036: “Ready Player One” Screenwriter on Enjoying the Process | Zak Penn
April 24, 2018
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Andy Wang: [00:00:00] Today on Inspired Money…
Wade Watts Voice Over: [00:00:02] I was born in 2025, but I wish I'd grown up in the 1980s like all my heroes. I live here in Columbus Ohio. In 2045, it's still ranked the fastest growing city on earth, but it sure doesn't seem like it when you live in the Stacks. They called our generation the missing millions. Missing, not because we went anywhere. There's nowhere left to go. Nowhere, except the Oasis. It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything. The world where the limits of reality are your own imagination.
Zak Penn: [00:00:53] When you work with Steven Spielberg, he's got the best people in the world working for him. So, to a certain extent it was the… it’s definitely was the best experience. I don't wanna say it was easy, but it was more like, suddenly you're playing with an All-Star team so yeah, it's hard. You still have to win the championship, but all the guys on your team and women on your team are really good. So, it took a long time. It took a tremendous amount of effort. It's the most writing I've ever done on a single movie. You know, I don't know that it was the hardest. It just was the most involved, and the longest, and required the most commitment. When you're happy with what you're doing. It's a lot easier, you know. I mean, I liked what we were doing so it didn't feel like work a lot of the time.
Voice Over: [00:01:54] Ready Player One. Experience it in IMAX March 30th.
Andy Wang: [00:01:58] This is episode 36 with screenwriter of Ready Player One, Zak Penn.
Andy Wang: [00:02:08] [Theme music] Welcome to Inspired Money. My name is Andy Wang, a managing partner at Runnymede Capital Management. Each week we bring you an interesting person to help you get inspired, shift your perspectives on money, and achieve incredible things from making it to giving it away. Inspired Money means making a difference, creating something bigger than oneself and maybe, just maybe, making the world a better place. Thank you for joining me.
Andy Wang: [00:02:39] Hey inspired moneymaker. Will you continue your quest by taking the test? I'm quoting Ernest Klein's 2011 book, “Ready Player One.” It's filled with references to video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture trivia, and geek heroes. It includes everything from movies like, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonsai,” “Batman,” and “Back to the Future” to video games like, “Halo,” “Minecraft,” “Tomb Raider,” and “Dungeons and Dragons.” The story is set in a dystopian 2044 where Wade Watts is on a search for an Easter egg in a worldwide virtual reality game. If he finds the prize, he'll inherit the game creator's fortune. I'm super excited to talk to Zak Penn who along with Ernest Klein wrote “The Ready Player One” film adaptation. I'm told that Zak wrote the first draft in just six weeks and was shocked when the studio landed Steven Spielberg as Director. Zak previously had worked at Dreamworks on, “Suspect Zero,” Antz,” and “Men in Black.” In this episode you'll learn why adversity can be helpful to your career, how there are so many factors outside one's control in the life of a screenwriter, and the importance of enjoying the process of your work or whatever it is that you do. Now, let's get inspired talking to Zak Penn.
Andy Wang: [00:04:16] [background music] Zak, welcome to Inspired Money. It's so great to have you on the show.
Zak Penn: [00:04:20] Thank you for having me.
Andy Wang: [00:04:22] Let's jump right in. What's your earliest childhood memory of money?
Zak Penn: [00:04:28] Wow. My earliest childhood memory of money. [laughter] I guess it was getting my… the first time I got an allowance. I think I got 25 cents or 35 cents a week as my allowance when I was a kid, which seems insane today, but if I saved up for three weeks I had enough to buy a slice of pizza in New York.
Andy Wang: [00:04:54] So, it’s still meaningful, but there's been inflation I'm sure when you give your kids an allowance today.
Zak Penn: [00:05:00] Oh yeah. Now, I give them 85 cents.
Andy Wang: [0:05:03.3] [laughter]
Zak Penn: [0:05:04.2] So, they're working up. They almost, can buy a slice of pizza; they've been saving a year.
Andy Wang: [00:05:11] [laughter] They'll get there eventually. It's good to have goals.
Zak Penn: [00:05:13] Yeah, one day, one day.
Andy Wang: [00:05:16] Zak, you're a screenwriter, director, producer. You've had such success over 25 years. I'd love to get into your unique path. What inspired you to do screenwriting rather than writing books, or journalism, or something else?
Zak Penn: [00:05:32] Well, you know. I started writing plays at a very young age. I wrote my class play when I was in 4th grade and in 5th grade, which they were terrible but whatever. For a 4th grader I'm sure they were relatively good. And I kept at it, and I always wrote plays, and wrote short stories from, you know, continuing and never really stopped. And I loved movies. I was always a big movie fan. My parents, you know, were huge cinephiles and would take us to movies constantly. Even from, you know, the point I was in high school I always thought eventually, I'm gonna act, and write, and direct movies because it's just what I always did. I always acted, too. So, you know, I went to Yale summer school when I was in high school for playwriting and I wrote a full-length play while I was there, which got produced in high school. So, you know, I had a lot of… I put in my 10,000 hours long ago, you know, to quote the Malcolm Gladwell maxim. You know, in that way it's sometimes hard for me to give advice to people because I've always been doing this and I've always been kind of focused on it. I can't remember a time where I wasn't doing creative writing even in 1st grade.
Andy Wang: [00:06:52] That’s really cool. That's unique.
