“It’s not like the climax of our movie is in a bigger maze with a bigger Griever.”
Those who follow me on Twitter know that the past few months have been highlighted by my discovery of just how much I enjoy the Maze Runner series. Thanks to my After the Credits podcast episode on the final Maze Runner movie, I was inspired to give the Maze Runner films the focused attention they deserved. What resulted were some of my favorite examples of blockbuster filmmaking from the past decade (and not just from within the YA genre). Much of this success is owed to Wes Ball, the franchise director, who is able to imbue these films with a scope and scale far beyond their reasonable budgets.
In advance of the Blu-ray release of Maze Runner: The Death Cure, I spoke to Ball about the success of his trilogy and why Giancarlo Esposito really is that much fun.
I know you’re a social media guy. You were going into production on this about the time that everyone was writing pieces about the YA genre maybe being finished. Was there ever a moment where you thought, “Oh God, did we miss our window?”
No. [laughs] I can’t distract myself with that kind of stuff. Plus, when I made these movies, I didn’t have the YA thing in my head. Even though there’s a lot of people that lump us into that box, all I can do is hope that in a couple years people would look back and they wouldn’t see a YA movie, they’d just see an adventure movie with young people.
Hopefully, there’s an element of timelessness to these movies that maybe some others don’t have. But I didn’t distract myself with that stuff. It was certainly obvious that we wanted it to come it out earlier than we did, but you know, it is what it is. We got to make a movie and finish it for their fans and that was the main thing for us.
In interviews, when you were working on the first film, you said you envisioned this series as being your Taps, where people look back and think, “Oh, I can’t believe all these actors are in one place!” You’ve gotta be feeling like that mission was accomplished, right?
It is pretty cool, right? I just saw a trailer for a good little movie with Blake Cooper, our little 12-year-old kid. It is really cool that these actors have gone on to bigger and better things. It’s cool to have at least a small part in that, to expose their talents to people and then to move on. It is fun to have discovered them, on some level.
Especially if you look at Dylan O’Brian and Rosa Salazar – these are two actors who have gone on to do other big action movies as well. How do you feel about turning some of these younger actors into action staples?
Obviously, you’re right, our bread and butter is the action-adventure thing. But what is interesting, and what I think works about, say, Dylan, is that he’s a good actor. He’s not just an action star. He’s a good actor, he can do great drama. I tried to really share that as much as I could in the third movie because it’s a pretty emotional ride and he’s going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting on that side of things.
Hopefully, people recognize that these people, they’re good actors. They’re not just action stars. And that’s rare. You’re talking about Tom Cruise and these icons we’ve grown up with that have the same kind of ability. The same kind of physical awareness. But at the same time, [Dylan] can chew on emotional, drama material as good as anyone else. That’s really cool, I think. That we get to kind of witness that.
Let me ask about the setting of the films, too. What really stands out is the vastly different worlds you’ve created for each of them. Going from the maze to the Scorch to the Last City, did it feel like you were starting over each time out?
It did. For me, personally, it was kind of important. I wasn’t planning on doing the second and third books. I thought I was going to come in and do the first movie and move on. So one of the exciting aspects, even in the books, is that they do go to these different worlds. I don’t have to rehash the same thing over and over. It’s not like the climax of our movie is in a bigger maze with a bigger Griever. We get to expand the universe, which is really fun. A big challenge, of course, but that was part of the exciting bit, that I didn’t have to just repeat what we had done before.
It was the Empire Strikes Back in the Star Wars saga that really opened up and expanded the Star Wars universe in a way that even the first one didn’t. So that was always in the back of my mind, I wanted to do that with these movies. Try to constantly unfold the next thing, the next world that they have to go and conquer.
It definitely builds with regards to the set pieces you put in there. The train robbery and the revolt scene. How do you deliver action set pieces like that without blowing up your budget and not having any money left over for anything else?
That’s the trick, honestly. It is fun to try and top yourself in terms of set pieces. Even in the second [film], we had some pretty big ones compared to the first one. The train scene is probably our biggest. I had this fascination with doing something like an old western, except without horses and in all these old jalopy cars. I thought that was going to be a fun little ride to show how this unit, this family of kids, has come together and become very capable.
