Steven Spielberg is having fun.
Standing on the dystopian set of Ready Player One, the filmmaker has an unlit cigar in his mouth and a spark in his eye.
“You’re here for stunt day!” he calls out to me as his crew hustles around him, prepping a bit of carnage for the final act of the film (which is new in theaters this weekend).
Towering above the filmmaker is the impoverished high-rise of The Stacks, a vertical slum of old trailers welded together haphazardly. At one end of the gravel street, a futuristic black SUV from the IOI Corporation sits with the motor humming, like a predator about to pounce.
Perpendicular to it, about a football field away, an old mail truck is trundling toward The Stacks. The rusting vehicle is “old” in the year 2045, when the movie is set, but it would be state-of-the-art today. There’s a metallic iris on one side, which can open to release a drone that will hover out to deliver the mail.
Within the movie, this mail truck’s cargo is a group of kids in virtual-reality suits dangling in the back like puppets while plugged into the digital world of the OASIS.
This is the big finale, and the good guys are so close … close to solving the mystery at the heart of the sci-fi adventure, and close to being killed in real life by the villains of the story.
Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts and his “High Five” group of friends are scrambling to solve the last riddle that will determine ownership of this otherworldly playground, and they have to stay mobile because they’re being personally hunted by IOI’s ruthless chief executive Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn), who has been racing up beside them in a chase through the streets. They think they’ve lost him and escaped. But they’re wrong.
Sorrento is supposed to be inside the black SUV, and Lena Waithe’s character Aech is behind the wheel of the mail truck, but for the purposes of this stunt, both are elsewhere — safely killing time in their trailers, awaiting the aftermath close-ups that will come later.
The cars are empty, steered by remote control, for reasons that will become obvious. This isn’t something you want to put an actual human body through.
Watching the crew set up the collision, Spielberg is like a big kid who is eager to crash his toy cars together. But there is a science and strategy at work, too.
The SUV must hit the mail truck at precisely the right spot. And there’s a dump truck full of gravel, a crane unspooling a metal cable, and a few other tricks hidden within The Stacks that the camera will never see, but they will help ensure the wreckage lands facing directly into Spielberg’s lens.
Make that lenses, plural. In addition to multiple camera setups, Spielberg plans to capture the action with several quad-rotor drones armed with cameras, hovering over the action like giant wasps.
When his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski joins him to consult about the positioning, Spielberg recites the order of shots he intends to use. He has already edited this sequence in his head.
That’s what the crane, the cable, and the dump truck are all about. When the SUV hits, the cable — which is attached to the mail truck’s frame — will whipsaw the vehicle around approximately 180 degrees.
But the mail truck is so heavy that this would send the crane itself flying through the air. Newton’s Third Law of Motion has a costarring role: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
So the dump truck full of rocks is attached to the crane and its pulleys as ballast, steadying the contraption so it stays put while spinning the wrecked truck.
“The whole reason I need this is because I can’t shoot the scene in this direction,” Spielberg explains, chopping his hand in the air away from the action. “I just don’t have the set, you see. I’m only into single-story Stacks over here.”
On the other side, production designer Adam Stockhausen has constructed a towering city block of Stacks and shops, rising up five and six stories, which will be filled with bystanders witnessing the crash. Afterward, those people flood the street to play a critical role in what happens next.
“This way, [the cable] gets the van around so I can shoot in this direction with the Stacks in the background,” Spielberg says. It’s practical, as much as it is artistic. “It allows me to shoot the set. It’s a simple as that.”
Spielberg needs the camera to see all of this, and since The Stacks are only built in one direction, he needs the windshield of that mail truck to face away from them for later, when Waithe gets into the driver’s seat. This guarantees all the shots match, from the stunt to the close-ups.
One thing is for sure: you can’t count on the collision alone to rotate the truck that far. You’d have to hit it with such force that both the SUV and the truck would rip apart.
Spielberg has used this technique a few times in the past, he says, but each collision faces different variables. Are you shooting on a street? On dirt? The environment changes everything. In this case, they’re on an exterior set at Leavesden Studios outside of London (best known for being the place where the Harry Potter movies were shot).
That gives them a lot more leeway to full control everything. Even the ground beneath their feet.
“We had to build a whole new floor,” Spielberg says. “That’s a slippery service. All that fake earth is on top of a big slide. You can feel it when you walk on it.”
The crew smoothed the pavement to polish it, then spread little black and brown rubber pieces over it. It looks just like dirt and asphalt, but the debris acts like ball bearings, allowing the mail truck to swivel a little more easily.
“We tested this and it’s the only way to get it around that far,” Spielberg says. “So that was something we needed to address.”
Spielberg has spent a lot time in recent years working on historical dramas (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post) with a detour into the warm-hearted fantasy of The BFG. He is loving letting his anarchic side out (even if, yeah, it’s all tightly controlled chaos).
As the crew puts the finishing touches on the shot, Spielberg sits back in his director’s chair and waxes about the simple satisfaction of smashing things. “A really good device they use to flip cars in the air is when they shoot a piece of piling out of the bottom of the car,” he says. “It hits the ground and throws the car in the air.”
His hands somersault in the air as he smiles. “You have to take the engine out of it, though. You need just a shell to make it really look really good. It’s a whole other kind of science. Rig-and wrap-science.”
That refers to the one-time-only nature of such devices. “You rig it, you use it, then you don’t use it again,” he says.
The reason for that almost goes without saying. The vehicle and the rig are usually gnarled and twisted by the end.
While he has every digital effect tool at his fingertips, there’s something about practical stunts that are just … a blast. When Spielberg was a kid, making the World War II amateur film Escape to Nowhere, he and his friends came up with a similarly innovative way to create detonations that were safe, but still looked cool.
They would leverage a small board against a little rock, then bury it in dirt and sand. When a kid would run up and step on the raised end, the makeshift device would launch a cloud of dust into the air. The “actor” would then fall to the ground like he’d been hit with a mortar.
That was what made filmmaking fun, even in those early days, and this Ready Player One stunt is just a big-budget variation. Now it’s ready.
The camera drones buzz as they hover in place. The camera operators climb into position. The set is cleared. The truck and SUV motors are rumbling, ready to begin racing on their collision course.
Cries of “Rolling … ROLLING!” ring out from the crew. Spielberg settles in behind his video monitors, eyes darting between the screens.
“Action,” he says, softly.