Ernest Cline Interview: Ready Player One

Ernest Cline is an American slam artist, a novelist, and a screenwriter. He has become most synonymous with his novels Ready Player One and Armada. He helped co-write the screenplay adaptation of Ready Player One and will be seeing it released in theaters on March 29th, 2018.

Screen Rant got a chance to talk with Ernest Cline on press day, where we discussed what inspired him to write Ready Player One, how heavily he is inspired by Steven Spielberg and Zak Penn, and what he would have changed differently about the novel now that it’s been translated to the big screen.

I know that you are a huge fan of geek culture cause I am too and I grew up in the era and I read, well I didn’t read, but I watched and I loved it. So, what inspired you to do Ready Player One?

Ernest Cline: Well, it was actually Fanboys, which was a terrible experience in making that movie. I had wanted to be a screenwriter and had dreamed of being a screenwriter up to that point and Fanboys was kind of going to be my Clerks or my El Mariachi, like my little indie movie that I tried to make, but it ended up getting made at a much bigger level. But, during the process my screenplay just, so much of it got changed and the characters were based on me and people I had grown up with, so to have those characters taken away and changed and do things that I never would have had them do and have them maybe even be ridiculed a little bit by the movie, that experience made me want to reconsider being a screenwriter and try writing a novel.

Is that right?

Ernest Cline: Yeah. Cause I was already in the Writer’s Guild and already had a movie produced, but it was just a demoralizing experience and I realized, oh, if I wanted to maintain control of my characters, maybe I should be a novelist because, you know, then my writing wouldn’t be watered down or made less geeky or eccentric. I could just geek out directly with the reader and then there’s nothing between me and my audience and I can tell the story the way I want to tell it and not worry about budget or casting or ever getting it made. So, I assumed from the outset when I started writing Ready Player One that it would never be a movie and that was really freeing to me as a previous screenwriter to just let my imagination run wild and to write whatever I wanted and also because I wanted to pay homage to all of the different facets of pop culture that I love. I knew that doing that in a movie is nigh impossible. The one example that I would think of after Warner Bros. bought the rights was Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

That comes up all the time.

Ernest Cline: Yeah. And I was like, “Well, if something like that happened, then maybe.” But that was Steven sending letters around to all the different studios and saying, “Hey. We want to make a movie that pays tribute to all of the different types of animation and the whole history of cartoons. Will you let us use your property?” And they all said yes because it was him and that’s what happened again with Ready Player One.

But does this movie get made without Steven Spielberg?

Ernest Cline: Well, I think it does because Warner Bros. had already bought it, but I don’t think it resembles my book at all if anybody else makes it. And that was why I was so blessed not only because it was Steven Spielberg, but because he was a huge fan of the book and the first meeting he came into, they told me that he had fifty some Post-it notes of things from the book that he wanted to put back into the movie that had gotten removed from the screenplay due to budgetary reasons and they weren’t sure how to execute some of these things or if they could get the rights. But, again, once we started going to people and saying, “Hey. Can we use your character or your IP in a Steven Spielberg movie?” They were like, “Hell yes, you can! Yes. Please! That would be amazing.” So, I don’t believe that, somehow the movie found its way to the one person who could have done it.

Which has to be kind of crazy for you because Steven Spielberg made your book.

Ernest Cline: I know.

That’s insane. Well, it’s not insane. It’s more so that some of his properties are referenced in your book and it’s like, wow, this is crazy.

Ernest Cline: It’s the most meta thing that’s ever happened and, you know, I’ve said this before. I might never have written it all if I hadn’t grown up on Steven’s movies, but it definitely would have been a different story because the whole structure of it, the whole kind of kid in crappy circumstances who gets caught up in a fantastic adventure. That comes right from E.T. and The Goonies and especially banding together with your friends to save the world, save the Goondocks, or save the Oasis. That is another story conceived by Steven and the main character in the novel carries a Grail diary because of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and he drives a DeLorean because of Back to the Future, so it would have been a completely different book, or may be never even existed if it hadn’t been for Steven and his influence on me as a storyteller. Yeah. I feel like I’m a testament to what happens when you unabashedly, unironically celebrate the things that you love. It’s like a bonfire that attracts the people that inspire me to want to become a storyteller, to come play in this sandbox with me and celebrate what they love, so it’s just the coolest thing.

I mean, it’s so cool that Steven set it up on the panel that someone yelled out, “Make America feel good again.” Because that’s exactly how it made me feel. I loved it because every single thing on there I was geeking out. I think I saw Battlecat from He-Man. Is that Spawn? If you blink, you’ll miss it. I saw the Ninja turtles for a split second. I was like, “This is crazy.” Now I’m a fan of anime also. I know there’s Gundam in here.

Ernest Cline: Oh, yeah! Akira.

Akira. You’ve got Speedracer’s car. There’s an anime. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it called Sword Art Online.

Ernest Cline: I had just went to Japan to do an event a couple of weeks ago and did a whole interview with the creator of Sword Art Online and we just geeked out about Virtual Reality and about the same things that inspired us, you know, Neuromancer and Snow Crash, like we were like two guys of a similar age in two different countries kind of creating the same thing. The anime of Sword Art Online started to get published sort of around the time I was finishing Ready Player One. I’m sorry. The manga, the book. And then the anime came out right around the same year the book was published, so it was a real parallel. But he and I really hit it off and we traded signed copies of our books and vowed to collaborate on something.

That’s amazing.

Ernest Cline: Yeah. It was so cool. Man, the Japanese fans, man. That was one of the best experiences of my life going down there for a few days and getting to tell them about all of the Japanese pop culture that is celebrated. There’s the Swordfish II from Cowboy Bepop on our poster and is sitting in the background in a couple of scenes. Mecha Godzilla! Mecha Godzilla fighting a Gundam with his beamsaber. They, when they saw that they lost their minds. It was just, yeah, the Mock5 from Speed Racer, I’m trying to convey to Wade how awesome he is that he gets to drive the Mock5 and then operate a Gundam. I mean, you’re going to be a hero back in Japan.

This movie is literally me playing with my toys as a kid and just grabbing them. With a film adaptation of a book, there are going to be changes and I know you were unhappy with the experience in Fanboys. Was there anything in this film where you wanted to see something you push really hard for that maybe didn’t make its way onscreen?

Ernest Cline: No, which is amazing. I had one of the worst experiences you could ever have followed by the best experience you could have. Partly because, before Steven came on board, the other writer that they hired to rewrite my previous drafts of the script was Zak Penn who I had already become friends with. He had invited me to come be in his documentary about digging up E.T. cartridges in the desert and we just bonded about growing up with Atari and our shared love of movies and I was a huge fan of his filmography. PCU was hysterical. Last Action Hero had actually along with The Purple Rose of Cairo had helped inspire the flicksyncs in my novel, which is the idea of going into one of your favorite movies, which we do in this movie too. So, Last Action Hero is about a kid who gets sucked into his favorite movie genre and then having to use his knowledge of that genre to survive, so Zak as well was somebody whose work had inspired me. So, once he started working on the script, then he made me a collaborator from the beginning, so it was great. Whenever he needed to talk about changing something, we would talk it through. And then when Steven came on board, then it was this great three-way collaboration where we were drawing stuff from the book, where things that wouldn’t work from the book that weren’t cinematic, we would all spitball ways to execute them like when we created The Shining sequence. That was just team effort. It was just so much fun and no one in the world ever would have gotten permission except for Steven because of his relationship with Stanley.

That’s amazing!

Ernest Cline: I know, dude. It’s just the coolest.

God, just hearing you guys talk about it would be a cool behind-the-scenes kind of thing. So, obviously this is a spoiler so this part I won’t publish it until the film comes out.

Ernest Cline: Don’t worry about it. Variety already ruined it.

Oh really? I want people to experience it, so that’s why.

Ernest Cline: I know, man. It’s such a great surprise.

Now, obviously in the book it’s War Games. He acts out all War Games. Why the change?

Ernest Cline: It’s almost like movie-oke. Karaoke in the book. He finds himself as Matthew Broderick’s character in the first scene that he’s in movie and then has to recite dialogue to make his way. All of that useless movie knowledge and knowing all of your favorite movie dialogue having some real-world value. It was just a fun adventure. In the movie version of flicksyncs, it is more like you’re in the environment of the movie and it’s sort of like a giant funhouse where you’re trapped inside that film and The Shining just seemed to work so much better. Like War Games, like I said some things would work in the book like having someone play a whole game of Pac-man works in a book, but it’s not cinematic. And War Games is a more, much less kind of cinematic and scary adventure and it was a fun, I don’t know. Once you started working on that change, we knew we couldn’t do War Games I think for rights reasons, but once we started to explore other ‘80s movies and zeroed in on The Shining. Oh my gosh! I was happy with all of the changes because I was included in them and I got to help make them.

Was there any other characters possibly from the book or in the film that you wanted to get in there that didn’t mar with any properties?

Ernest Cline: More properties? I think the only one that didn’t work out was Ultraman.

Oh, really? I’m a big Tokusatsu fan.  

Ernest Cline: Oh, Man. I grew up with Ultraman and Kikaider and a bunch of early pre-Power Rangers kind of Super Sentai shows.

I’m not going to lie. I wanted the Power Rangers or the Super Sentai to be in there.

Ernest Cline: Yeah. But there was a rights battle going on between Tsuburaya, who owns Ultraman, and another company who had purchased the foreign rights to Ultraman and they were arguing over the foreign rights to Ultraman and had a lawsuit going on because of that. Neither one could give us a clear title to Ultraman when we needed it, which bummed me out at the time. But then we ended up replacing him with the Iron Giant, which made me so happy because the Iron Giant is mentioned in my book because I’m friends with the writer of the Iron Giant. He lives in Texas too. So we ended up getting to pay tribute to an American giant robot and he gets such a great reaction in the movie, so all of the changes seemed fortuitous and resulted in, I wouldn’t change anything at this point. I am so happy with all of the decisions and the way it turned out.

I’m happy you said that because I was talking to the creator of the Runaways. I forgot who it is. I forgot who it is. The comic Runaways.

Ernest Cline: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Joss Whedon worked on that, but I forget who did. Is it Brian Bendis?

It wasn’t Bendis. I forgot who it was, but he was saying how once it was translated into a TV show that was the way it should have happened. How he wished it would happen. With Ready Player One, do you feel that now it has been translated, well did this worked better for the big screen? Certain parts of the book?

Ernest Cline: Oh yeah! Like I said, cause I had never conceived of the book, it was definitely going to be a novel and not, I wasn’t trying to write something that would be the basis of a movie. To me I think it’s kind of a miracle that you’re able to pour this very dense novel with some cinematic elements and with some very uncinematic moments and Steven was the one who poured it into the mold of a movie and nobody knows how to do that better than him, so I’m so blessed.

MORE: Ready Player One Early Reactions

Key Release Dates
  • Ready Player One (2018) release date: Mar 29, 2018
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