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.

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