Wes Ball, Hollywood's new blockbuster visionary

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. (AP) — Wes Ball didn't mean to have a signature hat. He can't even remember where he got the tattered, sweat-stained, beige baseball cap with the white embroidered "Catskill Mountains" stitching. But he knows one thing for sure — he's not taking it off anytime soon, and definitely not during production.

During one of the busiest weeks near the end of filming "The Scorch Trials," the second movie in the "Maze Runner" trilogy, Ball thought he might try out a new hat, and everything went haywire. Not only were they shooting the most complicated sequence in the shortest amount of time, it was also at night in the New Mexico desert, where the temperature sometimes dropped to the single digits. Then the cast started having medical issues.

Ki Hong Lee got appendicitis. Kaya Scodelario had a kidney failure. Dexter Darden was hospitalized with sickle cell anemia. Then Dylan O'Brien contracted the flu, was out for two days, and came back only to break a leg in the middle of a scene.

And yes, he used the take where he breaks his leg.

"The whole end scene he's got a broken leg. You can see him hobbling," said Ball on a recent afternoon at his office in the San Fernando Valley. "I was like, 'I'm never taking off this hat again.'"

In the end, this perfect storm of chaos only added two days to the schedule and they still came in under budget. Not bad for a green director who was plucked out of near obscurity to set the tone for "The Maze Runner" franchise, Fox's attempt at making a "Hunger Games" of their own.

With the first "Maze Runner," which was made for $34 million and earned over $340 million worldwide last year, Ball has proven himself to be a pro who can deliver. Fox loves him. His actors love him. It's the sort of reputation you need when you're making your name in Hollywood.

"He doesn't waste money. He knows where he wants to spend. He knows what he needs to build and then what he can add on to with visual effects," said veteran producer Wyck Godfrey. "He has vision. That's the long and the short of it... It wasn't just talk."

At 34, he's not exactly a wunderkind. He's paid his dues. Ball attended film school at Florida State University with dreams of directing. He won a Student Academy Award for an animated short that helped him get a foot in the door when he first moved to Los Angeles. That translated to jobs in VFX and post work, which paid the bills and continued his technical education while he developed projects on the side.

Then one took off. "Ruin," an 8½-minute computer animated post-apocalyptic adventure, went viral. Suddenly he was getting calls from agents and taking meetings all over town. During this time, someone at Fox gave him James Dashner's "The Maze Runner" to look at. He did, developed a pitch, and within a few days he had sold "Ruin" and gotten the "Maze Runner" job, both at Fox.

"It's rare that you give somebody a shot based on an animated short film to do a live action movie. You could see in the short that he had real cinematic flair," said Godfrey.

Ball's Studio City office, a multi-level loft that he shares with filmmaker friends, is a hub of creativity and a film geek's paradise. Among the workstations and flannel shirts strewn on the couches, there's a model of R2-D2, and posters for 1980s adventure cult classics like "The Goonies" and Joe Dante's "Explorers" are hanging about. He laughs that even the baseball cap is some "Indiana Jones"-style extension of his person, or from watching too many Steven Spielberg behind-the-scenes clips.

The child-of-the-80s furnishings are no accident. Ball wants to tell small stories on a big canvas, like his idols.

"Spielberg, Cameron and Zemeckis are the guys for me. They're guys who do big, awesome popcorn entertainment that also have authentic emotion and heart," he said.

With storyboards for future projects lining the office walls, Ball is choosing his next steps carefully.

He almost passed on the "Maze Runner" sequel because he didn't like the book. At the pleas of his cast, and assurances that he could tweak the story, he decided to stay on. He'll also direct the third film in the series, "The Death Cure," set to start shooting in February. Then he'll tackle "Fall of Gods," a Norse mythology fantasy with a "dark edge."

A feature-length "Ruin" will happen at some point, too. For now, Ball is happy to continue learning in the public eye with increasingly bigger budgets — and pressures.

"His touchstones are Jim Cameron and Ridley Scott," said Godfrey. "There is going to be a guy who comes along who fills their shoes. We believe that Wes is that guy."


Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr