While screenwriter Zak Penn is known as one of Hollywood’s most dependable gig writers, propping up some of the biggest blockbusters around from the Marvel and X-Men series with actual stories in between action set pieces, you get the impression that while that stuff is fun, it’s more about paying the bills at times.
As his little seen but hilarious 2007 mockumentary The Grand and his 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over (about the mythical burial of hundreds of copies of the Atari 2600 game ET in a New Mexico landfill) show, Penn is made of different stuff as a filmmaker. He’s not only a good writer but a nerd at heart.
Like his Ready Player One co-screenwriter Ernest Cline (who wrote the hit novel the movie’s based on), Penn is a walking encyclopaedia of pop culture and entertainment trivia. But even more than that, he has a deep knowledge about the philosophy of how fandom shapes both the arts and us in equal measure. He spoke to Moviehole.net in LA.
What made you the ideal writer for Ready Player One?
First of all, it’s right in my wheelhouse. Everything Ernie is describing is my childhood and those were the things I was interested in. I’ve been trying to do a movie like this for a very long time. The other thing was I’d spent six months making this documentary about Atari that Ernie was featured in, so I basically marinated for a while in his world and in the ideas behind the book. That helped me really get to know it but also be less afraid to make changes.
It’s like the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour thing. I’ve put in a lot of time, I’ve been doing this for 27 years and when Spielberg came along that’s what really made it. I think if I’d written a draft and somebody else would have directed it we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It was the right place at the right time.
I guess one other thing is I’m pretty good at structure. Ready Player One was challenging structurally, it just can’t be done the way the novel is written. You have to make some big choices and decide what you’re going to keep so in that sense I was probably the right guy for the job.
The Last Action Hero, your first script, has a lot of fans that think it was unfairly treated.
I wasn’t 100 percent happy with the way it came out but I’m definitely proud of elements of it. But one of the big differences between Action Hero and Ready Player One is that it was a very cynical endeavour. We loved action movies and the people who were making it didn’t. Ready Player One was the opposite, everyone involved loved what they were doing and I think it shows.
But it’s still cool people like The Last Action Hero. It was really different from any else that came before it so it deserved a bit more credit.
A lot of the action in the movies you write consists of sequences or set pieces that are worked out between the director, storyboard artists and VFX people. When the only thing that might appear in a script is ‘car chase scene here’, what’s the actual job of a writer on a movie like Ready Player One?
The difference between a good action sequence and a bad one is that a bad action sequence is just a bunch of beats strung together until they’re over. A good action sequence is constantly shifting and usually doing two different things at once. The early car race is a really good example. From the very beginning the scene’s not about cars, it’s about Parzival (Tye Sheridan) seeing Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) for the first time.
In fact, part of my pitch to Steven was that the car race was perfunctory. They do this all the time [in the Oasis], this isn’t a big deal. It’s a big deal for us because we’ve never seen it before, but it’s actually kind of a throwaway and that’s what makes it fun. So there’s a lot of conceptual work to be done. When it’s done right it’s not that the screenwriter doesn’t have a lot to do, it’s that you bring in all these great storyboard artists and people from ILM and Digital Domain and the production designer.
For example it took months to break that final action sequence where you’re always aware of their goal – that’s Steven, by the way, he’s great at constructing action sequences. But you have to write out the entire action sequence before they’ll even agree to start storyboarding it. It’s also so much easier when you have a group of genius people helping you, it just makes your job a lot easier. The Shining is another good example. If it feels like that’s an easy sequence to write, it was by far the hardest one in the movie.
What kind of films attract you as a director as opposed to a writer?
I did this movie Incident at Loch Ness with Werner Herzog – I’ve actually done a couple of movies with Werner – and I’ve done a couple of completely improvised movies. And part of that is a reaction to working on these behemoth operatic movies. I did seven Marvel movies in a row and I was just longing to do something more like Spinal Tap or something.
It’s weird that I like big movies and I like naturalistic dialogue and performance too. So I have to recharge my batteries and go do something different. That’s why I did Incident at Loch Ness, The Grand and Atari: Game Over. If you just go from one big movie to the next your soul is slowly crushed into a tiny ball of coal.
Is there another kind of writing – as opposed to directing – you do away from blockbusters do keep yourself sane?
Well, by far the best experience I’ve ever had was Ready Player One. I’m about to turn 50 but I started when I was 46. It’s kind of great that at 46 years old I finally got into a situation that was what I imagined being a screenwriter would be like where you work with a great director and you have input, but you’re also listening to what they want to do visually and you’re trying to write to it.
I thought [screenwriting] was always going to be like that, I didn’t realise it would be as unpleasant as it sometimes can be. But this was the purest screenwriting experience I’ve ever had. My only escape from the ones that were unpleasant was going to work in television or making my own movies.
It also seems to have been constructed from the ground up as a movie to see on a big screen.
If there’s ever a movie you need to see in a movie theatre with a crowd, this is it, which is not true for a lot of movies. But you could watch Ready Player One at home and it’s like if you saw Avatar in 2D, you really missed the point.
Stranger Things is huge on Netflix. The remake of It was a smash. Even 80s stars like Michael Keaton and Kevin Costner are back on screens. Why are the 80s so in fashion? Do we just need 30 years of distance to be nostalgic about any era?
That’s part of it. It goes in waves, and certainly for people like me or Ernie who grew up in the 80s, you’re going to harken back to the things you’re nostalgic for. It’s just pure timing, a little bit of coincidence. Having made Atari: Game Over, it was a point at which entertainment changed really rapidly.
The 70s is considered a golden age of filmmaking, it was about very personal filmmakers that were operating on smaller scales, so for a cinefile like me it’s great. But [the 80s] is also when pop culture and mass culture started to blend in with high culture, if you will.
And Steven [Spielberg] is the perfect example – ET, which was the most successful movie of all time, was also a great movie. It proved a popular movie or video game could also be something of value. The 80s was the locus point for a lot of that stuff.
And frankly MTV was a big deal with the kind of aesthetics it brought to movies. Some of them are unfortunate, but think how many great video directors are now great movie directors.
Is it also because the 80s was the decade when entertainment became a lot more visual because it’s when SPFX and VFX really came into their own?
Yeah, I think so, although I think special effects really came into their own in the 90s. Obviously there was a big leap forward with Star Wars, but I think Jurassic Park was a pretty good point at which things jumped forward. Some of the special effects from the 80s are crappy when you go back and look at them again.
But it’s also when a lot of the crafts like miniatures and puppetry started to really grow up.
Well, I mean, look at [the work of] Stan Winston, and then look back to Harryhausen. I’m just wondering if I’d put that heyday in the 80s.
What was your favourite easter egg in the movie?
When I first saw the movie I caught a glimpse in the race scene of a marquee that says, ‘Jack Slater in …’, a Last Action Hero reference [Schwarzenegger’s character in the film] that I had no idea about. I don’t think Steven did either. I saw the finished movie and I couldn’t believe they got it past because I’d seen every shot, so I just never caught it.