As you know I truly enjoyed Doctor Strange so much that it made a spot on my list of Honorable Mentions from 2016. I decided it was time to dig into Scott Derrickson’s commentary and find out the interesting tid bits he had to offer. I really loved Derrickson’s commentary on the Sinister blu-ray (may have to do an article on that one another time), so I was excited for this one. While some tracks are more anecdotal Derrickson tends to take a different approach. He talks extensively about deeper aspects of the story. While I recommend listening to the track as his comments are going to be hard to distill down to smaller pieces, but here are a few great nuggets of wisdom.
-Date of Recording-
Derrickson states that the very start that he is recording his commentary the day before the film is set to premiere in Los Angeles. “It’s a blind perspective in terms of critical, audience, and box office response.”
-Who Was the Film Made For?-
“My intention is to pick a good target for the movie that I believe people will want to see and get their moneys worth out of. And that’s meaningful to me as a creative person. To hit that target and if I’ve done it right. If I picked a good target and I’ve hit that target that’s the reward. That’s the only reward you get as a filmmaker. It’s a huge reward. It’s the ultimate reward.” It’s refreshing to hear a director state that he knows his films aren’t always going to be ‘Four Quadrant’ pictures and instead wants to focus on a good story for a specific group.
-Kamar-Taj Filming and Locations-
Early on we find out that a large portion of the Kamar-Taj filming was done in London, but there was filming that took place in Kathmandu. (More on that below). We also find out that Derrickson deliberately set up the four locations for Kamar-Taj to have two in the east and two in the west. This was to show a more global perspective so the audience knows that they’re protectors of the entire world and not just the west and U.S.A. specifically.
-The Building VFX Origins-
The design of the building bending FX came from the director’s interest in GIFs and Youtube videos that did similar visual tricks. They nicknamed it the ‘Mandelbrot Effect’.
-Accuracy of Surgery Scenes-
While filming there was a consultant on-set to make sure all the minor details were medically accurate. “I feel that accuracy in professions is something the audience can feel. When you’re cheating something technical in a profession they may not know it, but somehow they might feel it.” It also helps that his wife is a nurse. “I get a lot of flack if I ever do anything medically improper.” And it turns out that when Stephen and Christine are performing the surgery on the bullet wound victim that they wouldn’t have had their masks on immediately as they would be rushed into the ER and not have time to prep.
It turns out that Derrickson had to have eight separate meetings with Marvel in order to get the job of director. “They respect passion, experience, and talent. And I think I had proven my filmmaking skill in the horror genre and success in that genre.”
-Derrickson is a Fan-
He re-iterates that he is a fan of Marvel comics and in fact, Doctor Strange is his favorite character.
-What to Keep From the Comic-
While other things can be re-work or interpreted in a different way, Derrickson states that there were two key things that had to be kept from the comics. 1. Stephen Strange’s origin story. 2. The visual ambition of Steve Ditko’s original artwork.
-Using Real World Drama-
When you’re going to tell fantastical stories you need to ground the characters in reality. “The more realistic and the more grounded and the more relatable in terms of real human characters in the movie. The more powerful and real and effective the fantastical is when it enters into the movie.”
-The Nepal Earthquake-
In between the initial location scouting and pre-production the devastating Gorkha earthquake occurred destroying multiple locations and throwing the chancing of filming at Kathmandu into question. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Scott Derrickson decided they wanted to film there to highlight the beauty of the area that could not be replicated anywhere else.
-Ancient One Controversy-
While he spoke candidly about the casting controversy around The Ancient One in multiple interview Derrickson re-iterates his intentions. “I knew I had to get away from the stereotypical western view of Asians that was a stereotype perpetuated by the Fu Manchu magical Asian.” “I could not find a way to avoid this character be a magical mystical martial arts mentor with some hidden motives.” i.e. The Dragonlady motif. “I looked for an actress who could embody what was great about The Ancient One.” While some people are still justifiably upset about the casting of Tilda Swinton I back Derrickson’s motives. It was a no win situation that had the best-worst resolution.
-Hints of Horror-
Scott Derrickson has been prominently known as a director in the horror genre. (His directorial debut was the underrated Hellraiser: Inferno.) And while this film isn’t horror Derrickson threw in a few elements (The ‘Hand’ Dimension, Strange coming back to his physical body after getting hit with the defibrillator) as he knew that the general audience coming to the film weren’t going to be horror fans. This way those tiny bits could effectively elicit a strong response from the audience.
