Screenwriter Jon Spaihts on what it’s like to build a film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Already soaring past a $330 million take at the worldwide box office, Doctor Strange is a certified hit and the future of Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sorcerer Supreme in the MCU is looking mighty bright. A good part of that credit is owed to screenwriter Jon Spaihts. Spaihts, who also worked on Prometheus, and who is scripting the upcoming Pacific Rim sequel, is also helping define the budding Universal Pictures Monsterverse with next year’s The Mummy. With that much experience building narratives within greater fictional universes, Jon Spaihts was the perfect choice to crack the big screen story for Doctor Strange. Sitting down with CS, Jon Spaihts explains his perspective on the Marvel production process and confirms that a certain Strange Infinity Stone was placed in the story for a specific (yet to be revealed) reason!
CS: So where did your love of Doctor Strange begin?
Jon Spaihts: It started when I was knee high. I’ve been fascinated with Doctor Strange since I first encountered him, which was probably the fifth grade, reading borrowed comic books. Ever since then, I sought him out wherever I could find him. I didn’t have a comic book shop in easy reach, so it was a matter of digging for hand me down comic books at garage sales and flea markets and things. Every book I found was like a treasure. I was trying to piece together storylines from fragments and figure out what was going on. I loved always the cosmic reach of those stories and the solitary character of a hero always pitted alone against vast forces. I loved his scholarship. I loved the bold, graphical treatment of treat. The runes and calligraphy and mandalas that hung in the air. The bright colors. The physicality of structures of energy to bind, separate, open, shield. I loved the scale on which the battles played out. Often at stake is the world — or multiple worlds. Multiple universes. I loved that, as staggering the power as Doctor Strange wields, he often came up against enemies that were vastly more potent than he was. He was forced to struggle through pure imagination or wit to defeat them in the end, despite being overmatched. Often with an almost legalistic manipulation of the rules of magic. Some technicality. It felt great.
CS: How did that translate into meeting with Marvel Studios about the film?
Jon Spaihts: When I found out that there was a Doctor Strange movie in the works, I knew I needed to be in the room and that I had to badger them enough that they let me in. I think I was the only writer they seriously talked to. I got in and we talked all day and just hit it off.
CS: So you really knew you had to be the guy telling this story?
Jon Spaihts: I really pestered them about it! I was having lunch at a diner reading Variety. I saw a little piece about them looking for a director for Doctor Strange. I called my agent instantly, right in the middle of my meal. I asked if there was a script yet. He said, “I think there must be if they’re looking for a director, but I’ll ask.” He called back a few minutes later to say that, much to his surprise, there was no script. They were starting with a director. I said, “You’ve got to get me into the room. Call them right now.” He did and I ended up in the room a day or two later. Scott Derrickson had been brought aboard just before I came into the room. He was in place when I landed. We all hit it off.
CS: You’ve worked quite a bit on films that fit into a larger narrative from Prometheus to the upcoming Mummy. Strange, of course, is no exception. Is there a different skill required to approach films like those than say, your new original science fiction feature, Passengers?
Jon Spaihts: I think that, in some ways, it’s just a piece of what it means to always tell a story. Every story unfolds in its own universe. Maybe it’s the universe of high rise construction and steel girder walkers or of alchemy or of cheerleading. In every case, you need to do a deep dive. Understand how that world works. Understand what you need to respect in that world. What the moving pieces are. This is no different. When you dive into a story that is part of a canon with an embedded fanbase with a body of believers, it’s the same deep dive. You learn how that world works. You learn what’s sacred. You learn what’s negotiable. And then you start to play ball.
CS: How does something like the time gem work? That seems like something that, on the one hand, has to be introduced before it comes up again in the expanded narrative and yet it also fits very organically into Doctor Strange. What comes first?
Jon Spaihts: The larger strategy of the multi-phased Marvel Cinematic Universe game plan is in the hands of Kevin Feige — above all — and the people he works with. This is still filmmaking. It’s impossible to make a master plan that plays out flawlessly over several years. Discoveries happen. Things you thought would happen fade away. Other things that you thought would happen way down the road happen sooner. The plan is fluid and constantly adjusting. I heard enough conversation behind the scenes to know that the people at Marvel were in flux about what might an Infinity Stone and where one might live. They were fluid as their constellation of movies grew and shifted, adapting their battle plan. Certainly when I came in, we were given the guidance by Kevin Feige that Doctor Strange would be manipulating time in this movie and there was a reason why.
CS: Once you have the job, what’s the first step? Do you immediately go back to the comics?
Jon Spaihts: There was beautifully collaborative story-breaking process between myself and Scott Derrickson, Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard, our executive producer. The four of us just got together and met again and again to talk about what the story might be and to talk about different approaches. We were open to anything. We were not married to an origin story. We were not married to a particular arch villain or any phase of things. We played devil’s advocate with ourselves and played out every possibility. I would go away and outline and then come back. We’d all talk some more and then I’d go back to story and outline again. That went on for months and months. Ultimately, the gravitational power of that beautiful origin story pulled us in. I think it’s the best origin story in comics. It has qualities of mythic saga. It has epic scale. It has the personal ups and downs of the hero. The ultimate stakes are so extraordinary. It had fantastic bones. There were things in it that needed updating or refreshing, but the fundamentals were there. We really just needed to tell it well.
CS: It seems like one of the real challenges of introducing Strange’s kind of magic is that you want to also teach the audience exactly what magic can do and how it is applied.
Jon Spaihts: There’s a lot of different possibilities as far as what magic should entail. Over the years, Doctor Strange’s magic has taken on different phases in different comics. For much of it, especially in the early going, there was a heavy reliance on zapping with beams of magic and blocking with shields made of magic. That’s a very simple mechanic, but it’s maybe a bit too much like wand fighting in Harry Potter. We definitely needed to find a more mature vocabulary of magical combat. But we also wanted to preserve the best qualities of Doctor Strange’s magic, which is that it’s mysterious, dark and arcane. It’s filled with strange vocabulary of magic words and spells. The best guidance we had there comes from the graphic treatment. That’s the calligraphic representation of magical power. Scott Derrickson and I both agreed that the magic should have a physical quality. It shouldn’t be a feat. It shouldn’t be intellectual. It should feel like the extension of a physical fight. Something that begins like a fist should evolve into magic without losing that athletic character. I think Scott did an incredible job of rendering magic as a martial art.
(Photo Credit: FayesVision / WENN.com)