Zak Penn is an American screenwriter who is most known for his work in the comic book movie genre. He’s co-written scripts for X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and wrote the story for The Avengers. Penn is also the co-creator of the Syfy series Alpha. Now he has teamed up with screenwriter and novelist Ernest Cline to co-write Ready Player One. Ready Player One was released in theaters on March 29, 2018.
Screen Rant got a chance to talk with Zak Penn on press day, where we discussed what challenges he was prepared to face in adapting the book to film, what it was like watching Steven Spielberg direct and edit a scene on site, and what the progress is on Suicide Squad 2.
So you made one of my favorite documentaries of all time - Atari: Game Over. So you were the perfect choice to write this film. When you saw the work that Ernest had done, you knew you had to adapt it to the screen. What immediately was some of the challenges that you knew you were going to face?
Zak Penn: Well, the biggest challenge was the issue of the time span of the book. I knew that was going to be problematic because in order to get in all of this stuff, we couldn’t do, you know, Ernest’s book is first person. He jumps around in time. He takes place over the course of the year or so. He’s also able to flashback without flashing back because the character is narrating everything and I knew we weren’t going to be able to do that, so I had to find a way to compress all of this into a shorter period of time, but you could guess that this immediately creates a trickle down effect of things that you have to change. So, one of the breakthroughs that I had while I was standing out with Ernest was what if we started after the first challenge has been found? The race was something that he had even suggested to me. Let’s change the challenges up. But it was more like, okay, once that ball started rolling, I started to think so if we are going to accelerate time and this takes place over this many weeks, what can we do and what can’t we do? And then Steven was like, “Guess what? Now it’s a week. Forget about a month. It’s now a week.” You’ve seen the movie, so now you know. So, that was the biggest challenge because it touches everything else. It touches choices that we’ve made that, if you’ve read the book, you can see across the board.
It’s interesting to me though because I feel like there’s been a trend, especially with The Hobbit films, that it was one book that they stretched out into three movies. Was that ever on the table to do this?
Zak Penn: Nope. And I think for good reason. I think Ernie’s book, I mean, there are certain people, right? It’s not like I don’t see it online. There’s certain people who complain, “Oh. It’s too many references.” And they’ll say it’s too many references and there’s no story. That’s crazy. There’s plenty of story and there’s also a ton of references, you know? And if you don’t want to read the references, that’s fine. But to pretend that there’s no story there is silly. If there wasn’t, then I wouldn’t have had anything to adapt.
I completely agree with you because I felt like the story was the heart of this movie for one. The references are the backdrop, but it’s the heart of the movie.
Zak Penn: Right. Sometimes I think even Ernie forgets that it’s about Wade and the stacks and in falling in love with this girl and getting off of his ass. Cause Ernie loves trivia and he loves these things. When you get him talking, that’s what he talks about, but when you ask him about his life? Ernie lived in a trailer and couldn’t afford video games. You know what I mean? So, that heart of the movie and also the Halliday/Morrow relationship and the nature of the OASIS, those things are huge ideas.
I love that you made the Simon Pegg character a more prominent role in the film. I felt like the film is a little smarter in ways where it’s more about Halliday’s, him going back and reliving certain things and I really liked that. How was that apart of the process? I mean, what made you guys decide on that?
Zak Penn: Well, look, some of these things were ideas that I had that I pitched. I mean, look, you know I got hired to do the job and that’s, they asked me to do it and I said that I would. And I also had just become friends with Ernie and I had also had some bad experiences with other writers. I feel like, particularly if it’s a novelist who’s written a novel, it’s crazy not to talk to them. But, even if it wasn’t, even if it was a screenplayer or whatever, I feel like you go and show that person respect and see what they have to say first. Ernie happens to be a really smart guy, so it wasn’t like that was it. So, a lot of the ideas I had, I ran them by Ernie. I was like, “Here is what I’m thinking about doing.” And, by the way, a couple of them he was like, “I don’t think you should. I don’t think that’s true to the book.” And I didn’t. Some of them I just said, “Okay. Forget it.”
Zak Penn: Yeah. Not big ideas, but things that were a little too jokey probably.
He was saying some stuff in there when I interviewed him about that. That there was almost like a spitballing room in there where you guys would just kind of figure out things, which sounds really cool.
