Read about our visit to the Doctor Strange set and take a look at new posters and stills from the film!
There are places one goes when one wants to learn about magic.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of those places is the Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu. There, under the right tutelage, one may learn the proper steps toward a mystic path and perhaps even unlock an understanding of how our own world interacts with unseen realities. It is in one of those other realities, in fact, that the place one goes to to learn about magic is England’s Longcross Studios. It is there that, earlier this year, ComingSoon.net had the privilege of visiting the set of Marvel’s Doctor Strange and learning from those who wield movie magic exactly how powerful a spell the right story can cast.
“What we wanted was a character that was rooted in the real,” says Doctor Strange‘s Scott Derrickson, whose past directorial credits include Deliver Us From Evil, Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. “…The starting point was what things that we have not seen in cinema. That we could almost work backwards. What kind of imagery? What kind of action could be created in cinema that we haven’t seen?” I started from that place and looked for a way to tie that into magic. Some of those ideas didn’t tie in well and some of those ideas tied in surprisingly well. The ones that tied in really well, those became the major set pieces for the movie.”
“It needs to be strange. It needs to be weird. It needs to be absolutely inspired from those [Steve Ditko] images,” says Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, promising that Marvel fans have some truly innovative visual effects coming their way this November. “…Scott Derrickson [brought up] a particularly panel from the Ditko era that was turned into a blacklight poster he remembered having. That is been so much of the visual inspiration of the movie.”
“I keep feeling like someone’s gonna say, ‘It’s too bizarre! It’s too weird! We can’t! We’re going too far!'” Derrickson continues. “I feel as though we crossed a line at some point in the process. The comics were the inspiration to try to go past certain boundaries,> but we crossed a line and after crossing that line we just kept going. It all kept getting stranger and stranger.”
While Doctor Strange promises to offer a more unusual side of the MCU (and they made a movie about the space adventures of a talking raccoon), there’s a very emotional element at the center of the story that required a unique acting talent.
“The guy goes through everything you could possibly imagine,” leading man Cumberbatch tells us. “I mean he’s a guide of his profession. He’s completely in control of his life. Yet there are things missing, which are quite obvious. But it’s a good life and then he has this car crash and becomes obsessed with healing himself, not realizing that really healing is something beyond just becoming what he used to be. That he needs to foster something that he has within him. It’s all from the same drive.”
To lock Cumberbatch for the role meant shaping Doctor Strange’s production around the actor’s commitment to filming the upcoming fourth season of Sherlock. Fortunately, a schedule was found that would let the star make his debut in the MCU.
“One of the reasons was I wanted to know what the toy box was like,” laughs Cumberbatch. “And it’s just insane the amount of facility that everyone gets and the amount of artistry and craft that’s brought to every aspect of filmmaking.”
In the day’s scene, Cumberbatch is dressed in simple vestments customary to a novice of the mystic arts. He sports a large beard and is covering in flakes of artificial snow and frostbite makeup.
“I’ve been stranded on the side of Mount Everest,” he explains. “I’ve been literally exposed, in what I’m wearing, to some of the coldest temperatures on Earth. I’m struggling to get back the way I came to this place.”
Once a student reaches a certain level within the Kamar-Taj, they are issued what has been dubbed a sling ring. While wearing the brass knuckles-like artifact in one hand and casting with another, a successful magician would be able to open a portal and escape an icey death. Of course, Strange isn’t necessarily a successful magician.
“Everyone in this movie knows more than Strange,” Feige explains. “Everyone is more talented when it comes to 90% of the movie. The [guy with] magical abilities and the mastery of the mystic arts is Wong, a fellow warrior who has been a master in his own right. As we meet him in this movie, he’s tasked with protecting some of the most valuable relics and book Kamar-Taj has. He doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about Strange.”
In the role of Wong is Marco Polo‘s Benedict Wong. While the character dates back to Doctor Strange’s first appearance in “Strange Tales” #110, the Wong of the feature film is far from Strange’s manservant.
“I kind of think things like ‘manservant’ and ‘sidekick,’ we’re just gonna leave back in the past now,” says Wong. “I’m very much into looking forward into our modern take and back in on the beginnings of this origin story. Let’s turn a whole new page.”
Wong, in fact, has far more important things on his mind than training Stephen Strange. He’s one of the first lines of defense for attacks from other realms of existence.
“He’s very serious about what he’s doing,” Wong continues, “because it’s kind of like a huge door that these extra-dimensional forces are now battering through. There is a fight that no one is really seeing… [He’s a] protector of the Sanctum relics and these ancient ritual books, and it’s where we’ll see Wong and Doctor Strange come together and become, really, allies to fight against these extra-dimensional forces.”
“The Antagonist is Mads Mikkelsen, who plays a character called Kaecilius who was a sorcerer within Kamar-Taj,” says Feige, “Who along with some other of his followers, who are called zealots, defect from Kamar-Taj because they believe the Ancient One is not being truthful in the way that she is teaching magic. They believe she is withholding secrets that should not be withheld and think that maybe it’s not a bad thing if other dimensions absorb our reality. In fact, it could lead to benefits such as immortality. They may also lead to destroying the entire world as we know it. But it is definitely a philosophical break that he has from the rest of the sorcerers that is his primary angst over the course of the movie.”
“The thing I’ll say about Kaecilius is that he is a man of ideas,” says Derrickson. ” And that’s, to me, what always is compelling about villains. I am much more interested in how they think than in what they even do. My favorite villain being John Doe in ‘Seven,’ who does these extraordinary things and is so scary. But the scariest scene is when they ride into the desert and he articulates why. I got terrified. I felt nauseous watching that movie. Because I was like, ‘Oh my God. He makes sense.’ …Same thing with the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight.’ The watertight logic of his anarchistic philosophy in that hospital bedside table scene with Harvey Dent.”
Derrickson also hints at a connected evil that may or may not even have a name.
“I always loved the Sauron-Saruman idea in ‘Lord of the Rings,'” he says. “Even though you never see Sauron except in the prologue, what a presence and what a power [he has]. We do more than that with this other dimensional power.”
One of the other major comic book inspirations for the Doctor Strange film is Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín’s acclaimed 2013 miniseries, The Oath.
“‘The Oath,’ I think, tonally, was a great — not reinterpretation — but a great updating of his character,” Feige continues, citing Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín’s 2013 Doctor Strange miniseries as one of the many inspirations for the film. “I think we would’ve probably leaned in that direction anyway, because that sort of fits what we like to do in our films and certainly that’s what Benedict is bringing to it. A sense of humor to go along with the gravitas that this journey he goes on.”
The Oath teamed Doctor Strange with a Linda Carter, star of Marvel’s short-lived early ’60s series “Linda Carter, Student Nurse.” Carter was more famously one of the leads of the early ’70s comic Night Nurse. The film version uses the name of a different Night Nurse lead, setting Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer.
“We wanted a grounded character,” says Feige. “We wanted a character that was a connection to Strange’s life in New York City in the normal world. Somebody that could be his anchor to the real world. To his present in the beginning of the film and, by the time he re-encounters her wearing [his costume], someone who can comment on his transformation as a character.”
“He’s still quite cocky by the end of the film,” says Cumberbatch. “I’d say the major curve for him is that he learns that it’s not all about him. That there’s a greater good.”
“[‘The Oath’] had a very fun tone to it,” Feige continues. “Doctor Strange had a unique fun voice… There’s a sequence from ‘The Oath’ which directly inspired a sequence in this movie, which was a sequence that Scott actually included in his very earliest pitches to us. There was a character or two whose name we took from that, but this is not an adaptation of that story.”
While powered by backwards engineered cinematic spectacle, the filmmakers behind Doctor Strange are well aware that the magic of the MCU needs to have its own set of rules.
“Scott was very smart,” says Feige, “in not wanting it to simply [have] someone shooting a bolt of lightning, and someone blocks a ball of lightning.”
“We’ve been drawing on the Emperor in Star Wars for over 30 years,” says Derrickson. “We gotta start doing this some other way. The magic power and the utilization of magic power… Preserving the idea of magic was really important to me that we didn’t try to explain it away or root it all in something scientific. That, by definition, is not magic to me.”
Thor cited Arthur C. Clarke’s hypothesis that any sufficiently-advanced intelligence could make use technology that, to a lesser advanced individual or species, would appear indistinguishable from magic. One of the thoughts at the center of Doctor Strange is about how that line becomes blurred in even our own reality.
“The Ancient One encounters Strange and he’s a scientist,” says Feige. “He’s learned Western Medicine. He believes very much in that. She starts using Eastern lingo in the way she’s describing the world to him. He immediately writes it off. He rolls his eyes. He doesn’t buy it. She goes, ‘Okay’ and she starts talking about it in Western terms to try and make him more comfortable. She says it’s the same thing. Whether you’re looking at the ancient study of acupuncture pressure points or you’re looking an MRI. She’s trying to say we’re talking about the same things here. And if you’re not comfortable with the word ‘spells,’ let’s use the word ‘program.'”
