Interview | ‘Doctor Strange’ SPOILERS With Screenwriter Jon Spaihts
How do you tell a story like Doctor Strange? The answer isn’t necessarily an easy one. The Marvel superhero, created in 1963 by Steve Ditko, is a modern day surgeon who falls into the world of timeless magic after his hands are injured in an accident. Along the way he expands his mind and his horizons, venturing into strange new realms and warping reality itself to his will. It’s the sort of superhuman origin story that many moviegoers will find familiar, especially after nearly a decade of Marvel Studios movies, but tucked inside a psychedelic freakout.
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts was tasked, along with Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, with bringing Doctor Strange to life for the first time since the 1978 TV movie that nobody remembers, and it was a whopper of a job. Doctor Strange had to tell a coherent and engaging story while not just fitting into, but also adding brand new elements to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a tricky job and we’re not going to be able to talk about how he did it without delving into SERIOUS SPOILER TERRITORY.
I’m not kidding. Although we don’t talk about everything (Jon Spaihts was sticking to a strict schedule, so we only had ten minutes with him) we do talk about huge plot points that have a major impact on Doctor Strange himself, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We talk about events that could lead to major developments in the (seemingly inevitable) sequel, and how Jon Spaihts thinks those sequels might play out. And we even talk about what looks like a pretty big plot hole in the film, and what audiences aren’t seeing that might make that part of Doctor Strange make a little more sense.
So don’t read this interview unless you’ve already seen Doctor Strange. But if you already have, enjoy!
Crave: When you were brought on board to Doctor Strange, was there a script yet? Was there an idea yet? Where was the project at?
Jon Spaihts: Blank page.
Walked into the room. Scott Derrickson, Kevin Feige, executive producer Stephen Broussard of Marvel, and the four of us just started talking. It truly was a blue sky story breaking process. We were not even married to doing the origin story at that time. We talked over the pros and cons. There was the concern about the repetition of origin stories and their inevitable parellel structure. We talked about possible arch-villains and nemeses. In the end, the sterling dramatic quality of the Doctor Strange’s canonical origin drew us in. It’s just a phenomenal origin story and, I think, the best in comics.
Was there a concern, specifically, about the relationship to Iron Man? Because in addition to having similar facial hair this is also the story of a brilliant scientific mind, who gets his comeuppance and becomes a hero. There’s a superficial similarity there. Was that a specific concern?
No, actually. I agree that there is a similarity there, especially in comics, where different artists draw different people. I’ve certainly seen comics where they’re visually indistinguishable from one another, and Tony Stark and Stephen Strange have that in common, just in different domains. But in the end just sort of told the story as it needed to be told. We gave it its own head and the differentiation of those two characters emerged naturally from the differences in their worlds, in their journeys, and of course the actors’ performances.
Outside of the story, Doctor Strange of course takes place in a larger cinematic universe, and this film introduces a couple of new elements that feel very important. There’s the multiverse. You also have the Infinity Stone, the Time Stone. Were those things where everyone went, “We want to get this involved in the narrative?” Was the concept of magic being involved with the multiverse part of the original concept?
Yes, and in fact the multiverse is a deeply embedded part of Doctor Strange’s body of storytelling. He’s constantly moving through multiple universes. So certainly the desire to explore the multiverse was always present, and we did receive some guidance from Kevin Feige in the early going that Mr. Strange would be manipulating time in this story, that there was a reason for that.
So you had to work around that somehow. You had to find some way to manipulate time.
Yeah, that it was going to be a core mechanic. And Scott Derrickson, reacting to that, had a couple of notions in mind. In particular he wanted to find some action sequence in which we’d see our heroes fighting forward through backward-flowing time. He didn’t know how or where that was going to happen, but he wanted that to be happening. Situating that in the reverse collapse of a skyscraper and an urban disaster was my addition to that piece.
That was a really cool piece, and I hadn’t seen that before. And that’s something else you get to do in Doctor Strange. He’s not limited to physics in a way that other heroes are. Does that make it easier to concoct set pieces around him, or does that make it more difficult?
Both. It is beautiful to have the liberty to mess with the rules of reality but it is also very dangerous because the minute it starts to feel like to the audience like anything can happen at any time, they disengage. The story stops having stakes. So the important line to walk is to show them consistent rules and vulnerabilities so that they understand when someone can be hurt, when someone could be killed, where the dangers actually lie. But also, to blow their minds as much as you can by showing them new axes and dimensions of physical action.
