In Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, a young gamer named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality playground that serves as a surreal tableau where anything is possible. That feeling of detachment from reality was very much a part of the press conference for the film, which was housed inside a soundstage that replicated the look of the "stacks" — a key real-world setting for the film that's made up of trailers and shipping containers stacked on top of each other. Adding to the dreamlike quality of the press conference was the fact that Spielberg was sitting just inches away from the gathered journalists. Were we in the OASIS?
The filmmaker seemed to be in high spirits, especially having just come from Austin, Texas, where the film made its splashy world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival (followed by rapturous reviews). Joining Spielberg on the stage was much of the film's cast (including Olivia Cooke, who plays Wade's online love interest, and Ben Mendelsohn, who IS the movie's corporate villain), although this was very clearly the director's show. Below are all the things we learned during the half-hour press conference.
Oh and slight spoiler warning.
1. Spielberg Admitted There Were Multiple Paths the Movie Could Take
When describing what drew him to adapting Ernest Cline's bestselling novel for the big screen, Spielberg said, "Anybody who read the book who was connected at all with the movie industry wanted to make this into a movie." (Spielberg casually sidestepped the story he told at South by Southwest of his wife, Kate Capshaw, urging him to turn the novel after she finished listening to an audiobook version.) He continued, admitting, "There were 7 movies in [the original novel], maybe 12."
Spielberg admitted that his challenge was in finding a way to turn the novel's sprawling story into "an express train towards the third act but also make it a cautionary tale." It's this thematic element (something he described as "Do we want to exist in reality or an escapist universe?") that really spoke to the filmmaker. "Those themes were so profound for me," he said. "When I read the book, I said, 'That theme is so consistent throughout the book, but there were so many places we could take the movie.'"
2. We May Just Return to a Galaxy Far, Far Away... in Some Way
When asked about locking down the rights to all of the countless pop culture references in Ready Player One, Spielberg said that they did encounter one hiccup: scoring access to Star Wars.
"Kristie [Macosko Krieger] spent three years with all the Warner Bros. legal people getting all of the rights,” Spielberg said at the press conference, name-checking the film’s producer. “We couldn't get all of them; we couldn't get any Star Wars rights. It was very hard to predict that they wouldn’t give up the Star Wars rights." (Star Ben Mendelsohn, who had appeared in 2016’s Rogue One, quickly jumped in and quipped, "You should have called me Steven. I built the Death Star. I'm just saying.")
A day after Spielberg’s comments at the press conference, however, a video surfaced in which the director, speaking with Fandango, says that “everybody basically came on board to help us take their IP and allow us to create Easter Eggs from their own cultural phenomenons. If you look very carefully you'll see an R2-D2 somewhere, you'll see an X-Wing somewhere.” Spielberg added, "We didn't want to use the main cultural icons from any of the Disney Star Wars films because those are ongoing," and noted that "we asked for some of the smaller items and Disney gave us everything we asked for."
Star Wars certainly figures prominently in the source material: In the book, a major character pilots an X-Wing through the OASIS.
3. It Took Forever
When elaborating on the metaphoric push-and-pull between reality and escapism, Spielberg said, "This was my great escape movie. This was a film for me that fulfilled all of my fantasies of all the places I go in my imagination. … I got to escape for three years." That's right: three years. In fact, Spielberg said that he made Bridge of Spies and The Post while making Ready Player One concurrently. He described going back and forth between the stylized world of Ready Player One and the more grounded historical dramas as "whiplash." His family, Spielberg joked, "don't know who dad is going to be when he gets home."
4. Making the Movie Was a Technological Marvel
Watching Ready Player One, you get the sense that there's some real ground being broken, given the vast virtual worlds that the characters inhabit and the insane level of detail and stylization associated with those worlds. But even filming the movie sounded next level.
"We made the movie in an abstract set," Spielberg explained. "The only way the cast had a chance to understand where we were was we all had VR oculus goggles. Inside the goggles was a complete build of the whole set that you see in the movie. But if you took the goggles off it was a big white room. So the actors had a chance to say, 'Okay, there's the door, there's the DJ.'" The director continued: "It was an out-of-body experience to make this movie. And it's hard to explain what that was like."
Olivia Cooke chimed in, saying, "We lived in our own imagination for five months." Tye Sheridan let out an exasperated sigh when explaining what it was like to shoot the "real world" section of the movie. "It wasn't as much fun as it was in an empty space," Lena Waithe added.
5. Parzival's Walk Was Inspired by John Travolta
There's a sequence in the movie that takes place on a kind of floating holographic dance floor, which quickly morphs into an extended homage to Saturday Night Fever. But it turns out that the film inspired another aspect of Ready Player One. Sheridan told a story that, after two weeks of rehearsing without Spielberg, the director showed up on the last day and proclaimed that he wanted to shoot something. He pulled Sheridan over to the side and asked, "Have you been working on your Parzival walk?" This is in reference to his virtual alter ego, who has considerably more swagger.
Spielberg explained to the young actor, "It's kind of like the John Travolta walk at the beginning of 'Saturday Night Fever.'" Sheridan went on to explain the scene: "He's on one side of the volume [the virtual stage] and I'm on the other side of the volume. And he starts playing 'Stayin' Alive' by the Bee Gees on his phone, and he struts up to me and says, 'Ready, action.'" Later in the press conference Sheridan, who played Travolta's son in a forgettable 2014 thriller called The Forger, said he reached out to the actor. "I texted him and said, 'You've got to see this film, because there's a nod to some of your stuff,'" Sheridan noted. Spielberg then revealed that he's been friends with Travolta since they met on the set of Brian De Palma's Carrie.
6. The End Credits Song Has A Personal Connection
Ready Player One is filled with great music cues, most of them from the pivotal 1980s. And when the movie finally ends and cuts to black, it doesn't stop: Hall & Oates' 1981 single "You Make My Dreams" booms over the closing credits. And as it turns out, there is a surprising personal connection to the song. "It's the song that me and my wife walked down the aisle to," author and screenwriter Ernest Cline admitted. Spielberg then excitedly added: "When I heard that story I made that the end credits song." Oh that Steve, always a softie.
7. Steven Spielberg Loves Brad Bird
At one point all of the participants of the press conference said what bit of pop culture miscellanea in the movie spoke the most to them. Tye Sheridan said that the pop culture reference that spoke the most to him was the inclusion of The Iron Giant. Spielberg made a point to acknowledge the animated film's legacy and how much he appreciates its filmmaker.
"I think Brad Bird is a genius and saw The Iron Giant in the theater," Spielberg said. "We worked together on 'Family Dog' [a Tim Burton-led episode of Spielberg's Amazing Stories anthology]. So that was to honor Brad Bird and to honor Iron Giant." You can feel the reverence for the character in the Iron Giant's extended screen time. Don't worry; it's not a brief cameo.
8. They Tried to Sneak In the Mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Spielberg has been very open about not wanting to reference too many of his own films in Ready Player One, even though the book and film act as a tribute to Spielberg's classic film output and the decade in which much of it flourished. And while there are definitely some hat-tips to his own work (particularly when it comes to Back to the Future, the 1985 comedy he produced) in the film, there aren't as many as you'd expect.
While promoting the film at South by Southwest he said a visual effects artist at Industrial Light & Magic had tried to sneak in some gremlins, which he eventually caught. And during the press conference, screenwriter Zak Penn noted that a Close Encounters of the Third Kind nod was also unceremoniously squashed. There's a moment where a character goes through a list of spaceships they've collected – there's the Galactica from Battlestar Galactica, along with the Valley Forge from Silent Running and others. But at one point Penn had written that the Mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was among the ships. Spielberg noted, "I would have had to defer to someone else who just likes my films to make the movie. There are a lot of things that I couldn't put in." Penn added: "I had a joke about how hard it would be to park the Mothership." Well, consider the joke told.
9. The South by Southwest Response Was Epic
When asked about the response the film received at South by Southwest, Spielberg said, "I've never heard anything like it before." Waithe then elaborated, citing her experience of seeing Jurassic Park in the theater as a child. "I remember I was one person when I walked into the theater and a different person when they walked out," she said. "These people were like that … to see them smiling and slapping hands."
She then referenced the already-infamous technical glitch that saw the sound (then picture) fritz out right before the climactic battle. "Even if the movie didn't come back they would have been like, 'We didn't know what happened at the end, but that movie was lit.' When the sound came back people stood up and cheered. I've never experienced anything like that before."
Spielberg then recounted how, as he was getting off of the stage, someone yelled to him that they had the ideal slogan for the marketing campaign. Spielberg asked the man what it was. "And he shouted, 'Make America Feel Good Again.'"
10. There's Incriminating Footage of the Movie Brats
At the very end of the press conference, the question of Spielberg's relationship with nostalgia arose. Surprisingly, the filmmaker said that he had "the most intimate relationship with nostalgia." (This seems at odds with his reluctance to include explicit references to his own films, a feeling he had just elaborated on.) Spielberg said that he began shooting 8mm film of his family's camping trips when he was a kid, and still documents his family to this day. He has an editor named Andy who edits his home movies together once a year and together he and "we have little screenings every year."
And while this is very cute, the most tantalizing bit of information Spielberg dropped was that he has "70 hours of us" [meaning the movie brats, like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola] making movies. "That might make an interesting movie one day," Spielberg shrugged, if they would allow the footage to come to light (which he kind of doubted they would). The mind reels what could be contained within this footage, but just to see that generation of maverick filmmakers, all of whom took Hollywood by storm, during their artistic prime? Sign us up!
The truly dazzling Ready Player One invades theaters on March 29. Tickets are on sale now.