Ernest Cline & Zak Penn on Ready Player One

March 30, 2018 Jeff Goldsmith

We’ve continued updating Backstory Issue 31, our Oscars issue, with plenty of non-Oscars coverage, because we’re a digital magazine—so we can do that!


Today our massive Ready Player One article went live and it’s a wonderfully in-depth 4,000 word interview with novelist/co-writer Ernest Cline and co-writer Zak Penn that we know you’ll enjoy.

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As a preview to our Ready Player One article, please enjoy this exclusive excerpt – which is not part of the main article – but rather a 1,500 word bonus piece that will hopefully wet your appetite to read the longer article — so enjoy!


A Ready Player One Primer Interview
Featuring novelist/co-writer Ernest Cline and co-writer Zak Penn

by Jeff Goldsmith

Copyright Backstory Magazine 2018. All Rights Reserved.

BACKSTORY: Your novel is a pleasure to read, what was one of your most difficult challenges writing it?

CLINE: The toughest scene for me was the world building and setting up the future world of the Stacks and the Oasis. That was something that was a struggle and the most rewritten part of my novel was the prologue. Kind of the stuff before level one. Chapter zero I call it, where it sets up the contest and then sets up the virtual world of the Oasis and its importance—that was a lot of heavy lifting to do. Exposition is the trickiest part of telling a story. In the movie it’s accomplished through a little bit of voice-over and a lot of visuals. Beginnings are tricky things and that’s what I love about the movie; once you see Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) hunt and then racer one comes up—you’ve climbed onto the rollercoaster and it doesn’t stop until you get to the end. But getting people onto that rollercoaster at the beginning was the trickiest part.

What can you tell us about the early development process?

CLINE: Warner Brothers had bought it, but they were developing it and I did my drafts and the second writer’s (draft was) just kind of discarded after Zak wrote his draft, which was also written before there was a director. The problem is at that point it’s all theoretical. We don’t know who our director is gonna be or what kind of budget that director will command—which is why it was so profound when Steven (Spielberg) came on board because his pedigree speaks for itself. And his ability to get all the licensing and rights is unique. The example I always used to use back when we were developing the script was I hope something happens like what happened on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where different studios allow for a collaboration of all those different intellectual properties (IP). Of course, Steven was producer on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and he called Disney and Warner Brothers and helped to get their characters into their Amblin movie, which is how you have Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse in the same film together, because everybody wanted to be involved in a Steven Spielberg movie. That same exact thing played out with Ready Player One.

Editor’s Note: In the interview Cline mentioned that Disney wasn’t too forthcoming on allowing their IP to be prominently used in the film beyond the type of Easter Eggs you’d need to pause the movie to see. On paper, it would have seemed that Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg’s longtime producing partner would have certainly been able to come through for some more prominent Star Wars elements as she now heads Lucasfilm, but aside from a few mentions, there was nothing easy to see on a first viewing. The same goes for other Disney properties that would have been a great fit like Tron. Strangely in Cline’s novel there the use of a Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner and even though Warner Bros. owns the rights to the film and just released Blade Runner 2049 in 2017 – there was a rights issue that was unable to be settled in time for such an inclusion.

CLINE: One of the other things we wanted to get that we couldn’t was Ultraman. Because of a legal battle between the Tsuburaya, the Japanese company and another company who controlled the foreign rights to Ultraman—neither one of them could give us a clear title to the character, even though they both wanted to because they both wanted Ultraman to be in a Steven Spielberg movie. So we had to find a replacement for that. But it was fortuitous because that resulted in us getting to use the Iron Giant (a Warner Bros. character).

Ed. Note: The change was an organic one as Cline is friends with The Iron Giant screenwriter, Tim McCanlies, and gave a nod to the character in his novel.

****((SPOILER SECTION BEGINS right now for two questions – If you want to skip ahead – please scroll down and resume reading at the END of this section))****

This is a kind of geeky question, but as we all know, Iron Giant has a kind of berserker mode that he goes into when he sees weapons, and he also can turn into a weapon as well. In the film that neither thing ever happens. Were there ever any plans to utilize the character like that?

CLINE: We had talked about that, but I think what we ultimately decided was that this was kind of an incomplete version of the Iron Giant. Really it’s just a skin created by Aech for her avatar (Aech, pronounced “H” is played by Lena Waithe in the film). So you can kind of see she’s not quite done building it when she activates it and still has to put the final few pieces together. It was not meant to be the real Iron Giant, but rather her version of it for the Oasis. It’s her Iron Giant skin, her stand-in.

Zak, in the novel the team finds much needed protection from Halliday’s old business partner “Og,” Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) – but in the film, he’s never that present although he managers to offer help in a different way. Where did the idea to changing Og’s function in the story that come from?

PENN: It doesn’t help to have a character who’s really all powerful step in and help your heroes. It just makes it harder to write. So that was an easy switch.


Zak, during your adaptation, were there ever times when you felt like you hit a wall or encountered writers block?

PENN: I don’t totally believe in writers’ block. If I don’t feel like writing or I can’t focus—that happens sometimes—and I try to get up and walk away if that’s the case. But when you’re doing an adaptation there’s always something you could be doing. If you’re blocked on how to write a scene—write the bad version of it—then get past it and go to the next scene and come back later. Sometimes I just write out, This is what this scene ought to be. And you move on to the next scene and eventually you come up with a way to approach that scene that you couldn’t originally figure out. But if you’ve got an outline, you should know where you’re going. It’s just a question of how much you procrastinate before you actually do it.

What kind of schedule did you keep while adapting Ernie’s novel?

PENN: There’s plenty of days where I don’t get anything done. Then I’ll write 20 pages in a day. If I really know what I’m doing. But if you caught me in a normal process on another script, I’m really all over the place. I try to write in the mornings, I have grown my kids who are 16, 14 and 13 now. But when they were younger, you really have to carve out the time for yourself. So I basically had to write in the mornings, and I do try to still do that. I like make sure that’s the first thing I do each day. I try not to do my phone calls and email and stuff like that. I try to jump into whatever script I’m writing. But it really depends on what else is going on in my life and how interrupted. I go through these phases where I fall behind and then have to do a crazy catch-up week where I work every single day for 10 hours. I wish I had developed better habits, so I’m not the always the best example, even though I manage to get it done.

Some people were surprised that there weren’t as many Dungeons & Dragons references in the film as there were in the novel, any particular reason why?

PENN: I never approached it like there’s one thing that’s really essential. Dungeons and Dragons is something that is more in the book and it focuses a lot on the artwork. When you think about it (those references are) mostly either still images that people remember or they have their own memory of what that should look like. Ernie was just saying the other day, that there’s like a million things he missed. He heard David Byrne read the book and he was like, How did I not have a reference to The Talking Heads? He references so many things that by his own admission, there’s no way you could get a 10th of it all into a movie. So you just can’t play favorites. You’ve just gotta figure out okay, What does the story need the most? So if we’re gonna do a big race (for one of the challenges) — Dungeons and Dragons just isn’t that helpful.

I know Steven Spielberg had parts of the novel he wanted to add back into the the film that had previously been deleted from the film script – can you give us an example of one of those?

CLINE: One of them was at the zero gravity dance club, The Distracted Globe, which I previously had to take out for budgetary reasons. That was also one of the first things Steven said to put back in. Spielberg would also just take pictures of the book and send them to Zak or me and say just, Do this. He would do that with every department. I remember being shocked when I visited the set and saw things that had never been in any draft of the script that were in the movie because Steven made the text of my novel kind the Bible for all the different departments and gave them copies of the book. It was just a wonderful experience.

PENN: One brilliant thing that Steven did in that scene, was he was like; Here’s what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna take all this great romantic dialogue which probably doesn’t work on its own as just two characters talking to each other and we’re gonna put it in the middle of this action scene. That’s how we’re gonna make this scene work. I learned more working on this movie than I did on every other movie I made combined.

CLINE: One of the interesting things I noticed was that Steven never sits down for more than a few minutes. He’s always standing. Even when we were at the scoring sessions with Alan Silvestri, he was standing up all day because I think it keeps him literally on his toes. It’s fascinating to me that he clearly has nothing else to prove as an artist, but still makes movies and works very hard. He works 60 hours a week because it keeps him alive and creative and vibrant. And he thrives off of collaboration. It’s really profoundly inspiring to see him work and collaborate.

Enjoy what you’ve read? This wasn’t an excerpt – it was a bonus piece to compliment our 4,000 word interview.

Read it now in Backstory Issue 31 by subscribing and getting access to all issues or purchasing the single issue of Backstory #31.

To read the complete article in Issue 31 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or read our FAQ for instructions on purchasing a single issue.

Backstory Issue 31 includes in-depth looks at Oscar-winning films The Shape of Water, Icarus and Get Out plus fellow nominees Lady Bird, Mudbound, Molly’s Game, The Big Sick, and much more! For more info, check out the Table of Contents.