Zak Penn: [00:06:55] Yeah. I mean, there's some people I'm sure who are like that, but I do think that that has helped me tremendously, you know. By the time I got out to Hollywood, I think that helped me break in quicker because, you know. Obviously. I had… one of the hardest things in writing is to write a full length anything — novel, screenplay, or play and doing it a couple of times helps tremendously. I kind of got that out of the way at a young age.
Andy Wang: [00:07:23] You’re right. I'm sure there are many, many unfinished manuscripts.
Zak enn: [00:07:28] Yeah, definitely! Well, look the hardest thing about writing often is rewriting. It's writing something and then figuring out what's right or wrong with it and then fixing it and I think that, you know, goes for almost all forms of writing or probably all forms of writing and that just takes practice, you know. Some people have a natural facility with words and are very good writers right off the bat but telling stories and structuring a story is something that really you have to learn and you learn it mostly by trial and error. The more experience you get, like with anything, you know, the better you'll become.
Andy Wang: [00:08:06] You think crafting a story is a skill that you're always learning?
Zak Penn: [00:08:12] Always, absolutely. I mean, I learned more in the last couple of years working on Ready Player One and working with Steven Spielberg than I had probably in the rest of my career. I mean, just in terms of how story translates to the visual side of the film. And you know, I'm constantly coming up with new maxims, and studying story structure, and figuring out why one action movie is really boring whereas another one's really exciting, what is it that structurally about the story that's making that work. It's an ongoing process and I still read stuff about storytelling. You know, I still… even stupid stuff. I'll pick up once in a while and read it just to see if someone's got, you know, another insight.
Andy Wang: [00:09:04] It sounds like it goes far beyond a formulaic simplicity.
Zak Penn: [00:09:11] Yeah. Well, look. There's some formula that's relevant to screenwriting particularly because it's a very unusual form, you know. Short story writing is kind of fluid and there's something natural about writing that story that's 15 to 40 pages, let's say. Writing an hour and a half to two hour movie, you know, it's fairly arbitrary how it ended up that length. It's not like, that's just the golden mean of, you know, filmed entertainment. I mean, movies can be three hours. They can be an hour and 15 minutes and still work. The kind of standard that you're held to as a screenwriter is kind of unnatural so, you really have to learn how to manipulate that structure and make it work. And that's… there's no such thing as someone just naturally popping out a great screenplay particularly, an extremely well-structured screenplay.
Andy Wang: [00:10:09] Yeah, there are certainly very strict limitations I would imagine because you can only fit so many scenes into that 90 minutes or even if you're going three hours but it's a limitation.
Zak Penn: [00:10:22] Right. Well, and also sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes the truth is your story really should only be 70 minutes long and you have to pat it to make… you can’t hand in a 75-page script, you know. Nobody, although, there have been some that are a couple of film writer, directors have written scripts that are 80 to 85 pages but in general, you… if you hand in the script that length people are gonna say where's the rest of it. But sometimes that's all that the story really demands is, you know, what I mean? But you still have to get to this arbitrary length. You know, the same is true in TV, but I actually think there's something more natural about the 30-minute one hour, you know, formats for TV. You feel like they are more natural, but again, there you have to learn to do act breaks. If you've got commercials you've got to learn to… there's no version of it that doesn't involve some craft that's arbitrary that has to be learned and that you have to have a bag of tricks to get through it.
Andy Wang: [00:11:27] Now, did you head to Hollywood right after college?
Zak Penn: [0:11:29.8] Yeah, literally, a couple of weeks later.
Andy Wang: [0:11:32.8] And pretty quickly you got work and really started honing your saw, so to speak, with your 10,000 hours.
Zak Penn: [00:11:40] Yeah. I mean, my writing partner at that time, Adam Laugh, he and I wrote… we wrote two scripts. We wrote one script almost immediately after graduating college and kind of put it aside. Then we wrote another script over the next few months, which we also put aside deciding that it wasn't good enough to go out to agents with and then we started working on “Last Action Hero,” and we sold that. You know, pretty much a year out of college we got an agent and then shortly after that sold the script. So, I've really never done anything else.
Andy Wang: [00:12:14] Is that pretty unheard of in that like, short time period?
Zak Penn: [0:12:19.5] I don't know if it's unheard of. I think there's certainly… there's definitely other people who've started that young as screenwriters. It's fast. I don't think there's a lot of people who've done it that quickly, but certainly, there's plenty of people where, you know, two or three years into trying to be a screenwriter they sell something. That's not uncommon. But I think, again, it has to do with trial and error. I had put in a lot of trial and error on my own and then we were smart enough. I mean, that was the smartest thing we did was not to go out with our second script. You know, to resist the urge to take something we had finished and say, let's be impatient and try to send this to agents. Instead, we said, let's see if we can… we have this other idea that's maybe even better let's write that one first.
Andy Wang: [0:13:08.5] Uhm.
Zak Penn: [0:13:10.2] That's probably a little bit unusual but…
Andy Wang: [0:13:13.3] …and “Last Action Hero” was quite the adventure from what I understand.
