“It’s a huge, sprawling adventure that intercuts between two completely different worlds … I think Ernest Cline is a visionary who wrote of a future that’s actually not so far away from where we’re heading with the evolution of virtual reality…”
From filmmaker Steven Spielberg comes the action adventure Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s bestseller of the same name, which has become a worldwide phenomenon.
In the year 2045, the real world is a harsh place. The only time Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) truly feels alive is when he escapes to the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spend their days. In the OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone—the only limits are your own imagination. The OASIS was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who left his immense fortune and total control of the OASIS to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir. When Wade conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends—known as the High Five—are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.
Three-time Oscar winner Spielberg (Schindler’s List [director & picture], and Saving Private Ryan [director]) directed the film from a screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. It is based on the novel by Cline, which has spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, recently climbing to the #1 spot, as well as reaching #1 on Amazon’s Most Read Fiction chart.
From Book To Screen
Little more than 30 years ago, it seemed almost inconceivable that you could log onto a computer, create your own profile—true or not—and connect with people anywhere on the globe in real time. But what if, 30 years from now, you could log in, become your own personal avatar—true or not—and interact with people in an infinite virtual world?
Consider the possibilities…and the perils.
“It’s a huge, sprawling adventure that intercuts between two completely different worlds,” he says. “I think Ernest Cline is a visionary who wrote of a future that’s actually not so far away from where we’re heading with the evolution of virtual reality.”
The author credits Spielberg with being one of his greatest influences in creating his first novel.
“It’s hard to quantify what a profound effect Steven Spielberg’s work has had on my life and my interests, but I could not have written Ready Player One if I had not grown up on a steady diet of his films. Just as anyone who grew up with a passion for movies in the 1970s and `80s, his work is woven into the fabric of my life. So much of it ended up informing the story and the way I chose to write it, and the evidence of that is seen throughout the book.”
“Ready Player One” is set in 2045, when people will have the ability to enter into a digital universe called the OASIS, where you go wherever you want, do whatever you like, be whomever or whatever you choose to be. With the population beset by unemployment, poverty, overcrowding, and utter hopelessness, “it’s a good time to escape into a virtual world where you can live an extraordinary life through your avatar,” says Spielberg. “All you need is an imagination, and that will take you far in the OASIS. But when you escape from reality, you’re also, in a way, divesting yourself of any real human contact. So, the story is entertaining, but there is also a bit of a social commentary.”
Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, who has been working alongside Spielberg for more than two decades, adds, “What’s special about this film is that, amidst all the action, it highlights some compelling themes that are both timely and timeless. It’s a coming-of-age story that celebrates the bonds of friendship, the discovery of first love, and acceptance, both of yourself and others. It’s a sci-fi epic with a heart that’s quintessentially Spielberg.”
Cline is the author of the novels Ready Player One and Armada. His books have been published in 58 countries and have spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
Ready Player One has achieved a number of milestones. As of March 11, it reached #1 on The New York Times Paperback Best Sellers list. It has consistently been in the top five on Amazon’s Best Sellers chart, currently at #1 on the Most Read Fiction chart, and #4 on the Most Sold chart. It is also #1 on the first-ever The New York Times Audio Book Best Sellers list, which prints March 18.
In addition, Ready Player One is on the required/suggested reading lists at many universities, high schools and even corporations, and has been selected for numerous community reading programs. Cline also frequently speaks at universities and local libraries.
Armada is currently being developed into a major motion picture, with Cline writing the screenplay adaptation.
Cline lives in Austin, Texas, with his family, a time-traveling DeLorean, and a large collection of classic video games
Cline reveals that his inspiration for the story came from some of the touchstones of his youth.
“The initial idea came from the Atari game Adventure, which was the very first videogame to have an Easter egg in it—its designer, Warren Robinett, had created a secret room within the game that had his name inside it. It was my first time finding something inside a virtual world hidden by the creator of that world. It was a profound experience that really stuck with me. I was also a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s works, especially the Willy Wonka books, and one day the idea occurred to me: What if Willy Wonka had been a videogame designer instead of a candy maker? I started thinking about all the riddles and puzzles this eccentric billionaire could leave behind to find a worthy successor, and I knew I was on to something.”