In the comics, The Ancient One comes back on multiple occasions in a spectral or ghost form. Had you toyed with that idea, or is that something you’d maybe want to explore in future sequels? Or does that break it again, and now there are no consequences?
I think it is important to let a death be a death and to honor that. The death of The Ancient One is not a gimmick or a trick. It’s a real loss.
The Ancient One is always a problematic figure in the world of Doctor Strange, because by persisting as a former Sorcerer Supreme and the teacher and mentor of Doctor Strange, he always presents in the comics a figure who presumably should be as powerful as Doctor Strange, or as potent. And yet he’s constantly getting in trouble and needing to be bailed out by Doctor Strange. He’s always in danger and Doctor Strange is rescuing him. So he’s a kind of impotent father figure, I think, in a lot of the later Doctor Strange stories.
There’s a cleanliness in setting The Ancient One aside, particularly given the very compact footprint of films. We don’t get to tell many hours of story in a number of movies. But as you say, this is also a character centuries-old who exists multiple dimensions, so many things are possible. It certainly would encourage people to speculate rashly about what might happen in the future.
Were you part of the decision-making process to make The Ancient One a woman?
No. I was present when that choice was made but casting ultimately fell to the director and the bigwigs at Marvel.
Did that change the way the character was written?
[Thinks.] A little, but only in subtle ways. The Ancient One was still The Ancient One and did all the Ancient One stuff. The subtle consequences of the change were on the emotional level. Suddenly, The Ancient One and her wayward disciples felt a little more like a family, and in the headstrong but brilliant Kaecilius, and Mordo, and Strange, it was easy to see three brothers with different fates, all of whom loved and rebelled and against their mother. It began to feel a little more like a story of family to me and I thought that was a beautiful emotional resonance.
I really liked the character of Kaecilius, because I feel like too many supervillains – even in Marvel movies – have rather straightforward motivations. His are very understandable, very genuine. He doesn’t want to die and he’s kind of insulted that he has to.
Right but it’s even more high-minded than that. He does want ANYONE to die. So like a philosopher he extends his own desire to go on living, not to perish, to the larger principle that death is a thing to be opposed and that perhaps there’s a way around it. It’s a bit of a truism in good storytelling that the villain should be a hero of his own story, but I think that is uncommonly true of Kaecilius.
We see an interesting parallel between Doctor Strange and Kaecilius. Obviously, Doctor Strange isn’t just a doctor, he’s actually pursuing the most extraordinary feats he can perform in order to save people. Kaecilius is doing basically the same thing.
He’s making all kinds of sacrifices.
They’re both jousting with death, just on different stages.
One thing I was a little confused by was, based on the chronology of the film, it does seem like Doctor Strange was able to translate that material a heck of a lot faster than Kaecilius was. He steals the page and kind of vanishes for a while. Was that altered somewhat? Maybe the editing makes it look like it’s taking place over a longer period of time…?
There was more language about this than the final edit of the film permitted, but there is the notion that the rituals actually require decoding, and that while Strange has gained insight by reading those pages and he’s seen how certain mechanisms employed by The Ancient One might have played out, he hasn’t run the whole gauntlet that Kaecilius has done, that would allow him to speed-dial Dormammu and open the door to the cosmos. So he’s in the foothills and the mountains that Kaecilius has spent a year of seclusion ascending.
At the end of the film, correct me if I’m wrong, but Doctor Strange is not currently The Sorcerer Supreme?
That is correct.
Is anyone Sorcerer Supreme right now or is that something we’d have to explore in future installments?
I believe the Earth at that time has no Sorcerer Supreme. The “Sorcerer Supremacy,” as an idea, means different things at different times over the course of the comics canon. At times it’s a thing you win in a tournament. At times it’s a thing that naturally devolves upon whoever happens to be strongest in the world. At times it’s more like a title that is awarded, like an honor. So to some extent the Cinematic Universe will have to decide what version of that doctrine it is embracing. But I think there is a kind of supernatural inheritance and responsibility that comes with accepting the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme and being the official protector of the world.
So you think there’s some sort of moral element? In the comics, you’ll recall that Doctor Doom was almost Sorcerer Supreme, just because he was that good at it.
So it’s not necessarily, in that instance, a matter of character.
No, it’s more a matter of being heavyweight champion.
So you think in the Cinematic Universe there would have to be an element of character. In your opinion.
That’s a good question. I would lean in the direction that it would come with both powers and obligations.
I would love to see – surprise! – it’s Wong.
I like that.
Ten Psychedelic Films To Watch After ‘Doctor Strange’
Top Photo: Marvel Studios
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.