Ernest Cline: Kings of the Nerds
Austin author adapts his Spielberg homage Ready Player One with Spielberg himself
Austinite Ernest Cline went from "local author" to "bestselling author of Ready Player One" to having that bestseller made into a blockbuster film by none other than Steven Spielberg. To top it off, the culture-smash dystopian SF action film had its world premiere during SXSW at the Paramount, with Cline and Spielberg in attendance. It was a big switch from the novelist's usual trips to the grand old theatre, watching Hitchcock movies in the Summer Classic Film Series. The big Hollywood premiere at the Dolby Theatre, "where they hold the Oscars," said Cline, was cool, "but it's going to be hard to top that night at SXSW."
Set in a bleak future where citizens, residing in vertical slums called the Stacks, seek solace in the VR paradise of the Oasis, Cline's 2011 novel is drenched in Eighties pop culture references (many of them referring to Spielberg's own work). Yet the author describes it as a particularly Austin work, born of the city's love of cinema history: not just the Paramount shows, but Austin Film Society, and the Alamo Drafthouse, "things like the Rolling Roadshow events where they'd show The Goonies in a cave with Corey Feldman ... this whole culture of loving movies and immersing yourself and bringing movies to life, and that served as constant inspiration to me while I was writing." Now the loop is complete, with Cline working to reshape his story for the big screen with one of its true masters. Cline said, "All of my favorite book-to-film translations always take big departures from the source material, like Jaws or Jurassic Park or the Harry Potter adaptations, or Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations. You always have to rework things and have different characters do different things to make the story more cinematic."
In Austin's geek circles, Cline is as famous for his DeLorean, customized to look like the time-traveling car from the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future franchise, as he is for his book. At their first meeting, he pulled out the glove box lid for the director to sign. "He told me it was the only DeLorean he'd ever autographed in his life, so I made him promise he'd never sign another one, so now I have the only time machine autographed by Steven Spielberg."
Austin Chronicle: What was it like getting the call that Steven Spielberg was going to make your book into a movie?
Ernest Cline: I had known for about two and a half weeks that it was a possibility. The script had gone out to another director, and they kept avoiding saying his name, but then they finally revealed that it was Steven Spielberg. For a few minutes, I was really elated, and then the more I thought about it, I started to get depressed, because I thought there was no way he would decide to do it, that he'd read the script or read the book and then pass on it and I would have to spend the whole rest of my life imagining what it would've been like had Steven Spielberg made Ready Player One. The more time passed, the more certain I was that it wouldn't happen, so when they finally called me and told me that he had signed on to do it, it took me a while to wrap my head around it. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, three years later.
AC: How long was it between you finding out and the news being made public?
EC: Almost immediately, just a few days. So I'd known it was a possibility, and then when he signed on, Warner Bros. wanted to announce it as quickly as possible because it was exciting news. Shortly after I found out it was a certainty, the whole world found out, which was great. It was right before my birthday, in fact, three years ago this month, and now the movie is coming out on my birthday. I just couldn't be any more lucky.
AC: At what point did you have your first conversation with him? Was it fairly shortly after that?
EC: It was. Warner Bros. flew me out to Los Angeles, and I went to the Universal lot, which is where Amblin [Spielberg's production company] has their offices, and I got to meet him for the first time and start talking about the movie. I describe that experience as being like Charlie Bucket getting to go to Willy Wonka's factory. ... It was visiting this magical place where they had made so many of my childhood memories.
AC: In beginning conversations with him about the shape the movie would take under his direction, were there things he volunteered early on that he wanted to do? What was that adaptation process like?
EC: It turned out that I was and am friends with the other screenwriter, Zak Penn. We had met on a documentary that he made that I appeared in, called Atari: Game Over, which was about digging up E.T. cartridges in the desert, so we'd already met, become friends, and bonded over our shared love of movies and video games. He was already consulting with me about doing his rewrite of the script, so when Steven came on board and he read my book, he came to his first meeting at Warner Bros. with his dog-eared copy of the paperback covered in Post-it notes with things that had been worked out of the script over time [but] that he wanted to put back in. Zak told me, "It's a good thing you weren't there, Ernie; you would've passed out or had a heart attack because Steven Spielberg was sitting there reading from your book for an hour."
He was such a huge, huge fan of the book, and I think if anyone else had made this movie, it would've resembled my book a lot less. There were so many things I thought couldn't be translated to the screen, and he managed to do it. There are little bits of dialogue, and even costumes the characters are wearing in the book, they're wearing them in the movie because Steven had all of his departments, from costumes to set decorators, directly use the book as reference. Things that never even made it explicitly into the script made it into the movie because everyone was referring back to paperbacks of Ready Player One on the set. It's what every writer should have happen when they get their novel adapted.
AC: I've seen big fans of the book come out in defense of you regarding changes, as if you didn't directly have a hand in the movie throughout the process. Without spoiling anything, are there changes you think most benefit the translation to film?
EC: All the changes. Having seen this movie with an audience a few times now, I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't change anything anyway because I don't have the hubris to think that I know better than Steven Spielberg how to tell a story cinematically. I trust him and have trusted him implicitly, so when he's felt strongly about a decision, I was on board for it. ... For example, having a character stand at a Pac-Man machine and play a perfect game for three or four hours. That'll work in a novel, but it won't work in a movie.
I’m also really happy about flip-flopping some of what the characters of Art3mis [Olivia Cooke] and Wade [Tye Sheridan] do. In the book, which is entirely first-person narrative, I have Wade doing everything, but in the movie, the story gets to be much more collaborative and gives Art3mis much more agency, allows her to do more, and amps up the tension. All the changes help [make] it a better movie than a direct translation would be.AC: As surreal as getting that first call and going to that first meeting were, what was your first day on set like?
EC: That was great, it was during the first few weeks of shooting, They did the motion capture for the first three or four weeks and I got to come in for that, and even though someone might think, “Oh, it’s just the actors in their motion capture suits,” we had monitors and Oculus Rift headsets you could put on that would show everyone what it looked like inside the capture volume on the digital sets and in their digital costumes. So it ended up being like shooting on-location inside the Oasis.
Then I got to walk over to where they were building the Stacks, and that has to be one of the most surreal experiences of my life as a writer, walking into the paperback cover of my novel. They had built this thing I imagined for real. Engineers had come out and they’d gotten all these trailers and made it structurally sound. They extend it digitally a lot in the movie, but they really built six or seven of these full-size stacks, and they were full of different businesses and extras living in each trailer. That’s when it really struck me how profound screenwriting can be if you end up getting your movie made: You get to see what you imagined made real and put on film.
Ready Player One is in cinemas now. For review and showtimes, visit our listings page.