Interview: 'Doctor Strange' Screenwriter Jon Spaihts Discusses The Brilliant, Cocky, Swashbuckling Superhero

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.

Yes.

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.

Doctor Strange - Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch

With Doctor Strange, you had a wealth of material at your disposal, so where did you start? 

I read as much as I could. I read a staggering amount of Doctor Strange, and reread a lot of it. Although it was interesting, as a kid, like a lot of kids did, I think, I read the comic books piecemeal, and I didn't get every single issue of every single arc, and it wasn't that easy to back then. There were always missing pieces, I was always filling in gaps in the stories that I knew, and I had fragments of numerous storylines. It was great doing the rereading for the movie to see missing pieces that I'd been missing since I was 12. "Oh, that's how he got there, I've never understood!" Seeing how things fit together, how adjacent storylines connected, and getting connective tissue filled in. Completing my education was kind of fun, and it was a part of the creative process.

When you began writing Doctor Strange, did you start from the beginning or with another scene?

I started from the beginning. Perfect hands.

Do you usually start from the beginning or will you ever jump around to different scenes? 

It varies. Sometimes, if I can't crack the beginning, but I know sequences farther down the line, I'll jump into a sequence I know, and just write something defining and compelling about that character that serves as the anchor for everything else. Often I find I am a pretty linear storyteller, and I have trouble writing the middle if I don't know how we began. I can sometimes sit stuck at my computer for two or three weeks trying to figure out how the darn thing starts, and finally, I'll figure out the beginning. If the beginning is compelling, if the beginning moves me, if it's visually exciting, then suddenly the pages are rattling off under my fingertips.

Which scenes from Doctor Strange rattled off your fingertips? 

A lot of them did actually. Partly because I think we broke story and outline for so long. We sat and talked about it for months. We'd sit and talk, I'd go in, write an outline, and come back, we'd sit and talk some more, I'd go away and rewrite the outline. By the time I sat down to write my first draft, I'd covered a lot of ground. Mentally, I was prepared to write a lot of those scenes. A lot of them were bursting to come forth. There were inevitably places in the outline, though, that were a little handwave-y and hard to crack on the day, and so there were sections I struggled through. The classic beats of his origin story came very freely, because I know them well, and I believe in them, and they've got great dramatic bones.

Which sections of the outline were hard to crack?

Some of it is just about structure. Origin stories are hard because you eat a lot of time in the early film introducing the world, introducing the character, showing their coming of age. Then in an unusually compressed fashion, in the late half of the story, you also have to let them come to blows with the villain and defeat them. That section can feel rushed. In Doctor Strange, we have the very good fortune that there's an archvillain knit into the fabric of the origin story, so I think this movie has better structure than a lot of origin stories because the villain is not appended, or taped-on, to the creation story. The villain is of a piece with it. I think we have good structure, but negotiating that structure, figuring out how, beat by beat, the conflict against the bad guys would play out, that's the hard part.

When you start writing a comic book movie, how much do you think about the genre's tropes? Do you try to diverge from certain conventions? 

It's a good question, and I think in everything Marvel does the question comes to the fore in a unique way, because they're often adapting storylines that are known to a large body of comic fans. You suddenly have three obligations. You need to be respectful of the source material. You need to make it new so that comic fans coming to see the film are surprised and delighted, and not merely sitting through something they know cold. And you need to make it intelligible to the uninitiated so that it makes sense to the ordinary filmgoer, and to somebody who doesn't know comics at all. That can be a lot of challenges to manage at one time.

With Doctor Strange, I think we were very fortunate because the origin story doesn't need a lot of fixing. In dramatic terms, it's very sound. The biggest thing we had to do was to update some elements of the story world, which date from the early '60s and were rather timeworn tropes, or kind of dated and unacceptable to the modern viewer. Wong, the obedient Asian manservant, needed to be reimagined as someone powerful and with agency, as a peer of Dr. Strange. We needed to find ways to move more ethnic and gender diversity into the story, and modernizing in that way was the big challenge. Dramatically, the epic tale stood strong.

[Major Spoiler Alert]

One of the most important things to manage was the betrayal of Karl Mordo, which is telegraphed very broadly in the comics in the earliest versions of that origin story. He's kind of a mustache-twirling baddie from the get go, and for anyone, for one moment, to believe that he might be a good guy would make them seem foolish. We needed a more mature and complex and human Mordo, who had a real brotherhood and fellowship with The Ancient One, and with Strange and the other people of Kamar-Taj, so that there as a set of bonds there to be broken when he finally does turn. That was a thing we had to make new.

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Doctor Strange is now in theaters.