Highlights From Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE Press Conference
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the press conference for Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios' newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can read my full review here, but in short, the movie does a great job of balancing a relatively familiar origin story with the most dazzling visuals we've seen in a Marvel film yet. It comes out on November 4th, but in the meantime, I joined a handful of other journalists to speak with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, director Scott Derrickson, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, and Rachel McAdams about the magical new entry into the MCU.
On why now is the right time for a Doctor Strange movie:
Feige: It’s something we’ve been talking about for many, many, many years, and sometimes things just work out. Timing is often — particularly in the cinematic universe — works out well for us, and it’ll be our fourteenth film in the MCU. 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. And also tapping into other dimensions, and tapping into the sort of supernatural realm of the Marvel comic universe is going to come in handy as we move forward throughout the cinematic universe, so the timing is perfect.
Derrickson: Kevin’s the one who green lights the movies, so he’s the official answer. I think that the span of the comics and growing up with the comics, Doctor Strange was a product of the ‘60s and a big breath of fresh air into the world of comics at that time. As a fan watching the movies, I felt ready for some new, daring left turns in the world of comic books and the MCU. I think Guardians of the Galaxy was that, and I was so pleasantly surprised when I saw how bold that movie was. So when I came in to meet on Doctor Strange, my approach was, “Let’s make this as weird in the MCU as the comic book was in the comic book world in the ’60s,” and that’s what we tried to do.
Swinton: If anything, maybe more than ever, we need to concentrate on opening our minds…There’s something really radical that’s said in this film, which is that ego and fear are things we can move beyond. And let’s face it — this is a hot topic. We need people to remind us right now that ego and fear are not necessarily the only option we can live through. This is such a modern film for that reason. I would say that’s the reason why it’s perfect that it’s made now, because the time is really right for it.
Cumberbatch: It’s about mindfulness, in a sense. Culturally, we’re still referencing that era [of the 1960s]. We always will, it was a very strong moment in all culture. I think you have to reinvent the wheel slightly, you can’t just replicate it. This is a film for now, but I think like Tilda was saying, the strongest idea is that you, with your mind, have the power to change reality. That’s a great, wonderful, freeing, ego-less message.
On the biggest challenge of the movie:
Derrickson: The challenge was to try to make a movie that is as visually progressive by movie standards as the Ditko art was in the ’60s. Our primary source of inspiration was the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics, and that artwork is still progressive. You look at a lot of the panels in the comics, that was our primary source of inspiration, and visual effects had just caught up to where we could do some of the things we did in this movie. I think the trick of it was to not hold back and to push ourselves as far as possible to do original things with the set pieces. I remember in some of my early meetings saying that my goal was for every set piece in the movie to be the weirdest set piece in any other movie. Each one of them would be uniquely odd and unusual and refreshing. That comes out of movie fandom more than anything else, because that’s what I want to see. I want to see event movies that use visual effects for more than just mass destruction, but get more creative with them and find new ways to give me as an audience member some kind of visceral experience that’s unique. Because movies can do that — be memorable and feel the way you feel about cinema in general. I don’t know if we achieved that, but it was certainly the goal to push ourselves into something new, something fresh, so the audience would be genuinely surprised and get their money’s worth.
On pushing the limits of visual effects, and whether anyone at the studio ever told them to pull it back a little bit:
Feige: We just kept pushing forward and our amazing effects team, led by Steph Ceretti, did a great job. Scott was in there until the bitter end, until about 12:30 am the day before we got on a plane to Hong Kong for the first junket.
Derrickson: Yeah, because we moved the schedule for Benedict, we had a shorter post-production schedule than we wanted. But to Kevin and Louis D’Esposito’s credit, we hired more vendors to start all at once than you normally had. So we had a lot of stuff coming in at the same time. But that was one of the most creatively rewarding parts of the whole process. Not just to think about weird, bizarre images, but to try to think about what can’t be done. The final sequence of the movie was the result of me just thinking about, “Well, what can’t you do?” This idea of a fight scene going forward while the city’s undestroyed backwards. Well, that’s impossible. Great, let’s do it! So we designed the scene, then we storyboard out things with the pre-vis team and get it all down and how it looked, and then we figured out how to make it. The same thing with what we call the Magical Mystery Tour, the whole mind trip scene. It was about drawing out every single shot, some of it being impossible to do, and the result was the visual effects vendors has to help us figure out how do we do this, because it is unprecedented and it had never been done before. Some of those ideas didn’t work. Sometimes we would try things and we were overshooting, but me, personally, I felt like everyday I got up and went to work and thought, “Somebody’s going to come knock on my door and say, ‘You’ve gotta back off. This is getting too weird.’” And it never happened. Marvel was completely behind the idea of pushing the boundaries of what the set piece of a movie can be, and that was always the goal.
On casting Cumberbatch in the lead role, and how the rest of the cast feel about being involved in the MCU:
Derrickson: Kevin and I talked about who we wanted in the role, and we landed on Benedict pretty quickly and felt like he was right. I flew to London, met with him, explained the movie, I think I had some of my concept art at that point, and Benedict really wanted to do it, but he was doing Hamlet in the theater in London, and we were a summer release movie, so it wasn’t going to work. So we came back and I met with a bunch of other actors, good actors, but I just felt like it had to be Benedict. And Kevin, to his credit, agreed, so we pushed the schedule for him.
Cumberbatch: It’s incredibly flattering and a weight of responsibility as well. It’s a great motivator to try to do a good job.