Zak Penn: [00:13:18] Yeah. Well, it got bought. You know, it was bought in a bidding war that kind of fell apart, which is a long story in itself, but basically, they bought the script and then replaced us immediately which is kind of unusual. And the other thing is that we were rewritten so much we actually lost screenplay credit on our own original screenplay which is kind of unheard of. I've never really… I only know one other instance of it ever happening and that's partly because there are so many cooks and so many people came in to rewrite it. So, to some extent because the movie didn't come out that well and it was a bit of a bomb it was kind of good that we were insulated from it because the story of it was… it wasn't our fault. [laughter]
Andy Wang: [00:14:08] You are pretty far removed by that time.
Zak Penn: [00:14:11] Yeah. And look, I think it's probably for the best that it worked out that way because I think if that had been a big success I doubt I would have ended up where I am now because I think it would have been very hard to resist thinking I really knew what I was doing at 23, you know, whatever. The adversity is helpful and it's better to have it when you're young and can afford it than it's hard to face serious adversity in your career when you're in your late 40s, for example.
Andy Wang: [00:14:47] So, you think you came out of that experience hungrier?
Zak Penn: [0:14:51.0] Definitely. I mean and then, you know, we got our second movie made pretty, quickly after that and then my writing partner and I split up, and I had to write a new spec script and that really made me hungry. So, you know, and that's when I probably wrote one of the better scripts I've written but…
Andy Wang: [0:15:07.7] Which one was that?
Zak Penn: [0:15:09.0] That was called, “Suspect Zero,” which was also rewritten into the ground and was made into a movie 10 years later, which I've never even seen, but it was a big spec sale and actually, got me a lot of work and in fact, it got me work for Amblin and DreamWorks so, I ended up working for Spielberg, you know, back then I guess when I was 27 partly, I think mostly because of that spec script I wrote because of “Suspect Zero.” So, in each case I think certainly when I was young one thing that I was pretty good at is when things went pear-shaped I would be upset for a while but then I'd get angry and my anger fueled me. I tried to take my anger out on, you know, my computer by saying, I'm gonna write something even better to prove that they made a mistake. It's hard to cultivate that quality. I guess, you know, some people are like that and some aren't, but if you can that's the key is to take disappointment and turn it into motivation.
Andy Wang: [00:16:16] You know, many people cannot take the anger and turn that into like, positive work. You're like the John McEnroe of screenwriting.
Zak Penn: [00:16:26] Wow. Well…
Andy Wang: [0:16:27.3] [laughter]
Zak Penn: [0:16:28.5] Yeah. I don't yell at the judges as much. Yeah. Actually, we went to the same high school. I mean, he's older than me, but he… I knew about him at a very young age because you know Pat McEnroe was there when I was there, but he is a good example. The only thing, I would say, that there are times where his anger probably undercut is… I guess it's an interesting argument and you go on about that but…
Andy Wang: [0:16:55.2] Right.
Zak Penn: [0:16:55.6] I think it's more that, you know, I don't know if I was as angry. You know, I wasn't a yeller or anything. It was more just I was pissed off and frustrated and usually that turned into well, I'm gonna prove to them that they're wrong about this.
Andy Wang: [00:17:13] Right. You channeled that into your creative juices.
Zak Penn: [0:17:16.7] Yeah. It's lucky that I have that facility. I don't know that I necessarily… I don't know why that's the way it comes out, but generally, it does seem to happen that way. It doesn't seem like that at the time when I go through one of these frustrating experiences. I feel like everybody else. I just feel like I can't believe, you know, this was supposed to be my homerun and instead it was a triple play. You know, like, and I get… it's hard. It's a very hard thing to do. But the other thing is if you go through it a bunch of times which I've been through at many times now so, it's a lot easier for me. I've developed a very thick skin so when I run into that kind of problem later in my career, you know, if I write something and I think it's good and everyone likes it but then suddenly I'm fired, which happens a lot as a screenwriter it kind of bounces off me now. That's good. And conversely when an experience like “Ready Player One” comes along I'm really prepared to enjoy it and I'm prepared to, you know, every day I would say, this is a great experience. Enjoy it while it's happening.
Andy Wang: [00:18:27] Yup. Before we jump into “Ready Player One” you're really well-known for your work with “X Men” and “Marvel Comics.” There's a cool story about how you did the “Hulk.” Can you share that with us?
Zak Penn: [00:18:40] Well, I basically, when I got to Hollywood people didn't really take comic book movies seriously, despite the fact that “Batman” had come out. Even “Batman,” when you… the Tim Burton “Batman,” when you go back and look at it it's kind of campy. So, when I came out one of the first things I said to my new agent was why haven't they made an “X Men” movie? Why haven't they made an “Iron Man” movie? These are the things they should be making. I think Marvel was in bankruptcy at the time. That was part of it. But as soon as there was an assignment available I took it and that was the “Hulk.” So, I think I got that assignment and I don't know 95 – 1995. And I wrote a draft and I my whole pitch on it was let's make the James Cameron version of it and let's kind of harken back to the TV show by starting with him already transformed and then go back and kind of tell his origin as it goes along and tell it more as an action movie. And I wrote that, and they threw it out, and then rewrote it, and rewrote it and about ten years later, Ang Lee made the “Hulk.” When Marvel Comics, I mean, when Marvel Studios started, Kevin Feige and Avi Arad called me up and said, “We're gonna make a Hulk movie. We went back and read your draft from the first round of development and that actually seems like the way we should have gone with it. That's what we'd like to do now. So, will you go back and rewrite your old draft?” It was kind of a funny instance of where I wandered for a while if I would be arbitrating against myself, against a younger version of myself.
