With Ready Player One (in theaters March 29 – buy tickets now at Fandango), director Steven Spielberg returns to the kind of big, wondrous, crowd-pleasing moviemaking we haven’t seen from him in awhile.
It’s very much a new Spielberg classic, reminiscent of some of his most memorable movies as a director, as well as a producer, featuring groundbreaking special effects, a young ensemble cast full of future stars, a spectacularly nostalgic score from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future) and enough pop-culture nods to keep Easter Egg hunters (or shall we say, “Gunters”) busy for weeks.
Based on the cult novel by Ernest Cline – itself stuffed with nerdy references to the iconic filmmaker and his movies -- Ready Player One is vintage Spielberg. It’s fun, exciting, joyous and heartwarming -- and with virtual reality technology advancing at a rapid pace, the film is as timely as it is entertaining.
And it’s meant to be enjoyed on the biggest possible movie screen.
“The bigger the screen, the better, because you'll feel like you're inside the story,” Steven Spielberg told Fandango during an exclusive interview in support of the film. “Don't get into a 75-seat house, get into a 500-seat house to see this thing on a huge screen.”
When you get a few minutes with Spielberg, your mind goes to a thousand different places. For me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, especially since I don’t remember a time in my own life when there wasn’t a Steven Spielberg movie there to deliver a big-screen experience I would not soon forget.
Eventually our conversation would stretch to include everything from the director’s thoughts on virtual-reality storytelling to whether audiences still value the moviegoing experience the way they did back when films like Jaws and Jurassic Park first hit the scene. But we began on the subject of E.T…
Fandango: I just showed my kids E.T. for the first time, which happened to be the first film I ever saw in a movie theater.
Steven Spielberg: Oh, really? How old are your kids?
Fandango: Eight and five. I had never seen them so riveted, especially at the end. I think E.T. has one of your greatest endings – and sharing that with them reminded me that Ready Player One is going to be a film many from my generation will want to share with a younger audience, especially because of the references.
Spielberg: Definitely, that’s wild. It’s great you were able to share with them your memories of what you were like then. That’s special.
Fandango: I don't know how much you think of it, but you've been making movies for 50 years now.
Spielberg: Almost 50 years now. Next year will be 50.
Fandango: What itch did this film scratch that maybe you hadn't felt prior to this?
Spielberg: I love huge, great adventure stories. I haven't made an adventure movie in a long time, a movie that is basically for the audience, not so much for me as much as it is me wanting to give the audience everything they want and perhaps more.
Fandango: When you say you directed this film from the audience, can you elaborate on that?
Spielberg: I just put my audience hat on when I made this film. With Zak Penn, the writer, and with Ernest Cline's book as a springboard for trying to find a story to tell. I had a blast going back to those years when I was making films just for audiences. Then, always saying what would the audience want? What surprise would the audience like at this moment? How can the audience be ahead of us until they're no longer [ahead], and then we're ahead of them, and play that leapfrog with an audience? I hadn't been in that kind of arena for years. That's why I enjoyed the process so much.
Fandango: How come? Why is it that you stayed away from these kinds of big adventure movies?
Spielberg: Because I love history and I've been preoccupied with telling stories that are true stories from the world that world that built this world. I've loved telling stories like that and I've been kind of ... I wouldn't call it sidetracked, because I made a choice to make a lot of movies about biographical subjects or historical occurrences, and that's been a real fulfillment for me. As I've gotten older, I've tended to want to tell more of that kind of story. This is like a real return to my youth, which is why I felt good about allowing this movie to take me back several decades.
Fandango: This is a bit of a dorky question, but being the history lover that you are, what if you could travel to any point in time with a camera and document what you saw. Where would you, Steven Spielberg, go?
Spielberg: As a director? I guess if I had a chance to capture something in history and really make a document of it, I would go back to the Civil War and slavery. That would be a place that, if there was a documentary to be made and there could be documentarians on the ground in that era, between 1830 and 1865, I think that would be my choice.
Fandango: What is it about that time period that you’re so interested in?
Spielberg: I think it was a turning point in our nation. We've never suffered losses like this, and a country that turns against itself reminds me of a country I'm living in today. It would be a great learning tool and a lesson to go back and really show that pain. All the pain and torment and horror leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
Fandango: Switching gears, but somewhat related to time travel…. Back to the Future is one of the films most referenced in Ready Player One. What does that movie mean to you?
Spielberg: Look, it meant the world to me because, number one, I was very proud of my protégé, Bob Zemeckis. When he made the movie, he and Bob Gale wrote the script. I saw it getting into the zeitgeist almost immediately. Then, when Ernie Cline posed with the DeLorean on the inside leaf of his book, Ready Player One, and I realized that he was one of the biggest Back to the Future fans in the world. How could I leave it out?
Fandango: It was great to see the DeLorean back in action again and a big part of some of the film’s biggest moments. Was it as neat for you to direct the DeLorean?
Spielberg: Oh yeah, it was great. It was great having the DeLorean in the movie and it was great referencing Bob and giving Bob a nod with the Zemeckis Cube.
Fandango: This film is stuffed with pop culture references, but if you had to curate a playlist of movies for people to watch either before Ready Player One or after Ready Player One, to kind of relive that joy, the energy, and the wonderment of the film, what movies would you put on there?
Spielberg: Well, I would tell them to certainly look at all the John Hughes movies. I would love people to go back and revisit Iron Giant, the genius Brad Bird film which we all love so much, and also go back and look at the whole Back to the Future series again.
Fandango: How did the young cast respond to the way this film was shot? At some points it’s in live action, but much of it was directed in virtual reality, right?
Spielberg: Yes, and I thought it would be too challenging to arrange the schedules, so they were shooting a couple of days in the real world and a couple of days in the motion capture volumes. I did all the motion capture first, until they became completely acclimated to the process.
Fandango: And what was that process like?
Spielberg: Well, it took at least a week for everybody to come onboard to what we were doing. I think what helped was they were able to put on the virtual reality goggles and see the actual set. Then, when they took them off, they were back in this all-white room with 150 cameras, and computer cameras in the ceiling. I thought it was really interesting for them, to see their learning curve. Their learning curve was a lot faster than my generation's. This generation can learn anything twice as fast as when I was their age.
Fandango: There’s a famous video of Elon Musk saying it’s entirely possible that we’re all living in a simulation right now, being controlled by something else, somewhere else. After making a movie like this, what do you think?
Spielberg: I don't believe we're in any kind of simulation, although I think that that would be a really good concept for a movie called Ready Player One. I don't think we're in a simulation at all because food tastes too good for this to be a simulation.
Fandango: What are your general thoughts on virtual reality? Is it really the next form of storytelling?
Spielberg: Well, this movie opened my eyes to the potential VR serves on a global scale in allowing people who will never see the Grand Canyon to come here and see it, allowing people who have never seen the Great Wall of China and can't afford to go there to really virtually experience that in VR. I think it's going to be a great educational tool. I can see it being used in the classroom, VR. I can see it being used in science and medicine. Once VR gains the same resolution that we currently have today with medical instruments, someday [we’ll see] doctors performing surgeries remotely from thousands of miles away, all 100% in VR. I see VR more as a tool to progress than I do as a vehicle for just pure, narrative storytelling.
Fandango: So does that mean we’ll never see a Steven Spielberg-directed movie in virtual reality?
Spielberg: I think it's harder to tell a narrative story in VR because you can't keep the audience's attention directly where the director needs them to be focusing. It's very hard to get an audience not to look where they want to look, and they have so many options to look around and therefore miss the point completely. It’s a harder delivery system to support narrative entertainment.
Fandango: What about the moviegoing experience in general? Do you feel like people still value it today as much as they did back in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
Spielberg: They do. They really do. When a movie comes along that offers them the moon, I think they take the trip to the moon. That's what we do. And that’s what we're trying to do with Ready Player One.
Head here for more with Steven Spielberg on his next two projects, Indiana Jones 5 and West Side Story.