-The Ant-Man Reference-
Yes, that was the Quantum Realm Strange entered as he traveled through the other dimensions.
The wi-fi password joke was used to show that Kamar-Taj is still a real place in the world not above or below technology.
-Cumberbatch was the First Choice for the Title Role-
Marvel and Derrickson offered him the part instead of going through auditions. In spite of a scheduling conflict with Hamlet for Cumberbatch and looking at other actors Derrickson wanted him for the lead. Knowing this Kevin Feige pushed back the release date from summer to fall in order to accommodate Ben’s schedule. It’s unheard of that a producer would delay a film at expense to the studio to make sure an actor could appear in a film. I commend Feige for doing this instead of settling on another actor.
There is nothing but great things said about Mads Mikkelsen. “What can I say about Mads? He is one of the most positive actors I’ve ever worked with.” It turns out that Mads accepted the role because he always wanted to make a Kung Fu film and in fact did a large majority of his own stunts.
-What about Wong?-
To keep him from being a stereotype Derrickson wanted to invert the character. To make him more of a mentor than a sidekick and in ways someone who is more advanced than Strange in the ways of magic.
-Not Wanting to Explain an Origin for Magic-
“Magic by definition is ineffable and beyond our understanding.” That’s what makes it fun.
-On Benedict Wong-
Derrickson comments on how Wong’s performance took exposition scenes and made them interesting. “I think this guy could read the phone book and I would be compelled.” He then goes on to be a little self-deprecating, “I just dated myself referencing the phone book. Do they even have those anymore?”
-The Problem with Origin Stories-
We find out that due to the fact that so much of the film’s story was forced to set up Stephen’s origin and magic in the MCU that there was a lack of time to set up other characters. Clea and Nightmare were originally set to be in the film, but it would’ve taken too long to set them up as well.
-The Astral Battle-
The idea of the Astral Battle between Strange and Lucian was taken from the Doctor Strange graphic novel ‘The Oath’. It was also the first scene Derrickson wrote as part of his 90 minute presentation to Marvel.
-James Gunn’s Contribution-
James Gunn shot Stan Lee’s cameo for the film while film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in Atlanta. Gunn shot four Stan Lee cameos in that time. Derrickson states Doctor Strange and Guardians Vol. 2 were two of the four shot. I assume the other two had to be Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok.
Derrickson addresses the online comments about Strange’s visuals being a rip-off of Inception. He states that the film was an influence, but wanted to take it further in the amount of trippy. Other influences were M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali, and German Expressionism. “That’s what we filmmakers do. We borrow from the sources of each other. Hopefully it’s standing on the shoulders of that movie rather than ripping it off or repeating it.”
-Hong Kong Battle-
The Hong Kong battle is a play on other MCU finales. Instead of seeing a city fall apart we get to see it come back together.
-Respect for Teachers-
While talking Derrickson often says ‘um’ in between comments in order to collect his thoughts. He states that everytime he does it he hears the voice as his old English teacher Mrs. Cannon saying, “No ums, please.” He even apologizes to her in the commentary.
-“I’ve come to bargain.”-
Many people online have speculated that part of Dan Harmon’s contribution to the script was the “I’ve come to bargain.” scene as it felt in tone with his sensibilities. Turns out that this scene was in Jon Spaihts first draft and survived multiple drafts with minimal changes.
-Hitting the Target-
Derrickson re-iterates that he makes films to hit the target he aimed at. “That’s all you can do sometimes.” He briefly touches upon how Deliver Us From Evil wasn’t a hit critically or commercially, but it was the film he wanted to make and landed with horror fans. Personally, I think it’s an overlooked gem and worth a watch if you’re looking for a dark horror film.
-Taika Waititi’s Contribution-
It was Taika Waititi that shot the mid-credits scene between Doctor Strange and Thor.
These are just a handful of moments from Scott Derrickson’s commentary and it only scratches the surface. Multiple times he speaks about recurring plot points and the philosophical and religious beats that influence the story. The man is well spoken and gives a lot of great insights into his creative process when building a story from the ground up. As usual, what are your thoughts? Have you listened to the commentary yet? Did you enjoy Doctor Strange as much as I did? If you’re interested you can find links to a few other commentary rundowns that I did for Ant-Man and Deadpool. Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter @sdfilmthoughts. And as always, thanks for reading.