Andy Wang: [0:20:21.2] Yeah. That’s really cool.
Zak Penn: [0:20:22.8] Yeah. So, and then some of those scenes remained, you know, some of the scenes I wrote in that original draft made it all the way into the movie. So, yeah.
Andy Wang: [0:20:33.4] And I think it says something about maybe this nature of your business. It's like the fact that you wrote that at age 27 and you've just been keeping at it and honing your skills and because there is a war of attrition going on, right?
Zak Penn: [0:20:52.9] Always. I mean that's mostly what it is. Who is gonna drop out, you know. Who's gonna stop get so frustrated that they stop doing it. Yeah, it definitely is. And the business, you know, changes and evolves and, you know, right now is a tough time to be a screenwriter. So, you know, I'm in an unfortunate position and that probably, my best work has come at a time when things are the most difficult for screenwriters so that's lucky. [laughter]
Andy Wang: [0:21:23.6] How is it difficult today?
Zak Penn: [0:21:25.6] Well, there's been huge contraction in the business. There's a lot less movies getting made. Basically, the studios are making huge tentpole movies, or making very, or acquiring very small movies. You know, there's a lot less development than there used to be. I mean, there is a period where the studios were each making 40, you know, some of them were making 40 movies a year. Now, most of them are making 10 to 12. And if you look at a place like Disney, all of their movies are branded content from Marvel, Star Wars or you know, their own library. So, there's just not of jobs to go around, honestly. I mean, it used to be they are constantly developing stuff, and constantly buying spec scripts, and pitches, and now, it's like here's the IP that we own.
Let's try to make a movie out of it. There's just a lot fewer jobs and, you know, same amount of screenwriters.
Andy Wang: [0:22:27.1] Is that because they're trying to take less risk?
Zak Penn: [0:22:30.4] No. Well, look. I think that it's for a lot of reasons. It's partly that the foreign box office has gotten bigger than the North American box office so, you need to make movies that appeal on a global scale. I think it's the rise in advertising costs, which basically makes it… basically, how much a movie costs, you know, it's a minimum of $35 Million to do a release and often quite a bit more to do a wide release of a movie. So, making a $20 Million movie when you're gonna end up spending $70 Million anyway on marketing it becomes… it’s a much harder model to make money from. The other thing is the studios for a long time, the DVD market propped up everything so movies even that lost money or that, you know, barely broke even made up every all their profits and ancillary sales and the DVD market has crashed. There's a lot of different factors into why they're doing what they're doing, but it's also, if you look at a company like Marvel, they do what they do because it works and makes them boatloads of money.
Andy Wang: [00:23:42] Coming up, we talked about “Ready Player One” that's in theaters right now, but first, a question from a listener. I have a listener question that fits what you were just saying about Marvel. DAVID, he wanted to know what your thoughts are on the Marvel Cinematic Universe vs. the DC Comics extended universe. I think his opinion is that he feels like, Marvel MCU is selling out whereas DC is artistically and cinematically timeless. He was curious what your thoughts are.
Zak Penn: [00:24:20] I don't know if I agree with that. I mean, I think there's plenty of Marvel movies that are not at all selling out. You know, that they're trying to make the best movie they can. You know, there's certainly, with the DC movies they've turned the films over to auteurs. You know, certainly, with Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, they've given directors free rein to kind of shape the material as they see fit to varying degrees of success. That's certainly a reasonable argument, but it's not like, Marvel has made a bunch of crappy movies. They've made a lot of really good movies. But you know, on the other hand, they've definitely managed their company in a more bottom line, you know, I don't wanna say corporate because I don't think that, Kevin Feige, who runs Marvel is making decisions purely for corporate reasons, but I do think they have been much more careful to keep control of their brand, which you know, is not as filmmaker-friendly as letting Christopher Nolan go do what he wants for three films. You know, there is some truth in it, but I don't think the end result… there’s certainly plenty of not good DC movies and there's a lot of good Marvel movies. Some of them even really have the Director's imprint on them so it's hard for me to agree with that, although, I see where he's coming from. I understand the point, but I don't think and in reality, I don't think that's totally borne out.
Andy Wang: [00:25:59] The show notes for this episode can be found at inspiredmoney.fm/036. Here's your Runnymede money tip of the week. Today, I'm talking about emergency funds. How much should you sock away? A good rule of thumb is to have enough to cover three to six months’ worth of living expenses. This fund will help you in case your car unexpectedly needs new tires or if you lose your job. This money is to protect you from the unforeseen things that could happen. Where should it live? Ideally, the account should be separate from the bank account you use every day so, you're not tempted to dip into your reserves. An interest-bearing savings account is a good place for your money. Here are three quick tips on how to build your emergency fund. One, set of monthly savings goal and get into the habit of saving regularly. Basically, your budgeting what you can and then automatically transfer funds into your savings account each time you get paid. Two, keep the change. Every time you get a dollar or $5 bill after breaking a $20 bill drop some into a jar at home. When the jar fills up. Move it into your savings account. Three, save your tax refund. If you're getting a tax refund here's a tip to hopefully sock a decent amount of money into your emergency fund. The average amount for the last tax year was about $2,700. When you file your taxes consider having your refund deposited directly into your emergency account. And now finally, once you've hit a reasonable amount of emergency savings you should begin additional accounts for irregular but inevitable items and you can be specific. One for car maintenance, one for vacations, one for clothing. I hope you won't need it but if you do, now, you'll be prepared. That's the Runnymede money tip of the week.
