SDCC 2011: Ernest Cline Talks Fanboys & His New Novel

Transcription by Katrina King. Katrina has played and won the secret cow level of Diablo II.

Ernest Cline is best known as the screenwriter of the geekily acclaimed film Fanboys, which, in turn, is best known for its long-delayed release, thanks to George Lucas. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I had the previlege of sitting down with Cline to talk about Fanboys, another unproduced screenplay and his new book, Ready Player One.

POP CULTURE ZOO: Is this your first time to Comic-Con?

ERNEST CLINE: No, I came here once before, to promote my movie Fanboys that came out a few years ago, but that was very brief. Just in and out. So this is like my first full-on Comic-Con experience.

PCZ: And I would imagine, even just the word of mouth on Fanboys, that that was a pretty big reception for you at the time? Or had enough gotten around about it yet?

EC: It was part of the Star Wars Fan Film Awards so it was a really good audience. I couldn’t really tell whether it was word of mouth. And the poor Star Wars fans ended up waiting. Fanboys kept getting delayed, so they ended up waiting for it to come out, and they’d announce that it was gonna come out and then it wouldn’t, so that was kind of frustrating, so this is a much more pleasant experience, coming here for my book.

PCZ: Is it a little easier with the book not having someone like say, George Lucas, pushing things back for you?

EC: Or yeah, just, y’know, I don’t have to be responsible to pleasing all the Star Wars fans, which is good.

PCZ: Right, right. And I know you’ve got this new book, and there’s a movie deal for that. And you got another movie, a gaming movie that’s going on. However, the thing I have to ask you about is the Buckaroo Banzai sequel.

EC: Yeah? [laughs] Awesome. Well, that was my very first screenplay that I ever wrote. And I just wrote it for fun, because I was obsessed with Buckaroo Banzai and I wanted to see that movie so bad. Every time I would watch the movie, which was way too many times, the promise of the sequel at the end would just infuriate me and so I got so frustrated and just obsessed. I decided to write it myself, just as kind of a writing exercise, and also ’cause I’m a huge geek. That was kind of in the early days, and then I put it on the internet, and in the early days of the internet, it just kind of got passed around everywhere. A lot of people I think thought it was the legitimate sequel script, and then I would see it for sale at comic book conventions. I ended up buying a copy. I remember buying it at a comic book shop, and saying, “I wrote this. Can I get a discount?” They’re like, “No. You can sign it. We’ll charge you more for it.” But, so yeah, the Buckaroo Banzai thing was always just for fun, and I never assumed it would ever, ever get made. Since I wrote that in 1996, the original creators, Earl Mac Rauch and W.D. Richter have told more Buckaroo Banzai stories in comic books and stuff. But, man that would be great. And it seems like, kind of an ’80s resurgence. Like, all of the great big ’80s properties are getting remade, everything except Buckaroo Banzai. Because the original one was a huge box office flop, and made no money, and I don’t care. I love that movie to death.

PCZ: Yeah, I think it’s unfortunate that maybe it didn’t come along a little later because nowadays with DVDs and stuff like that, it kind of revives things like that. It did well on VHS but no one really cared about that part at the time. You’re right though, I don’t know how much money I would pay to see a sequel to that.

EC: Well, there’s like a bunch of Buckaroo Banzai references in my book, ’cause I just can’t control myself.

PCZ: Well, that’ll be a good read, then! So tell me a little about the book – I haven’t read it yet.

EC: Okay! Well, it is probably the geekiest book ever written in human history, maybe, I don’t know. But it’s my first novel and the story is very similar to Willie Wonka in some ways. Like, if Willie Wonka was a video game designer instead of a candy maker. So it’s about a video game designer, about 30 years from now, and he’s about our age, he’s like of the ’80s generation. So he grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and then became a kind of a Mark Zuckerberg/Bill Gates kind of billionaire, then created a virtual realty game, kind of like Second Life and World of Warcraft that kind of merges with the internet, so it kind of becomes like Facebook, Twitter and the internet all kind of mashed together into this virtual reality simulation that everybody uses. And when he dies, he’s a lonely, single, bachelor nerd. He leaves his entire fortune, which is billions of dollars, and control of the whole Oasis, which is kind of the virtual reality, to whoever can solve this contest. Whoever can find this video game Easter egg that he’s hidden inside his greatest video game. So it’s kind of a quest-like, treasure hunt, scavenger hunt kind of story, but it’s set in a virtual world and a kind of dystopian future. I’m rambling. That is the worst synopsis of all time!

