Earlier today, Marvel Studios kicked off the global promotional tour for Doctor Strange with their Asia press junket in Hong Kong. President Kevin Feige was in attendance, together with director Scott Derrickson, but all eyes were on the film’s two stars: Tilda Swinton and Dr. Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch.
During the press conference, the panel was quizzed on an array of topics, from the technical to the ludicrous, but a few interesting tidbits were gleaned - not least Cumberbatch’s eagerness to branch into the action realm, and Derrickson’s unbridled passion for the material, its themes and challenges.
Asked about casting the film, Feige was quick to convey the studio’s enthusiasm for Cumberbatch. “Our guiding principle is always to find the best actor you can for the role, and for many years Benedict was our number one choice. In fact we moved the schedule and the release around specifically for Benedict, which we’ve never done before. But he’s clearly perfect for Dr. Strange.”
When the first trailer dropped back in April, the film immediately came under fire for casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, traditionally a male Tibetan character. While not asked directly about the decision for the change, Derrickson was quick to justify Swinton’s casting.
“I specifically wrote the role for Tilda,” said the director, who penned the screenplay with his Sinister writing partner C. Robert Cargill. “I told Kevin, before we even approached her, if she turned down the role we’d have to rewrite the script, because it was so tailored to Tilda.” From the way Derrickson describes the character, he may have a point. “The Ancient One is a very complex character - enigmatic, ethereal, androgynous. We wanted an actress who could come in and bring the complexity of that character.”
Swinton, when discussing her role, seemed more taken by the sheer scale of the production. “I would say it was the same approach to any film, but it’s a Marvel film,” she enthused. “And there was something about stepping in front of the camera that felt, you know. There was a question in my mind: What kind of film are we making? We’re making a Marvel movie. That was completely unique and thrilling every time.”
After 13 films, billions of box office dollars, and near universal acclaim since the series’ inception, a new Marvel movie might seem like a sure thing, especially after the success of lesser known titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. But Doctor Strange brings something new to the table that none of its predecessors have yet attempted - magic. When asked about the perceived difference between magic and superpowers, Derrickson had a pretty solid response:
“In superhero comics and movies there’s always a necessity to explain where superpowers come from. You understand Tony Stark gets his ability through technology or where Captain America gets his power from. You look at any superhero and you’ll probably find some kind of scientific or realistic explanation. Magic, by definition, is mysterious. It taps into things we don’t fully understand, which is what makes it spellbinding and powerful. And that’s why I’m always drawn to it, because stories about the fantastical and the supernatural tap into our own sense of awe and all the mysterious things in the world we don’t understand. Those are the stories I like to tell.”
Perhaps not since Thor has the introduction of a new character into the MCU demanded such an adjustment of audience perception as to what kind of world these characters are living in. Dr. Stephen Strange transforms from a narcissistic neurosurgeon into an all-powerful sorcerer who operates across different dimensions, or "multiverses" over the course of the film, after studying under Swinton's mystical guru.
In Cumberbatch’s own words: “He is a very smart, very intelligent, but also arrogant man. And he has his entire world turned upside down in a car crash, both physically and mentally. It’s the destruction of him in order to create something new. He had healing in his hands, but what he discovers through meeting The Ancient One, and trying to heal, is that the great power he has is something within, that goes beyond our world.”
Cumberbatch talked at length about the physicality of his role, “on wires for the fight sequences, and running - a lot of running,” as well as spending inordinate amounts of time strapped into a large mechanical arm, “an odd way to go to work”. Swinton also seemed to get excited when talking about her action scenes: “A fair bit of running around, a fair bit of fighting with two fans - the fighting was a great thrill.”
But while Cumberbatch would often slip into modest self-deprecation about his efforts, or defer praise onto the crew, Derrickson was quick to sing his lead actor’s praises. “When I think about the production, a lot of what comes to mind is Benedict being in physical pain, having to perform in situations where he’s sparring or fighting, and getting hit or kicked, because that’s what happens on this kind of movie when you do your own fight scenes. It’s very physically demanding and he was a total trooper and just got better and better as he went along. He’s definitely an action star in this movie.”
Cumberbatch is less dramatic, though no less enthusiastic, about playing a full blown action hero. “It was a new step up for me. When you’re in a very big film, you just try to live moment by moment, day by day. That means working on the script, which was absolutely fantastic. You find out what your character’s intentions are, where you are in the story, what scene you’re shooting and you go about fulfilling the tasks of the day.”
But his passion and understanding for Strange, especially in portraying his origin, is clearly evident. “To play that part, there were countless different stages. The confident man at the beginning, the broken man after the accident, and then this slow build into a Marvel superhero. While that was hard, it was the most enjoyable ride I’ve been on.”
When it comes to bringing the 14th MCU film to the screen, Feige is in no doubt where the unique challenges lay: “Doing justice to the amazing visuals of artist Steve Ditko, who drew the early Dr Strange books. They were so influential for us and figuring out how to translate and reinterpret that to the big screen was the biggest challenge.”
Derrickson continues: “My love for Doctor Strange was rooted in two things, the origin story of this guy who transforms through tragedy and suffering, and second is the psychedelic imagery, that late 60s crazy visual splendour of those early Ditko comics. The starting point for us was not just to be loyal to those, but to be loyal to the attitude of those comics, which was to create visual images that were not just about mass destruction, but about mind-bending alternate realities. I remember in the development process with our production designer Charlie Wood deciding 'Let’s go all the way. Let’s just go with whatever crazy things we can imagine.' And once we started to go well beyond what the other movies had done in the past, we started to get into territory that was very exciting.”
The conversation inevitably turned to audience expectation, and whether Cumberbatch was feeling the pressure that comes with taking on a beloved role, something the Sherlock star has had more than a little experience with already. “These films are driven by the comic book fans, so it’s very important to us that the fans are thrilled and their expectations are met, and most importantly that they are exceeded. Thankfully we have a studio boss who is also a massive fanboy. There’s nothing this man does not know about the original comics.”
Tilda Swinton, after extolling the “magical mystery ride” quality of Marvel films, added on a reassuring note, “The most important thing for fans to know is that these movies are made by super-fans...they’re in very safe hands.”
Doctor Strange opens in Hong Kong on 27 October and in the US on 4 November.