Andy Wang: [00:28:02] I want to thank people for writing iTunes reviews this week. Thank you, Christopher List, Chaz the Fitness Man and WOJ712. WOJ wrote, “I love the mix of guests, inspirational stories as to how they use wealth to live a more purposeful life combined with everyday useful money tips.” Thank you everyone. It means a lot. The Inspired Money Podcast is brought to you by my company Runnymede Capital Management. We help you to plan, invest and worry less. Get to know us better and educate yourself for free by subscribing to our blog at inspiredmoney.fm.
You're listening to Inspired Money. I'm Andy Wang.
Andy Wang: [00:28:49] As a writer you've had the ability to maintain your success and this longevity, which within the context of the backdrop that that you've laid out it is even more impressive. Do you think you have to push yourself to do new things or can you get really good at one thing and just keep repeating that?
Zak Penn: [00:29:10] Well, a lot of people say that's what you should do is get good at one thing and keep repeating it. I've never… I think that's actually a valid way to go about it. You know, it's not what I've ever done. I've always jumped around from genre to genre and you know, I've directed some independent films and I've done some very weird things over the years. I think I got lucky timing-wise and that, you know, I was part of the first generation to take comic books very seriously and take their adaptations very seriously for cinema and so, I happen to, you know, I was in the right place at the right time as comic book movies exploded. So, that helped my career tremendously and if I had showed up five years later or five years earlier that might have been different. So, some of it is definitely luck. But I also, yeah, I’ve written very different types of material and kind of pride myself. You know, “Suspect Zero” is a thriller and I’ve written a lot of comedies and I've written some superhero movies and you know, I've kind of done all sorts of things. And I mostly do that just because I want to. That's not a career. That's not me saying, well, this is what I think will help my career. That's just me trying to remember, I came out to do this job because I want to so, I shouldn't sit around. Particularly, once I got successful I felt like, well, do what you wanna do don't be driven by what makes the most sense for you career-wise. And you know, I tempered that. I did one for them and one for me.
Andy Wang: [00:30:52] Oh, doing your own projects, directing?
Zak Penn: [0:30:54.9] Yeah, and if I was gonna write a movie for Werner Herzog, I would do it after I'd written him a Marvel movie for Fox or if I was gonna do… you know what I mean? Like I mean, I did go off and co-create a TV show and I've done some other things and I've tried to expand outwards just because that's what interests me. I don't know that has actually helped my career, by the way. I don't think anyone really cares that much about those. When they hire me for things I don't think anyone cares about some “Incident at Loch Ness,” for example or the “Atari Documentary” that I did.
Andy Wang: [0:31:30.1] But it keeps things interesting for you. The diversity you're not going to get bored and I think for your creativity that's a positive, too.
Zak Penn: [0:31:41.1] Yeah, absolutely. It's also why would I only do things that further my career. I should… that's a good thing to do when you're struggling, but if you're not, if you've gotten to a certain point in your career that's the time to start doing things that give you satisfaction. I mean, for me it's all about can I create something that I'm proud of that I want people to see and don't have to qualify, you know, to my friends and family. Okay, look. It's not exactly what I wanted but I hope you'll like it as opposed to this is the thing I wanted to put out into the world, and I'm proud of it, and I enjoyed making it. Enjoying the process is far more important to me than climbing to the top of the ladder of my profession because by the way, there's so much luck involved in that, too, in terms of, does your movie come out on the wrong weekend? Does it end up getting miscast? I mean so many things can go wrong. You can't, as a screenwriter really control the level of success so, once you hit a certain threshold you kind of just have to take it in stride and just do the things you wanna do, I think. I mean, I think that's the whole point of getting into this business.
Andy Wang: [00:33:01] Yeah. There's so much that's out of your control. I'm sure that over the course of your career you learn how to deal with that. Just like you were talking about handling failure. It's like, you have to be able to work within the confines of all those things that are moving on around you that you cannot control.
Zak Penn: [00:33:23] Right. And you know, I generally don't. I try to be passionate about the things I'm writing even if it's something that I at first think is stupid I try to find a way to really develop some passion for it because I don't really know any other way to write, but you have to learn that for many of these projects you come in, you work on it for a short period of time and then no matter how good a job you've done or that you think you've done you're gonna be moving on. And I've definitely gotten much better at accepting that and just saying, okay, here's what I’m gonna do. I'm gonna do this job for you guys, and then I'm going back to the other thing I'm doing, and if you need me, call me because that's a much healthier attitude than I wanna be involved with every single aspect of this. You know, “Ready Player One,” being the rare exception to the rule where I wanted to and Steven Spielberg, you know, kindly agreed and wanted me to stay involved so that worked out perfectly. But for the most part, when you take like, an assignment you've got to look at it like, I'm gonna do this. I'll do the best job I can and the second I hand it in I have to move on. I've got to go back to something else because the odds are good that I am not gonna stay involved in the project. And even if I did I, not necessarily gonna like the direction it goes.
Andy Wang: [00:34:44] So, “Ready Player One” sounds like a different experience. Was this the most challenging project you've ever worked on?
