The legendary Steven Spielberg is one of a tiny handful of filmmakers who have changed the face of the medium: starting with Jaws and continuing with a litany of film titles that occupy the highest echelons of cinematic classics. As he has matured, his film choices have moved always from the blockbuster entertainment that defined his early career and towards quieter and more thoughtful dramas. Ready Player One, which opens on Thursday, is being billed as both a triumphant return to his blockbuster days, and a nostalgic homage to that earlier style of filmmaking. He spoke about the project during a recent press day for the film.
Question: What was it about this story and these characters that made you want to direct this film?
Steven Spielberg: I think anyone who read the book and was familiar with this story would be fascinated by it. There’s the potential for seven movies, twelve movies, in those pages. It’s just a question of finding the best way to tell the story about this competition in these two worlds in the framework of a motion picture. And to make it both an express train barreling towards the third act, and also a meditation on these two worlds, and where we might choose to live: in reality or in an escapist world. Those themes were so profound for me. The book was full of them.
Q: You’re no stranger to that dynamic in your movies. Is there a difference when you approach a film as pure escapism as opposed to a film that carries historical weight?
SS: This film was my great escape movie. It filled my imagination with all of the things I wanted to escape to. I’ve been working on this for three years, and I came back to Earth a couple of times in there. I made Bridge of Spies and The Post in between the time I was working on this film. I got that whiplash effect, of going from total reality to pure escapist entertainment. I felt that snap, and I hope it made for a better picture because of it.
Q: How did you go about distilling the passion and enthusiasm from the book?
SS: For one thing, I had an amazing cast: all younger than I was. I fed off that energy. I’d come there in the morning, and they were ready. I could throw anything at them. We had a playground to become kids again. Most of the cast was in their early 20s. that’s where the energy came from.
Also, you have to understand that we made this movie on an abstract set, on a blank set. But we all had VR goggles. Inside the goggles was a complete space: the space you see in the movie. So the actors had a chance to explore it in the same way the character would. It was an out-of-body experience making this movie.
Q: Special effects have changed so much in the past thirty years. Have you thought about going back and adding effects to your older movies like George Lucas did in Star Wars?
SS: I actually got in trouble for that, during the 20th anniversary version of E.T. We changed five shots. We replaced the puppet with a digital E.T., and replaced some of the FBI agents’ guns with walkie-talkies. There’s a really bad version of E.T. out there with these changes made. We took the cues from George [Lucas]’s versions of Star Wars, and the marketing department at Universal wanted it so we could entice people back into the theaters to see it again.
Social media wasn’t at the place then that it is now. It’s not as profoundly influential. But what there was erupted in a chorus of boos when we did that. “How could you ruin our favorite childhood movie?” The guns and the walkie-talkies was a particularly big sticking point. So I learned my lesson, and that’s the last time I decided to mess with the past. What’s done is done, and I’d never go back and do that to any movie I made or that I have control over, and make changes like that.
Q: Music plays a big role in the film too. Were there any particular pieces from your playlist or elsewhere that helped during the process?
SS: The playlist from the book is absurd. We could have filled a dozen movies with it. A lot of them came from Zak Penn and Ernie Cline [the author and screenwriter]. Ernie and his wife walked down the aisle to “You Make My Dreams Come True,” which runs over the closing credits. We picked the song for that reason. That personal connection was important.
We also played a lot of Bee Gees, and there are some pointed references to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. John and I are good friends. We met on the set of Carrie a long, long time ago and we’ve been friends ever since. I’m looking forward to hearing his reaction to the film.
Q: What was the one pop-culture reference that spoke to you? Either something from your films or someone else’s?
SS: I tried to avoid putting in my stuff as often as possible. The Back to the Future car, the DeLorean, is there. But that was Bob Zemeckis’s directing. I just produced it. I remember putting my foot down with the mothership from Close Encounters. It was in the novel, but it felt very self-indulgent for me to put it in here. We went with a different spaceship instead.
As far as favorites… Brad Bird is a genius, and The Iron Giant was huge for me in this film. I saw that movie in the theaters, and we’d actually worked together on something called The Family Dog. [Editor’s note: a celebrated episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories anthology series from the 1980s.] That was something really special and exciting to play a part in our film.
Q: What do you think it is about the 80s that have made it so important as a fount of pop culture?
SS: I think it was a decade free of upheaval, by and large. The 60s and 70s involved tremendous upheaval, and life in the 21st century has taken place in the wake of 9/11. In between, there was this period of calm and optimism and comparative prosperity. That lends itself to feelings of nostalgia, the same way the 1950s did.
I have the most intimate relationship with nostalgia. It’s based on the fact that I’ve been making movies since I was eight years old. I made 8mm movies of us going on camping trips. And I’ve kept a little camera with me since then, whether it’s 8mm or video or digital. I have about 60 hours of footage of my colleagues and I, from the 70s, making movies for the first time. George Lucas and Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola. They probably wouldn’t want to see some of those ever emerge in public! I have videos of my family today, my children and grandchildren. One of the editors in my office cuts them together every year and we screen them, my family and I. So I live in nostalgia. That might be the main reason why I responded so strongly to the book and the script.
Check out AFJ's Ready Player One Primer HERE.