Cline’s eccentric billionaire became the character of James Halliday, the reclusive co-creator of the OASIS, played by Mark Rylance. “The entire world lives within his dream—the dream from which he built an entire world,” says Spielberg. “But when he died he had no heirs, so he left behind a contest: the first to defeat three challenges, each rewarded with a key, and then find the Egg hidden somewhere inside the OASIS, will inherit everything.”
In life, Halliday gave people an escape from reality. In death, he gave them a future to hope for—a game within a game, with his vast fortune and full ownership of the OASIS as its prize.
Spielberg remarks, “As you can imagine, everybody is trying to locate Halliday’s Easter egg, including our unlikely young hero, Wade Watts.”
Winning would be the ultimate gamechanger and Wade has devoted every waking hour to deciphering the clues and being, as his rallying cry says, “first to the key, first to the Egg.” However, the quest becomes much more than a treasure hunt, as he and his friends, collectively called the High Five, come to discover there is something more important than money at stake.
Tye Sheridan, who stars as Wade Watts, says, “This giant corporation, Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, is trying to gain the OASIS, so they’ll have total control over everything. Our five characters, who are called ‘Gunters,’ as in egg hunters, are the underdogs, and you cheer for them because they are in it for the right reason. They want to win the contest to save the OASIS.”
The buzz surrounding the book Ready Player One was already at a high pitch when it was first published in August 2011.
It not only lived up to expectations; it surpassed them in spectacular fashion. A runaway hit, the #1 New York Times Best Seller has been published in more than 50 countries. However, well before its release, plans for a movie were already in the works.
Producer Donald De Line recalls, “I read the book more than a year before it was published and thought it was fantastic. I believe the story appeals to so many people for different reasons; everybody can find something in this world they can connect to. You don’t have to be a gamer because you can relate to the human aspects and the road Wade Watts has to travel to become the hero in the story. And then there’s the amazing adventure and all the pop culture references.”
Almost all of those references evoke the zeitgeist of a specific decade to which Cline feels a strong connection: the 1980s. He explains, “Halliday built his game around the things he loved, and that got me excited because I realized his passions could mirror my own. For me, the `80s were the most formative time in my life because that was the decade in which I was a teenager. It was also when I got my first videogame console and my first home computer. And it was the dawn of the internet age.
“I wondered if perhaps the book would only appeal to people around my age who were nostalgic for the `80s,” Cline continues. “But that has not been the case because it speaks to the way we live our lives now. Most of us have an actual identity and a virtual identity in the form of our social media profiles. And, not unlike the avatars in the story, you can shape those based on how you want other people to see you.”
Producer Dan Farah, Cline’s longtime colleague and the first person to whom he entrusted his book, adds, “I was fortunate to have Ernie share the earliest draft of his book with me. From the start, I could see how culturally relevant the story was. And as time goes on, it seems we are getting more and more disconnected from real-world personal interactions—we text, we post, we keep in touch and get caught up on one another’s lives via social media. Ready Player One paints a picture of what society could look like if we continue down that road. It’s fiction, but it doesn’t feel too far-fetched. It depicts what our future could really look like.”
Screenwriter on board
Screenwriter Zak Penn reveals that, coincidentally, he had already become acquainted with Cline through another game-related project. Penn notes, “I was working on a documentary about the fall of Atari, and one of the people I was asked to approach was Ernie Cline, so we ended up meeting and becoming friendly even before I put pen to paper, as they say.”
Penn’s shift into independent cinema began when he collaborated with his idol, Werner Herzog, on the script for “Rescue Dawn.” Penn directed and co-starred with Herzog in “Incident at Loch Ness,” his award-winning “hoax” documentary about the legendary director’s attempts to make a film about the equally legendary monster. “The Grand,” Penn’s second completely improvised film, was his third film with Herzog and featured an eclectic cast, including Woody Harrelson, David Cross, Ray Romano, Cheryl Hines, Dennis Farina and Gabe Kaplan.
