'Making this was like filming four movies all at the same time'
Steven Spielberg returns to his adventure roots for Ready Player One, in which a group of young gamers embark on a journey to win ownership of a virtual universe called the Oasis. The legendary director - and the exciting cast he assembled - tell Georgia Humphreys more about the high-tech film
It's 2045, and the world is a scary place. There's widespread unemployment, the population is beset by poverty and people feel utterly hopeless. But gamers can escape by becoming their own avatars and entering an infinite digital universe called the Oasis.
At least, that's the future imagined by US author Ernest Cline in best-seller Ready Player One, now turned into an action adventure film by none other than Steven Spielberg.
"All you need is an imagination, and that will take you far in the Oasis," explains the director, who helmed blockbusters such as ET, Jaws and Jurassic Park.
"But when you escape from reality, you're also, in a way, divesting yourself of any real human contact, so the story is entertaining, but there is also a bit of a social commentary."
The young hero at the centre of the tale, Wade Watts, is played by Tye Sheridan (21).
And, understandably, the young actor - who also starred in X-Men: Apocalypse - was incredibly nervous before meeting 71-year-old Spielberg for the first time.
"I actually remember calling my dad and he was like, 'You know what, just enjoy the opportunity and I'm sure you're going to be great'," he says. "I always call my dad before I do stuff. It puts me at ease."
But the experience was even more overwhelming once he realised Spielberg would be operating the camera himself, at times from just two feet away.
"There's always an intimacy with him," says Sheridan, "which I think does disarm you".
British actress Olivia Cooke was in that very same audition - and won the role of Samantha and her avatar Art3mis, who "opens up the mind and heart" of Wade and his avatar, Parzival.
"You're put into a waiting room that has various Steven Spielberg memorabilia from all his different films, and you're just sat there just trying to calm yourself down", says the 24-year-old, best known so far for US TV series Bates Motel.
"He put me at ease as much as he possibly could, but I was still having a panic attack."
When it came to casting the power-hungry Nolan Sorrento, the head of a giant corporation which wants control of Oasis, Spielberg chose Australian star Ben Mendelsohn.
"I first saw Ben in the TV series Bloodline, which I was completely infatuated with," recalls the filmmaker.
"I said to myself, 'I don't know when or in what, but I am going to work with that guy'."
Sorrento's chance to take over the Oasis comes when its creator, video game designer James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance), passes away without any heirs.
To find a worthy winner of his vast fortune and full ownership of the Oasis, he leaves behind a game within the game and three challenges. Hopefuls also have to find an Easter egg hidden somewhere inside the virtual universe.
When Wade's avatar tops the leaderboard, the evil Sorrento ups the ante and it becomes a matter of life or death.
This is far from the first bad guy Mendelsohn has played in a film - notably, he was the villain Director Orson Krennic in the Star Wars film Rogue One.
Is he ever concerned about what vibes he must give off to be cast in such evil roles?
"I hope it's something of a version of 'job well done'," quips the actor, before adding with a friendly laugh: "But no, it's not something I worry about a lot."
Mendelsohn calls himself and Spielberg "OG's - original gamers", explaining that they've played arcade space shooter Asteroids together.
And cleverly, in line with the book's popular culture references, the film itself is crammed with Easter eggs from iconic video games, comic books and films.
Even viewers who are not gamers themselves will be enraptured by the reality-bending world of Ready Player One, says Sheridan. "That's the great thing about this movie," he continues. "Although there's a tonne of gaming references, it's made for people who have never played a game their whole lives."
Gaming has had a mixed relationship with women - there has been sexism controversy in the gaming industry - But Cooke insists Ready Player One is an inclusive film.
"I think we've got such wonderful female characters, and the reason why there are sometimes underwritten or weak female characters in films is just testament to bad writing," she says.
"I think people can really relate to Lena Waithe's character, Helen, and mine for being so selfless, intelligent, passionate and active the whole time."
Although he had worked with motion capture on The Adventures Of Tintin and The BFG, with this film Spielberg wore a VR headset and used cutting-edge technology to direct his cast in a virtual environment.
"They created an avatar for me that let me walk through the space and see the actual set," he says. "Once I figured out how I was going to shoot each sequence, I asked the actors to put on the goggles so they could get a feeling of what their environment looked like.
"Otherwise, you're acting in a big white room with a bunch of digital cameras looking down at you. It's confusing for any actor or director to walk onto a bare-naked set and try to imagine what's there. With the goggles, we didn't have to imagine."
Capturing an adventure too big for the real world certainly sounds a new experience, even for Spielberg, whose career spans a mighty five decades.
"The layers we had to achieve to put the Oasis on screen made it one of the most complicated things I've ever done," he admits. "There was motion capture, live action, computer animation... it was like making four movies at the same time."
Ready Player One is in cinemas now