Author Ernest Cline’s first experience as a screenwriter working with the Hollywood machine was so bad, it made him rethink the vocation.
It is also partly why his debut novel, “Ready Player One,” was such a challenge to bring to the big screen.
“It was a huge herculean effort and that was partly my fault and partly by design,” Cline explains. “I started out as a screenwriter and I had a movie made called ‘Fanboys’ and it was a pretty terrible experience. My script got taken away from me and heavily rewritten. And all these characters had been based on me and friends that I had grown up with Ohio, they kind of got warped and mutilated. And I couldn’t do anything about it.”
The 46-year-old author says that experience taught him that maybe screenwriting wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. So how does a writer get vastly more control over his or her work? He turned to fiction.
“That experience was what prompted me to try to write my first novel,” he says. “And this idea that I had of mashing up all of pop culture inside this virtual world and paying tribute to all of it and all of the things I love, by design it seemed like it could never be a movie because I knew enough about licensing.”
So every song, every borrowed character, spaceship or gadget seen on screen needs to get cleared by the owner. And for a book like “Ready Player One,” which features “Dungeons & Dragons” modules, the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” or intricate scenes recreating the movie “War Games,” that can be a nightmare to get clearances to use those properties.
“I assumed from the outset that this would never be a movie,” he says. “So that was really freeing to me as a writer, I just let my imagination run wild and I didn’t worry about casting or budgets or it ever getting made into a movie.”
Until there was a frenzy for the rights to the novel.
“My agent took the novel out and to my shock, there was a bidding war over the book rights to my strange little story,” he says. “And that actually prompted a bidding war between all the movie studios the next day. And the rights ended up going to Warner Bros. And that was the most unexpected thing to me because now it became my job to turn my unfilmable book into a movie screenplay.”
Cline worked on the screenplay before the book was even published, before it became a best-selling novel and before director Steven Spielberg, whose movies are well discussed in the book, came on board.
Working with screenwriter Zak Penn, the duo aimed to capture the spirit of the novel while making it more cinematic.
“In the novel, you could have somebody play a perfect game of ‘Pac-Man’ for a couple of hours and make it riveting if you write it correctly,” he says. “That would just stop a movie dead.”
So fun details from the book, like re-enacting a “Dungeons & Dragons” module, turned into a much more cinematic auto race, complete with King Kong.
Cline compares the race scene to something like the video game “Burnout” or a futuristic version of “Super Mario Cart,” which, he adds, is in the spirit of some of the video game challenges from the book.
Another big change from the book was a switch from a major scene with the movie “War Games” to the movie “The Shining,” which has the iconic Stanley Kubrick film recreated in the virtual world of the OASIS.
“Doing ‘The Shining’ challenge was the most fun of all,” Cline says. “Only one person could get access to that playground because of his relationship with Stanley Kubrick and his estate.”
That person is Spielberg, who famously took over the film “A.I.” from Kubrick.
“To get to a movie that I revere and a movie that Steven reveres, that was the most fun I think for me and Zak, because we got to see Steven geeking out about one of his heroes,” Cline says, “while the rest of the time it had been us geeking out about working with him.”