If Ernest Cline’s 2011 best-selling novel, Ready Player One, read like a love-letter to Steven Spielberg – heavily referencing his ’80s movies like Gremlins, Indiana Jones, E.T. and Back to the Future – then ultimately the legendary director would return the compliment by agreeing to direct the film adaptation.

“When I first read the book, I said, ‘OK. This is ridiculous, he’s got me on every tenth page; everything I did in the ’80s is in there’. I told myself that another director needed to do that,” recalls Spielberg when STACK meets with the legend on the backlot of Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank.

Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson and Edgar Wright were all touted for the job before he finally relented. “I figured if somebody else made this movie and put too much of my cultural references in, then I’d be too embarrassed.

“I thought that if I directed it, then I could put less of me in because there’s so many things that other filmmakers have done in the 1980s that I didn’t do, that we now have in this movie.”

As fans already know, Spielberg instead references the worlds of Blade Runner, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, WarGames and The Iron Giant, while not entirely erasing his own contribution to pop culture. “I cut out most of my own work. I had to. I’ve still got some references, like with Back to the Future and a Gremlin running around, but for the most part, this movie celebrates a decade of style, culture, politics, music, film and TV,” he says while juggling a half smoked cigar in one hand, joking, “I don’t smoke. I just hold this when I’m nervous.”

While slow to accept the challenge, he also blames it on the difficulty of adapting Cline’s novel. “It was a tough one to get right and it took a long time.”

Casting was problematic too, with literally thousands of actors testing out for the main role of Wade Watts, which eventually went to Tye Sheridan.

“Finding Wade was hard because at first I was looking for an overweight Wade like in the book, and then I just realised that I shouldn’t have to cast a physical type and that I needed to cast the best actor and one with whom audiences could identify and see the story through his eyes. Instead I decided to find the soul and heart of this character, and I know I found the right guy.”

Halfway through filming Ready Player One at London’s Leavesden studios, Spielberg, 71, abruptly took a break and went off to film newspaper drama The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

“Tom, Meryl and I all thought it was a social imperative that I actually suspend making Ready Player One to get active and make that movie last year,” he explains. “I made The Post because the lie of Richard Nixon and the corruption of his administration was a movie that was happening all over again in 2017, and I couldn’t avoid seeing the relevance of all the lies coming from the current administration.”

Casting Mark Rylance as brilliant OASIS creator James Halliday was a no brainer. “I just love Mark because he can be anybody and do anything and he doesn’t need an avatar to do it.”

For all the technical virtuosity of Ready Player One, Spielberg’s end goal, he says, is relatively simple: “A movie like this is bigger than life, and people who direct films like this, we’re all looking for the affirmation of the audience. The most important thing for me is for people to laugh and have a good time and to come out of the movie and blog that they liked it.”

Ready Player One is in cinemas on March 29.