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Hollywood is hungry for books. Since the early-aught successes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, popular science fiction and fantasy novels have been the source for blockbusters like The Hunger Games and The Martian — along with notable box-office disappointments like Ender’s Game and John Carter.
Studios count on literary scouts to stay on top of the biggest hits in the book world. And that’s how Ernest Cline, previously only known for penning the little-seen geek road trip movie Fanboys, scooped up a major studio deal for the screen rights to his video game dystopia novel Ready Player One in a bidding war just one day after he signed to book publishing contract. As part of the deal, Cline made sure he’d be able to write the first drafts of the adapted screenplay for the film. That movie, to be directed by Steven Spielberg, is due out in 2017.
Cline’s second video-game themed novel, Armada, is now out in paperback, and he’s also on board to write the script for that book’s film adaptation, too. We talked to Cline about how he went from being an obsessive geek writing fan fiction to making a big budget motion picture with an Academy Award-winning director.
The first thing I think that you became known for was a spec script for a sequel to the The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai several years ago. Was that actually the first script that you ever wrote?
Yeah, I wrote it as a writing exercise, back when I was first teaching myself to be a screenwriter. I was always obsessed with the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, this weird little cult movie. There was this promised sequel before the end credits – Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League – and I knew instinctively they were never going to make that movie, because the first one had made like $8 at the box office.
Just out of sheer geek compulsion, I decided I was going to write this screenplay. So I studied all the different drafts of the screenplay, and I ordered the comic books and the novelization written by Earl Mac Rauch, the original screenwriter. All those things had hints about what the sequel was going to be about. I wrote it in about a month and a half in 1996.
Then Fanboys was the very next thing that you wrote after the Buckaroo Banzai sequel?
Yeah, Fanboys was the first real screenplay that I ever wrote that was an original story with my own characters. The movie is set in 1998, the year before Episode I came out after this 17-year gap of no Star Wars. It was also right after my mother had passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so I was in this really morbid frame of mind, thinking about death and human mortality. It occurred to me one day, what if I didn’t live to see this movie I’d been waiting 17 years to see? I would have to get my friends together and drive across the country to try and break into Skywalker Ranch and see the movie early.
I saw how it could be a hero’s journey that mirrored Star Wars. The little town in Ohio could be their Tatooine and the crappy van that they take across the country would be their Millennium Falcon. The Holy Grail or the golden fleece that they’re seeking on their quest is, instead of the Death Star plans, it’s the print of Episode I. The hidden fortress that they have to infiltrate is the Skywalker Ranch instead of the Death Star.
I wrote it very quickly. It was going to be my Slacker or my El Mariachi or my Clerks, my little indie movie that I tried to make on my own.
I wrote a part for the film critic Harry Knowles [of Ain’t It Cool News] to play himself. He was a friend of mine and a fellow movie geek in Austin. He wrote this really glowing review of the script on his website, and that got a huge reaction from people in Hollywood. Kevin Spacey came aboard as producer, and then Harvey Weinstein, who had founded Miramax, he produced it. Princess Leia and Lando and Darth Maul and Captain Kirk all made cameos in it. It kind of blew out of proportion, this little Star Wars fan movie.
There was also a long, protracted battle after we finished filming it about changing the ending. It got standing ovations at several Star Wars conventions, but when they started to test screen it with regular audiences, people said that the dying-friend plotline was a real downer. So they changed this movie that was celebrating fandom into a movie that kind of ridiculed Star Wars fans. But because of the Internet, and because of the huge fanbase behind Star Wars, there ended up being a letter-writing campaign threatening to boycott the Weinstein Company. Once Harvey Weinstein got tired of being called Darth Weinstein, he gave the movie back to me and the original director, and we got to do the final sound mix of it at Skywalker Ranch in 2008.
So, like, 10 years after I wrote this script, I actually got to go to Skywalker Ranch and watch them add original Ben Burtt sound effects to our little Star Wars fan movie. It was incredible. I still tell people, “I’m pretty sure I’m the only Star Wars fan in history to ever break into Skywalker Ranch by writing a movie about breaking into Skywalker Ranch.”
So the movie as it exists now is your version?
More or less. You can still see some evidence of the Weinstein Company’s tampering. That experience — as amazing as it was to get a Star Wars fan movie made with the permission of Lucasfilm — it still made me rethink whether I wanted to be a screenwriter. That was what motivated me to write Ready Player One. I just wanted to geek out with my audience directly without being told that I was being too obscure. I assumed it could never be a movie. I wasn’t even sure I could get a book like that published that had Mechagodzilla fight Ultraman and Voltron, you know?
With all the references?
Yeah, but it turns out you can do that, and that’s the magic of writing fiction. In a book, you can describe a scene and have any song you want playing on the radio, and have any painting you want hanging on the wall. That was really freeing to me when I was writing Ready Player One. I could throw in everything that I love.
It took me six or seven years to write it in my spare time. Because I already had an agent and had gotten into the Writer’s Guild because of Fanboys, they helped me sell it. There was a bidding war over my weird little book about Pac-Man and Atari and Oingo Boingo. It ended up going to Warner Brothers, who had made all the Harry Potter films. I felt like those movies were about as faithful to the source material as you could be.
Part of the deal was they had to let me write the first few drafts of the screenplay. So, I got to help influence the initial direction that the adaptation would take. But I had to write those drafts before the book was even published. It wasn’t even a bestseller yet. I couldn’t even point to it having this huge fan base. So I didn’t have as much leverage to —
Defend your decisions?
Yeah, keep things the way that I wanted. It eventually found its way to a director who is a huge fan of the book. And he’s actually mentioned several times in the story and helped inspire the story. I still can’t — it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around Steven Spielberg directing this movie. The screenwriter of the shooting draft, Zak Penn [Alphas, The Last Action Hero, The Incredible Hulk], is a friend of mine. He and I met while he was making a documentary about digging up the old Atari E.T. cartridges in the desert, Atari: Game Over.
The first thing Zak told me after Steven Spielberg came aboard was that he was a huge fan of the book. He [Spielberg] came into one of the first meetings with Warner Brothers with a copy of the paperback with like 53 Post-It notes in it of all these moments that were in the book that were not in the draft of the script that he had read, and that he wanted to make they sure were included in the story. After my experience with Fanboys, it’s like the best possible thing that could happen.
Tomorrow: In Part 2, Cline talks about how writing screenplays changes his approach to novels, why the original book always wins out over the movie version, and why film adaptations of video games tend to fail.