One of my favorite things about stepping foot onto a movie set of a fairly sizable, high-profile production is finding out the code name for the film that’s often used on all the signage and certain documents during filming. For Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE, due November 4 in the U.S., the code name was CHECKMATE, and the fictional production company was Supreme Productions.
I stepped onto the set of CHECKMATE in early February, Day 54 of an 87-day shoot at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England, about 25 miles west of London. A group of online journalists were taken through the machinations of the world of DOCTOR STRANGE, looking at costumes, props, sets and talking to actors (all in costume), production people, head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige, and director and co-writer (along with former Ain’t It Cool News correspondent C. Robert Cargill, who sadly was not around when we were) Scott Derrickson (SINISTER, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE).
I’ll have a lot of reports for all of you, so let’s begin with Derrickson, who we talked to between takes of a scene that seems to be set on the roof of the Ancient One’s domain, Kamar-Taj, said to be situated in the Himalayas, home to many Sorcerer Supremes over the years. The sequence involves Swinton’s The Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Karl Mordo, Benedict Wong’s Wong, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange, who appears to be just grasping what this place and these people are all about. There’s a circle of light in the middle of the compound that is clearly a stand-in light source for a portal that Strange is coming through from somewhere else.
Many of those in attendance have interviewed Derrickson over the years, and he’s always very knowledgeable and forthcoming about his work, which made it all the more enjoyable to watch him dodge a few of the more pointed questions. Please enjoy this talk with Scott Derrickson…
Question: I have a super-specific question. Are there any Bob Dylan songs in this movie?
Scott Derrickson: Are there any what?
Question: Bob Dylan songs.
SD: Oh God, I hope so. That's my answer to everything. I hope there are Bob Dylan songs in every movie. So yeah. No, we are looking at specific songs and some of them classic songs. We'll see which ones we'll get, which ones we can afford, and which ones we can get the rights to.
Question: When you come onto a movie like DOCTOR STRANGE, where Marvel obviously has an idea of what they want it to be, how much development are you doing from the start? How much are you building this movie from the ground up compared to a movie that you're doing outside of this kind of sphere?
SD: In terms of adapted material, which I've done before a couple of times, the development process was even more from the ground up in this case. Yeah, because you have a large body of stories and material from the comics. And when I first met with them, they had certain thematic ideas they liked, and not a lot of story ideas, which was great. And I think it was my connection and interest in the thematic ideas that got me the job. The whole process was starting with all ideas on the table, and so I was involved in it from the very get go.
Question: How has it been so far? Has it surprised you?
SD: It's been incredible. It's been the most incredible filmmaking experience for me, by far, for a variety of reasons. The experience with Marvel—I can only speak for myself. I know every director has their own stories. But my experience with Marvel has been really good. And I really enjoy the intimacy of the collaboration because it's all been just myself and Kevin [Feige] and my producer Stephen [Broussard]. There are no middle men. It's that and my crew, and there's that's it. There's no one else working on the movie. That's new for me and unique for me.
And the ambition of the movie, I'm surprised that I'm getting to make it, because I keep feeling like these set pieces…someone’s gonna say, “It's too bizarre. It's too weird. We're going too far.” I feel as though we crossed a line at some point in the process—which the comics I think 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—I didn't mean that as a pun, but it all just kept getting more bizarre, in a good way, in a way that, as a viewer, I think I would be satisfied by.
Question: Kevin said that one of the hardest nuts to crack with the movie was to figure out how to make the action believable and different because you're just conjuring spells and things of this nature. Can you talk about what the action's gonna look like and how you cracked that?
SD: Yeah, 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. There's also the burden of popular magic movies, the HARRY POTTER series, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which appropriate magic in a very familiar, traditional way. And the comics had a few ideas in them that were, to this day, still very original. Those ideas we're using. And the rest of it was also was very traditional in the use of spells and even some of the imagery. So for me, the starting point was, what kind of things have we not seen in cinema? It was almost working backwards. What kind of imagery, what kind of action could be created in cinema that we haven't seen? And I started from that place and looked for a way to tie that into magic. And 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.
Question: This morning we asked Kevin what sort of sub-genre this movie falls into. And he said “supernatural,” which feels very vague. But just from what we've been able to see, it looks like a martial arts movie in a way. Is there like a heavy martial arts movie influence here?
SD: Yeah. There's definitely a martial arts influence on the movie, because that is the action that I like for starters. Martial arts is the kind of action that does tie in well to the supernatural. That is a whole sub-genre within martial arts cinema. The supernatural martial arts movie, particularly within Asian cinema. And I felt like when it came to fighting in the movie, that just made sense, to certainly to go in that direction and stay away from gunfire and things like that. And to avoid having fighting be the casting of bolts of light.
I really feel like we've been drawing on the Emperor in Star Wars for over 30 years, and so we’ve got to start doing this some other way—the utilization of magic power. There's some good fighting in it. But that fighting is, again, always within a context of something I think is more fantastical and more surreal and more mind trippy than just the supernatural action of combat. It's always supernatural action, combat fighting within a larger surreal canvas. That was the thing I always wanted to preserve, so that we're never just watching fighting. Yeah.
Question: I've seen on your Twitter feed lots of great art, like Ditko art and a lot of stuff. When you're adapting a story like this, with so much lore and so much visual cues from the comics, what is the most important thing for you personally? What did you really want to make sure was in this film, whether it's a caution piece or a set piece, design or something like that?
SD: That's a great question. That's a really incisive question. My love for the comics I think is probably… I'll start by saying this. I think that because I love the comics so much, and I grew up reading Marvel Comics. And Doctor Strange is my favorite comic book character, probably I think honestly the only comic book [movie] I would feel personally suited to work on. And for me, my long-standing love for Doctor Strange comes from, first of all, the fantastical visual imagery of all the comics, particularly the early Ditko stuff, “Into Shamballa,” “The Oath,” a lot of the images that I have picked are from those three sources, and then individual issues.
Thematically, the loneliness of that character, I always really liked the idea of a character who had gone through so much trauma and was placed into a position between our world and other worlds, other dimensions literally. That's a lonely position. I like that. But I think my that as I've gotten older, my continuing love for Doctor Strange has been that he is a character who transforms through suffering. He goes through this gauntlet, and for me that's kind of the most powerful thing, of trauma and suffering, going all the way back to his childhood in the comics. But then he appropriates that suffering in a certain way that limits him. And then he goes through the loss of everything in a really painful, unbearable way. And eventually finds self-transcendence in something mystical. That's Doctor Strange, and I love that.
Again, in getting to why I think I got the job, I think it's my genuine love for that that was somehow connected to what, I didn't know it at the time, Marvel wanted the movie to be. And when I came in, I talked about Doctor Strange in those terms, and for me that's the only way I could make the movie. That and I had set-piece ideas already about how to make the movie as visually weird in this day and age as the Ditko comics were at their time.
Question: Is there a sense of humor to it as well?
SD: Yeah. It's Benedict, how can it not be funny?
Question: By playing it straight it's funny, or is he--?
SD: Yeah, I mean, he is a funny guy. And there's funny lines in the script. There's comedy in it. But it's not GUARDIANS. It's not that tone, by any means. It's closer to WINTER SOLDIER, which has comedy in it and has some really funny moments in it. I just named my two favorite Marvel movies by the way. And part of my love for WINTER SOLDIER is the high-impact, grounded nature of the action in that movie, and the subversive grounded ideas of that movie within what is just one of the great kickass action movies. That's what I love about WINTER SOLDIER in a nutshell. So we have a lot of humor spread throughout, but it is a very grounded, realistic movie about a guy who suffers a lot and transforms. So it's also very dramatic. Yeah.
Question: We heard a little bit about some of the weapons and artifacts and how deeply connected they are because they work in certain dimensions, and that's about all we heard. So what can you tell us about that, and how much of those are being pulled right out of the comics? Because obviously, the Eye of Agamotto is there.
