Marvel has weaved its magic once again with Doctor Strange, perhaps a lesser known comic entity in the MCU but seemingly just important as the rest.
In this origin story, we meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant neurosurgeon who knows it. He is never shy to show off his considerable skills, sometimes to the detriment of his colleagues, like his former flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). However, Dr. Strange is taken down more than a peg when a terrible car accident leaves his hands virtually unusable, and he watches his career fade quickly away.
Desperate to regain his stature once again, he embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts – a world mostly hidden to the naked eye, but which is just as alive – and dangerous – as anything the Avengers have to face. Strange soon learns the trick of the trade by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and becomes a masterful sorcerer, as he is drawn into a battle with a rogue disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who naturally wants to end the world as we know it.
At the recent press day, I sat in on a great discussion about Doctor Strange with Marvel guru Kevin Feige, director Scott Derrickson and stars Cumberbatch, McAdams, Swinton and Mikkleson.
On it being the right time to bring Doctor Strange to the MCU:
Kevin Feige: Well, it’s something we’ve been talking about for many, many, many, many years, and sometimes things just work out, you know, timing often, particularly in the cinematic universe, works out well for us, and it’ll be our 14th film within the MCU and we always say we have to push the boundaries. We have to keep surprising people, we have to keep making them unique and different, and certainly this movie and this character fits all of that. Tapping into other dimensions and tapping into sort of that supernatural realm of the MCU is going to come in handy, you know, as we move forward throughout the Cinematic Universe, so the timing was perfect.
Scott Derrickson: I mean, you know, Kevin’s the one who greenlights the movie so he’s the official answer. I mean, I think that the comics, as a fan of the comics, growing up with the comics, Doctor Strange was a, you know, product of the ’60s and was big breath of fresh air into the world of comics at that time, and as a fan watching movies I felt ready for some new, daring, weird left turns, you know, in the world of comic books and the MCU. I think Guardians of the Galaxy was that and, you know, I was so pleasantly surprised when I saw how bold that movie was. So when I came in to meet on Doctor Strange, you know, my approach was let’s make this as weird in the MCU as the comic was in the comic book world in the ’60s, and that’s what we tried to do.
On now being part of the Marvel Universe:
Tilda Swinton: I keep saying that it’s a bit like being invited to join the circus, you know? You get invited to be the bearded lady or the painted gentleman or something and you may have a chance in the future to play with a clown or learn a bit of trapeze or work with the ponies with the plumes. The reason that feels like a correct way to describe it is that everybody’s so psyched. I mean, even the Sorcerer Supreme, Kevin Feige’s just the super fan of all super fans and he’s the master of the big top and it just feels such a lucky break for everybody who’s working in that circus top, don’t you think?
On looking in the mirror and seeing himself as Doctor Strange for the first time:
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah. I was sort of giddy like a child at Halloween. It was the first moment, really, properly, and Alex spotted it, our brilliant designer who’s done a few of these films, and she went, “Oh, you’re having the superhero moment, aren’t you?” [Laughter] I went, “Yeah, I think I am.” It really was the penny drop moment for me.
You know, this film had lots of alluring qualities, lots of things that made me really want to go to it and this character in particular, and in particular what Scott and Kevin were pitching to me is his trajectory, his origin story and where he was going to lie within the MCU. But the journey he goes on was sort of supremely important to me, and the qualities of drama but also great humor amongst that profundity. And that oddness and unique weirdness and newness that we were going to bring visually. So I’d kind of put the hero thing on the backburner, so when I first had that moment, it really was quite giddy. I just did stand up just giggling.
When we were in New York we were on Fifth Avenue and there were as many paparazzi as there were crew, it was getting a little bit surreal – but we were on Fifth Avenue and running down in and sort of jumping, or skipping really, but jumping to fly, and there was the Empire State Building in the same eye line, and it was just a moment of magic to think that the men and women that first crafted these comics on the floors of that building and other buildings in that town, and there I was playing one of those characters
On actually going into a comic-book store, dressed as Doctor Strange:
Cumberbatch: No, I didn’t have any money so I didn’t buy any comics. But I offered my services. I said, look, if the film doesn’t work out, I’ll come and stack the shelves for you… Might be a bit heartbreaking, like Doctor Strange, Issue number five, oh god..
Derrickson: Yeah, I remember the comic book store owner said that’d be fine but you had to keep your American accent if you were going to work there.
