After creeping out audiences with films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, director Scott Derrickson aims to blow their minds with the trippy Doctor Strange, the new effect-filled Marvel superhero story. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as an arrogant surgeon who is embittered by a car accident that leaves his hands mangled, the movie sends his titular character eastward on a journey of discovery, where he becomes embroiled in a spell-casting war between the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and a rogue pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Derrickson recently sat down with Vulture to discuss how he kept all those spells straight, how willing he was to make Strange seem like a dick, and how far he had to go to simply win the directing job.
I appreciate that this movie is not just an origin story for Doctor Strange’s powers, but his entire look. He adds bits and pieces to it so gradually — the goatee, the cloak, the jewelry — that is isn’t until he ends up in a prosaic New York hospital that you’re like, “Oh my God, he looks like an insane person.”
It's just ridiculous. Like, “What are you wearing?” It's great that you're sort of seduced into that. Fortunately, the story just never called for Strange walking down a New York street, because how does that not become a big deal?
I was wondering, by the end of the film, whether Strange has made his superhero status public. If people get a look at him in that cloak, it’s gonna be like, “Okay, this is not a normal person, even by permissive New York standards.”
Yeah, exactly. Well, we'll have to see. In the comics, I liked the idea that he was a bit of a recluse and people would come to him, you know?
When you’re dealing with characters who are this powerful, where their magic seems boundless, how do you confine that in a way where there can be actual stakes?
I think this has a lot to do with why I like that comic so much. Its general appeal to me is that Strange, on the one hand, is more powerful than any other superhero … and at the same time, he's more vulnerable than any other superhero. He has no special physical qualities. You swipe at his face with a butter knife, you're going to cut him open. You punch him hard enough, he's gonna get knocked unconscious. And I like the fact that his skill set was one that was acquired through learning, you know? He wasn't bitten by a spider, he wasn't born on Krypton or Asgard. He is a normal guy who has learned this skill. So that's the starting point, and then I've been very deliberate about what his skills are. There are limits to it. The Eye of Agamotto has a sort of omnipotent quality to it, but it's also very consequential to use. He can destroy the fabric of space-time by using it. This is the nuclear option. And of course, what happens with that is then going to play a role in future Avengers movies.
And that's the sort of note that Marvel president Kevin Feige gives you: "Let's include this, which we can pay off in a later, unrelated movie?"
Kevin is the master mapmaker of how all of these things fit together. No other filmmaker knows the whole of what's in Kevin's mind for the long-term.
You don't poke around?
I do. I ask him questions sometimes and he'll always answer, so I know things about this. He's not cagey about it.
He's cagey with the press.
He's cagey with everybody else, but he will tell me things he knows I need to know. To be honest with you, I didn't want to know a lot of it because I didn't want those things. Like, I needed to know about Thor and the Infinity Stones [from Avengers: Age of Ultron], where that was going. I remember the day on set, he said, "This is what we're doing." Actually, now that I'm done, I may ask him more questions, but while I was making it, I didn't want too much of that in my mind because I felt that Doctor Strange tonally was so different from the other movies. Deliberately so — I was trying to make something that really was its own because he's not a part of that world yet. He's his own guy and is completely unrelated to the MCU to begin with.
How does it feel to create this character onscreen and then hand him off to people like Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Joe and Anthony Russo, who will use him in Avengers: Infinity War?
I'm totally a proud papa. I feel privileged because I really respect the Russos, and Taika is an amazing director, so this character's been handed off to filmmakers that I really love and respect and whose work in the MCU is going to be amazing.
How did you come up with the very specific spell choreography, with all that hand and finger work?
The starting point for it was wanting to get away from the verbal spells. I think that magic tends to be something where you cast a spell and then the camera sits back and you watch something happen, and I didn't want it to be that. I wanted it to be in the action, I wanted it to be more organic, and that seemed to lead me to this idea that magic is about movements and gestures. So I think it was Stephen Broussard, my point producer who brought me a YouTube video of Julian, who goes by J Funk, who’s one of the world's best tutters. He does these amazing things with his fingers — go look him up on YouTube. We hired him to do all the choreography, so he taught Tilda and Benedict and Mads. It's very specific and very deliberate and super-cool. In fact, he's in the movie. He's the very first guy in the opening scene, who forms the magic whip.
I kind of want to watch the version that has all that choreography and none of the effects.
You just watch a whole lot of tutting. Like when Tilda draws that mandala, her movements were very precise because we had built and drawn and designed that mandala already. I gave the mandala to Julian and I said, “I need gestures that will last this amount of time to build this.” So we talked about, “Okay, so she'll do this and then this part will appear and she'll do this and then this part will appear and then she'll spin this part.” It was all very detailed and designed and he was awesome. I'm really glad we used him.
Tell me about calibrating Strange's exact level of dickishness. He's fairly arrogant, and he can be abrasive even to people who care for him, like his ex Christine, played by Rachel McAdams.
I was surprised how far we were able to push it without the audience turning on him, you know? And it just confirms my basic conviction about characters: You hear studio people saying all the time that characters have to be likable, but they don’t — they just have to be interesting. The character in this movie goes through an incredible arc and an incredible change, but that’s another fallacy you hear about, that characters have to change. Sometimes they're interesting because of how they don't change. Kaecilius, for example … that's what makes him interesting, just how sturdy he is in his point of view.
It's one of the innate challenges of coming up with a good Captain America story, too. He’s as straight as an arrow.
Totally, totally. In fact, I love that character because of how he doesn't change, you know? So, in this case, the dickishness worked as long as we kept him interesting and kept it all within a compact amount of time. In the beginning, the audience is engaged with him because he is charming, but his real dickishness comes out after trauma. And I think pain and suffering does that. Your true colors come out when you're suffering, and it brings out the fact that everything that mattered to him was rooted in his career success and his money and his status, his fame. With the loss of that, he is an asshole. Like in that scene where he’s a dick to Christine, he is terrible.
The audience gasped.
He is horrible. But you know what? Everybody gasped, but everybody's been there. They've either been that person — I’ve been that person — or they've been on the receiving end of someone like that. And the people who do that are people in pain. So it's not excusable, which is why it's such a human moment when he apologizes for it, but you also understand it. I think that because it's truthful to human nature, you want to see him get past himself. You want to see him get over that, you know, and he does.
You're also fortunate to have Rachel McAdams as a foil. What she sees in this character is what keeps us invested in him.
Exactly, that's really well put. She stays loyal to him until he crosses the line there, and she's no doormat. That's why she seals herself off from him and recognizes there's nothing more she can do for him. And I even love the fact that when he apologizes, he says to her, "You didn't return any of my emails." And without being bitchy about it, she just says, "Why would I?" Because he was so awful. I'm so glad there isn’t a scene of them coming back together as a couple because that would have felt untruthful. I think he longs for her in a way that she doesn't long for him because of what a dick he was to her, you know? And then he disappeared and she moved on. But when he comes back and he's changed, she also sees that and recognizes that that's good.
How do you think you got the job directing this film? It was hotly pursued.
My previous work demonstrated one foot grounded in the real world, and I worked with good actors. I had Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson and Ethan Hawke in a horror film. I had Eric Bana in a horror film. These great actors who normally wouldn't do movies like that and they were able to play great characters in a fantastical, mystical universe. I think Kevin recognized that and that's what got me in the door, but I think what got me the job was how hard I worked to demonstrate a pretty progressive vision based on the comics. I spent a lot of my own money. I wrote a 12-page scene with [Robert] Cargill, my writing partner. We wrote the whole scene of the astral fight, I illustrated the whole thing with storyboards, and I paid for a lot of concept art for the other scenes. I came in and showed him the movie because I knew I was going to have to outdo everybody. And by the way, the reason why I knew that's what it took was I went and met with Joe Russo, because I was like, “How the hell did you get Captain America: The Winter Soldier?”
The Russos had mainly worked in TV sitcoms at that point.
No one else in Hollywood would have ever even considered them. And he told me about the 90-minute presentation that he did to get Winter Soldier. And I realized, oh, it really is about vision and passion. They don't want you if you don’t want to do the movie so badly. They don't want a big star who thinks, “They should be so lucky to have me in their movie.” They want people who want to be doing this, who want to be creative and collaborative. I also just happened to have a vision for Doctor Strange that aligned with theirs, you know? I didn't go at that hard after it until my first meeting because I went in, I said this is what a Doctor Strange movie should be in my opinion and it clearly aligned with what they were thinking. And when I realized that, it was like a switch went off in my head and I just thought, I'm getting this job. I'm going to outperform everyone. I'm going to outspend everyone on my materials. I'm going to show them the whole movie and give them no choice but to hire me. And it wasn't just because I wanted it so bad: In my bones, I believed I was the right guy.
So how'd you react when you found out that you got it?
Oh, I screamed. I screamed and I wanted to dance naked in the rain. It was one of the great moments of my life. It was awesome.
This interview has been edited and condensed.