SD: Yeah. There was a lot of discussion about how much to use, because you can obviously get into an overload of those things. But I think the HARRY POTTER movies are proof that audiences love that stuff. They love the idea of magical objects and they like learning the rules of those objects and what they do. I think everything that we do—all the names of everything and all the things that we use in the movie are drawn from the comics. I can't think of one at least offhand that's not drawn from the comics.
Question: [Someone mentions the object attached to the belts of most of the sorcerers that clasps to their fingers and aides them in forming gateways]
SD: That okay, there's that yeah. Well done. But the forming of the gateways that are used for that, that's straight out of the comics. Yeah. I just needed an object for them to carry it on.
Question: You're sitting in a room full of people who are like professional nerds.
Question: And a number of us had to look up your main antagonist, Kaecilius, in this movie.
SD: I love that.
Question: He is a not-very-well-known character. Can you talk about the decision to use that character, and why you guys ended up there and what to expect from?
SD: Yes. I don't know how much I can't give away about this, so what I'll say is that I'm going to answer with a tease. Is that fair? What we wanted was a character that was rooted in the real. This is certainly what I was pitching from the beginning, an antagonist who was rooted in the real world so that there could be an intimate relate-ability between Strange and his adversary, but who was empowered by something else, by something otherworldly. And connected to something else otherworldly, which comes straight from the comics. And I'll say this, it’s another character straight from the comics.
That became interesting to me. I always loved the Sauron-Saruman idea in LORD OF THE RINGS, even though you never see Sauron, except I think in the prologue. I think that's the only time you ever see him in that trilogy, but what a presence and what a power. And we do more than that with this other-dimensional power. I like that idea. So that Strange wasn’t combating something huge and fantastical all the way through the movie that had no human relate-ability. Every version of that that we would visit felt strained and felt like too high of a bar. That we wouldn't clear that bar given everything else that we had to establish in the movie. Does that make sense? And I think it's working really well.
And the thing I'll say about Kaecilius, my favorite thing about him is that he is a man of ideas. And that's what’s 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 this extraordinary things and is so scary, but the scariest scene is the ride into the desert when he articulates why. I got terrified, I felt nauseous watching that movie, because I was like “Oh my God, he makes sense. Oh my God, how can this be?” It was that watertight logic of what he says. Same thing with The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. The watertight logic of his anarchistic philosophy in that hospital bedside scene with Harvey Dent. It’s awesome. I'm not saying our villain is as great as John Doe or as Heath Ledger's Joker, but he is a man of ideas, and to me that's what makes villains compelling.
Question: You mentioned your passion for the character and his history, but you guys all seem to be making some interesting evolutions in storytelling in terms of the characters of Wong and Baron Mordo. Can you talk a little about the decision there to have them not playing their typical comic book roles?
SD: Yeah, in the case of Mordo, in the comic books, that character was just really arch, and he's in the origin issue, and even in reading through—and I've read the entire body of Doctor Strange now—it was a very difficult character to adapt, because of the very basic archness that he plays all the way through there. So we wanted to keep what were the interesting aspects of him, his relationship with The Ancient One, but the only way that Mordo, who needs to be a presence in the universe of Doctor Strange and God willing in sequels, I felt that we had to start by establishing who he was before he got into that arch villainy in the comics.
And that's a lot of what we're doing in this movie, building a foundational understanding of who he was before the guy that you met in that comic, so that that turn isn't an arch turn. Wong is another thing altogether, because it's a racial stereotype. Let's be blunt about it. As is The Ancient One. But Wong even more than The Ancient One was a character that there just wasn't a lot that was fundamental about his character that was usable. So instead of being a sidekick, he's a master of the mystic arts. Instead of being a manservant, he oversees the library at Kamar-Taj and is an intellectual mentor to Strange. So we kind of flipped everything that he was.
And that's where it's related to the comics in that we took the things that were, in retrospect, insulting and elevated them in the same way. And that became suddenly “Ah, this is a great character.” And that seemed to work and has relate-ability only in that we basically inversed what his character was and then kept the name, kept him Chinese. Other than that, that's about it I think, to be honest. All right, thanks so much.