It’s increasingly rare for one director to helm every installment in a blockbuster trilogy, particularly when their name isn’t Christopher Nolan or Peter Jackson. But Wes Ball managed to defy the odds, overseeing every chapter of The Maze Runner, 20th Century Fox’s hit postapocalyptic trilogy, including the final installment, The Death Cure, which opens in theaters on Friday. As the 37-year-old filmmaker tells Yahoo Entertainment, though, he never set out to become the exception to the rule, especially after the original Maze Runner — based on a popular series of YA novels by James Dashner — became a box-office smash in 2014. “My original intention was to not do the next two movies,” Ball reveals. “I had some other things popping up, so I was going to go off and do something else.”
In fact, Ball was so sure that he wouldn’t be returning, his original ending for the first Maze Runner wouldn’t have directly teased a sequel. At the conclusion of the theatrical cut, the film’s amnesiac hero, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), leads his friends out of their grassy jail in the Glade and through the titular maze, where they discover the identity of their jailers — scientists working for the sinister corporation WCKD and its mysterious mastermind, Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) — before being whisked away by masked soldiers. The last scene finds Paige teasing that the teenagers are about to enter “Phase Two.” (In The Scorch Trials, it’s revealed that those soldiers are also part of WCKD.)
“In my original ending, the soldiers weren’t going to grab them and put them on a helicopter,” Ball explains. “They were going to get to that room and find all of the WCKD scientists dead, and a recording of Ava would tell them, ‘You’re ready for the trials to come — the world’s going to need you.’ Then they’d walk out of the room, and we’d follow them in one shot as they emerge into the world. The last shot of the movie was going to be this sprawling, destroyed civilization. It would have been a cool ’70s sci-fi ending, and you still would have been able to do the rest of the books.”
As far as Ball was concerned, adapting the next two books — The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure — would be someone else’s task. With one hit movie under his belt, he was exploring other options, including a feature-length version of his animated short film Ruin, an original dystopian adventure yarn that the former visual effects artist had previously sold to Fox. But then Emma Watts, the studio’s president of production, convinced him to seriously consider another run through the franchise he helped launch by making the sequel novels back-to-back. “I started to think about another director coming in to work with this cast and do their own thing. And I was like, ‘I think I would regret it for the rest of my life!’”
Watch Ball’s short film Ruin, which he sold to Fox as a feature film project:
Funnily enough, Ball admits to having some regrets anyway — not about making all three movies, but rather concerning some the choices he and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin made on the first film had he known that he’d be directing the next two chapters as well. Making The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure in close succession allowed the duo to plan ahead for the third movie while making the second, a luxury they didn’t enjoy back in 2014. “There’s been some really complicated story things [to figure out], so if we had known we were going to make all three, we probably would have changed things in the first movie so that we wouldn’t have some of these issues.”
Some of the trickiest territory to navigate was figuring out how to handle the character of Ava Paige — who isn’t a physical presence in the books, but nevertheless plays a crucial role in the climax of The Death Cure — and also introducing the Right Arm, a guerrilla force that battles WCKD. “We spent a lot of time in the first and second movies dealing with WCKD’s subterfuge. Looking back on it, it would have been cleaner to have the Right Arm come in and grab them at the end of the first movie, and let that be the group they escape with. That would have been the better way to go if we had really sat down and thought about all three movies. At the same time, I wanted to change only what I felt I had to from the books so that it would be a good movie experience. So I’m not regretful of anything.” Especially not the opportunity to join a three-timers’ club that includes Christopher Nolan.
The Maze Runner: The Death Cure opens in theaters on Friday.
Watch: Dylan O’Brien and cast discuss his ’emotional’ return to set following horrific injury: