‘Doctor Strange’ Screenwriter Jon Spaihts on the Movie’s Trippy Visuals, The Ancient One Casting, and a Potential Sequel
After 30 years of trying to bring the mystical surgeon from the page to the screen, Doctor Strange is finally making his movie debut. Following attempts by Bob Gale, Alex, Cox, Wes Craven, David S. Goyer, and others, Marvel Studios chose Scott Derrickson to direct the Strange movie, and brought in Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Passengers) to write the screenplay, along with writer C. Robert Cargill.
The latest MCU origin story follows Benedict Cumberbatch as arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, who travels to remote Kamar-Taj in a desperate attempt to heal his hands after a brutal car accident. There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and begins learning the ways of mysticism.
Doctor Strange has a lot of similar elements to previous MCU films, but it’s also one of the most visually trippy and unique installments. I caught up with Spaihts, who’s also working on the new Mummy and Van Helsing reboots, to talk about his new Marvel movie and whether he read any of those previous Doctor Strange scripts. He also told me about his involvement in one of the post-credits scenes (beware of minor spoilers) and the controversial decision behind casting Swinton as The Ancient One.
Visually Doctor Strange is the most distinct movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Did you originally write the details of those wild, psychedelic sequences in the script? How much of those were Scott’s creation?
The action in the sequences was written in the script and of course we were all inspired by the comic art in the Doctor Strange franchise, which has been one of the most visually revolutionary storylines in the history of comics. So we were running off of the art of Steve Ditko and many artists subsequently inspired by him.
However there’s only so much you can do on the page, so in rendering some of the more outrageous transformations of the world or supernatural environments, I would like the poetry on the page to evoke the backdrop in which the action was playing out. But ultimately only a visual image can portray that. So all of that, of course, fell on Scott.
So would you write a rough idea of a visual sequence in the script and then let him take it from there?
Well, we were working in close collaboration outlining the story. So when I wrote the first draft the action sequences were beaten out beat by beat very specifically. Many of the action beats in the first draft are right there on the screen. At the end there are a lot of developments subsequently so some of those things evolved in different directions. But the scenes as written were very specific about action and geography.
Was there anything from the script you wanted to include that got cut from the film?
Actually no. All of the big action stuff is still there. They’re always darlings you lose along the way, but most of the things I missed were just little conversational moments or character moments that fell by the wayside in favor of the foreground action.
This film has been 30 years in the making. A handful of screenwriters have written various drafts of scripts from Bob Gale to David Goyer. Did you read any of those earlier versions?
No. I never did. I imagined they’re all over the map because the comic itself has taken many different shapes and styles over the decades. But in general, when working from source material, I try to be influenced purely by the original tales. So I went back to stacks of Doctor Strange comic books. We all did, and read through them.
When you came on to the project was it a blank slate and you built the script from there?
Yeah. I had some general notions of what I wanted to do and Kevin [Feige] had a couple of big ideas about how [Doctor Strange] locked into the larger universe. Scott had some very vivid notions of a couple of action pieces he wanted to do. A lot of ideas about how to treat the character, but we started with a blank page when it came to the story.
Scott and C. Robert Cargill also contributed to rewrites on the script, but what does the timeline of that look like? Did you write the first draft and they took it from there? What was the history of your involvement?
I was the first writer aboard and I worked closely with Kevin and Scott and the executive producer Stephen Broussard from Marvel. We built the story on that and I outlined for months. By the time the outline was done, it was verging on exploding into a screenplay itself. It was starting to contain swatches of dialogue; it was 55 pages long or something. Then I went and wrote the first draft, much of which is still very recognizable to the final film. But then I went away and made Passengers and Robert Cargill came in as Scott’s writing partner, and Scott is a very fine writer himself. At the very end I rejoined the process and helped to finalize the result.
We recently talked to Scott and he said the second post-credits scene was done after the film was finished. Since you returned at the end, did you have any part in that post-credits scene?
Yeah, I wrote that scene. I was very happy about it. The scene, I don’t want to say too much, but that scene follows from an earlier scene in the script which is also mine and is another piece I’m very fond of. It was very nice to revisit that little piece of story and tell another step of the tale.
That scene with Chiwetel Ejoifor’s Mordo sets up what could happen next in a sequel. Did you come up with an idea for what a potential sequel could look like?
I think it’s impossible to come out of a writing process like this without a little line-up of strong contenders for what might happen next. But there’s always competing possibilities. There are a number of open doors to which the next piece of story could come. I think there are always larger considerations because Kevin Feige is masterminding the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a wider perspective. So the larger concerns of the universe may intrude into that decision making as well. But yeah, I have my pet notions of what that next step adventure might be.
Would you return to write a sequel if Marvel asked you back?
I would be powerfully tempted, that's for sure. Doctor Strange has been my favorite superhero since I was very young.
This film is also gender flipped The Ancient One by Tilda Swinton’s casting in the role, but that also caused a wave of controversy with casting a white woman as a character who was originally Asian in the comics. What were the discussions like between you, Scott and Robert when you decided to make that casting decision?
In fairness, that casting decision really lies with the director Scott himself and with the producers at Marvel. It’s a little above my pay grade. I was involved in conversations about it, and I recognize the dilemma in which they found themselves in that: One, the world of Doctor Strange that’s rendered in the comics is a very male world. If you want good gender representation in the film, you’re going to have to flip some characters.
And then two, some of the fundamental characters of the story dating back to the early ’60s are very dated in their treatment of the obedient, Chinese manservant Wong, the Guru of the mountaintop – sort of the Mr. Miyagi figure who’s played to death in Martial Arts and mythical sagas over the decades – are both very difficult to approach. A very faithful approach would be offensive to the modern viewer. There’s also a weird, kind-of magical sensei character that has been done to death, and it’s very difficult to find a new way to do that. Scott went his way on that decision, and he has spoken very eloquently about this, it’s really not for me to tell his story there. But I do think he came to an admirable decision and I think a very respectful one. I also think that Tilda Swinton is one of best actors living. [She is] luminous and transcendent in the film.
Doctor Strange is now playing.