By Joe Utichi
An idyllic reflection of green shrubbery in a shimmering pool is our first view in Wes Ball's powerful 8-minute short RUIN. Released in 2011, Internet audiences were blown away by the kinetic chase scene that followed, set in an abandoned and overgrown megacity. With no dialogue, but stunning visual and sound design, RUIN told a story about life in a post apocalyptic world unlike any other. As calling cards go, it doesn't get much better.
In the flurry of sharing that followed, the short film attracted the attention of executives at Fox, who brought Ball in for a series of meetings. By the end of his first week of contact with the studio, Ball had a deal to develop RUIN into a feature and, first, to adapt James Dashner's novel THE MAZE RUNNER for the big screen.
It was a dream come true for the talented director, who had previously achieved success as the owner of Oddball Animation, a visual effects company. Few first time feature filmmakers get to play with Hollywood's toy box. But, discussing THE MAZE RUNNER in London ahead of its worldwide release, it's clear Wes Ball knows how to play.
Take us back to the beginning. This all started with your short film, RUIN, didn't it?
Yeah, that little short film. It was a good little experiment where I wanted to do something for myself. I always wanted to do a chase scene - big time. And then I had this larger idea of RUIN in the back of my head for years. I've been working on this thing and it's huge. It's a really ambitious story, a big, sprawling thing. I thought I could do the opening to the movie. Like that first scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it's an introduction to a character and a world, but not much story. But there are all these little things I put that are big set-up stuff for what the larger story is. For anyone who's interested in seeing it, there's lots of really interesting stuff that they can talk about.
How did it come about?
Technically, I wanted to go do something. I closed down my little VFX shop that was paying the bills and went off for eight months and made this thing. I asked some friends to come on and help out, and we just had a ball. There was no agenda to it - I just wanted to make something and put it out there. And then, fortunately, people got excited about it, and that's how I got it to Fox, and got that deal done around the time I got the job for THE MAZE RUNNER. It was crazy.
Wasn't it the same week?
Yeah, I met the guys at Fox and for me it was like, I grew up on so many movies with that fanfare at the start. I just felt like it was the exact place I wanted to be.
What had happened was I made RUIN in stereoscopic 3D and I'd never seen it on the big screen. So I was telling the executives I was talking to that I'd never seen it, really, on the big screen. They were like, "We'll have a whole projection thing, we'll put it up on the screen and watch it in 3D. Come on by and we'll do it." It was awesome.
At that screening they gave me the MAZE RUNNER book. I came up with all these ideas, and then I went home and started thinking about it some more. When I get pregnant with an idea I start generating artwork for it - it's kind of my writing process almost - and as soon as I read that book, I made this one image of the wall and this kid holding a spear. A LORD OF THE FLIES-like feel against this monolithic, concrete, overgrown thing. I was like, "That's cool. That's the movie for me." And then it started spreading from there.
So I went in on Monday and pitched my whole take on the film with a bunch of artwork I made, and they said, "Great, you're our director."
Turns out I kind of forgot that I set my meeting for RUIN for Wednesday, and so I came back in and sold that. By the end of the day Wednesday I had two movies at Fox. It was like winning the lottery. I'm super fortunate that they gave me the opportunity to do this. It's been fun so far.
What was the idea in the book that really grabbed you?
Probably the Glade. I love the idea of a group of kids surviving on their own and building their own world. That was me as a kid. I grew up in the woods, building my own forts and tree houses and all these things. I was a Boy Scout, so I loved that stuff.
On top of that you had this crazy idea of a maze. No one has really done it like this before and it's a very intriguing concept. I thought it could be the star if we made it look cool. That was the next challenge - figuring out how to make that grounded and real. The whole story idea was really that these mazes might have been something else in a previous time and have now been reappropriated to do whatever they're there for. I took that angle at it, and then started figuring out what all the different types of mazes were that you could actually have.
I knew variety was going to be important for us. You couldn't just have the classic narrow thing, which we start in, and there's real character to that maze - the design itself. So I actually ended up designing the maze myself, and how it would look. All the different terrains of the maze. I came up with these little cool set pieces that play within them. I very much didn't want it to be a magical maze. I wanted it to be as grounded as possible. The blades were particularly fun. The concept in the book is that the maze never takes the same shape twice. How do you have an infinite maze when it is finite? What you could do is have this grid of flappers, essentially, and you can design any number of possible variations. That's how that idea came about, and then on top of that you've got just the classic moving walls type stuff too. That's what that was born out of.
The Glade is fascinating - paradise in the middle of horror. What went into designing that?
Actually, there was a version for me that was very much paradise. I could do a whole movie on just the Glade. There's so much history - what does it take to build this place? I have whole scenes that I would love to do with Alby [Amel Ameen] being the first one up - which is a change from the book, because they had 20 people come up all at once in the book. I actually thought it was so cool that someone had to be first, and all they have are the supplies given them in this box and they have to create the world from there. That's really cool to me.
Alby, the character, is this great leader and great father figure. His one flaw is the fact that he's not trying to actively get out, because of a past experience. We came up with this cool backstory - the first boy that ever got stung was Alby's best friend and he had to banish him out himself. As soon as that happened he realised that from now on he could do better and protect everyone there.
We started creating a world that would sustain us for as long as possible without us having to risk everything to get out. We still have the runners out there to give hope - but even in the movie we change that too. That concept - the illusion of paradise - was important so that it could all crumble. That was probably a little different in the book too, but it felt cool and it was neat.
Man, I'd love to do a whole thing of just the three years of building the Glade before Thomas arrived. That would be freaking awesome. In the first cut of our movie it's actually a lot more peaceful. We ended up pushing a little more of the mystery of it.
Is that a difficult balance? You don't want to alienate the audience but you don't want to spoonfeed them either.
It came together in the edit, really, when you start feeling it, and testing it with an audience. There's some good questions we wanted to have and some bad ones, and we tried to figure that out. We had a lot of material to edit with, so it was just finding that right balance. The mystery thing is probably the biggest engine that keeps you going.
You shot in Louisiana, and built the Glade for real. Weren't there snakes everywhere?
The snakes man. It was Louisiana and we were out in the woods, so they were everywhere. They'd come out when it rained, and we'd have to check the area every day and pull up a dozen snakes every day.
Didn't the actors camp out for a while?
Yeah, that was fun. That was a little boot camp I made everyone go through. In creating this world I wanted them to feel what it was like to hold a machete and tie up some rope and get their hands dirty. We put them out with this army ranger and let them get sweaty and nasty out there for a week. What's funny is Kaya Scodelario was the first one who signed up. It ended up being this bonding experience and it was really fantastic. They became a real family, and they're constantly talking to each other. They have this group chat they're all on. They say they've never been this close to a cast before. They're a little family unit. They went out camping one night and it happened to be the biggest storm that swept through ever - huge lightning strikes. Kaya will tell you how terrifying it was, but it was awesome. A great experience, and it bonded them forever.
You're from the world of visual effects, but how important was character and story?
That was our emphasis. We had to put emphasis on those characters. In the next movie, there's no more maze. The maze is kind of the star of the first movie, the selling point. But by the next movie there's no maze, so you have to make sure those characters are great and that you fall in love with those people so that you want to see the next one. I think we've really done that. I think you really fall in love with these guys. And the tricky thing of it is we've got a limited amount of time to deal with these major characters - six or seven characters we have to get a good sense of. But always leave them wanting more. [laughs]