In addition, Penn co-wrote the original story for the animated feature “Antz” and produced the animated film “Osmosis Jones.” He has also acted in a number of independent films, including “Star Maps” and “Chuck & Buck.” His first foray into television was the critically acclaimed original series “Alphas,” starring David Strathairn. In 2014, Penn directed the documentary “Atari: Game Over.”
Cline offers, “When Zak came on board, he wrote an amazing draft that captured the spirit of my novel while also making the story more cinematic. He was also kind enough to consult with me on all the changes he made. It was his draft that got Steven interested enough to read my novel. It was such a wonderful process, and I’m so grateful to Zak for the huge role he played in bringing Ready Player One to the screen.”
With a draft of the script in hand, it came time to put someone at the helm. De Line says, “We knew we needed a brilliant storyteller, visually and narratively, and a director who could also handle the technology—all of the things that Steven Spielberg obviously is. Of course, he is always going to be at the top of your list, but, realistically, what are the odds that you’re actually going to get him? But it’s good to have a dream,” he smiles, “so I said, ‘Sure, let’s give it to Spielberg.’ And he read it right away and loved it.”
Spielberg confirms, “They sent me the book, as well as the script, which I read first. I became completely enthralled with the idea of this juxtaposition of two worlds. Then I read the book and it really spun me out because it was so deep and so layered. It was esoteric; it was scary; it was accessible… I was hooked!”
Both Cline and Farah share that having Spielberg direct the film was, as they both put it, “beyond a dream come true.” Farah expands, “When you’re on a set with Steven, you can’t help but be almost preemptively nostalgic—aware of the fact that you’re going to remember and want to relive those moments for the rest of your life.”
Cline adds, “Even now, it seems surreal to me…I’m still awestruck.”
It is a sentiment shared by the cast. Lena Waithe, who plays Wade’s best friend, Aech, attests, “Steven Spielberg literally defined cinema for people in my generation, and changed our culture. I think if someone were to put all his movies in a time capsule, together they would provide a sense of how our world has evolved and grown. So to be part of his legacy was of such huge importance to me and all of us.”
In bringing the novel to the screen, it was vital to the filmmakers to be respectful of the source material, as well as its many fans.
“But,” Spielberg acknowledges, “every book has to go through a process of adaptation when it goes from a literary work to a cinematic one. I think we ended up with just the right elements to tell a truly wonderful story.”
“We had to amalgamate a lot of things and move some things around for the film, but it’s still the heart of my original story,” assures Cline. “When fans of the book ask me about it, I just tell them not to worry—that I haven’t worried since the day Steven Spielberg signed on to make the movie.”
One of the changes involved the director himself. He explains, “The book had a lot of references to my own movies as a director and producer from the `80s, but I did not want the film to be me holding up a mirror to myself from that time. We left a couple of references in, but it mainly features the cultural imprints that other filmmakers, artists, fashion designers and musicians from that era had made.”
Although set in Columbus, Ohio, “Ready Player One” was filmed in England, with the bulk of principal photography being achieved at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden.
The production pushed the envelope of filmmaking technology, with Spielberg collaborating with the visual effects wizards at ILM and Digital Domain, among others, to take audiences into the fantastical world of the OASIS. To further accentuate the stark contrast between the OASIS and the grittier real world, Spielberg shot scenes in the latter on film while scenes in the virtual universe were shot digitally.
“The layers we had to achieve to put the OASIS on screen made it one of the most complicated things I’ve ever done,” the veteran filmmaker states. “There was motion capture, live action, computer animation… It was really like making four movies at the same time.”
Spielberg even utilized today’s virtual reality tools to direct shots in the futuristic virtual reality of the OASIS. Macosko Krieger details, “Using VR goggles, he could actually step into the digital sets, get a 360-degree view of the environments and figure out camera angles and how he was going to shoot it. It was a first for us, and it opened up so many possibilities for Steven. But it was a difficult process, so I’m very glad this movie was in his hands.”
Despite the advancements, Spielberg emphasizes, “I never make movies for the sake of technology; I only use it to tell a better story. The technology is there to help this kind of film come into existence, but then it should disappear so all you’re focused on is the story and the characters.”