Zak Penn: [00:34:53] I mean, in terms of some of the pure structural elements, yes. You know, when you work with Steven Spielberg, he's got the best people in the world working for him so, to a certain extent, it was the… it's definitely, was the best experience. I don't wanna say it was easy, but it was more like, suddenly you're playing with an All-Star team so yeah, it's hard. You still have to win the championship, but all the guys on your team and women on your team are really good. So, it took a long time. It took a tremendous amount of effort. It's the most writing I've ever done on a single movie. You know, I don't know that it was the hardest. It just was the most involved, and the longest, and required the most commitment. When you're happy with what you're doing it's a lot easier, you know. I mean, I liked what we were doing so it didn't feel like work a lot of the time.
Andy Wang: [00:35:55] Yeah, definitely. I mean, I'm thinking the significance of the project. I mean, three years of your life, the scope of the book, all the 70s and 80s references within that had to be incorporated.
Zak Penn: [0:36:12.4] Yeah. Well, the references were not actually that big a deal because, you know, that's really just the background. It's not like, people are wearing… they look like Batman because that's what their avatar looks like, but I don't have to write a “Batman” movie. You know, it's not like the “Lego” movie where they're actually using a version of the characters. That was kind of the easy part. The harder part was restructuring the story a bit and kind of intercutting between the real world and the Oasis. And the other hard part was, you know, Steven Spielberg had some very sophisticated and kind of complex ideas that I needed to figure out on paper. He kept challenging me, you know, for over and over again. Can we do better than this? Can we do something different, you know. So, that's more where the real… the harder part of it came in. The licensing stuff was up to a bunch of, you know, it’s basically a bunch of lawyers dealing with it all the time, but it didn't… When you're writing a script, it doesn't matter whether which gun the character is firing as you're writing the scene and it doesn't matter what outfit the background characters are wearing. That was kind of the fun part, frankly.
Andy Wang: [0:37:27.1] That all falls into place as you go?
Zak Penn: [0:37:29.4] Yeah. The much harder part was incorporating, you know, the complexity of the challenge that's in the book, all the different characters, and kind of juggling them all and trying to figure out how to keep the core of the book alive while, you know, Steven accelerated the timeframe in the movie so it took place over a shorter period of time. And that always makes it more difficult.
Andy Wang: [00:37:52] What did that process look like because you mentioned earlier “Atari: Game Over.” So, I know that you worked with Ernie Cline and that you've become friends. How did you decide what to keep, what to cut out and what to change?
Zak Penn: [00:38:07] Well, first of all… Right, I was doing “Atari: Game Over,” before I wrote the script I had gotten the assignment, but then I was making this documentary and Ernie was kind enough, you know, he actually helped tremendously with the documentary not just by showing up, but by helping us organize and so I became friends with them before I even started to rewrite the script. So, some of the ideas I had I was fortunate enough to be talking to Ernie and I'd say, look. I think I need to do this and this to make this work. It was good to have the author there to get a sense of what things I was proposing really made him nervous about how it was hurting the material and what things he set off course. You know, certainly, when I talked about changing the challenges he had already brought it up. He had already said, you know, “Yeah. You've got to change the way the gates and the challenges are setup in the book.” It's not gonna… he agreed it wasn't gonna translate. You know, it's helpful when you can talk about it with the author in a different context without there being any pressure. You haven't written it, yet so you're not, you know, you're not having the author saying, I hate what you've written. Please, don't do this. Instead, you're talking about in the abstract. So, that was tremendously helpful. And in terms of, you know, there are certain things I made some choices in terms of structure that Ernie, when he read it said, “Yeah. This is really good.” I mean, you also have to keep in mind that to a certain extent I was going back more towards his book than the previous draft had so, I think in general, he was just happy that we're going that way and then frankly, before either of us had a chance to really debate the merits of what I had written, Steven Spielberg signed on and that changed everything else. So, from then on, we were both happy campers and since Steven was kind of driving the bus it was easy to say, this is what Steven wants to do. Both Ernie and I were like, well, he's Steven Spielberg. Let's follow him. It actually worked out quite nicely in that way. It would have been much trickier if it hadn't been someone like Stephen, I think. I think maybe, Ernie and I would have disagreed more about certain things even though, you know, I think we would have. We've always been really cordial and we get along with each other, but we both have a lot of opinions and I'm sure we would have disagreed more. But when you have someone like Steven Spielberg coming in and saying no, this is what we're gonna do, it's easy for the two writers to come together and say, okay. That's what Steven wants let's go do it. So, let's do the best version of that possible. And how do we stay as true to the book as we can, let's not change… I always say, let's not arbitrarily change things. If something that works in the book can work in the movie, let's leave it. And if it can’t, let's change it. And you know, once you've got Steven you've got kind of a guiding light.
Andy Wang: [00:41:04] It's a good guiding light to have.
Zak Penn: [0:41:06.2] Yeah, the best.
Andy Wang: [0:41:07.7] [laughter] You said you're going more towards… you’re going back more towards the book, but that screenplay was written by Ernie, too, right? Is it that… is that his version?
