Steven Spielberg’s “out of body experience” making ‘READY PLAYER ONE’


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Steven Spielberg has taken us almost everywhere by this point. He’s taught us to be terrified by the ocean (like he does so masterfully with JAWS). He’s shown us what embracing the spirit of adventure can look like (as he does perfectly with the INDIANA JONES series). And, most recently with THE POST, he’s told us we should demand answers to the tough questions our government doesn’t want to give us. Now, he’s taking us into another world with READY PLAYER ONE.

In the film based on Ernest Cline’s hugely popular book, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) regularly escapes into an immersive virtual reality world, the Oasis, becoming someone else entirely. The eccentric creator of that world, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has built a hidden treasure hunt to end all hidden treasure hunts into the game – and the first person to find a set of three keys will inherit his fortune and control of the Oasis. But it’s not until Wade and his friends, nicknamed “the High Five, start drawing the attention of IOI’s corporate, corrupt leader Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that the game truly begins to be afoot.

Finding the heart of the story proved to be the most challenging thing for Spielberg. At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, he said,

The book had seven movies in it – maybe twelve. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to tell a story about this competition, both of these worlds and to make it an express train, racing toward the third act, at the same time make it a cautionary tale about leaving us the choice where we want to exist. Do we want to exist in reality or an escapist universe? Those themes were so profound for me. That theme is consistent throughout the whole book, but there are so many places we could have taken the book.

Spielberg has made plenty of both reality-based and escapist entertainment features throughout his decades long career. His approach to capturing these universes isn’t terribly dissimilar.

For me, this film was my great escape movie. It fulfilled all of the fantasy places I go in my imagination when I get out of town. I got to live this for three years. I came back to Earth a couple of times – I made BRIDGE OF SPIES and THE POST while I was making READY PLAYER ONE. I got that whiplash effect of going from social reality to total escapist entertainment. I’m feeling it.

Pop culture references proliferate the picture. It’s passion for eclipsing decades is evident on screen. However, bringing this all to life took a filmmaker like Spielberg at the helm to interweave them into a coherent tale. He stated,

I had a passionate and amazing cast. I kind of fed off that energy. I’d come to work into work and Olivia would be, “Okay. What do we do now? I can’t wait!’ And Lena would say, ‘Throw anything at me. I’m ready for it.’ Every cast member. Ernie gave us a playground to basically become kids again – and we did!

Amassing the rights for all the references seems like a virtual nightmare. Spielberg put his producing partner in charge of this gigantic task.

Kristie Macosko [Krieger] spent three years with all the Warner Brothers legal people, getting the rights to all of them – and we couldn’t get all of them. [It took] weekly phone calls.

One of the most powerful pop culture callbacks for Spielberg was including THE IRON GIANT. The pair had previously worked together on the television show THE FAMILY DOG, so to be able to give a shout out to his pal was something Spielberg felt honored to do.

I think Brad Bird is a genius. I saw IRON GIANT in theaters. I’ve been a big fan of Brad Bird’s. This was to honor Brad and IRON GIANT.

There was one thing he didn’t want in the movie – the mothership from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

There comes a point where I would’ve just had to differ to somebody else who liked my movies and not make a movie about my movies. I let a couple little iconic characters in from my films – especially the DeLorean, which came from the book directly, but otherwise there was a lot of things we could’ve put in, but we didn’t.

Screenwriter Zak Penn added a fun fact.

I had this joke about parking the mothership and how difficult it would be. I don’t blame Steven. I didn’t know Steven was going to direct the movie when I wrote the joke.

Parzival (Tye Sheridan) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) in the Oasis in READY PLAYER ONE. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

READY PLAYER ONE has the added challenge of being set in two different worlds – a futuristic reality set in Columbus, OH in 2045 and virtual one, nicknamed “the Oasis.” Shooting motion capture footage for the Oasis segments was unlike anything anyone on this film had ever done before – including Spielberg. He elucidated,

We made the movie in an abstract set. The only way the cast had a chance to understand where they were was we all had virtual reality (Oculus) goggles. Inside the goggles was a complete build of the set like you saw when you saw the movie, but when you took the goggles off, it was a big, 4,000 square foot white empty space called a volume. When you put the goggles on, it was Aech’s basement, or it was Aech’s workshop, or it was the Distracted Globe. It was an out of body experience to make this movie and to really express what that was like.

The references also extended to the music Spielberg would play onset in order for the actors fully immersed. Spielberg spilled,

I played a lot from The Bee Gees on the very first day. A lot of the songs came from Zak Penn and Ernie Cline. Most of the songs are from their playlist.

Penn mentioned that he couldn’t even fit all of the songs from the book onto his phone while creating a playlist.

When two writers would get together, we would confer late at night which songs from – I mean, the playlist from the book is absurd. I couldn’t even load it on my phone, but we came up with some good options. 

The song that plays over the end credits holds special meaning for Cline.

“You Make My Dreams Come True” is the song my wife and I walked down the aisle to. It’s the coolest thing.

Spielberg jumped back in, saying,

And when I found out that was the song they walked down the aisle to, that’s why I put the song in the movie.

Perhaps though, it’s Spielberg’s steadfast attachment to nostalgia that resonated the loudest in his heart.

I have the most intimate relationship with nostalgia, based on the fact that, since I was eleven years old, I started taking 8mm movies of my family on camping trips. When videotape came in, I started taking videotapes. I started taking my 8mm sound movie camera when I was hanging around Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma – that whole group back in the 70’s. I’ve got something like 60 hours of footage of all of us growing up, making movies together – which would make an interesting documentary if I can get the rights to any of these guys. 80% of the footage they wouldn’t want released.

Today in my life, I do all the videos of my family growing up. Every single year, we do is a … I have a really great editor in our office – Andy. He cuts together – the whole year – an in the life of my family. We have little screenings called, “Annual Family Video.” I basically live in nostalgia. That might be the main reason I so reacted and responded so positively to Ernie’s book and Zak’s script, because I’m livin’ that way most of my life.

READY PLAYER ONE opens on March 29.    

Header photo: Tye Sheridan in READY PLAYER ONE. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.