We shot it over five days, so it wasn’t a huge thing. A lot of effects involved, of course, but that stuff is fun. It’s fun to do set pieces and figure out the suspense and the intensity and handle the business of those. And what I found really interesting in the third movie, one of our big action sequences – it’s not really even an action sequence, it’s when they break into the WICKED building, like a 30-minute chunk of the movie – it’s all one big action scene that is also intertwined with all this drama between characters. They’re all kind of boiling together, ready to explode, and then that gets resolved in the third act. It was fun to do these kinds of set pieces. It’s the kind of stuff I always grew up on. Look at Indiana Jones. Spielberg does set pieces better than anyone. They’re like musical numbers.
You keep the stakes small with the characters – they’re not trying to save the world or destroy anything, they’re just trying to save a friend. Does it help to have the emotional throughline be so focused and let the big stuff happen in the background?
We’ve always been the small movie set on big canvas. We’re not the superhero movie where, like I said, we go into the bigger maze with a bigger Griever or fight the evil-whatever. It was always the small story in a big space, and it relied on characters. The fans of these books, they have certain things that they demand. They want to see certain things happen. Our job was to figure out, how do we stay true to the books while at the same time delivering a fun movie? And that’s a really tricky needle to thread.
Our climax of the entire saga, our main character, it’s not about him saving the world or stopping the evil bad guys. He’s not in some final epic battle. He’s actually mortally wounded and can’t protect himself and can’t heal himself, so he relies on the people around him that he has met through the world, the family, and the love he has for different characters to save him. That’s so frickin’ bizarre for a Hollywood franchise, that we went that route instead of the normal, traditional route. That’s cool to me. That’s awesome that our main character is relying on others to save him! That’s unique and different.
There’s also a lot of moral ambiguity in the film. We don’t get a final message about who is right, who is wrong. Was there ever a worry that this might be a little too complicated?
That was always the choice. I just wasn’t interested in spoon feeding stuff to people. And, obviously, I read all the reviews, so I know people didn’t pick up on things that I know are in the movies. So I always felt like the fan base that loves these movies, the book fans and then the movie fans that came on board, they do watch these movies and make up their minds about what I’m trying to show people. And they pick up on it.
I think that’s what’s going to make the movies survive. Hopefully, in ten years, some of these people will still go back and revisit these movies because they’re a little more interesting and not so on the nose about stuff.
I always thought the fun aspect of the end of this thing was that gray area, that the people you thought were the evil bad guys really maybe have a point. And the good guys maybe aren’t quite seeing things the way they should, either. Somewhere, by the end of the movie, we get to a point with these characters where we’ve come to some truth that they have to decide for themselves. I think that’s fun, that it does require a little bit of work.
Talking about the fans, one thing I learned when the film came out is that The Maze Runner Twitter is most definitely a thing. How does it feel to have people rallying around, almost like a television campaign, to make sure people are seeing this?
I love it. It was pretty obvious going into the third movie that we weren’t going to gain a lot of new fans. It was about those fans that had stuck with us from the first and second movie. It was really for them. It’s a farewell to the stories and the characters and the audience that had supported us for so long. The books, they’re not hugely popular, they haven’t sold in the numbers that Hunger Games and Divergent have, you know what I mean? We’re pretty small compared to those things. The fact that we still have this passionate fan base, the success that we have has to be somewhat attributed to those people, the fans that support and get people out there.
I’m very aware of the knee-jerk reaction for some people. Like, “Oh, those movies?” They immediately write it off as another disowned stepchild of Hunger Games. But those fans are always there to say, “No, no, no! It’s different! It’s something else!” I think that’s cool. I’m always very appreciative of that and recognize it. It was fun to have people to kind of support what you’re doing.
My last question, then: how excited are you to have given the world the gunslinger Giancarlo Esposito that we didn’t know we always needed?
[laughs] Dude, Giancarlo is one of the greatest guys on the planet! He’s now my lucky charm. I want to put him in all my movies. He’s such a great person. Obviously, he’s a good actor, but he’s just so fun. He just fucking enjoys life so much, and he brings that on camera and you have to kind of wield it and present it, but he’s such a nice person and so trusting. Even when you’re on set and things are, like, ugh, I can’t get this shot or the world is falling around you, he comes in and this breath of fresh air comes in and gives you more excitement. He’s a great person, and I loved the little character he created.