Director's Chair: Scott Derrickson — <i>Doctor Strange</i>
Issue: October 1, 2016

Director's Chair: Scott Derrickson — Doctor Strange

It’s been quite a year for Marvel and Disney. Captain America: Civil War — so far the year’s biggest global hit — has grossed well over one billion dollars worldwide, and now comes another superhero movie from the successful partnership, the psychedelic, mind-bending Doctor Strange, which promises to live up to its name.
Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, whose credits includeSinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the film tells the story of world-famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange, whose life changes forever after a horrific car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he is forced to look for healing, and hope, in an unlikely place — a mysterious enclave known as Kamar-Taj. He quickly learns that this is not just a center for healing, but also the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying our reality. Before long Strange — armed with newly acquired magical powers — is forced to choose whether to return to his life of fortune and status or leave it all behind to defend the world as the most powerful sorcerer in existence.

Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, along with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Benjamin Bratt, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton, and features a team of filmmakers that includes DP Ben Davis ( Guardians of the Galaxy), Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti ( Guardians of the Galaxy), and editors Wyatt Smith ( Thor: The Dark World) and Sabrina Plisco.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Derrickson, who was deep in post at press time, talks about making the movie and creating its cutting-edge visual effects.

Dr. Strange is definitely not your usual superhero and this is definitely not your usual superhero movie. Was that the appeal of doing it?

“Exactly that! I always loved the ‘Doctor Strange’ comics because they were so wild and took all these psychedelic left turns in the Marvel universe, and I thought that the possibility of making a film that did the same thing would be a fun challenge.”

What sort of film did you set out to make and did Marvel set any limitations on what you could do?

“No limitations at all. When I first met with them, I told them I wanted to make an acid-trip, mind-bending, wild psychedelic spectacle, action film about this character overcoming himself, but that it’d also be a very intimate story about one man and how he transforms. And that’s certainly the movie we made. And in terms of all the VFX and the huge set pieces, the goal was really twofold; one was to draw heavily on the visuals of the original comics, because I think they had this tremendous visual ambition that was truly art of the highest quality, and that ambition still stands on its own, so I loved the idea of trying to bring some of that ambition to the screen. And I wanted to use big budget, cutting-edge VFX to create stuff that’s never been done before, instead of using them just as vehicles of destruction.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling it all together?

“Definitely dealing with all the VFX, and trying to create things that people have never seen before, and doing big set pieces that are about things other than tons of gunfire and massive explosions. And when you try to do that, you’re left with things that really have to be carefully designed, shot by shot, with great specificity. And that was a very long, laborious process.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“A lot, as there was no other way to pull off some of the sequences, and The Third Floor did most of it.”

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“Very early on in pre-production, and we started on it all the moment we had a working draft — way before we got through the development process. It was an interesting experience, because when you’re dealing with world-class previs artists, they love to create and push the boundaries of what’s been done before and come up with really great ideas. So a lot of times, an individual artist would come up with an idea and I’d look at it and go, ‘That’s fantastic! Let’s run with it.’ So it became a very synergistic process, doing all the previs and storyboards.”

You shot on location all over the world, including in Kathmandu, the UK and China. How tough was the shoot?

“It actually wasn’t that difficult because Marvel’s very disciplined. The only difficult thing was the limited days we had to shoot — just 80, while most studios would have scheduled well over 100 days for a film this big and complex. And Marvel are very rigorous about that, so it forced us to be very prepared and disciplined. There’s no time to relax. But that’s good, as it forces you to be very creative and make certain compromises, which is smart. If you have a huge budget and a lot of time, you tend to shoot all of your ideas, and very often all your first ideas are not your best ones, so those limitations end up helping you.”

Where did you post?

“Everything — editing, sound, mixing — is being done at Marvel’s offices on the Disney lot, which makes it very convenient.”

Do you like post?

“I absolutely love it and it’s my favorite part of the whole process. It’s every bit as creative as writing, and far more creative than production. To me, that’s the least creative part of the movie, as it’s mainly about logistics and scheduling and budget and so on. So in post you’re finally dealing with all the components of your film, and all the other stages are writing phases in the sense that you’re making choices too, but in post you’re making choices from a place of great power. And on top of that, you have the comfort level. You’re not physically exhausting yourself in the way you have to do on a shoot. And then it’s amazing what you discover in post. There’s always surprises — things that work a lot better than you thought they would when you shot them, and then things you were sure would work great, and they don’t. So it’s this wildly-creative process.”

Talk about editing with two editors — Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco. It’s interesting that you had a female editor on this.

“Wyatt was the lead editor, and he asked me about who he should hire as his second editor, as we knew we’d need two to handle all the footage, and I told him, ‘Choose someone that will complement your strengths. Someone who’s good at things you’re perhaps no good at.’ One of the things that he started off with — which I think was really wise — was that he wanted someone with a female perspective. And cutting this has been a huge undertaking, as we shot a lot of footage, and there are so many complex VFX shots, so Wyatt became not only an expert editor dealing with this, but also an expert information manager. He really has managed the digital pipeline and flow of information during the whole post process — and far and above what I’ve seen any editor do before. It’s an enormous task.” 

All the VFX obviously play a very big role. What was your approach?

“First off, I wanted to do the original comics justice and try and capture that very ‘60s wild imagery, and then have every major set piece be fundamentally something never seen before. I’m, probably like most movie fans, a bit weary of massive set pieces all having the same general tone, which is basically, how many ways can you destroy stuff on a mass scale? I wanted to make a film with huge VFX sequences that were about far more than that, with more creativity and more surprise, and with really new environments.” 

How many VFX shots are there and talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti.

“We’re still working on them and there are probably thousands in the end, with a lot of vendors, including ILM, Framestore, Luma, Method and BaseFX. I hadn’t worked with [Stephane] before, but I thought the work he did on Guardians was astonishing. He fully deserved his Oscar nomination, but as is so often the case, the best VFX supervisors usually don’t win because people don’t recognize just how amazing their work is. They think of Rocket and Groot as real people, because the VFX are that good. You forget that every single shot is 100 percent a VFX shot. And when we met, I really liked his manner and grasp of his craft, and he was up for the challenge.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do and why?

“I don’t want to give too much away, but the whole ending of the film — the last 20 minutes — was definitely the hardest to pull off. And there’s one big set piece towards the end that was just so technically complex to do — the most technically- complex thing I’ve ever shot in my career.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you?

“I think that the sonic component of any film is as important as the visuals, even in a quiet movie, when that quietness becomes a power of its own. And in a big event movie like this, the sonic landscape is so critical to conveying emotion and feelings, both in the sound design and in the music. This is so psychedelic that the sound design has to be pretty wild too, and we’re in the middle of creating that. But I also knew that it needed a strong score that would help ground it all, and we were fortunate to get [composer] Michael Giacchino, who’s like a John Williams in what he can do thematically. I wanted a memorable score that wasn’t just a support to the visuals, that adds another element, and he gave me that. And we’re mixing in Dolby Atmos.”

Obviously you haven’t done the DI yet, but how important is it to you?

“Ben will be starting on it soon, and I get very involved. It depends on the movie how long you spend on the DI, and how laborious it is. Interestingly, Sinister was the most demanding DI I’ve ever done, because of how dark it was, and we pushed the limits. On this, we’re going for a very bold look. We do some pretty crazy things with color throughout the movie, and I think it’ll be Marvel’s darkest movie. We shot part of it on 35mm in Kathmandu, and the rest on Arri 65, so we have a very specific, rich look.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It has. I feel it’s hit the target I aimed for. Everything else — box office, the critics — is out of your hands.”