McAdams: I was just thrilled because of this incredible track record, because you know so much care and attention and consideration is going into it before you’ve even begun, and that you’re going to get to work with the best of the best in the world at what they do, so it’s like a treasure trove of talent, and I couldn’t wait to dive into that.
Swinton: I keep saying it’s a bit like being invited to join the circus. You get invited to be the bearded lady 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 ponies and their plumes. The reason that feels like a correct way to describe it is that everybody is so psyched. Even the Sorcerer Supreme, Kevin Feige, is just the super fan of super fans, and he’s the master of the big top. It just feels like such a lucky break for everybody who’s working in that circus.
Wong: Absolutely. I’m so thrilled to be a part of this. Growing up as a kid, I was always collecting Marvel comics, especially Spider-Man comics, and it’s just lovely to see my investment as a child [has paid off].
Mikkelsen: For someone who grew up with the comic books, basically for half of my life I was reading comic books, and the other half I was watching Bruce Lee. So when Scott was pitching the story to me, I think ten minutes within the pitch, he said, “and there’s a lot of kung fu, and flying and stuff.” And I said, “Whoa, hold on. Rewind. The kung fu bit. I’m in.” It’s a childhood dream come true. It’s just amazing at the age of 108 to be able to fly around —
Cumberbatch: He doesn’t move like 108-year-old, I can tell you that.
Mikkelsen: (laughs) So it was a dream come true. Something as a kid, you were looking at and never thought you would be up there, but you identified with characters. So it’s a big honor to be here.
Tilda Swinton talks about the precise hand movements required for her role:
Swinton: That hand choreography is a thing called tutting, and we had a proper master working with us for weeks, I’d say. Just as much as we were learning martial arts, we were learning how to tut with “J-Funk,” who is somewhere here, possibly, but if he’s not, you should go on YouTube and look up J-Funk, because he really knows how to do it and he’s got properly magic fingers, not like ours. Real, non-CGI fingers. He taught us a series of extraordinary, very precise movements which have to be super precise. You have to be at a certain point where the line’s going to be drawn between your fingers and you can’t cover your face. Then you have to be exactly the right width so you’re in frame. It was super precise and kind of hairy.
Cumberbatch: But she was brilliant, she’s being very humble about it. She was incredibly good at it, and also she was instructing Strange at the same time. There was quite heavy dialogue while she was drawing a mandala and punching, and you did all sorts of magic.
Swinton: But it’s such fun, because you have these extraordinary VFX directors saying, “By the way, this is going to look like this,” and they’ll show you one shot, and you go, “It’s going to look like THAT?!” and they say, “Yeah, trust us. It will.” And you sort of forget that, but if you’re lucky enough, as I am, to have seen the film and seen what they did with it, it’s beyond anything they warned us it was going to be. That’s kind of why we look fairly relaxed about it, because we had no idea. I think if we’d known it was going to be so awesome, we would have been like [makes giddy face and excited noises].” (everyone laughs)
Mads Mikkelsen on how he had to justify playing Kaecilius as the film's hero in his head:
Mikkelsen: I always play all characters as a hero. I think you have to. The key to any good villain, which I think was very clear in this script, is that they have a point. It’s not completely crazy what they’re saying. They have a point. Even in Doctor Strange’s eyes, he does believe I have a point. Even though it’s far-fetched. I think that’s the key for a villain. You have to have something for the audience to identify with, so he doesn’t just go ballistic and say, “I’m going to take over the world because I can.” There’s a reason…we tried to make him a man who believes what he’s talking about, like Jonestown. Somebody who believes utterly in the words that he says.
Cumberbatch on whether playing Strange is similar to playing Sherlock Holmes on Sherlock:
Cumberbatch: It’s slightly different. In the Venn diagram of similarities, there is the crossover of clever and arrogant, I suppose. And a workaholic. But Strange is a materialist. He’s eccentric, yes, but he’s got charm and he’s witty. He’s liked by his colleagues and has relationships with them. He’s not this sort of outsider, sociopathic, asexual…so there’s a lot of difference.
Rachel McAdams on doing research with the comics and whether she wanted to get in on the magical action in the film:
McAdams: I did read, Scott sent a few my way that I looked at. She’s sort of an amalgamation of a bunch of different characters, so there wasn’t one particular place to go to, which I was kind of excited about because she could kind of be a new invention in a way. But yeah, I looked at a lot of Nightcrawler because she’s in a lot of those. I’ve been getting up to speed with comics, I was reading Judy Blume when I was [younger], but I’ve been getting up to speed on this universe. I love graphic novels, I just devour those now, so I love the medium and I think it translates to film, it’s just a perfect matchup. But I’m still learning.
I mean, sure [I wish I could have participated in the magical elements of the movie]. Hearing Tilda talking about it now, I’m like, “I could dig that.” But my mom’s a nurse, and I did not inherit that gene, which is why I’m here right now. But I was always fascinated with 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. I was given an offer to go on an evac helicopter and do a weekend, which I am so sad I had to turn down. I’m a terrible flier, and I’m 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. In a pinch, I could probably suture someone up now. And it was so nice to wear scrubs all the time. (everyone laughs)
Kevin Feige on whether the Illuminati will show up in future movies, and when we'll see Cumberbatch suit up as Doctor Strange again on the big screen:
Feige: What’s fun about the Illuminati are other characters interacting with some other certain characters, so I don’t know about that particular storyline, but certainly some of those characters you’ll see together on the screen in the next Avengers film.
Taking it one step at a time, Benedict puts on the cloak again early next year in Avengers: Infinity War.
Doctor Strange hits theaters on November 4, 2016.