Ernest Cline is living the dream right now. His debut novel, Ready Player One, was sold to American publisher Random House and he bought a DeLorean from the advance to drive around the US promoting it.
It rocketed up the charts and Cline found himself in the same position as Andy Weir (The Martian) or EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey) – other debut novelists who found themselves the toast of the town as readers lapped their work up.
Hollywood inevitably came calling, but if Cline had thought he was imagining some alternate universe where he was a successful writer with movie studios courting him for the rights to his work, he must have entered an even stranger Twilight Zone when none other than Steven Spielberg signed on to direct it – the man responsible for much of the pop culture homages that made the book so successful.
Having achieved a strange full circle symmetry in his career and with nowhere to go but up, the Austin, Texas native spoke to Moviehole.net in LA.
The film version of Ready Player One has come along at the perfect time, the 1980s are cool again. Why are we so in love with the era?
When I was growing up in the 80s there were a lot of coming of age movies set in the 50s and early 60s like American Graffiti or Stand By Me, and that was because the filmmakers of that time had grown up during that era and were telling stories that were nostalgic about their own childhood.
It’s cyclical to some degree, but also the 1980s in particular are a very unique decade because of the advent of different aspects of technology that I feel like set us on the path to the world that we live in now.
I was born the year Pong – the very first video game – was invented, so I was from the first generation to have video games and home computers and use a modem to dial out and connect with another computer far away. That was the beginning of the internet age.
The other thing that profoundly changed my life was the introduction of the VCR, which opened the world of cinema to me. I was no longer restricted to the movies that just played at my local cinema or on TV. Now, I had access to the entire library of movies going back to the dawn of silent movies. I could watch them over and over again and really examine them. I could study Steven’s movies and see how they were put together. That led to me learning how to become a storyteller.
Also, largely because of Steven and George Lucas, the 80s were a golden age of cinema. They kind of invented the blockbuster with Star Wars and Jaws and there was this huge string of amazing movies that are still being rebooted or given sequels even now.
A lot of those movies were about kids of the same age as the ones who loved them too.
It’s true, it was kind of a great era to be a kid. There were all these movies that were telling you you could do anything. Take The Goonies. Steven came up with a story for a group of kids finding a pirate treasure map in their attic. Or War Games where a kid accidentally starts World War 3 and then has to prevent it. It was a really empowering age to grow up in, you felt like even after the adults had given up on solving a problem the kids might still be able to do it. I feel like Ready Player One kind of captures that feeling.
Is it also because it’s the era when special effects became prominent, which led to the kind of movie and game culture we have now?
Oh yeah. Tron and The Last Starfighter were the first two movies to use photorealistic computer generated special effects and that was the first step towards Jurassic Park and completely photorealistic CGI.
Obviously as the co-writer you’re happy with the changes made from the book, but were they difficult to face?
No, what was so wonderful about this process was that Zak [Penn, co-writer] and I were friends before he started working on the script. I was in a documentary he directed called Atari: Game Over and he and I bonded over our shared love of cinema and video games.
Plus he has work that inspired me. Movies like The Last Action Hero [Penn’s first produced script] helped inspire the book, the idea of going into your favourite genre of movie and using your knowledge of movies to survive it.
It was thrilling for me to get to work with someone like Zak, almost as much as working with Steven, Adam Stockhausen [production designer] or other people whose work inspired me to write Ready Player One and become a filmmaker.
It was a great process and I was included so much as a collaborator. Everyone was so respectful of the book that I never questioned anything. I also trust Steven implicitly – I don’t think any living filmmaker knows how to tell a story cinematically better than he does.
I’d assumed it could never be a movie because of all the pop culture references, so I never structured it like a movie. I structured it like a novel and there were things that could only work in a novel. In a book you can have somebody stop and play Pac-Man for six hours but that would just stop a movie dead. We needed things that were in the same spirit as the challenges of the book but would make the movie more cinematic, so I feel like it’s a faithful adaptation that captures the spirit of the novel and the characters.
I also got excited about re-imagining my story for the cinema because it would surprise fans of the book. The structure and set up, the world of the Oasis and the real world is all the same, the only major changes are to the events and the ways the characters meet, but the characters are all the same.
What about the characters not being the same as you imagined, especially after what they look and sound like in your head for so long?
Right, but they almost never do. All my favourite book to film adaptations made huge departures from the source material and characters. Take Jaws, it’s very different than the finished movie, but that’s one of my favourite movies of all times.
That’s one of the reasons I loved having The Shining sequence, it’s all about Stephen King hating the film adaptation, it’s his least favourite film adaptation but also his most celebrated.
Look at Peter Jackson’s wonderful Tolkien adaptations. There are still Tolkien fans of the book upset about changes he made even though those were Oscar nominated adaptations. There always have to be changes to make a good film adaptation and I’m overjoyed with all the choices Steven made. I wouldn’t change a thing.
It’s also definitely a movie to see with an audience in a theatre.
I saw it with about 10 or 12 people the first time and even being one of the writers I got caught up in it. I forgot what was going to happen next even though I helped decide what was gonna happen next. That’s the thing about Steven’s movies. His powers of storytelling work on everyone, even the people collaborating with him. It’s really profound.
The film also seemed to explore the theme of unplugging and engaging with the real world a bit more.
Well, you know the last line of the book is ‘for the first time in as long as I could remember, I have no desire to walk back into the OASIS’. That’s because he’s missing his dream girl, who he’s only known online at that point.
But yeah, it is a theme that’s brought out more quickly and more to the forefront in the film, but I feel like that sentiment is still there. It’s not necessarily about unplugging all the time though. In my mind it’s about striking a balance between reality and fantasy.
I feel like escapism is an essential part of the human experience. We need stories and music and art and cinema. One of the best things about the human experience is getting to share in your appreciation of the art your fellow humans produce. The internet, video games, cinema and television are all wonderful and can enrich your life, but you have to strike a balance.
If you escape all the time, then your real world and real life will suffer – if there’s any message in the novel and the movie I think that’s it. The real world is the only place where you can find true happiness, because reality is real. That’s a line that Halliday says in the novel, and he says it in the film as well.
Is Ready Player One your bid for a career in movies?
I hopefully will continue. I’m hoping for the kind of career Stephen King has where he gets to write his novels and then also pitch in and help with the screenplays. He also directed one of his short stories, Maximum Overdrive, and I might try to do that once as well, but I’ll always write books.
Writing a book is like getting to direct a movie on paper. You get to do all the special effects, cast all the roles, dress all the sets and do it all yourself with no limitations. It’s really freeing for a writer. Screenwriting is much more restrictive if you actually plan to produce the screenplay. I love getting to make movies, but books will always be my first love.
Any activity on developing Armada [Cline’s subsequent novel]?
Yes. Universal Pictures is actively developing the script. Hopefully the success of Ready Player One will help create more momentum with that.