Cumberbatch: Which would have probably amused him as much as us. But yeah, and it was a magic, magic moment, no pun intended. It was very special, and utterly – like a lot of things in this film – very sort of not searched for, they came about for the right reasons, it really was the last place we were starting, the last shot of running away from Mads chasing me and there was that comic book store. It was incredible.
On that cool hand choreography:
Swinton: That hand choreography is a thing called tutting. We had a proper master working with us for weeks, I would say, I mean, just as much as learning martial arts we were learning how to tutt, with J-Funk who is somewhere here possibly, but if he’s not you should go on YouTube and look for J-Funk ‘cause he really knows how to do it and he’s got – properly magic fingers, like, you know, not like our fingers, like real non-CGI fingers. And he taught us a series of extraordinary – very precise movements which have to be super-precise because if you’re going to go like that, you have to be at a certain point where the line is going to be drawn between your fingers and you can’t of course be in front of your face which was always my issue. I was always in front of my face with it. And then you have to be exactly the right width so that you’re in the frame, and it was super-precise and king of hairy, but really good fun.
On playing such a compelling villain:
Mads Mikkelson: I always play all characters as a hero. I mean, I think we have to look at it that way. The key to any good villain, which I think was very clear from the beginning in this script, is that they have a point. It’s not completely crazy what they’re saying. There is a point. Even in Doctor Strange eye’s he does believe I have a point. Even though it’s for a fraction, if that. And I think that’s the key for a good villain. You have to have something the audience identify with, so he doesn’t just go ballistic and say I’m going to take over the world because I can. It’s fun.
On having to play the “straight man” as it were:
Rachel McAdams: My mom’s a nurse and I did not inherit that gene. It’s just why I’m up here right now. But I was always fascinated by what she did because it was so far from anything I really understood. So to get to delve into the medical side of things and shadow these incredible – I met this incredible female neurosurgeon in Toronto – and we had a great neurosurgeon on set and I was given the offer to go in an evac helicopter and do a weekend, which I am so sad I had to turn down because I’m a terrible flyer and I am really queasy about blood, so I thought I would be more of a hindrance to that operation than a help. So I declined that. But everything else was super-fascinating and in a pinch I could probably suture someone up now. And it was so nice to wear scrubs all the time.
On the trippy-ness of the special effects:
Derrickson: You know, the final sequence of the movie was the result of me just thinking, well, what can’t you do, and this idea of a fight scene going forward while a city’s un-destroyed, backwards, well, you can’t, that’s impossible. Okay, great, let’s do it. You know, and so we designed the scene and storyboard, and then we figured out how to make it. The same thing like with what we call the Magical Mystery Tour, the whole mind trip scene, it was about drawing out every single shot and some of it being impossible to do and the result was that the visual effects vendors had to sometimes help us figure out. How do we do this because it is unprecedented, it hasn’t been done before? Some of those ideas didn’t work, and you know, sometimes we would try things and we were overshooting. But me personally, I felt like, every day, I got up for work and I thought, somebody’s going to come knock on my door and say, you got to back off, this is just getting too weird. You know, and it never happened.
On gaining inspiration for the rest of the cast:
Cumberbatch: Everyone was helping me raise my game, and in every level. I mean, you know, Rachel’s just talked about scrub-land. I mean, that was a very detailed world, and to watch her craft, to watch her scalpel-like precision – pun intended – with just delineating exactly what was going on where Christine was in that moment and just it helped map out an entire world that I knew my character was shifting away from but had to be completely invested with, hopefully like the audience is at the beginning, and through the duration of the film when he crashes back into it.
From Tilda, treading this incredible line between being ancient and wise and yet ever-youthful as she is, and just incredibly now and present and not something old and fussy, fusty – and just doing it with grace and charm and good nature that all of the cast of this had.
Chiwetel [Ejiofor], who I’ve worked with before, again to watch him construct Mordo and see the complexity of his journey as well come to fruition, I mean, all of that. And Mads, this man over here, who complains about being 100 but moves like a 20 year-old, dreams of moving sometimes. I mean, he just is the most absurd athlete but also the most understated and supreme gentlemen who is always trying to make sure that you’re all right and that your craft is all right and that you’re not getting hit in the face or hurt, you know. And that’s not always the case in fight scenes.
To Benny [Wong], who I’ve known for a while, we’re old friends, but to get to play with him and see – and you know, I adore Wong, I think the world’s going to absolutely love that character, and it was a master stroke on his part.
Then headed by a director and a mastermind who both know their craft inside out and you feel safe in the hands of. You know, I’m very lucky, I’m very lucky. I’ve worked with some truly inspiring people and a lot of them on this huge sofa with me.