PCZ: So, this is one thing I’ve wondered about people who write about near future, sort of, based on reality type of things, and extrapolations of what we have today: are you going to be curious then in 30 years to see how close you were?

EC: Yeah, I will be! I avoided as much of that stuff as I could when I was writing, ’cause I always hate it when I read a science fiction novel or I see a movie and the writers invariably guessed wrong about the future and it takes you right out of the story, like “well, that didn’t happen!” So I tried to root it in reality, and not do anything like brain implants or anything that very well could exist, but you’re not sure if they would exist. I tried to be judicious about the fantastic things that I imagine, but it’ll be interesting to see if I got anything right at all.

PCZ: Of course, something like this will probably happen in like 5 years, or something.

EC: Yeah right, my whole thing will be invalidated!

PCZ: You sold the movie rights to that as well, it’s being worked on as a movie, is that correct?

EC: Yes.

PCZ: And there’s another film, a kind of a gamer’s version of Fanboys, right?

EC: It’s kind of like that. It’s more like the movie Dodgeball, but with video games instead of dodgeball. It’s kind of that. It’s like a silly, kind of broad comedy, like Fanboys. Ready Player One, my book, took me years and years to write, and I would work on it in between screenwriting projects. So I was doing all this research for my book about video games, but writing a book is a lot more work and takes a lot more time than writing a screenplay, so I stopped when I was in the middle of working on my book, and decided I would write a comedy that also involved video games. Selling that screenplay to Lakeshore Entertainment was what allowed me to take the year off and work on my book. The movie ended up not getting made, which happens all the time, like Fanboys took 10 years before it got made. Thundercade I wrote, I wanna say 2 or 3 years ago, and it still hasn’t been made. It could get made down the road. My book will come out, that may give it enough juice to get made, but it may never get made. For me, it was already like a success, because the money that I made, just optioning it, even though it didn’t get made, was enough to support my family while I finished my book.

PCZ: Hollywood is so weird.

EC: It is! All these guys making money on stuff that no one is ever gonna see!

PCZ: Yeah! You can live for like a year or two writing something that is sitting on someone’s desk!

EC: Right! And will never get made! That’s why screenwriting is such a soul crushing profession: you can spend 20 years writing stuff, and making a living, and selling stuff and getting an option, but none of it will ever get made. You’re writing and laboring on this stuff that no one ever gets to see. My experiences with Fanboys and with Thundercade kind of pushed me to finish my novel. I knew at least when I finished it I could get it out into the world and people could actually see it. It’s always nice when you write something that someone gets to read it.

PCZ: Yeah, other than some guy in an office somewhere.

EC: Yeah. Who says, “This sucks!”

PCZ: Are novels where you’re thinking of staying for a while?

EC: My first novel hasn’t come out yet, so I dunno!

PCZ: Oh, well, yes, you’re right!

EC: I have to wait and see. I wrote this book. I’m like, I’m gonna write whatever I want, Hollywood would never make this into a movie. And then the day after I sold the book rights, there was a bidding war for the film rights, and since I had already written a screenplay – Fanboys, and sold another one – Thundercade, they were able to get it into my contract that I had to write the screenplay. After spending a couple years finishing this book and getting it exactly the way I wanted it, the week after I finished the book and handed in to Random House, I had to start over and start working on the screenplay and completely reimagine it as a Hollywood big budget movie, which I had never imagined. That really made my head explode. It was like the hardest writing job of my life. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past five months. I just finished the screenplay. So now Warner Bros. is using my screenplay to get a director, and then when the director comes on, there’ll be other rewrites and it’ll get developed more down the road, but I am done.