Zak Penn: [0:41:19.1] Well, there was a screenplay that was written in between Ernie and me by a very good writer named Eric Giesen, who was given kind of a different set of marching orders because I think they were afraid they weren't gonna be able to make the movie at the budget that it was at so, they tried to kind of create a more low budget or medium budget version of the movie and that really strayed a lot, and it made the character older, and it really strayed from the source material and it really… it wasn't Eric's fault. It was, you know, this is what he was asked to do. He actually did a pretty good job given the approach. And by the way, it might be a good movie on its own, but it definitely wasn't. It was really far from “Ready Player One.” It didn't keep some of the core story elements. So, that was the one I was rewriting. And even Ernie, I mean, I didn't read all of his drafts but like, I think even he changed a lot of stuff from the book as they were developing the movie. You know, I don't know that I went as far back as Ernie did. I'm sure Ernie's first draft was a lot closer to the book than what we ended up doing, but I think he knew that I was true to this, you know, that I was true to the spirit of it and most of the changes I was making were to try to get in his core story by putting it in a structure where it worked for the screen.
Andy Wang: [00:42:44] It sounds like there's a lot more that goes on than just writing a story. I'm hearing that there's got to be a lot of, like, there's this push and pull going on all the time, and compromise, and discussion.
Zak Penn: [00:42:57] Well, not normally. Normally, writers just don't talk to the person that they're rewriting, and are kind of cavalier about it, and they do whatever they feel like doing and so does the Director, and there's not a lot of respect given to the previous writers. I try not to be that way and Ernie is definitely, not that way. And I think it was just the right group of people. I think he knew the fact that I called him constantly to say, here's what I'm thinking of doing. Give me your opinion on it and that I was always respectful and was willing to defend my points instead of, you know, most of the time as a screenwriter you just do what you're, it's like, okay. This is my assignment. Most people don't even… they don't call the previous writer. They don't do anything. They just do the job they're paid to do and that's not the way because of some of the stuff that's happened to me over my career I don't do that for someone else's original work. I, even if, you know, sometimes I call them and they yell at me. You know, saying, why are you rewriting my script? And I have to say wow. Nobody told you, I guess, but they just hired me so, I am, but go ahead and yell if you want because…
Andy Wang: [0:44:09.6] Surprise!
Zak Penn: [0:44:09.7] I know how it feels.
Andy Wang: [0:44:12.1] Yeah. You've been on the other end of that stick.
Zak Penn: [0:44:14.9] Right, and it's mostly, usually, that's what it's like. It's very rare that you have an author of a book who's so willing to not only let there be changes but to contribute to them. It wasn't like, he was just like, okay, fine. If there is a new idea we would start brainstorming about it. It's like, okay. If we're not gonna do this thing in the book where you literally have to do, you know, recite every line from the movie, if we're gonna go into a movie what movie should it be and how should we approach that sequence? And I was more than happy. I kind of, I felt like I'd be crazy not to consult Ernie. I mean, he's a genius. I mean, he's got a crazy knowledge of, you know, that outstrips mind of pop culture and of movies. So, you know, I think that made a huge difference.
Andy Wang: [00:45:06] Did you have to have some of that or can you fall back on Ernie's like, pop culture genius?
Zak Penn: [00:45:14] Well, look. You know, until I met Ernie I was pretty confident of my trivia. I won… I went on a game show when I was in college on MTV and won the grand prize which was just a bunch of useless music and movie trivia so, you know I've always been pretty good… it's rare that I run into someone that I think knows more pop culture trivia than I do. And Ernie is… he’s a rare breed. There's just… there's no one quite, I mean, I think he has some sort of photographic memory because he knows things that I can't believe he's memorized things that he has. Normally, I'm the most pop culture. I think, normally, and when I go into a room I know as much useless trivia as anyone in the room does and perhaps more. I thought I met my match – more than more than my match. I mean, you know, there's a couple of times we got a quiz during the press junket and Ernie just slaughtered me and it's a very weird feeling for me, you know.
Andy Wang: [00:46:20] Yeah. Well, as a movie watcher or, you know, TV viewer I'm always impressed by how good Hollywood is at being at the forefront of like, recognizing what trends are taking place and like, what is going to resonate with audiences and related to what's going on in the real world because you have to be on top of those things really to be relevant, right?
Zak Penn: [00:46:48] Yeah. Although, it's mostly guesswork, honestly, and with movies particularly, where it takes, you know, where you're writing something that might not come out for years. TV has that immediacy, but movies generally don't. So, I mean, Ernie is certainly, was way ahead of his time in terms of his predictions, you know. Obviously, his book inspired the people who created the Oculus so he was kind of at the other end of it. But we're mostly in the screen writing business, you're mostly trying to catch up or make sure that it doesn't have to be current because things change so much between when you write something and when it actually comes out.
Andy Wang: [00:47:31] What's your response to the audience and the anticipation for the popularity of the book and then the anticipation of the film? People are just so excited for this.
Zak Penn: [00:47:43] Well, now they are. I mean, it's been incredible to see the response to the actual movie when it came out, but there was a lot of negativity before it came out that was very frustrating to read. It was based on their own idea of what the movie was gonna be like. That it was just gonna be a series of endless references. And once the movie showed at South by Southwest then people started to realize, oh my God, this is really different than what we expected and it's great. And certainly, the response to the actual movie has been overwhelming, and awesome and I've never had so many people call me, or email me, or contact me and talk about how many times they've seen the movie. I mean, it's only been out for 11 or 12 days now. So, you know, it's been a great experience, but it really was a roller coaster because there was a ton of negativity about it before the movie actually opened so, but yeah. Now I'm really psyched.
