to be safe, and then a strange circumstances of things went wrong that we didn’t account for and Dylan got hurt, and it’s because of me, really. So I take that very personally. I was the first person to get to him, and I remember that feeling. It’s pretty much scarred in my brain now for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t a great experience, but I think the good thing here is that we got back on the horse. It took awhile, but we finished this thing. I think it says a lot about Dylan, about how tough he is and how committed he is to these movies. The same thing for the studio; they could have pulled the plug and said, “No, let’s not do this. Let’s not wait a year to go back and reshoot this thing.” But they chose to stick with it — we all did — and I think that’s a nice story. As terrible as the event was, we saw it through to the end. That day did make me approach things differently, that’s for sure.
Has it changed the way you’ll direct action sequences?
Yeah. We only shot for three days the first time around, so we had to go back and reshoot all of that material. I told Dylan, “I’m never going to put you on a moving vehicle. You’ll be static in a parking lot.” So during that entire sequence, Dylan is never on a moving car. It’s all CGI. That was a challenge to figure out how to make it look believable, but it was a fun challenge. My basic approach now is that I’ll never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. Because Dylan is such a physically capable actor, it was easy for me to say before, “He’s got this; it’s easy and fun.” But then you don’t account for the outside forces that he has no control over. He didn’t do anything wrong — it was series of events that we didn’t foresee happening that caused the accident. I think we’ll all carry this for the rest of our lives and be affected by it in good and bad ways.
As I understand it, some of the shots from the day he was injured are in the finished film, correct? Was it a difficult choice to include them?
Yes, there are shots from that day in the movie. No one would ever know, but there’s one shot in there that was from Vancouver. The rest are all reshoots basically. I talked about it with Dylan we both decided, “Let’s make it worth something.” He went through hell for that shot, so why would we not use It? It felt right that way. It was a touchy thing for sure, and I know if you talk with Dylan he doesn’t like talking about it very much. But it was what it was and we got through it.
What’s next on the horizon for you? It’s looking like Fox will become part of Walt Disney — are you interested in directing a Marvel movie or a Star Wars adventure? Or do you want to pursue your own material?
I have no idea. It’s weird; I’ve been in the position of always knowing what my next film is, because whenever I finish one Maze Runner movie, I have the next one lined up to go. But I don’t have that in this case. I’m going to have a vacation in February; I haven’t taken on in the last five years! So I’m gonna reassess and figure out what the hell’s next. It’s certainly fun doing these big movies, and this last movie was the biggest one we’ve done so far. But there’s also something nice about doing a little movie, so I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It would be fun to go off and do something small, though it probably would still be in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. That’s one of the reasons I love the first Maze Runner; it’s this small $30 million movie on a big canvas. J.J. Abrams’s company [Bad Robot] does that really well, too — Cloverfield, for example. I miss those midrange movies that we don’t really have anymore.
Watch Ball’s short film Ruin, which has been acquired by Fox as a potential feature film
A lot of the big YA franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight have already ended. With The Maze Runner finishing up now, does it feel like the end of an era?
I’ll tell you what I hope happens: I hope that the YA label is done, because I never saw these movies as YA. I just wanted to make a fun movie with young people in it. I never saw it as, “Oh, it’s YA so I have to do it a certain way. Granted, I know the books are considered YA, but I hope we can get away from that stuff and just talk about these as movies with young people in them. I imagine there will always be these kinds of movies, along with postapocalyptic stories. They’ve endured for such a long time. But you’re right — there are always cycles to these things, and right now it seems like we’re in the realm of superheroes and are getting more adaptations of video games. So it does feel like the end of a chapter, I guess.
If you could pick up one memory from your Maze Runner marathon that sums up the entire experience for you, what would it be?
Oh man, that’s a tricky one! I guess it would probably be back on the first movie, honestly. There was something so nice about being in that Glade, and it being my first movie with this new cast. I felt so lucky. We had been shooting in the Glade for four weeks and were going to a soundstage to shoot the Maze stuff. So it was our last day in the Glade and we were saying goodbye to this crazy little universe we had created out there. The sun was setting, and I remember that Dylan, Kaya, and I got in a golf cart and started riding around. There was a thunderstorm approaching, and we went through the woods on the side of the glade. We ended up getting the golf cart stuck in the river that ran right by there! There’s a picture out there somewhere of us stuck in this golf cart in the mud of the river. We had to lift the cart out as the storm rolled in. I’ll always remember that day. These movies haven’t only been an adventure onscreen, but off-screen as well. It’s sad to say goodbye to the cast, but we’ll always have these movies and who knows what the future holds?
There are the two prequel books, and with de-aging technology, you can go back 10 years from now and make everyone look like their younger selves!
Not for me! I’m done — I’m moving on. [Laughs]
The Maze Runner: The Death Cure is currently playing in theaters.
Watch: Dylan O’Brien and cast mates discuss his ’emotional’ return from accident:
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