PCZ: So when you were writing Ready Player One, was your mindset was totally as a novel? You didn’t think, oh I want to put this in there, ’cause it might work great as a film, or maybe I shouldn’t do this, because… So then when you get to the point where you have to write the screenplay, was it like you had to pull the whole story apart again?

EC: Kind of. Most of the pulling apart was a result of studio notes. Books have to be very different than a movie and they have to be paced differently, and you have a three act structure and all this stuff has to happen. Warner Bros. is also is the biggest movie studio in the world and they make a lot of their money overseas, so they want to make movies that appeal to everybody all around the world. I was writing a book just to appeal to myself and maybe four other nerds, so yeah, trying to change that into a big summer action movie that needs to appeal to everybody all around the world, was really kind of impossible and really difficult. I gave it my best shot, but so far the process of writing a book and getting feedback on it from the publisher has been a lot more rewarding and gratifying that writing a screenplay and having Hollywood rip it to shreds. If the last year has been any indication then maybe I’m cut out to be a novelist as opposed to a screenwriter. The novel end is turning out to be just awesome.

PCZ: It does seem like movie studios will see an idea and they’re like we want to make it this type of movie, so fit your story to my movie. Whereas publishers are, hey let’s see where this goes, let’s really work on it.

EC: Yeah. Yeah. Not to complain about Hollywood, because whenever I start complaining about Hollywood, I always picture this tiny violin: “Oh, you poor baby, your movie adaptation with Warner Bros. is difficult.” So many writers would kill to have that happen, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s really maddening and frustrating. Hollywood views books like a salad bar, y’know like, I’ll just take the stuff that I like and leave the rest. Even if you think as the writer that other stuff is what the whole book is about. We just want the big action and the explosions and stuff. It’s a whole different medium. But I love movies, and I grew up wanting to be a screenwriter more than a novelist, so…who knows. I guess it just depends on how well the book does and how well the movie does, if the movie ever gets made. My default assumption, especially after Fanboys, is it’s never gonna get made. Especially when there are books like Snow Crash and Ender’s Game and all these bad ass science fiction epics that I grew up with that Hollywood’s been trying to make for 30 years and they still haven’t made them.

PCZ: Well, I guess you’ve just gotta write the part that they want you to write, and then sort of walk away from it at that point. And you’ve got the book to fall back on.

EC: Yeah. Exactly, at least the book will exist. Whereas, you’re working on a screenplay and you hand it in, they’re like “Not good enough” and nobody ever sees it.

PCZ: So taking a different tack, what’s your favorite video game? Let’s say, what’s your favorite console game, your favorite arcade game?

EC: Oh, okay! Favorite console game.. are we counting the PC as a console?

PCZ: Yes. PC and all the way back.

EC: My most favorite video game I’ve ever played I think was Half-Life 2, that game was amazing. And I love all of Valve’s stuff. The Portal games, too, are right up there. But Half-Life 2 was the first video game I ever played where I felt like I was the star of a movie, and I had a first person perspective. The whole thing was so cinematic and I really felt like that was the future of video games. So I love Half-Life 2. My favorite arcade game of all time was probably Black Tiger, which is like a platform jumping game. It plays a big role in the book, oddly.

PCZ: Oh! Yeah. Excellent. Imagine that. Cool! Well, thank you very much for your time, it was great talking to you!

EC: I hope I wasn’t rambling too much.

PCZ: No! Not at all!

About Joseph Dilworth Jr.

Joseph Dilworth Jr. has been writing since he could hold a pencil (back then it was one of those big, fat red pencils, the Faber-Castell GOLIATH. Remember those? Now that was a pencil!). As editor-in-chief and instigator of this here website he takes full responsibility for any wacky hi-jinks that ensue. He appreciates you taking the time to read his articles and asks that you direct any feedback, criticisms, questions about life directly to him by clicking here.