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. “Ready Player One” was produced by Donald De Line, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Spielberg and Dan Farah. Adam Somner, Daniel Lupi, Chris deFaria and Bruce Berman served as executive producers.
Q&A With Cast & Crew
- Parzival / Wade (Tye Sheridan – X-Men: Apocalypse, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse)
- Art3mis / Samantha (Olivia Cooke)
- Aech / Helen (Lena Waithe)
- Sho (Philip Zhao)
- Daito (Win Morisaki)
- Sorrento (Ben Mendelson – Darkest Hour, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
- F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen – Tomb Raider, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
- Screenplay (Zak Penn)
- Screenplay / Novel (Ernest Cline
- Director (Steven Spielberg – The Post)
What was it about this story and these characters that made you want to make Ready Player One your next movie?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: I think anybody who read the book and was connected at all with the industry would have loved to make this into a movie. I mean, the book had seven movies in it – maybe 12 [laughs]. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to tell a story about both of these worlds, and to make it sort of an express train racing toward the third act, and, at the same time, 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, and are consistent throughout the whole book. But there are so many places we could have taken the story.
Themes of reality versus fantasy run throughout your filmography. Is the process different for you when you’re making an escapist film than it is when you’re exploring historical events or real life issues?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: This was my great escape movie. For me, it was a film that fulfilled all of my fantasies of the places I go in my imagination when I get out of town. I got to live this for three years. I got to actually escape into the imagination of Ernest Cline and Zak Penn; 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. And 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, or which dad they’re going to get [laughs].
Your passion and joy is evident in every frame of this film. How did that play into the choices you made in telling this story?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Thank you. For one thing, I had a passionate and amazing cast. I think if you combine all their ages together, they’re still younger than me [laughs]; I fed off that energy. I’d come to work in the morning and Olivia would say, ‘Okay, what do we do now? I can’t wait!’ Then Lena would say, ‘Hey, throw anything at me. I’m ready for it.’ And Tye was completely the same. Ernie gave us a playground to basically become kids again, and we did. We all became kids again. Even though I was working with really young actors – except for Ben who’s way over that [laughs]. That’s where the energy came from.
You have to understand, also, that we made the movie on an abstract set. The only way the cast had a chance to understand where they were was through the virtual reality goggles we all had. Inside the goggles was a complete build of the set that you see in 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 and there’s the DJ.’ It was really an out-of-body experience to make this movie, and it’s really hard to really express what that was like.
OLIVIA COOKE: It was wonderful because we just lived in our own imagination for five months, and we hadn’t had a chance to do that since we were children. So, to be able to completely rely on our gut and our interaction with Steven and with the other cast – that was what made it so special and so different from anything that I think any of us have ever done before.
LENA WAITHE: When we got to live action, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is real world now.’
TYE SHERIDAN: When we got to live action, everybody was like, ‘(SIGHS) Oh, okay, I know how to do this.’
LENA WAITHE: It’s fun, but it’s not as fun as when you’re just in an empty space and anything is possible.
There is a spectacular mix of music in the film. Are any of the songs on the soundtrack from your own playlist, Mr. Spielberg? Also, did you play music on set to get everyone warmed up?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: We did. I played a lot of the Bee Gees on the very first day [laughs].
TYE SHERIDAN: I want to tell a story about that. 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 rehearsals, just kind of feeling out the mo cap volume and getting familiar with some of these environments that we were going to be in in the movie. And Steven shows up on the last day of rehearsal and says, ‘Let’s shoot something.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh sh**, 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.’ [Laughs]
So, he brings me over to the side and says, ‘Have you been working on your Parzival walk?’ I said ‘What? What is a Parzival walk? I didn’t know I had to work on a Parzival walk.’ [Laughs] ‘Yeah, it’s kind of like the John Travolta walk in the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. You know, he’s got a certain swagger. I just want to capture you walking.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So there I am, standing on one side of the volume and Steven’s on the other side of the volume. And it’s just me and him, no one else is on the floor. And my heart’s racing. I’m just waiting for him to call action. He pulls out his phone and hits the screen, and then he starts playing ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees. Then he just starts walking towards me and he’s nodding his head and holding up his phone. And he goes, ‘And action.’
STEVEN SPIELBERG: And you can see that walk in Ready Player One. It’s in the movie. A lot of the songs. But I have to say that most of the came from Zak Penn and Ernie Cline, from their playlist.
ZAK PENN: We would confer late at night on the phone about which songs off of the giant playlist in the book. I mean, the playlist from his book is absurd; I couldn’t even load it on my phone. But we came up with some good options. And Ben threw in a couple of choices too, but they were more punk, which I respect.
BEN MENDELSOHN: Some of them didn’t like the playlist.
Mr. Spielberg, there are so many references in this film; how did you get the rights to all of them?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Kristie Macosko, who along with Donald De Line and Dan Farah produced the movie, can probably answer that question because Kristie spent three years with the Warner Bros. legal team getting the rights. And we couldn’t get all of them. They wouldn’t give up the Star Wars rights.
BEN MENDELSOHN: You could have called me on that one, Steven. I mean, I built the Death Star, I’m just saying [laughs].
Tye, can you talk about your experience with videogames prior to the movie?
TYE SHERIDAN: Actually, there’s a scene in the movie where I play an Atari game. And, I researched the game and watched videos, and did as much research as I possibly could without actually playing the game. So, when it came time to shoot the scene, I was like, ‘Listen, guys, I’ve actually never played an Atari. So you guys are going to have to teach me how to hold the controller, because I don’t want to look like I’m holding it the wrong way.’ So, I got lessons from Steven and Zak about the Atari controller.
BEN MENDELSOHN: The younger generation [laughs].
For everyone, what was the one thing in the movie that spoke to you personally? The movie speaks to all generations, so which reference really geeked you out?
LENA WAITHE: Well, the thing that I liked the most was the Chucky doll, just because I used to be genuinely afraid of those movies. So now, as an adult, it’s kind of nice to play a character who uses Chucky as a weapon [laughs]. But, also, 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. So, hearing that in Aech’s warehouse was kind of cool.
TYE SHERIDAN: 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, and it was just super cool, even when we were shooting the movie, because we could see our avatars in real time on a 2-D screen. I would look over and I could see my avatar, and then the Iron Giant’s foot. I’m like, ‘That’s Iron Giant’s foot.’
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Yeah, Brad Bird is a genius. I saw Iron Giant when it was in theaters the first time, and have 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 to honor the Iron Giant.
OLIVIA COOKE: I used to go disco dancing when I was a kid in my hometown, so I really relished getting to learn the Saturday Night Fever dance. And Tye and I got very close, very quickly, with these dance lessons [laughs]. I don’t know how much of it is digitally enhanced in post-production, probably a lot. But that was a lot of fun.
TYE SHERIDAN: All of my dancing was digitally enhanced [laughs].
LENA WAITHE: No, you were good! You got good, man!
OLIVIA COOKE: That was the highlight of the job for me.
TYE SHERIDAN: It was so much fun. Yeah, we spent like three weeks on wires. But then three weeks just rehearsing after work or in between, or yeah.
ERNEST CLINE: Tye played John Travolta’s son in a movie, right? Has he seen your performance?
TYE SHERIDAN: I didn’t tell him. I texted him and said, ‘I just want you to know that you’ve got to see this film, because it’s a huge nod to some of your stuff.’ But you were great friends with him, weren’t you, Steven?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Yeah. John Travolta and I have been friends for like a long time. We met on the set of Carrie, which was 1976, something like that? So we’ve been friends since ’76 and I can’t wait for John to see the film.
HANNAH JOHN-KAMEN: I think I’m with Olivia on the dance sequence in the film for me; I just got chills. And I didn’t know that the Saturday Night Fever walk was the inspiration for Tye’s. But actually looking back, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah!’ I thought it was so cool; he just looked awesome. So, yeah, I think that was pretty cool.
BEN MENDELSOHN: You used to be able to rent a place that was either the guest house right next door or the guest house of The Nightmare on Elm Street house. So I’m going to say, Freddy getting blown away early on [laughs].
ERNEST CLINE: Well, for me, it’s the BACK TO THE FUTURE time machine, the DeLorean. It was always my dream car from the time I was a kid, even before I saw Back to the Future. But then, when I saw Back to the Future, I always dreamed of owning a DeLorean someday. And 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. And then I could drive it around the country on my book tour and it would be a business expense [laughs]. So, it worked its way from the novel into my life, and now it’s in the movie.
ZAK PENN: The spaceships. I really like that there’s the Galactica and the ship from Silent Running. I think Steven was the one who pointed that out. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, of course, the Silent Running ship. Because you wouldn’t let us put in the mothership from Close Encounters,’ which I had originally written in as a joke.
STEVEN SPIELBERG: There comes a point when I would have had to just defer to somebody else who liked my movies and not make a movie about my movies. I let a couple of little iconic characters in from my films, especially the DeLorean, which came from the book directly. But otherwise, there were a lot of things that we could have put in.
ZAK PENN: Oh yeah. I don’t blame Steven. I didn’t know Steven was going to direct the movie when I wrote the joke. But, anyway, all those spaceships, to me, sum up the wonder, and that’s directly from the book, the idea of everybody having their own spaceship.
PHILIP ZHAO: Mine would probably be the Iron Giant, because I was a kid when that was filming.
STEVEN SPIELBERG: And now you’re an old man [laughs].
PHILIP ZHAO: Yeah, now I’m an old man. I’ve aged quite well, I think [laughs]. When I saw The Iron Giant on screen, which was played by Lena, I was really impressed. Lena had this, like, pink ball on top of her head when we were filming it, and we had to look at that.
TYE SHERIDAN: That was difficult because when you’re shooting motion capture, whenever Lena says her line, they’ll say ‘Look up, look up.’ And you look over at Lena but you look at her face first, and you’re like, ‘Dang, I’m supposed to look at the ball.’
PHILIP ZHAO: And you had to talk to a ball, which was really weird.
WIN MORISAKI: Yeah, for me it’s definitely Gundam. Japanese fans are going to be screaming out, ‘WHOA!’
ERNEST CLINE: You also got to drive the Mach 5 from SPEED RACER. You got cool toys.
WIN MORISAKI: Yeah, thank you!
For the younger cast, having not grown up in the ‘80s, how did you immerse yourself in that era? And was there something you hadn’t seen that you now really love?
LENA WAITHE: I was born in ’84. So a lot of the 80s I didn’t remember, I don’t really know a ton about. But because I grew up in the 90s, a lot of the stuff I remember is the music. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston – really that’s where they began, in the ‘80s. So it was not hard for me to revisit. But we did, Tye and I watched some ‘80s movies together, just to get in the vibe. And the interesting thing about that time was that everything was so big and loud and happy and colorful. It was a prosperous time. So, that’s why I think I’m kind of happy I was born in that decade. And I think that’s why it really translates on screen. There’s so much joy, and it’s reminding us of a happier time. And that’s why we’re so obsessed with it.
STEVEN SPIELBERG: I think we’re nostalgic for the ‘80s because it was a decade when there wasn’t global and domestic turbulence, chaos and seismic change. In the ‘60s we had seismic change with the Civil Rights movement. There was so much change with the assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and there were all these different eras.
TYE SHERIDAN: I guess it also makes sense because the OASIS stands for the great escape. It’s anything you want it to be. And because the ‘80s was such a vibrant decade, full of all this crazy hope, I think it makes total sense that there are all these references to ‘80s pop culture in there.
Special effects has changed so much in the past 30 years. Have you ever considered going back and digitally redoing some shots, like George Lucas did with Star Wars, in E.T. the Extraterrestrial?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Well, I actually got in trouble for doing that. When E.T. was re-released, I digitized five shots where E.T. went from being a puppet to a digital puppet. I also replaced the gun when the F.B.I. runs up on the van – now they’re walkie-talkies. So, there’s a really bad version of E.T. where I took my cue from Star Wars and did a few touch-ups in the film. And in those days, social media wasn’t as profound as it is today, but what was just beginning erupted in a loud, negative voice about how could you ruin our favorite childhood film by taking the guns away and putting walkie-talkies in their hands, among other things [laughs]. So, I learned a big lesson and that’s the last time I decided to ever mess with the past. What’s done is done, and I’ll never go back to another movie I made and I have control over to enhance or change it.
The film got an incredibly enthusiastic reaction when you recently previewed it at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival. What was that like for you?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: I was hiding in the back [laughs]. But I heard a lot of it. I’ve made a lot of movies and I’ve gotten a lot of interesting reactions to my films; I’ve never heard anything like this before. And we were right in the center of the action.
LENA WAITHE: I was just happy to be there because I had seen the movie prior and enjoyed it thoroughly sitting there by myself. But it was great being able to experience it with these people, and I spent a lot of time watching the audience, and they were right there, just leaned in and revved up, because I think it brought a real sense of joy. Talk about a time when we want escapism and want to feel good again, and I think Spielberg represents that for a lot of us. He’s been such a huge part of our lives.
I remember seeing Jurassic Park in the movie theater with my family and how I was one person before I walked into the theater and a different person when I walked out. So, to be in this movie and to be around these people who are having that exact same experience, I saw that they were different when they walked out of that theater. They were lighter; they were walking taller and smiling and slapping hands. I’ve never experienced anything like that before and I’ll never experience that again, and it was phenomenal, and I’m glad I got to experience it with all those fans.
Can you talk about your relationship with nostalgia and how that may have changed over the years?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: That’s a great question because I have the most intimate relationship with nostalgia. It’s based on the fact that from when I was 11 or 12 years-old, I started taking 8mm movies of my family on camping trips when I was a kid growing up in Arizona. When videotape came in, I started taking videotapes. And then I started taking my 8mm sound movie camera when I was hanging around with [Francis Ford] Coppola and [George] Lucas and [Martin] Scorsese and [Brian] De Palma, and that whole group, back in the ‘70s. I’ve got something like 60 hours of footage of all us growing up and making movies together, which someday might make an interesting documentary – if I can get the rights to any of these guys – probably 80% of the footage, they would not want released to the public [laughs]!
Today in my life, I do all the videos of my family growing up. I have a really great editor, Andy, in our office, and he cuts together the whole year in the life of my family – all of my children, my grandchildren – and every year 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 reacted so positively to Ernie’s book and Zak’s script. Because I’m kind of livin’ that way most of my life [laughs].
Read the SAMDB review of Ready Player One.