Andy Wang: [00:48:46] Yeah. Congratulations.
Zak Penn: [0:48:47.6] Thank you.
Andy Wang: [0:48:48.1] The movie buffs are buzzing. I see all this discussion about how does “Ready Player One” rank among Spielberg's body of work.
Zak Penn: [00:48:57] Yeah. That's a tough one, by the way.
Andy Wang: [00:48:59] Is it better than E.T.? Is it not better than E.T.? I mean, people are… it’s up there.
Zak Penn: [00:49:05] That's one of the problems with working for Spielberg is it's you're not gonna catch me saying that “Ready Player One” is his best movie. I wish it was but he's too good. So, he's made too many good movies for me to say that, but by the way, even like, his middle of the pack movie is still at the top of everybody else's list.
Andy Wang: [0:49:24.5] Exactly.
Zak Penn: [0:49:25.9] But look, more importantly, it's great to be in a theater with the paying audience and see them completely engaged with something that you’ve written. That's what you get into the business for, you know. I mean, I'll probably go see it again this weekend, you know, or sometimes and just to watch an audience experience it because it's a blast.
Andy Wang: [0:49:47.3] How does that make you feel?
Zak Penn: [0:49:49.2] Good. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel really good. You know, sometimes a little nervous but then, you know, when you see people's response it's pretty thrilling. As I said that's what you, you know, when you write a comedy and you hear everybody laughing in the theater that's what you're going for. And that was so fun.
Andy Wang: [00:50:09] Yeah. That’s validating.
Zak Penn: [0:50:10.6] Yeah. Absolutely.
Andy Wang: [00:50:12] Well, thanks Zak. Thanks for your time and sharing your thoughts on creativity and writing. I’d like to ask all of our guests, how do you define success?
Zak Penn: [0:50:25.1] Well, I would say success is doing something that you enjoy doing every day like, or would it be a better way to put it is having a job or a career that you enjoy the process of makes you successful. I don't care what it is. If you like shoveling hay, if that makes you happy and that's your job you are successful. I also think it's completely relative to the people around you, you know. It doesn't matter how much you make. Do you feel successful compared to your friends and compared to the people around you? Do you feel like, are doing well? And certainly, having the respect. For me, personally, I think success is having the respect of your peers. You know, that when other people who do what you do respect your work that to me is… that's when I feel successful. I feel other screenwriters or filmmakers tell me that they admire something I've done that's when I feel like a success as opposed to when the movie makes a lot of money where I feel like, well, that's not me. That's a thousand people contributing to that and that might, you know, that might be marketing or whatever. But you know, when you make a movie and you feel like the things you've done have earned the respect of the people that work in the same industry that to me is, you know, the best gauge of success.
Andy Wang: [00:51:58] Right. So, if Steven Spielberg says, Zak, great job, that carries weight.
Zak Penn: [0:52:04.7] I've had a number of moments like that where things that he said to me were the most flattering thing that I could imagine hearing because they were coming from him. Yes, that's where you stop wondering am I a fraud and start feeling like, okay. If I'm… if this guy feels like he needs me and that I'm doing great work that's… I’m validated, you know. I mean, I'm successful, if that's the case. If you outscore Michael Jordan you're successful at playing basketball. So, that's a weird analogy but you got to get the idea.
Andy Wang: [0:52:44.4] [laughter] I get the idea. Thanks Zak. Where can the Inspired Money listener find out more about you?
Zak Penn: [00:52:51] That's a good… I guess they can go online, although, and look on Wikipedia or IMDb, although, sometimes the facts are wrong or they could follow me @zakpenn on Twitter.
Andy Wang: [0:53:04.7] Awesome.
Zak Penn: [0:53:06.1] All right!
Andy Wang: [0:53:06.8] Thanks Zak. Congrats on the movie. I can't wait to see it myself.
Zak Penn: [0:53:10.3] Thanks. I hope you’ll like it.
Andy Wang: [0:53:12.2] I'm sure I will.
Zak Penn: [0:53:13.5] All right.
Andy Wang: [0:53:14.4] Thanks.
Zak Penn: [0:53:15.1] Take care.
Andy Wang: [00:53:19] Thanks for listening today. What was your favorite inspired money moment? Let's use writing as a metaphor for whatever you do, even investing. Put yourself in a position to put in your 10,000 hours to become great. I love that Zak goes on to say that loving the process, not commercial success ultimately defines his success and happiness. Another big takeaway because of the nature of screenwriting is the importance of learning how to handle failure. Persistence in a war of attrition is the tool to winning because as others quit you'll be among the last one standing. If none of those were among your favorite inspired money moments tell me your favorite by sending me a message at inspiredmoney.fm/andy.
Andy Wang: [00:54:16] All the music on today's show is by Jim Kimo West. Aloha Kimo! Want to be an inspired moneymaker? Do something that scares you. Do something that's going to make you better. Do something to give back in a bigger way to the world. If you have feedback questions or comments. Contact me at inspiredmoney.fm/andy. I'd love to hear from you. Until next time, find your inspiration and run with it.
Mentioned in this episode:
- Last Action Hero
- The Incredible Hulk
- Marvel Studios
- DC Comics
- Werner Herzog
- Incident at Loch Ness
- Suspect Zero (2004)
- Ernest Cline
- Atari: Game Over (2014)
- Ready Player One (2018)
- Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline