Every time Steven Spielberg makes a movie it is a highly anticipated event. Ready Player One seems like it could be the culmination of all of his blockbusters, since it references pretty much every famous character from movies, video games and TV shows from the ‘80s to now.
Based on Ernest Cline’s book, Ready Player One is the story of a virtual world in 2045 where users can be any character they want. The creator of the virtual OASIS dies and leaves behind a contest to win his stock and control of the world. So Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his High Five friends team up to win. Spielberg, Sheridan, Cline, and actors Lena Waithe and Olivia Cooke spoke about the film in Los Angeles. Ready Player One opens March 29.
Q: What was it about these stories and characters that made you want to make Ready Player One your next movie?
SS: Well, I think anybody who read the book, that was connected at all with the movie industry would’ve loved to have made this into a movie. The book had seven movies in it, maybe 12. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to tell the story about this competition, both of these worlds and to make it both an express train racing toward the third act, and at the same time make it a little bit of a cautionary tale about leaving us the choice. Where do we want to exist? Do we want to exist in reality or do we want to exist in an escapist universe? Those themes were so profound for me. When I read the book, I said, “That theme is consistent throughout the whole book but there are so many places we could have taken the book.”
Q: Since you’ve made both kinds of movies, do you approach an escapist movie any differently than a historical real-world movie?
SS: For me, this film was my great escape. This was my great escape movie. This was a film for me that fulfilled all of my fantasies of the places I go in my imagination when I get out of town. So I got to live this for three years. I got to actually escape into the imagination of Ernest Cline and Zak Penn for three years. It was amazing, but I came back to Earth a couple of times. I made a few films. I made Bridge of Spies and The Post while I was making Ready Player One. So I got that whiplash effect of going from social reality to total escapist entertainment. I’m feeling it. It’s a great feeling but it also makes my wife and kids kind of crazy because they don’t know who Dad’s going to be when he comes home in the evening, which dad they’re going to get.
Q: Why did you have such passion for Ready Player One and how did it play into the references you chose?
SS: Well, for one thing, I had a passionate and amazing cast. I think their combined ages all put together, they were younger than me combined. So I fed off that energy. I came to work in the morning and Olivia would be saying, “Okay, what do we do now? I can’t wait.” And then Lena would say, “Hey, throw anything at me. I’m ready for it.” And Tye was completely just, I mean, every cast member. A story like this, and Ernie gave us a playground to basically become kids again in. And we did. We all became kids again. Even though I was working with really young actors in their early 20s if that, we were all 12 making this movie. That’s where the energy came from. You have to understand also we made the movie in an abstract set. The only way the cast had a chance to understand where they were, we all had virtual reality goggles. Inside the goggles was a complete build of the set that you saw when you saw the movie, but when you took the goggles off it was a big white space. It was a 4,000 square foot white empty space called a volume, but when you put the goggles on, it was Aech’s basement or it was Aech’s workshop or it was the Distracted Globe. So the actors had a chance to say, “Okay, if I walk over there, there’s the door. Here’s the DJ.” It was really an out of body experience to make this movie and it’s very hard to really express what that was like.
OC: It was wonderful because we just lived in our own imagination for five months. We hadn’t had a chance to do that since we were children. So to be able to completely rely on just our interaction with Steven and with the other cast, that’s what made it so special and so different to anything I think any of us have ever done before.
LW: When we got to live action, it was always like oh, okay, now this is real world now.
TS: When we got to live action, everybody was like, ah, okay, I know how to do this.
LW: But it’s not as fun as when you’re just in an empty space and anything is possible.
Q: Are the songs in the movie from your own playlist, and did you play music on set?
SS: We did. I played a lot of the Bee Gees.
TS: I want to tell a story because I was extremely nervous on the first day. I actually didn’t even know it was going to be our first day. We had two weeks of rehearsal and Steven wasn’t there. We and all the High Five were just feeling out the mocap volume and getting familiar with some of these environments that we were going to be in in the movie. Steven shows up on the last day of rehearsal and he says, “Let’s shoot something.” I’m like, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t want to shoot anything with me.” He’s like, “Yeah, you can send everyone else home. I just want to use Tye.” So he brings me over to the side and he says, “Have you been working on your Parzival walk?” I said, “What is a Parzival walk? No, I didn’t know I had to work on a Parzival walk.” “Yeah, it’s kind of like the John Travolta walk at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. He’s got a certain swagger. I just want to capture you walking.” So there I am standing there on one side of the volume and Steven’s on the other side of the volume. It’s just me and him, no one else is on the floor. I’m just waiting for him to call action and my heart’s racing. He pulls out his phone and he hits the screen and then starts playing Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees and just starts walking towards me. He’s nodding his head and he’s holding up his phone. Then he goes, “And action.”
SS: And you can see that walk in Ready Player One. It’s in the movie. A lot of the songs came from [screenwriter] Zak Penn and Ernie Cline. I have to say that most of the songs are from their playlist.
EC: The end credits song, You Make My Dreams Come True, is the song that my wife and I walked down the aisle to. Now it’s the end credits, just the coolest thing.
SS: I have to add that when I found out that that was the song that they walked down the aisle to, that’s why I put the song in the movie. When I heard that story, that’s why the song became the end credits.
EC: I win, guys.
Q: What was the one thing you saw in the movie that spoke to you personally?
LW: The thing that I like the most was the Chucky doll, just because I used to genuinely be afraid of those movies. So now as an adult it’s kind of nice to play a character where I use Chucky as a weapon. And also too in terms of the music, there’s a moment where they’re playing Just My Imagination which is a song that my mother played all the time when I was a kid. When I heard that in Aech’s garage or warehouse actually, it was cool.
TS: I guess for me it was The Iron Giant. That was a movie that played so many times during my childhood. I have a very sentimental connection to that figure. It was super cool, even when we were shooting the movie, to look over because we could see our avatars in real time on a 2D screen. I would just look over and I could see my avatar and Iron Giant’s foot. I’m like, “That’s Iron Giant’s foot.”
SS: I think Brad Bird is a genius and I saw Iron Giant when it was in theaters the first time. I’ve been a big fan of Brad Bird’s. We actually worked together on something called Family Dog on television a long time ago, so this was to honor Brad Bird and Iron Giant.
OC: I really relished getting to learn the Saturday Night Fever dance. I used to go disco dancing when I was a kid in my hometown, so Tye and I got very close, very quickly with these dance lessons. I don’t know how much of it is digitally advanced in post-production. Probably a lot but that was really fun.
TS: All of my dancing is.
LW: No, you were good. You got good, man.
OC: That was the highlight of the job for me.
TS: We spent three weeks just rehearsing after work.
Q: You played Travolta’s son in The Forger. Has he seen this?
TS: I didn’t tell him. I texted him and said, “I just want you to know that you gotta see this film because we nod to some of your stuff.” But you’re great friends with him.
SS: John Travolta and I have been friends for a long time. We met on the set of Carrie. When was that, 1976? So we’ve been friends since ’76 and I can’t wait for John to see the film.
EC: For me, it’s the Back to the Future time machine. That was my dream car from the time I was a kid even before I saw Back to the Future. Then when I saw Back to the Future I always dreamed of owning a DeLorean someday. When I sold my novel and I realized I could finally buy a DeLorean and use it in my author photo because it’s an ‘80s time machine which is kind of what my novel is, then I could drive it around the country on my book tour and it would be a business expense. So it worked its way from the novel into my life and now it’s in the movie. I got to drive my DeLorean up to the premiere and take pictures with Ben [Mendelsohn] and Tye a few nights ago. That’s hard to top.
SS: I would’ve had to defer to somebody else who liked my movies and not make a movie about my movies. There are a couple iconic characters from my films, especially the DeLorean which came from the book directly. Otherwise, there were a lot of things that we could have put in that we didn’t.
Q: How did the young cast immerse yourselves in the ‘80s?
TS: I think Lena’s the only one of the High Fives that was born then.
LW: I was born in ’84 so a lot of the ‘80s I don’t really know a ton about, but because I grew up in the ‘90s a lot of that stuff I remember. Like I really knew the music. I know Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston really began in the ‘80s so it was not hard for me to revisit. Tye and I watched some movies together, some ‘80s movies just to get in the vibe. An interesting thing about that time was everything was so big and loud and happy and colorful. It was a prosperous time. That’s why I think I’m happy I was born in that decade and that’s why I think it really translates on screen. There’s so much joy and it’s reminding us of a happier time.
TS: I guess it also makes sense because the OASIS stands for the great escape. It’s anything you want it to be. Because the ‘80s were such a vibrant decade full of all this crazy, cool [stuff], I think it makes total sense that there’s all of this pop culture and ‘80s references embedded.
SS: I was trying to find a decade where there wasn’t global and domestic turbulence, chaos and seismic change. Like, in the ‘60s we have seismic change with the Civil Rights Movement. There was so much change with the assassination of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. There were all these different eras and I think it was really interesting, and maybe Ernie can address why Ernie picked the ‘80s in his book.
EC: A couple reasons. First, I grew up in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s so I think a lot of creative people are nostalgic for the time in which they came of age. When I was growing up in the ‘80s, there were a lot of movies set in the ‘50s and ‘60s like Grease and Stand By Me. I think there’s a cyclical nature to people celebrating their own youth. The other thing that fascinates me about the ‘80s, I feel like it’s the birth of the culture we live in now. The birth of video game culture, computer culture and also movie culture. That was due to the advent of these new technologies that landed right when I was a kid. Video games, I was born the same year that Pong was released so I was part of the first generation to have video games. I was also part of the first generation to have home computers and be able to dial out from one computer over the phone lines and connect to another computer. It was a profound experience. I felt like I was projecting myself to another place. Then the VCR was like a nuclear bomb dropped on my childhood because suddenly I was not limited to the movies in my local theater or what was on television. I had access to cinema from all around the world and I could rewatch it. Like I rewatched Steven’s movies over and over again and see how they were put together. That was the beginnings of me wanting to be a filmmaker. So those technologies and this access to information, I feel like the’ 80s is when we got on the path to where we are.
SS: I knew you were the right person to direct that question.
Q: What is your relationship with nostalgia and how has it changed over the years?
SS: It’s a great question because I have the most intimate relationship with nostalgia. It’s based on the fact that from when I was 12 years old, 11 years old I started taking 8mm movies of my family on camping trips when I was a kid growing up in Arizona. And when videotape came in, I started taking videotapes. And then I started taking my 8mm sound movie camera when I was hanging around with Coppola and Lucas and Scorsese and De Palma, that whole group back in the ‘70s. I’ve got something like 60 hours of footage of all of us growing up making movies together which someday could be an interesting documentary if I can get the rights to any of these guys who probably 80% of the footage they would not want released to the public. Today in my life I do all the videos of my families growing up. What we do every single year is I have a really great editor, Andy, in our office and he cuts together the whole year in the life of my family, all my children and my grandchildren and we have little screenings. It’s called the Annual Family Video. So I basically live in nostalgia and that might be the main reason I so reacted and responded so positively to Ernie’s book and Zak’s script because I’m kind of living that way most of my life.
Photos by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture.