Not long ago, the cast of Marvel’s Doctor Strange assembled at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills to discuss the film. Benedict Cumberbatch (Stephen Strange), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius), Rachel McAdams (Dr. Christine Palmer), and Benedict Wong (Wong), along with Kevin Feige (Producer) and Scott Derrickson (Director), were interviewed by Access Hollywood’s Scott Mantz and answered questions from the audience.
Scott Mantz: Well, you know, now that we’re more than eight years into the MCU; what are the challenges to make these films fresh so they don’t fall into a formula, they don’t feel conventional, even by superhero standards?
Scott 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 Sixties, Our primary source of inspiration was the early Stan Lee, Steve Ditko comics, and that artwork is still progressive; you look at lot of the panels in the comics and that was our primary source of inspiration, and visual effects have just caught up to where we can do some of the things that we did in this movie. And I think that 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 I felt like that my goal was for every set piece in the movie to be the weirdest set piece in any other movie, you know. But each one of them would be uniquely odd and unusual and refreshing. And 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 sequences for more than just mass destruction, but get more creative with them and find new ways to do them and give me as an audience member some kind of visceral experience that’s unique, because the movies that do that are memorable and change the way you feel about cinema in general. And I don’t know if we achieved that but it was certainly the goal to push ourselves into something new and something fresh so that the audience would be genuinely surprised in moments and get their money’s worth, you know.
Mantz: Benedict, when you got all decked out with the cloak and looked in the mirror the first time and saw yourself as Doctor Strange, were you like, wow this is cool?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah. I was sort of giddy like a child at Halloween. It was the first moment, really, properly, and Alex, our brilliant designer who’s done a few of these films, spotted it and she went, ‘Oh, you’re having the superhero moment, aren’t you?’ I went, yeah, I think I am. It really was the penny-drop moment for me. You know, this film had lots of alluring qualities, lots of things that made me really want to go to it and this character in particular, and in particular what Scott and Kevin were pitching to me is his trajectory, his origin story and where he was going to lie within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the journey he goes on was sort of supremely important to me, and the qualities of drama, but also great humor amongst that profundity, and that oddness and unique weirdness and newness that we were going to bring visually. I’d kind of put the hero thing on the back burner, so when I first had that moment, it really was quite giddy. I just did stand up just giggling. And then the second time it really hit home was near the end of the main body of the shoot, when we were in New York we were on Fifth Avenue and there were as many paparazzi as there were crew, it was getting a little bit surreal — but we were on Fifth Avenue and running down in and sort of jumping, or skipping really, but jumping to fly, and there was the Empire State Building in the same eye line, and it was just a moment of magic to think that the men and women that first crafted these comics on the floors of that building and other buildings in that town, and there I was playing one of those characters.
Tilda Swinton: And didn’t you go into Forbidden Planet, you went into a comic book store?
Cumberbatch: I went into a comic book store, which was the last day shooting in New York and Scott was just like, look, look, it’s Forbidden Planet.
Derrickson: I have the video on my phone. I’ve never sent it to anybody but Benedict. It was a spontaneous thing. He said, there’s a comic book store right there. And he was in full costume. I said, we have to go in. And he goes, we should, shouldn’t we? I go, we’ll film it, it’ll just be us. And we were getting ready to shoot, and I said okay, and I put the camera on him and then he just said — okay, he introduced himself, he said, okay, I’m about to go into this comic book store, and I followed him in and the people who were there couldn’t believe that it was Doctor Strange. He just walked in there.
Swinton: Did you buy a Doctor Strange comic–
Derrickson: And he bought a couple Doctor Strange comics.
Cumberbatch: No, I didn’t have any money so I didn’t buy any comics. But I offered my services. I said, look, if the film doesn’t work out, I’ll come and stock the shelves for you.
Derrickson: That’s right.
Cumberbatch: Might be a bit heartbreaking, like (mimes putting books on shelves)“Doctor Strange, issue number five…oh god…”
Derrickson: Yeah, I remember the comic book store owner said that’d be fine but you had to keep your American accent if you were going to work there.
Cumberbatch: Which would have probably amused him as much as us. But yeah, and it was a magic, magic moment, no pun intended. It was very special, and utterly — like a lot of things in this film — very sort of not searched for, they came about for the right reasons, it really was the last place we were starting, the last shot of running away from Mads chasing me and there was that comic book store. It was incredible.
Mantz: Okay, I just want to speak for everyone in this room — will you
please post that?
Cumberbatch: The CCTV footage has already been posted, I’m sure of that…
Derrickson: Yeah, but I’m talking about the actual video. Can I post it? I’m asking — (looking at Feige, who shakes his head) — no, that’s a no.
Cumberbatch: That’s a no.
Mantz: That’s Benedict for no.
Cumberbatch: No. I thought it was Kevin for no. I was just looking at you.
Mantz: Okay. Actually yes.
Cumberbatch: But saying no.
PRESS: Something that I found very striking, very elegant about the film is the hand choreography in conjunction with the visual effects. Can you talk about that hand choreography and the elegance and the precision of it that was required in order to meld with the VFX?
Swinton: Well, that hand choreography is a thing called tutting. We had a proper master working with us for weeks, I would say, I mean, just as much as learning martial arts we were learning how to tutt, with Jayfunk, who is somewhere here possibly, but if he’s not you should go on YouTube and look for Jayfunk ’cause he really knows how to do it and he’s got properly magic fingers, like, you know, not like our fingers, like real non-CGI fingers. And he taught us a series of extraordinary — very precise movements which have to be super-precise because if you’re going to go like that (demonstrates gestures), you have to be at a certain point where the line is going to be drawn between your fingers and you can’t of course be in front of your face which was always my issue — I was always in front of my face with it. And then you have to be exactly the right width so that you’re in the frame, and it was super-precise and kind of hairy, but really good fun. And can we all do it now? Possibly not? Possibly not.
Benedict Wong: I’m at the lower league of hand movement.
Mads Mikkelsen: He didn’t have to do much, no.
Swinton: Yet, maybe.
Cumberbatch: I need to practice in front of a mirror first.
Swinton: Yes, we’d need to practice in front of a mirror, and J-Funk, but yeah, it was a [OVERLAPPING].
Derrickson: She’s right about blocking her face. Half of my direction to Tilda was her doing things like this and saying, ‘great, Tilda, just lower, lower, so I can see your face. Lower, okay.”
Cumberbatch: But she was brilliant. I mean, she’s being very humble about it. She was incredibly good at it. And also because she was instructing Strange at the same time. I mean, there was some quite heavy dialogue going on while she was, you know, drawing a mandala and punching energy and doing very delicate stuff. You did runes with brushes and all sorts of magic stuff which was brilliant to watch.
Swinton: But it’s such fun because you have these extraordinary visual effects director saying, by the way, this is going to look like this, and they’ll show you one shot, and you’ll go, it’s going to look like that? And they say, yeah, trust us, it will. And then you kind of forget that. And then if you’re lucky enough as I have to have seen the film and seen what they did with it, it’s beyond anything they warned us it was going to be, and that’s kind of why we look fairly relaxed about it ’cause we had no idea. I think if we’d known it was going to be so awesome, we would have been like this — (makes terrified face) AAHH!
PRESS: Mads, you’ve played in a Bond film, you’ve played Hannibal. so you’ve done these iconic villainous characters who really relished their villainy, so to speak, but here you play a character who is, from his perspective, the hero; he’s going to save the world, and even when he kills people, it’s not really that different from some of the good guys who are saying, yes we have to kill but it’s to save the world for a greater good. Can you talk a little bit about approaching a villainous role that, as far as he thinks, it’s a story about him trying to save the world and the rest of them are the villains?
Mikkelsen: Well, I always play all characters as a hero. I mean, I think we have to look at it that way. The key to any good villain, which I think was very clear from the beginning in this script, is that they have a point. It’s not completely crazy what they’re saying. There is a point. Even in Doctor Strange’s eyes he does believe I have a point. Even though it’s for a fraction, if that. And I think that’s the key for a good villain. You have to have something the audience identify with, so he doesn’t just go ballistic and say I’m going to take over the world because I can. It’s fun. You know, no, it’s the reason, you know. It’s your life it doesn’t make
sense. You know, and what’s he thinking about up there? Honestly, just placing us here for a fraction of time, doesn’t make sense. So I’m on to something and I think all good villains should be there and then obviously it’s in the script and Scott was on that page and so we tried to make him a man who believes in what he’s talking about, a little like, you know, a demagogue, Jonestown, whatever he’s called, right? Somebody who believes utterly in every word he says.
Mantz: Rachel, when you signed on to play Christine Palmer did you like do a binge reading of comics to get up to speed with all this?
McAdams: I did read — Scott sent a few my way that I looked at — and I looked at — well, 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 be kind of a new invention in a way. [Sure.] But I mean, yeah, I looked at a lot of Nightcrawler ’cause she was in a lot of those, and yeah. And I’ve been getting up to speed with — I was reading Judy Blume when I was a teenager — so I’ve been kind of getting up to speed on the comic universe. But I love graphic novels, I just devour those now, so I love the medium and I think it translates to film, you know, it’s just such a perfect matchup. So yeah, I’m still learning though, yeah…
PRESS: Benedict, the key to the Doctor Strange at the beginning is his arrogance, his confidence, smartest guy in the room and the fall, in the humbling he goes through. Is that like playing Holmes, or is that completely different?
Cumberbatch: No, I’d say it’s slightly different. I mean, there’s, in the Venn diagram of similarities, there is the crossover of clever and arrogant I suppose, and workaholic, but you know, Strange is a materialist, he’s egocentric, yes, but he’s got charm and he’s witty, he’s liked by his colleagues, he’s had relationships with them, he’s not — yeah, he’s not this sort of cut off outsider sociopathic asexual obsessive that Sherlock is. So yeah, there’s a world of difference and yeah, he lives in New York and eats bagels every now and again so that’s also different. You know, he’s a man of the world, as opposed to Sherlock who isn’t.
PRESS: For Kevin and Scott, you guys touched a little bit on kind of the trippier sequences in the movie. I’m just very curious if you could talk a little bit more about how those were developed and designed and if there was ever a point where you thought, oh, this might be a little bit too far, maybe we should back off a little bit on that?
Feige: I think there were a lot of those points but we just kept pushing forward and our amazing effects team led by Steff Saredi did a great job, and Scott was, you know, in there right to the bitter end, till about 12:30 AM the day before we got on the plane to Hong Kong for the first junket.
Derrickson: Yeah. You know, because we moved the schedule for Benedict, we had a shorter post-production period —
Derrickson: — really, than we wanted.
Cumberbatch: Sorry again.
Derrickson: But —
Feige: But a longer pre-production.
Derrickson: — to Kevin and Louis D’Esposito’s credit, we hired more vendors to start all at once than you normally would have, so we had a lot of the stuff coming in all at the same time. But that was one of the most creatively rewarding parts of the whole process was to try to think about not just, you know, weird, bizarre images, but to try to think about what can’t be done. You know, the final sequence of the movie was the result of me just thinking, well, what can’t you do, you know, and this idea of a fight scene going forward while a city’s undestroyed, backwards, well, you can’t, that’s impossible. Okay, great, let’s do it. You know, and so we designed the scene and storyboard, you know, I’d storyboard out things and then work with the pre-vis team and get it all down in how it looked, and then we figured out how to make it. And the same thing like with what we call the Magical Mystery Tour, the whole mind trip scene, you know, it was about drawing out every single shot and some of it being impossible to do and the result was that the visual effects vendors had to sometimes help us figure out, well, how do we do this because it is unprecedented, it hasn’t been done before. And some of those ideas didn’t work, and you know, sometimes we would try things and we were overshooting. But me personally, I felt like, every day, I got up for work and I thought, somebody’s going to come knock on my door and say, you got to back off, this is just getting too weird. You know, and it never happened. I mean, yeah, Marvel was really completely behind the idea of trying to push the boundaries of what a set piece in a tent pole movie can be, and that was always the goal.
Mantz: How long do you see yourself wanting to play Stephen Strange?
Cumberbatch: Oh, well, you know, let’s get this film out first. [LAUGHS] I love these, yeah. One of the things in mindfulness is being present now, you know, and I just want to enjoy today. I really, really do. We’re bringing this film to the world properly for the first time, this is the world premiere, in its rightful hometown and I’m so excited about it. I haven’t seen the film yet, and if I don’t have too many of these, will get a proper nap. I will be just glued to my seat. I can’t wait, can’t wait to share this moment.