Superhero movies are notorious for set pieces in which entire cities collapse around fighting heroes and villains. But “Doctor Strange” director Scott Derrickson wanted to go in the opposite direction.
“You can create screen stimulus in other ways,” said the director, whose past films include the horror movie “Sinister.” “But you just have to create. You have to be inventive… It’s about a different approach to screen stimulus and to giving people their money’s worth when they’re paying to see a big event movie.”
Without giving away too much, that means that “Doctor Strange” won’t rain death on Manhattan, like the climactic battle in “The Avengers,” or endanger countless Sokovians, like “Avengers 2” did. At humanity’s darkest hour, Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) does pretty much the opposite of every other superhero ever.
TheWrap talked with Derrickson about breaking the rules of superhero movies, finding the magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and which Beatles project helped inspire the look of “Doctor Strange.”
TheWrap: What was it like going from the horror genre to the super hero genre?
Scott Derrickson: My first instinctive answer is that it was nice to work on something more positive. And not have my headspace in something so dark for so long. But it was also weirdly similar because of the fantastical nature of the movie. In my horror movies, I was always trying to deal with real characters and real character drama played by good actors … Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke, Eric Bana, and Tom Wilkinson, people who don’t do horror normally. And watching characters, real characters, encounter the fantastical. So in this case I got actors of this caliber who are dealing with the fantastical, so that’s the crossover. It felt oddly similar, just not as dark.
How much of a challenge was it to develop the magical side of the MCU?
It was hugely challenging. There was a commitment that I had to not repeating magic of the past because I think magic in movies has become signified by certain things. Magic wands, going back to “Fantasia,” and certainly the “Harry Potter” franchise had it’s own way of dealing with magic. And I just wanted to find a new way to make it feel more tactical and real and surreal. And to root it in gestures as opposed to spoken incantations and things like that. And it was always an attempt to redefine what magic can feel like.
How did you bring the wild and fantastical elements of the classical Steve Ditko comics to a grounded and real cinematic universe?
Some of them, like the dark dimension, that’s straight from the comics. That was really an attempt to capture the quality of that artwork. I think most of the time it was a desire to get my head into what the comics were, at the time, in the ’60s. It was so psychedelic, and so reaching for the surreal I think is the best way I can put it. In a free-flowing, fun kind of way. That’s what psychedelic art was, that’s what psychedelic music was. And so I was so immersed in that in my own mindset that I didn’t want to make something that was nostalgic. I wasn’t trying to reach back to the ’60s aesthetic. … I’ve got these incredible tools in visual affects. What can I do that’s the 2016 version of that?
If you could choose to direct another superhero film what would you choose?
“Dr. Strange II.”
I think it’s a safe bet. Were there any films that influenced the visuals and imagery of the film?
It was more psychedelic artwork and comics from the “Magic Mystery Tour.” “The Oath” graphic novel was the big influence for the astral battle. I’m just going to run through the set pieces. The sanctum fight was really from the comics. The mirror-dimension chase, certainly I’m standing on the shoulders of “Inception.” That movies was seven years ago, but that’s a movie that I was inspired by because it wasn’t using visual effects for destruction. And I felt like it was the tip of a very interesting iceberg. So my thought was, can we take that to the Nth degree and take it way more surreal and way farther. But I certainly owe something to that movie. In the same way that Chris Nolan took from “Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and sort of upped that game for the finale of “Inception.” That was an influence.
Certainly for the end sequence, that’s the comics and the dark dimension as well so the comics are far and away the main inspiration in terms of movie influences. Their bits and pieces. This movie is so odd and unique there wasn’t a lot for me to feel. It was like ‘Sinister’ was very inspired by ‘Klute’ and ‘Blowout’ and there were specific movies that I was really drawing on. And in this case it was just much more of the comics.
Did you find working within an established cinematic university restricting, or did it allow for more storytelling opportunities?
It was not restrictive. Because we were free to draw from the comics in any way we wanted to and there’s a lot of comics. I wanted to stick with the Ditko league comics mostly, and “The Oath” and “Into Shamballa.” Those were the primary resources. But in terms of working within the MCU and having this exist within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was no pressure. The places where it’s laced through there felt effortless. And I tried to not think much about it, frankly, because I wanted this movie to totally feel different from all the others. This is Strange’s movie, he’s not part of the MCU during the course of the movie. Not yet. So I wanted his experience to not feel totally like the other movies. It is a darker, more grounded tone on the one hand, and much more weirdly… fantastical movie at the same time. I was trying to create something that was uniquely Doctor Strange.
Definitely. Talk about, if you can, your approach to Dormammu.
That draws obviously somewhat from the comics, but he’s a guy who’s walking around with a fire head, a big fire head. And I liked the idea of him being an other-dimensional being and not having access to our world because he’s been blockaded. There’s a movie that I drew on, “Lord of The Rings,” in that I definitely was drawing on Sauron… because I wanted Dormammu to be ultimately the villain, but I liked the idea of the movie moving into a boss fight. Because I grew up on video games like most people my age, and the idea of going through this journey of weirdness and ending it with a boss fight. So I liked the idea of the Dormammu boss fight and him having kind of a human avatar. Having someone who’s channeling his power throughout the movie — and that’s why we picked Kaecilius, a very obscure, small character in the comics that we breathe that life into.
“Doctor Strange” opens Friday.