Already an acknowledged master of tautly constructed and tightly budgeted horror films like “Sinister” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” filmmaker Scott Derrickson found himself entering a whole new dimension when he was tapped to helm Marvel Comics’ fabled Master of the Mystic Arts’ first foray onto the big screen.
But like Stephen Strange, Derrickson’s skills proved equal to the task: “Doctor Strange,” as personified by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, proved a fresh new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, garnering widespread critical acclaim and generating colossal box office grosses.
As the film approaches its digital debut on Feb. 14 and its subsequent bow on Blu-Ray and DVD on Feb.28, Derrickson joined CBR for a look back at the influences and inspirations that fueled his vision for the character’s epic origin, the elements he held back for further exploration in future films, and the change in philosophical mindset he adopted to take on his largest-scale filmmaking challenge to date.
CBR: Once audiences got a chance to see “Doctor Strange,” what was your takeaway from their reaction? For so long you’re working in a bit of a void, and I’m curious about what was intriguing to you in terms of what the fans had to say once they got a chance to see the movie?
Scott Derrickson: That’s a pretty incisive question. I don’t know that I really have an answer for you, because I kind of put the blinders on, once I saw that the reviews were all positive, I didn’t read them. I just saw it was 90-something percent on Rotten Tomatoes and the box office was huge. At that point, I just kind of turned it off and tried to not pay too much attention to it for my own, I think, mental and emotional health.
So I don’t know: I can only assume, and based on some of the Twitter feedback, that people got an experience that went beyond their expectations, and that was always the idea. It was to create characters that they cared about, that had ideas that had some weight and some significance, and that would be a visceral experience beyond what they’d experienced before in a movie. It seems, based on what little feedback I have paid attention to, it seems like that happened.
Whenever the Blu-ray comes out, it’s a chance to pull back the curtain a little bit on the magic tricks of filmmaking. So what are you excited for the fans of the film to be able to get to see about your creative process, or in the scenes that didn’t quite make the final cut? What are you happy to be able to show them right now?
Certainly, it’s going to be an interesting exploration. I don’t know what all is on the DVD, and I haven’t seen the extras and that sort of thing. But I’m sure there’s going to be plenty in there about the visual effects, about the nature of those sequences. There really was a lot of innovation, a lot of bold attempts to do something new. So seeing how a lot of that was done, that’ll be interesting for sure.
I think in the end people will, if the extras and the behind the scenes stuff are thorough enough, see how it doesn’t just take a village, it takes a small city of people to make a movie like this, and the collaborative process of it, and the genuine enthusiasm that everybody brought into the creative process is what made the movie good. Everybody kind of caught the vision and caught the fire, and constantly contributed originality and quality to the movie in a way that went beyond anything I’ve experienced for sure.
One of the things I really enjoy about the movie is that it is a self-contained story, but you also allowed yourself some delayed gratification for the road ahead, not using Mordo as the primary villain here for example, or not really yet exploring the full status quo of Stephen Strange as the Sorcerer Supreme. What was fun about knowing that Doctor Strange’s story was likely going to go on, and figuring out what part of that story you were going to tell in this single movie?
I had learned a lot watching comic book movies over the years. There’s very few exceptions to the rule that you cannot create an extraordinary character and an extraordinary villain that are fully formed and fully fleshed out in the same movie. There’s just not enough real estate. The Green Goblin was a good villain in the first “Spider-Man,” but still not nearly as fleshed out as Doc Ock. Same is true with Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker in the “Batman” franchise.
So I was aware of that, and I knew that the emphasis needed to be on telling Strange’s story. It was a story about one man’s journey. It was ultimately a mind trip action movie about one man overcoming himself.
I felt it would be a disservice to try to give Mordo his early villainous presence like the comics did, and that if he was going to be an interesting three-dimensional villain, you had to get to know who he was before that first. I always felt satisfied with that decision. I love the moral complexities that he wrestles with in his moral structure and rigidity, which ultimately becomes his undoing, that he has no moral flexibility, and that sort of causes him to snap. I thought all that was really interesting.
The main emphasis was always keeping our eyes on the character of Strange. I know that that’s where the audience was going to want to be. There, and in the craziness of the dimensional worlds that the movie was opening up the MCU.
How much ownership do you hope to maintain, either over the character Doctor Strange specifically and what happens next with him, or even just the entire magical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Is it one? Is it both? Are you still deciding?
I hope to do a sequel for it, because I think that character I love and understand. The magical, mystical nature of his multiverse is also something that I understand have ideas how to expand.
In terms of the character in the MCU and being present in other movies, I have no say, no interest in having any say. I trust those filmmakers implicitly to make good use of him. The more they use him, the better in my opinion.
I ran into your screenwriter Jon Spaihts at a premiere a few weeks back. He was telling me some of the other characters in the “Doctor Strange” canon that intrigued him, like Nightmare and Clea. What’s got you excited, and what characters that you did address are you also interested in expanding the story? Obviously Mordo is one, but who else in the “Doctor Strange” mythology is enticing to you, now that you’ve got a bigger playing field?
I can’t answer that question. I can’t answer that question at this time. I definitely have my opinions. I have my strong opinions. I don’t want to voice them at this time. It’s premature. Sorry.
That’s okay. In your visual inspiration, we see a lot of, obviously, Steve Ditko on the screen. I’m curious about the other sources that sparked your imagination, both from comics, maybe other “Doctor Strange” artists after Ditko, and outside of comics – I see a little Escher in there. Where did the other visual inspirations come from?
The inspirations that came from later comics, it was “The Oath” and “Into Shamballa.” Those two graphic novels were probably the most influential, both in story for “The Oath,” and in visuals “Into Shamballa.”
I think that in terms of other source material, yeah, definitely Escher. The whole idea of the New York mirror dimension chase, the goal and ambition of that was, what would a chase scene be like if it was inside an M.C. Escher painting? That was kind of our target idea on that. Surrealist art, Dali being an obvious inspiration. A lot of contemporary surrealist photography, which is really bold and exploratory, and does things with tactile, realistic, modern imagery, and turning them into surrealistic images.
In terms of cinema, I just looked at a lot of movies that were bold, visceral experiences for me that were not rooted in physical destruction like most tentpole movies. Jodorowsky’s movies, his films “Holy Mountain” and “El Topo.” “Enter the Void” I looked at, just for the bold psychedelia of it. Obviously, “Inception” was a starting point for us with the mirror dimension chase. I think we’re standing on the shoulders of that movie, but not really taking anything from it. To me, it was the tip of a very interesting visual effects iceberg, that movie, and I was trying to plunge deep into the iceberg and do something far more surreal, and psychedelic, and crazy.
I listened to almost nothing but late 60s psychedelic rock the entire time I worked on “Doctor Strange.” I think that when you fill your head with that music every day, and I would even listen to it on set. It does put a zap on your brain and get your mind into some pretty exploratory spaces. So those are the hard influences, I think.
You were convinced early on about how right for the part Benedict was. How did he surprise you in the making of it? What things did he bring that you weren’t anticipating that you were pleased with?
I wasn’t anticipating how good and un-troublesome his American accent would be. He was coming straight off of “Hamlet.” He was doing “Hamlet” I think two or three nights before starting to shoot “Doctor Strange.” He just walked on and did a perfect American accent. He had a vocal coach who was there, whose ear was very attuned to those things, but she very rarely had to correct him on anything. He just came in and nailed that.
I think the two biggest surprises were really good ones. One of them was his work ethic, and how prepared he was, how disciplined he was all the way through the last takes of the day. That was a pleasant surprise, because you just don’t really ever know with actors if they’re going to be complainers or be demanding, and he just wasn’t.
But I think the biggest, most pleasant surprise was his physical agility – and I had an instinct this would be the case, but boy, did he prove it to be true beyond my hope or expectation. He’s an action star. He really knows how to use his own body. He does so well. Those fight scenes are him. Of course, he had a stunt double, but he did everything he could possibly do without risking getting himself hurt.
And a lot of times, I would have to force him off the set. I’d be like, “You’re not doing that shot. You’re not going to do it. Sorry, you’re not going to do it.” Because I would be afraid that he’d get hurt. He was game for doing pretty much everything. There’s a lot of wire work, a lot of fights. He got punched and kicked and gouged plenty, because that’s what happens when you do those scenes. He was good at it. He’s an action star. And he hadn’t done that before. What other better surprise could there be than him being actually really good at it?
What was the big takeaway from this experience for you as a filmmaker? Walking out of it, thinking, “Okay, this is a big lesson that I learned that I’m going to carry forward – not just necessarily to another “Doctor Strange” movie, but to every movie I make?”
I knew that making a movie this size, the short answer is I learned to be more fluid. My notebook that was my notes, every director kind of carries their little black notebook to write their own notes in, write their own thoughts in as they’re working, and the one that I carried had Bruce Lee’s Taoist symbol that a man should be water on it. Because I knew that in order to do this well, I had to be water. I had to be very fluid, and sort of flow with the changes that would inevitably come, and with a willingness to radically do things, or change things, or cut things, as I was working, and to be constantly reshaping the movie to be the best thing that it could be.
You don’t make low budget films that way. You can’t. “Sinister” only worked as a film because I was extraordinarily rigid and disciplined, and shot exactly only what I needed to shoot, because I had to make that movie in 22 days. With this one, it was the flexibility. I learned to be really flexible.
I also learned the value of working with creative people who care mostly about the quality of the movie, and that’s what those Marvel folks are. There’s only really a handful of them that I dealt with. Four of them. They’re all artists, and none of them have big egos. If you check your ego at the door, and the studio works with you without ego, you can do amazing things. The whole process becomes a joy.
Tell me your first impression of Doctor Strange from the first time you were exposed to the character, that one thing you wanted to carry through in bringing into the big screen. That certain essence that hit you as a kid when you first found him.
It’s a really good question. It’s two things: one, the weirdness of other dimensions. That’s probably first and foremost. I think that’s probably, for most people who latch on to “Doctor Strange,” it was so much weirder than other comics. It was just so much more imaginative.
You read those Lee/Ditko comics now, and even after all this time, and even after the movie has been made, I can still go back and read all those early “Strange” tales, and the early first iterations of the “Doctor Strange” comics, and still be amazed at how innovative it is, and how it’s still state of the art. So that was the first thing.
And the second thing was, really, what is the final image of the movie: Doctor Strange, the lonely iconic figure in the Sanctum Sanctorum. I think I was always really struck by the loneliness that this figure who stands between our world and other dimensions, and stands alone, and places himself in a position of, not a public notoriety, he’s not Spider-Man who everybody talks about.
He’s just put himself in a really odd, lonely position, and that lonely iconic view of him against the window, Sanctum Sanctorum, for years as I thought about “Doctor Strange,” that’s always the first thing that comes to my mind. That’s who Doctor Strange is. So the fact that that’s the image that we leave at the end of the movie, it just had to be that in my mind, because that’s who he is.