Zak Penn: Well, that definitely came. I mean, basically, the genesis of it was I had to write a draft and I had to write something that I could hand in with my name on it that would hopefully go to the directors. But I’d talk to Ernie all the time and I would run stuff by him and I would ask him what he thinks of this and what he thinks of that and actually I remember a couple of discussions where he’s like, “Well, I think you should put this in.” And I was like, “I don’t think we’ll be able to afford to shoot that. That’s why I didn’t put it in.” When Steven Spielberg gets in the process, everything changes because the first meeting, he’s reading me passages from the book. I mean, I called Ernie and I was like, “You would have died. You would have literally had a heart attack if you had been there because it was literally Steven Spielberg reading your book to me.” But he was saying, “Let’s put this back. Why did you take this out?” I was like, “Didn’t think we could do it.” And he was like, “We can do it.” And I was like, “Awesome.” I have a smaller version of it and also Steven was now driving the train, which was great. That made it even easier for me and Ernie because we are both huge Spielberg fans, so it was like Steven wants to do this. Let’s go do this. And as production started to ramp up, I was personally keeping Ernie in the loop but it became more let’s get Ernie out here. Let’s talk it through with him. Let’s get him to set. That’s one of the things that I love about Steven. I mean, first of all, I love that he never, he had me working on this movie for three years. I went to every meeting in pre-production, every meeting in post. I mean, that’s unheard of. But also that he was so embracing of Ernie as well and saying, “Let’s bring his voice in.” And frankly that Ernie was cool with it all. There was a couple of times where he was like, “I wish you would try this or something.” But, for the most post, he was like, “I see what we’re doing here and how can I help?”
Now was there ever a scene in the book where you yourself really were like I really want this in here, whether logistically or whatever, just didn’t quite make it for time.
Zak Penn: Yeah. There’s a bunch of them like that.
Zak Penn: There’s a bunch of scenes. One thing that Steven is he doesn’t like doing deleted scenes or anything else, so I kind of talk about the archive. But sure. There were scenes from the book. There were actually a couple of scenes that I wrote that were not from the book. You always have to lose something.
As Zak the person, not the writer, as Zak the person what would your avatar be in the OASIS?
Zak Penn: Wow. God. That’s a tough one. I don’t even. I am trying to think of what. I think maybe I could go as Neo.
Really? That’s a good one!
Zak Penn: Yeah. Maybe Neo would be good. Yeah. I feel like that would be pretty badass. I don’t know. It’s actually a tough call because, you know, I play a lot of games online and generally I try to pick a character that’s hardest to snipe.
Zak Penn: Yeah. Just cause it’s good strategy.
Are you an Overwatch guy by the way?
Zak Penn: I play some Overwatch. Well, my kids play more than I do, but I played a bunch.
Who’s your main?
Zak Penn: Well, I normally, by the way it depends on which kid I am playing as. My kids are better than me. I have played as Tracer, but I more play as the guy with the hook. He throws the hook out and reels it back in. I should know that.
Zak Penn: Yeah. But they’ve been playing less of that now, so I haven’t been playing it. But I am a really big Halo fan, so that’s why there’s a lot of Halo stuff in there. So, Steven is a bit Halo fan too.
I mean, you have to understand for me. This is like my childhood coming true. It’s like being in the sandbox and playing with my favorite toys. I was talking to Ernest and he said that you guys really tried hard to get Ultraman in there. I am a huge tokusatsu fan, so that would have been amazed. Obviously the Gundam was amazing. I freaked out at that moment. But was there any other property in there that you were like I wish I would have gotten this or we tried to get this?
Zak Penn: No. You know, not really. And, you know, I’ll admit it. I’m not a huge Ultraman fan. I remember seeing it as a kid. I’m a little bit older than Ernie. I just thought it was weird. I didn’t love it that much. Whereas I loved Gigantor, which is a really silly show from that time which I’m sure doesn’t really hold up.
Ben said he wanted to see Gigantor in there.
Zak Penn: Are you serious?
Zak Penn: By the way, Ben and I are literally the exact same age. We have exactly the same taste in music and stuff, so I’m not surprised. But not really. For the most part, there wasn’t a sense of, “Oh. I got to see this particular thing.” It’s more that I wanted everything to be cool. I wanted it to be a no random ‘pew pew’ guns in it. If they were going to have a gun it was going to be the rocket launcher from Halo or the pulse rifle from Aliens or whatever. And I didn’t want to make a big deal. None of us did. I was like, I don't want to call it out. I just wanted it to be the things that you would use. That’s all. So, for the most part, there wasn’t, I knew we wouldn’t get any Star Wars stuff in there. And I think it would have overwhelmed me anyways.
I heard a quote. I don’t know if it was true or not that it was a Star Wars Easter egg in there. And I think I caught it. The Padawan, when he calls him the Padawan.
Zak Penn: Oh, that! Yeah. I did throw that. Right. We can do that in dialogue. I also, “Do you want the Millenium Falcon?” I actually don’t remember. That might be in the book. But, actually I think the Defender reference. You know, “You want the ship from the Defender.” I believe it was something I threw in from my childhood.
Zak Penn: Yeah. Just cause Defender was always such a tough game and hitting hyperspace. Yeah, but most of the time it was more about just making sure the storytelling was working and that the battles were cool and the setups and payoffs worked. Those were the things that were really important to me.
