Interview: ‘Doctor Strange’ Screenwriter Jon Spaihts Discusses the Brilliant, Cocky, Swashbuckling Superhero
Posted on Friday, November 4th, 2016 by Jack Giroux
2016 is a good year for screenwriter Jon Spaihts. After years of development, Spaihts’ first hot spec script, Passengers, finally got made and is coming to theaters before the year ends. On top of that, he co-wrote Marvel’s latest, Doctor Strange, with director Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill.
The origin story shows Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) transformation from an arrogant, selfish surgeon to a powerful, compassionate sorcerer. Spaihts worked on the Doctor Strange script before Derrickson and Cargill conducted rewrites, but he was the first writer to board the project to help Derrickson and MarvelKevin Feige figure out how to best tell Stephen Strange’s trippy tale.
We recently spoke with Spaihts to discuss the challenges of writing an origin story, comic book conventions, his writing process, and more. Below, read our Jon Spaihts interview.
Doctor Strange reminds me of my favorite origin stories, where the person is just as compelling as the superhero. You don’t always get that from superhero movies.
Yes, exactly! Thank you, I completely agree with you. I think when the civilian component, the civilian alter ego of a superhero is a milquetoast, it’s a great letdown. It’s much more fun when you’ve got a Stephen Strange, or a Tony Stark, or somebody who is fascinating and a piece of work, or a Black Widow, fascinating in their human lives as they are in their hero life.
Scott Derrickson said he had eight meetings with Marvel to get the job. Did you have that many meetings?
It was shorter for me. I came aboard when Scott was definitely the guy, and I sort of badgered my way into the room because I’d heard that Doctor Strange was coming up, and he was always my favorite comic book character, so I ran at it. I had a long talk with Scott and Kevin Feige and [executive producer] Stephen Broussard at Marvel, and we hit it off really well. We spent three or four hours together, and it went really well.
There was sort of a hiccup a few days later where they said, “We’re not completely sure that that’s exactly the way we want to tell the story. Maybe we’ll talk to other writers.” I called my agent back and said, “Don’t take that answer. Call them back, tell them there’s a lot of right answers, and get me back in the room.” They put me back in the room, we did another three or four hours, and I ended up being the guy. In the end, they said that I was the only writer they seriously spoke to. I suppose I willed it into being.
What were some of the key components of the Doctor Strange comics you all initially discussed and wanted a part of the movie?
I think we saw a lot of the same things in it. The cosmic scale, the combination of terrifying depths, just the possibility of existence opening up underneath you, of the world, of the universe being unraveled, our souls being taken, things being corrupted. Doctor Strange fights an enemy, the enemy is paralyzing, petrifying, and the stakes are cosmically high, but you also need the hero to be brilliant, cocky, swashbuckling, charismatic, and made of very tough stuff. I think we saw the character the same way. We saw the ups and downs of a Doctor Strange story compatibly.
Just like some of your other scripts, Doctor Strange requires a lot of world building.
Do you generally start with envisioning character or the world?
If I’m starting blue sky in a spec, it varies. More often I start with an extraordinary predicament, and the predicament kind of implies the right hero to solve that problem. Because you want the hero, to a certain extent, to have an imperfect toolset for the problem at hand. You want them to have half of the right tools, and to be halfway unprepared to deal with this kind of eventuality. Dr. Strange is that kind of guy. He’s a man of science and reason and possibly rigid thinking who’s plunged into a cosmic world and needs to catch up magically. He’s a very proud man whose pride is sometimes the source of his strength, and sometimes the thing that holds him back and trips him up. In a lot of storytelling, I begin with a predicament and imagine the character who would be powerful but still struggle in the face of that.
Sometimes it’s the character first. Sometimes I think of someone and just want them to play out an adventure, and figure out what would put them through their paces best.