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Ernest Cline’s universe is about to get a lot larger.
It’s just over a month before Ready Player One is set to open theatrically, a movie based on his 2011 book of the same name. Cline also co-wrote the screenplay, which gave him significant creative input adapting his work for the big screen— and as he tells Heat Vision — he’s kicked things into high gear for the sequel.
“It’s pretty crazy,” says Cline when asked how he’s feeling about things these days, sitting inside the mostly empty lobby of an Alamo Drafthouse movie theater during a gray, rainy day in Austin, Texas.
Set in the year 2045, the world of Ready Player One has been ravaged by climate change, overpopulation and poverty. In order to escape their grim reality, people find solace in an online virtual reality called The Oasis. At the center of the story is Wade Watts (portrayed in the film by Tye Sheridan), a teenager dedicated to solving Anorak’s Game, created by the architect of The Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), and announced to Oasis users after Halliday’s death. The winner of Anorak’s Game will not only inherit Halliday’s $500 billion fortune, but will be granted control over The Oasis as well.
With the movie adaptation right around the corner, Cline seems overwhelmed — but in a good way.
“I got to see [it] a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie like this, where so many of the actors play two different roles. One in their own body and then in The Oasis where they’re operating another photorealistic body with facial motion capture,” he says.
A central aspect to the story is an infatuation with 1980s pop culture, which is not only prominent throughout Cline’s novel, but readily apparent in the film’s trailers. In the context of the story, it’s a byproduct of the characters’ exhaustive research to help them understand the clues to solving Anorak’s Game.
Given the reference-heavy nature of the story, it seemed like an obvious choice to have Steven Spielberg — the man who had a hand in creating many of those films — helm Ready Player One.
However, Cline explains that Spielberg took a more cautious approach when putting the film together. “He was so loath to reference anything of his own. It’s not that he’s overly humble, but he’s just not a fan of being a self-referential or playing tribute to [his] stuff.”
Cline attributes Spielberg’s thinking to the director’s 1979 comedy, 1941. “That movie opens with a re-creation of the scene from Jaws, with the same actress getting lifted up by the submarine, then later on there’s a little tribute to Duel. He was having fun and riffing, and the critics just really laid into him for that. So, I think after 1941 he was just like, ‘I’m never referencing my own movies ever again.’”
As a result, Cline, along with others working on the film, had to coerce him into including many of the novel’s elements that pay homage to Spielberg’s films.
“[It was a] a unique circumstance where we kind of had to convince him to do it. But mostly he would say yes when it was something he had produced and not directed,” Cline says.
One of the most iconic examples from the upcoming movie is the DeLorean car from Back to the Future, which is driven by Watts’ Oasis avatar, Parzival. In those situations, Spielberg would concede to include the reference, viewing Back to the Future as a Robert Zemeckis movie that he helped produce.
Cline says the director shaped the course of the movie in more than just being the basis for many of its references. When the film was first being developed, Cline’s script included a scene from the book that takes place at a zero-gravity dance club inside The Oasis, which the studio wanted to omit entirely.
“That was the first thing they made me take out. It was way too expensive,” he said.
Once Spielberg had signed on, he read the script and then Cline’s novel, which he filled with Post-It Notes marking everything he wanted to put on screen — including the zero-gravity dance club.
“Steven said, ‘Why’d you take this out?’ And they were like, ‘Well, we weren’t sure how to do it and we thought it’d be too expensive.’ [Suddenly], those were no longer problems,” says Cline.
By the end, Spielberg was inspired by Cline’s enthusiasm for seeing his book being brought to the big screen. “I told Steven again and again, it would’ve been a whole different novel if I hadn’t grown up watching your movies,” the author says.
To help ready audiences for the film’s release while acknowledging its adoration of films from the ‘80s, the Alamo Drafthouse chain recruited Cline to put together a special programming slate in March leading up to Ready Player One‘s release at the end of the month.
“They wanted me to select films that had inspired both the novel and the film, and that was a pretty short list,” Cline explains. “Most of them are some of my favorite movies, but I also wanted movies that were already in the trailers. You can see visual references to most of those films. So that was kind of my criteria: stuff that had informed or was referenced in the novel, and also ended up making it into the movie in some form.”
While some of the selections are obvious, like The Iron Giant, some of the cinematic inspirations proved to be a bit more subversive. One such example is Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, which is not only one of Cline’s favorite ‘80s coming-of-age movies, but also helped inspire Ready Player One’s overall story.
“It draws out these influences and images that would have been lost otherwise. I mean, [Perzival] holds up a boom box, which he does in the book, because that’s an iconic moment, but other than that throwaway visual reference, the influence of the film for me runs much deeper than just that,” he says.
The author then explains that it was the story of star-crossed lovers that helped shape the romance between Parzival and fellow gamer and rival Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).
“Where two characters who are in love but they can’t be together, heavily inspired the romance in Ready Player One. They hit it off, they start to fall in love, but they can’t be together. She doesn’t want the relationship to continue because she has other priorities in her life,” says Cline.
Even with Ready Player One’s upcoming release packing his schedule, Cline is also making time to work on a sequel to the novel.
“I had to start writing the sequel last year while the movie was being finished just to stay ahead of the curve. It’s a good problem to have, but if this movie does well, the following week they’ll decide whether or not they want to make Ready Player Two, and it occurred to me I should finish,” he says.
“I’d always intended to write more in the series,”Cline adds, “but I never imagined the movie would get done before I finished writing them. So, I had to kick it into high gear.”
Whereas Cline had the benefit of adapting his novel after he’d written it, he explains that working on the sequel has proved to be a bit more challenging. “To see Steven visualize the first story, it’s been really inspiring for me [to] revisit that world, but I’m trying to write a sequel to the book and not to the movie, because the movie has changed things. So, it’s tricky, keeping two different versions of the story in my head.”
He’s also been working on the screenplay for Armada, his 2015 novel about a teenager who discovers the video game he’s been playing was, in fact, a simulator preparing him for an actual alien invasion.
“It’s still in the script development phase,” says Cline, who describes the process as a bit more grueling than the situation for Ready Player One.
“I sold the book rights to Armada before I wrote the book. I had written a 20-page synopsis that I used to sell the book before I wrote it. That same synopsis was used by Hollywood to buy the film rights. Then I had to write the novel, [and] as soon as I was done writing the novel, I had to start over and tear the story apart and try to retell it,” he says.
The process of immediately trying to adapt his novel into a screenplay was challenging in a way Cline didn’t anticipate. “I see why oftentimes screenwriters and novelists don’t intersect. Once you finish the story to your satisfaction, you kind of put it out into the world and you want to move on from it. And I think if I’d come back to Armada later, even a year later, like I did with Ready Player One, it would’ve been easier. But just going straight back to back, was really challenging.”
Despite his hefty workload, Cline’s says he’s still riding high on the anticipation of audiences experiencing Ready Player One on the big screen. “I’m really excited. I’m chomping at the bit for the whole world to see it.”
Ready Player One opens March 29.
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Sterling K. Brown