I mean, it’s kind of interesting because you kind of touched on it too. Because I feel like it would have been a different movie had Steven Spielberg would have not been involved because it would have been harder I feel like it to get some of these IPs. But it’s interesting that you talked about writing it and being like we don’t know if we can do that because of the budget or whatever it may be. But it’s quite interesting to me about that process. So, with the VR stuff when they were shooting, cause that’s crazy to me. They were explaining it to me that you would put the VR on in the set?
Zak Penn: So, first of all, the actors didn’t because they had to act across from each other, but Steven would sometimes be looking through this rig that he has that shows him what’s going on. Sometimes he’d be just watching the actors. Sometimes he would be watching with Virtual Reality rig on. There’s also a thing called the V-Cam, which was a tent that he went into where he could redo the shots himself. He could take all of the information he’d gathered and that was pure uncut Spielberg. Because basically you’re watching him standing there and saying [indescribable]. And you would be sitting there watching him go and going, “Oh my God. That’s Steven Spielberg. How did he do that? That’s so cool.” The Delorean shot is something that me and this guy Brady who works for ILM were sitting there watching Steven create that shot on the fly. That wasn’t a week. That was in a minute. It was like, “Should I do this?” We were sitting there thinking, “How would we do this shot? Oh, I’d probably just do a wide shot to see the thing grow.” And you saw the shot that he created for the movie. And that is his mastery. It’s like [snaps] that.
It’s beautiful. So, I have to thank you and Steven Spielberg. I was raised on Steven Spielberg films, but also you get the superhero genre and I love it. So, I’m a big fan of your work as well. I’m looking forward to Suicide Squad 2. And I know that you are attached?
Zak Penn: Um, I wrote one draft of Suicide Squad 2 as an emergency favor to kind of get it together. I’m not sure what shape it is in right now. I mean, I’ve been working on Matrix right now, which is still in, it is in a phase right now.
Zak Penn: Yeah. I really, that’s a franchise I desperately want to see brought back and I can’t go into too much detail, but I’ve been harassing Warner Bros. for years to get it going on again. That’s one thing that I’m working on, but I’ve been working on a bunch of other things too.
I almost want to hug you for that. I would love to see the Matrix back.
Zak Penn: Me too. I will fight people who don’t understand. Look. I think the OASIS is similar. Both the Matrix and the OASIS are similar in that they are brilliant ideas for universes. When it came out that Matrix, people were like, “Oh no. They are going to reboot the Matrix.” And I was like, “Why? I’m not insane.” I mean, the Matrix is still one of my favorite. I think you could re-release the Matrix and people would go see it.
That movie was mind blowing.
Zak Penn: I was at the premiere and I thought it was better than I ever expected. So, I think the universe is brilliant. I think the OASIS is the action-comedy version of that and it doesn’t always have to be the same characters, so you can go into so many different directions. But I think I’m going to come back. I’m going to probably do one more Marvel, you know, one project in the Marvel Universe that I’m about to start doing but I have to check to see if I can say what it is. But, for the most part, I’ve had a long run on comic book movies and was kind of eager, just because it can be kind of crushing at times.
I mean, the one thing that I do love about the comic book genre, the comic book film, is that, especially with Marvel, they’ve made so many different genres within the comic book movies.
Zak Penn: Right. Here’s the thing. To give him credit, I remember Kevin Feige saying like thirteen years ago that he wanted to do Guardians of the Galaxy so he could do something with a totally different tone and he hoped we would get there. When I was in Marvel, they asked me what movie I wanted to write and I was like, “The Avengers.” And it was always about getting to The Avengers. So, I agree that now, like honestly, I was getting really sick of them until this past year. I thought Logan is the best X-Men movie that’s been made and I thought Deadpool was one of the better superhero adaptations ever. So, I applaud them for spreading their wings.
I agree. Now, last question. If you could work on any superhero movie, you know not anything that you are working on, but if you had any free reign to pick a character, who would it be?
Zak Penn: It’s funny you would ask that because, for twenty years whenever I was asked what Marvel character you would do that was not obvious, I used to say the same thing - Rom.
That’s so funny.
Zak Penn: Okay. And the problem is that Marvel didn’t own the rights. Hasbro does. They just hired me to write Rom. So, that’s the thing I’ve been waiting to do for twenty years. And now you know.
For Hasbro? Or for Marvel?
Zak Penn: Well, it’s Hasbro and Paramount. Marvel has nothing to do with it because they don’t know it.
Rom the Spaceknight. I love it.
Zak Penn: Pretend you just asked me that question by the way.
Like ask it again?
Zak Penn: Well, just pretend you asked me about Rom because I should double check to make sure it’s okay. I don’t think it’ll be a problem.
- Ready Player One (2018) release date: Mar 29, 2018