Maze Runner: The Death Cure finally comes out this month.
It almost didn’t. Ever. At all.
While the third chapter in the movie franchise based on James Dashner’s dystopian Young Adult novels was filming in the B.C. interior in March of 2016, its star Dylan O’Brien was severely injured when he accidentally got pulled off of a moving vehicle, then hit by another one. The now 26-year-old actor suffered a concussion and enough facial damage to require reconstructive surgery. So, naturally, there were questions whether the movie could be finished, and whether O’Brien would ever be able to work again.
Happily, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. The tall, handsome actor recovered well enough to jump into another action movie, this past fall’s American Assassin, and appear in a few episodes of the final season of "Teen Wolf", the TV series that made him a Hollywood heartthrob, before re-teaming with Maze Runner director Wes Ball and the cast and crew (nearly a year after that horrible day) to complete The Death Cure.
“It meant a lot to finish,” O’Brien says sincerely, looking none the worse for wear during an interview in Los Angeles. “It’s something that was always a big thing for me and has meant a lot to me. Also, coming off of that accident, it was a big deal to finish in a very personal way for me. I think we made something great, the franchise means a lot to all of us, so we wanted to finish it on the best note we could.”
In 2014’s The Maze Runner, O’Brien’s character Thomas led his friends out of The Glade, a kind of outdoor prison for memory-impaired young people. The second movie, The Scorch Trials, showed them the devastated outside world from which they’d been mysteriously plucked. Now, in Death Cure, Thomas and the other survivors try to break into a fortified district where, with hope, they can recover their full memories and find out exactly what happened and why they’ve been so terribly manipulated by the organization known as WCKD.
Death Cure includes a good deal of high-speed action involving ATVs, trains and heli-ships, in scenes shot both before and after the accident. The actor has admitted to suffering doubts and even panic attacks since that terrible day and praised, among others, his girlfriend Britt Robertson (the actors met while making the 2012 romantic comedy The First Time) for providing the emotional support that got him through.
Still, a generally chill kind of guy, O’Brien remains rattled by the accident.
“I’m not going to go into detail about it because it’s my business,” he says, politely but firmly. “It happened in a public way, but I just don’t think it’s my job to report on it. But it was a stunt gone wrong and it was a really scary incident. That’s really all I can say. I don’t feel comfortable diving into the logistics.”
O’Brien felt comfortable enough to do many of his own stunts when production resumed. They had to be carefully choreographed and rehearsed in those post-recovery months, of course, and protecting the actor’s face has become a paramount concern. But none of that should have any impact on the threequel’s thrills, he reports.
“We wanted to go out and try to make this the best movie of the three, and I think we did make a really good movie,” O’Brien says. “I’m excited about how it came out. Wes is one of the most talented directors out there right now and I’m always glad to see what he does with it after we put it in his hands. It’s a great crew and cast too, always. And we’ve got Walton Goggins in this one! He’s such a great actor and great dude.
“So yeah, it’s exciting and good, an emotional and intense last chapter.”
Wait, did he say last chapter? Considering how recent film franchises from Harry Potter to Hunger Games have drawn out their final source novels into two movies or more (The Hobbit made three out of one book!), that doesn’t sound like standard Hollywood operating procedure. But O’Brien insists Death Cure is it for Maze Runner, and while he certainly has good personal reasons to be done with the series, he also sounds proud that they’re not forcing devoted fans to wait, and buy more tickets, to get the story’s conclusion.
“It’s the completion, from the third book, and we had always planned on doing it in just three movies,” O’Brien attests (Dashner did write two prequel novels after the original trilogy). “So this is the final installment.”
Good for them. But where does that leave O’Brien? With his TV show and film franchise both over, the actor has expressed relief that his regular work commitments are, at least for the moment, a thing of the past. He’s also indicated that he’s going to be choosier about acting jobs. And the guy could certainly use a few laughs. In fact, if you really want some insight into what he’d like to be doing now, go back to his comedy roots.
Back when he was a high schooler in the Los Angeles suburb of Hermosa Beach, O’Brien, whose dad was a cameraman, started making goofy videos of himself lip-synching, jumping around, responding poorly to girls’ rejections and generally making a fool of himself. They were broad and energetic and kind of adorable, led to his first fan following (folks are still re-cutting his “greatest hits” on YouTube) and eventually resulted in the professional acting career. O’Brien speaks as fondly of that time as of anything he’s accomplished since, and while he’s not about to give up his day job, he’d clearly like more work along the lines of his first creative efforts.
“I started making my little shorts when I was in high school,” says O’Brien, who hoped at the time to go to film school. “That’s what eventually led to this, which is really cool. But I haven’t made any videos in a long time, literally since I started working. Obviously, I’ve planned on getting back into that side of things. I’d love to direct one day, always wanted to make my own stuff down the road. So maybe a precursor to all that will be another little short.”
While nobody’s earned the right to stop and smell the roses as much as Dylan O’Brien, here’s hoping he brings a camera along with him as he does.