When it comes to the notion of alternate realities, Feige hints that fans will be seeing things they might not expect.
“I think when comic book fans hear parallel dimensions or multiple dimensions they think of Earth 616 and Earth 617 and Earth 618,” Feige continues. “That’s all possible. But what we’re playing with in this world is there are dimensions. That the other dimensions are not just parallel realities, although some of them are. There is the Dark Dimension where Dormammu inhabits. There are dimensions that are so mind-bending that you can barely perceive them. There are dimensions where a lot of the Ditko images come from. There are dimensions that are just mindtrips that the human mind can barely fathom, which is why it’s hard to turn them into something to show audiences in November… Parallel realities where there’s Strange that wears Iron Man armor? We’re not there yet.”
While it’s very much a singular film in and of itself, Doctor Strange arrives as the second act of Marvel’s “Phase Three” with the tricky task of following up the massive success of Captain America: Civil War. Strange himself was first teased as far back as the first Thor when the Orb of Agamotto appeared in Odin’s vault. He was even mentioned by name in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
“He’s very well known as a surgeon,” Feige clarifies regarding Doctor Strange’s MCU status during Winter Soldier. “He’s got various awards and plaques. He attends various galas. Might be driving to one at one point in this movie. So he has name recognition, and a talent and certain Hydra computers identified him as someone who could cause trouble for their agendas.”
Although he’s confirmed as part of the Avengers: Infinity War line-up, don’t expect Doctor Strange to be be hanging out with the Avengers in his debut.
“If you didn’t know this movie was connected to 13 movies before it, nothing in this movie would indicate that was the case,” says Feige. “This is very much a standalone introduction to a very complex character and a very complex world, which through this movie and until maybe some upcoming movies is relatively self-contained. There are people inhabiting the same world that are stopping buildings from falling down, robots from doing this, aliens from doing that – These people in this movie are stopping inter-dimensional forces from wiping out all of reality.”
So if there’s a secret order of sorcerers existing in the MCU, why haven’t they appeared before now?
“We’ve always assumed that the sorcerers have bigger fish to fry when they hear there’s something in a city or there’s a bank being robbed,” explains Feige. “They’re not thinking about it. They’re thinking, ‘If we don’t keep vigilant, our sense of reality will disappear and there won’t be a bank to rob and there won’t be a city to be conquered… [H]e’s not going to intervene in the bodega crime down the street. But, as things get bigger and as threats get bigger, he can serve a very good purpose and can make his presence known.”
That’s not to say that Doctor Strange won’t forge some brand new ties to the universe. Feige promises that Jericho Drumm (aka Brother Voodoo) is mentioned in the film and one of the pieces of concept art displayed for press identified one of the women at the Kamar-Taj as Tina Minoru, mother of Runaways‘ Nico Minoru. Unfortunately, Feige points out that she’s never mentioned by name in the film and therefore the idea to make her Minoru is not necessarily one that’s fulfilled in the canon.
A Runaways reference isn’t the only major element of Doctor Strange that wound up getting cut, either.
“For a long time there was a prologue in this movie that we’re not doing,” says Feige. “Maybe we’ll do in part two, so maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but it took place in CERN. If you think about CERN, it comes up a lot in science fiction stories because it’s so mind-blowing what’s actually being done there. We’ve looked at that a lot because of the discussions about parallel dimensions and multiple-dimensions. All of that has gone into building the foundation for our fictional reality within the Strange universe.”
As for what else we might see in future Doctor Strange films, Feige teases that Clea is one of those great characters that just doesn’t fit in an origin story.
“The super-powered girlfriend for Strange wasn’t in the first issue,” he says. “There’s a lot of backstory required for her, which is one of the reason we didn’t go that way. There’s so much to set up in this. I think it’s always a huge mistake when you throw the kitchen sink and everything in the first movie… We thought that an inter-dimensional girlfriend that’s the daughter of an inter-dimensional demon-esque creature was a step too far in introducing this world.”
We’ll have even more from the set of Doctor Strange tomorrow morning, including insight from stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton! In the meantime, check out the new posters and stills in the gallery viewer below and catch Doctor Strange on the big screen November 4.