“Ready Player One” stars were starstruck by director Steven Spielberg’s celebrity pals: George Lucas, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. (March 27)
LOS ANGELES – Picture this: When Steven Spielberg wants to really zen out, he hovers in deep space through the rings of Saturn. The view’s amazing.
Seriously, the heralded filmmaker, 71, straps into his virtual reality rig inside his airy Los Angeles spread and mentally disconnects from life’s chaos into the cosmos.
“Sometimes I put the VR goggles on, and I’m simply floating among the planets and the stars, maybe going through the rings of Saturn,” he says. “It’s a very, very welcome escape.”
Its just the kind of diversion Earth’s depressed population in 2045 craves in Spielberg’s new film Ready Player One (in theaters Thursday), which he’s wagering will entertain 2018 audiences, even if they’ve never donned VR goggles before.
“I made this movie to make people feel really good,” says Spielberg, who took to heart one fan’s suggestion to make the film’s slogan #MakeAmericaFeelGoodAgain. “I felt like I was in the audience directing, with the audience collaborating with me on how to give them what they wanted and needed.”
Ready, based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling 2011 novel, is an adventure set in a virtual-reality universe known as “The OASIS.” It’s a future saturated with nostalgia, populated with beloved characters and references from mainly the 1970s and ’80s — from Chucky the killer doll to Back to the Future’s DeLorean time machine; from the Iron Giant robot to Freddy Krueger.
Ready follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), living his virtual life as the confident avatar Parzival. His avatar friends, including the tough Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), band together to solve a three-part contest left by the Willy Wonka-esque creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), before he dies.
The winner takes control of the virtual playground, which risks falling into the hands of a money-grubbing tech corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
“This is really a story about good vs. greed,” says Spielberg. “And yet I wanted to be greedy about putting in as many Easter eggs and cultural iconic references. My analogy is: The story is straight-ahead out your windshield, and all the cultural references are simply in your peripheral vision. The audience is free to glance all around the screen to find their favorite Easter eggs.”
Even though he avoided adding his own famed characters to the mix (fans won’t see E.T. or a Jaws shark), Spielberg flew his pop-culture freak flag like never before. On set, his enthusiasm for the material burst through.
Sheridan was blown away on his first day of filming when the director gave him a personal Bee Gees disco music instruction for Parzival’s power-strut.
“I’m waiting for him to call ‘action,’ and Spielberg pulls out his iPhone, hits play and he starts playing Stayin’ Alive,” he says. “And then he starts walking towards me for 10 seconds, nodding his head. And then he says, ‘And action.’ “
It wasn’t all Saturday Night Fever fun. Seamlessly combining the intertwining story involving the 2045 real set and the motion-capture world of the OASIS gave the technically masterful Spielberg headaches during the 2016 shoot.
“I rank this right up there behind Saving Private Ryan and Jaws as the third most-challenging film I have ever made,” says Spielberg, because he was “trying to create something nobody had ever seen before. An entire virtual universe.”
Spielberg told only his wife of 26 years, Kate Capshaw, how unsure he was that the project would come together.
“I’d come home at the end of the day and say to Kate, ‘I don’t know what I’m making. And I don’t know how the hell this is going to turn out.’ ” he says. “And she’d say, ‘Well, as long as you figure it out before the movie’s released.’ “
At the end of the three-year process, including nearly two years of intricate computer animation, Spielberg is buoyant about Ready‘s prospects in a world where the need for escapist entertainment is amplified with each passing day.
Holding an unlit Cohiba cigar (more “habit,” than celebratory, he insists), the perfectionist director can even chuckle heartily about the ultimate irony — that sound problems almost derailed the film’s South By Southwest world premiere on March 11. Two sound breakdowns lead to excruciating interruptions as the film’s climax was screened.
“My heart actually stopped in my chest. It was time to bring in the paddles and for somebody else to yell ‘clear!’ ” he laughs.
Yet those delays only fueled the wild reaction from the boisterous crowd, which Spielberg likens to a Bruce Springsteen concert.
“I told everybody later, ‘Isn’t this really so amazing? Ready Player One blew a circuit in Austin,’ ” he says beaming. “That’s actually a good thing.”
Spielberg’s similarly charged up about the future and technology. (“Virtual reality is going to be a godsend.”) But there’s a warning made clear in Ready. Take time to put down the iPhone — or return from the rings of Saturn — to enjoy real life.
“It’s just everything in moderation,” says Spielberg. “You have to make sensible choices. How great an escape does your life need? You have to resurface to take a breath of real air, not virtual air.”
Steven Spielberg’s newest film explores the shrinking barrier between game and reality in this sci-fi thriller.
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