Steven Spielberg didn’t want to talk about it.
It was the one secret he insisted on keeping, even after the debut of Ready Player One.
But after moviegoers saw the virtual-reality adventure, it was the first thing they wanted to discuss — the recreation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Spielberg is finally lowering his shields now that Ready Player One is out on digital today, and coming to Blu-ray July 24. It’s no secret how he feels about Kubrick — his friendship and affection for the late filmmaker is well documented.
The story that has never been told is how they first met. And that connects directly to this movie’s theme of a high-tech world that yearns for the past. The Shining was the retro reference that meant the most to the director.
“It was nostalgic for me because I first met Stanley Kubrick on the set that I depict in Ready Player One,” Spielberg tells EW.
“The main living area with the grand fireplace in the Overlook is where I first encountered Stanley in 1979 when I went to look at the soundstages. They were about to build the sets for Raiders of the Lost Ark in Elstree Studios,” Spielberg says. “When I found out Stanley had completed a set and was planning his shots, I asked if I could meet him.”
At that point, Spielberg had only two major hits to his name, although they were gargantuan ones: Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The WWII comedy 1941 was his latest.
Kubrick was already the imposing, groundbreaking auteur behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and (his most recent) Barry Lyndon.
Still, the veteran granted the upstart an audience.
“The set was exactly the way it is in the movie, all finished. They weren’t shooting yet,” Spielberg says. “Stanley had a model of the set on a table where the typewriter is, and he was using a Nikon camera with an inverted periscope lens, actually taking still photographs with tiny stick figures. He was prospecting for shots.”
This struck the younger filmmaker as… strange. And he opened his mouth before he could stop himself.
“I looked at that and I said, ‘You’ve got the whole set and you’re looking for shots on a small quarter-inch of the scale tabletop model?’” Spielberg recalls. “And Stanley said, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that?’”
Nothing. Nothing. You do you, Stanley Kubrick.
The rest of the tour was less awkward. “He was very warm, very complimentary. He had seen some of my movies and invited me to his house for dinner that night,” Spielberg says. “We stayed friends for 19 years after that. Until his death.”
After Kubrick’s passing in 1999, Spielberg picked up one of his unfulfilled projects, the robot-longing-to-be-a-human drama A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. With Ready Player One, it was another chance to blend his own storytelling with the visionary work of his old friend.
Here’s how they did it.
“It’s a combination of set construction and digital set construction,” Spielberg says. “So we built the elevators and we built the hallway leading up to the elevators, but the main living area of the Overlook with the fireplace is digital.”
Why did some have to be rebuilt in the real world while the rest was rendered digitally? Production designer Adam Stockhausen explains:
“It was determined by the needs of the visual-effects people. Whenever we have our characters walking around, Aech and Parzival and Art3mis, there’s no need for any real-life scenery. In fact, it would just get in the way because it would block the infrared cameras that were trying to record the performance of the actors.”
Those needs reverse when the movie includes shots of real human beings.
“When we were filming the girls in the hallway going to the elevator, and when we were filming the woman who was stepping out of the bath, we had the real bathtub and real shower curtain, and we matched the elevator doors just for those pieces,” Stockhausen says. “We had a real background behind an actor so you wouldn’t get that green-screen effect.”
Once they secured the rights to recreate The Shining (it helps when both movies are released by the same studio, in this case Warner Bros.), Spielberg and co. went to work exploring how they could stretch the boundaries of the Overlook. Some of that involved going back to Stephen King’s original novel, which had hedge animals that came to life rather than a large, snowy maze.
“We did a whole series of thumbnail sketches just to try to break things open,” Stockhausen says. “What if the hedge animals come to life and start chasing us? What if we go into the bathroom and all of a sudden it turns into a hamster wheel and you can’t get out? What if we take the hedge maze miniature that’s on the table in the original film and our characters are miniature — and a giant ax comes swinging through?”
That idea made the cut (so to speak.)
Another Easter egg comes right before the heroes enter the movie. Below the marquee outside, we see the yellow poster for Kubrick’s film, flanked by one-sheets for (from the right) Excalibur, the original Revenge of the Jedi poster (before the name was changed to Return), 1980’s Flash Gordon, and WarGames.
Excalibur is a reference to Parzival, who takes his name from Holy Grail hunter Percival, one of the knights of the Round Table. Revenge of the Jedi and Flash Gordon are shout-outs to Spielberg’s friend George Lucas, who found inspiration for Star Wars in the original 1930s Flash Gordon serials.
And WarGames is a tip of the hat to Ready Player One’s source material, the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline.
In the book, the heroes venture inside that Matthew Broderick doomsday thriller for a critical clue rather than The Shining.
Even though WarGames is about the threat of global thermonuclear war, nothing is quite as scary as the Overlook.