Marvel Studios presents “Doctor Strange,” the story of Doctor Stephen Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, who made his first appearance in Marvel comics in 1963.
The introduction of this unique Super Hero, vested with powerful magical powers and skills, the Marvel Cinematic Universe opens up a host of new, electrifying stories and exciting, mystifying never-before-seen action.
Producer Kevin Feige explains, “There are these street-level narratives of the Marvel Universe that we’ve seen in a lot of films. There is the cosmic level which ‘Thor’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy” and ‘The Avengers’ have taken us to. But there always has been a very important supernatural side to the Marvel comics, and we haven’t really touched on that. ‘Doctor Strange’ is our perfect entry point into that realm.
“‘Doctor Strange’ deals with parallel dimensions, alternate dimensions and the multiverse, which unlocks an entirely new area of storytelling for us. It’s the richness of that Marvel Universe that allows us, on what will be our 14th film released, to open up this entirely new aspect,” Feige concludes.
The story follows 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.
Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange” stars Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game,” “Black Mass”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Twelve Years a Slave,” “Triple 9”), Rachel McAdams(“Spotlight,” “Southpaw”), Benedict Wong (“The Martian,” “Prometheus”), Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man,” “Jobs”), Benjamin Bratt (“Traffic,” “Piñero”), Scott Adkins (“El Gringo,” “Expendables 2”), with Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt,” “Casino Royale”) and Academy Award® winner Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton,” “Julia”).
Scott Derrickson (“Deliver Us from Evil,” “Sinister”) is directing with Kevin Feige producing. Louis D’Esposito, Stephen Broussard, Victoria Alonso, Charles Newirth and Stan Lee serve as executive producers. The screenplay was written by Jon Spaihts (“The Darkest Hour,” “Prometheus”) and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister,” “Sinister 2”).
The talented team of filmmakers assembled for “Doctor Strange” includes Ben Davis (Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”), cinematographer; Charles Wood (Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”), production designer; Alexandra Byrne (Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”), costume designer; Wyatt Smith (“Into the Woods,” “Ricki and the Flash”) and Sabrina Plisco (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Charlotte’s Web”), editors; Stephane Ceretti (Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Thor: The Dark World”), visual effects supervisor; and Paul Corbould (Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”), special effects supervisor.
Producer Kevin Feige is delighted with the cast that filmmakers put together for the film. “We have a cast that I think has more awards and more award nominations than any single cast we’ve ever put together,” Feige comments, “and the fact that they’re all willing to suit up and step into this very trippy world with us is a testament to both our director Scott Derrickson and the source material that it comes from.”
The cast is led by Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Doctor Stephen Strange. Strange was once a celebrated but arrogant surgeon, until a tragic accident cost him his medical skills and career. Searching for a way to restore his talents, he traveled the world until he finally encountered The Ancient One, the enigmatic teacher who offered to teach him the ways of the Mystic Arts.
Commenting on casting Cumberbatch for the role, Feige says, “You need a spectacular actor. And the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch agreed to do this role and is as excited and as enthusiastic as any actor that has ever joined our universe is huge to us. He’s great. He was somebody that was a prototype for us and this character for many years as we were developing it.”
Director Scott Derrickson adds, “There’s a quality about him as an actor that just isn’t like anyone else. He has a ferocity of intelligence combined with tremendous depth of feeling, and that’s not something you encounter very often.”
Explaining how he was drawn to the role, Cumberbatch says, “I found Stephen Strange to be incredibly arrogant, brilliant and sort of extraordinary. He is utterly broken down to be reconstituted into the Super Hero that becomes fully fledged by the end of the movie. And there’s a lot of humor on the way. There’s a lot of action, a lot of drama. All those elements really appeal to me as an actor. So it was mainly the character arc and the journey he goes on in the film that drew me to the material.”
“Doctor Strange” as a comic book was born in the 1960s and besides being a reflection of the mind-expanding time period, has a blend of western science and eastern mysticism that Cumberbatch as a teenager was very interested in. “I spent some time teaching in a Buddhist monastery near Darjeeling,” the actor relates, “and read things like Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics’ and ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig, as well as studying Buddhists texts and reading up on certain scientific books about cosmology. I got to observe extraordinary ancient ritual and wisdom right in front of me every morning and every evening. My mind as a 19-year-old was really blown open by all of that. So this material immediately made sense to me.”
Offering insight into Strange’s personality, Cumberbatch says, “He does seem arrogant to the point of being unlikable but yet, somehow, you still like him. He’s got a great deal of charm. There is a sense of loss or soullessness about him very early on in the film. You see him as a lone figure at the beginning and end of this film. But by the end of the film he’s a Super Hero, and we all know that’s quite an onerous task and often quite a solitary existence. Not too many people can form meaningful relationships when your responsibilities are always others and elsewhere.”
Cumberbatch adds, “Stephen Strange suffers so much during the film, not just physically but psychologically. You can put yourself in his place. And that’s the key to being able to empathize with the character. But ultimately his realization that he has a mission beyond his own self is the true turning point for people to lean in and sympathize with him and to understand that this moment, and what becomes of it, is what he’s journeyed through all that suffering for. What’s bold about his origin story is that you get someone built up from ground zero, and this is truly who he was before and after.”
Rachel McAdams takes on the role of Dr. Christine Palmer. Dr. Palmer is a highly skilled trauma surgeon, who is not only Dr. Strange’s colleague but a friend as well. When the devastating accident that crippled Strange’s hands takes a toll on their relationship, Dr. Palmer comes to realize that Strange needs to rediscover his worth on his own.
On casting Rachel McAdams as Dr. Palmer, executive producer Stephen Broussard says, “We knew we needed someone just as smart and just as capable as Benedict. Dr. Palmer is very much a peer to Stephen Strange. She’s just as capable as he is in a different type of medicine. So we knew we needed someone that could go toe-to-toe with Strange’s intellect and arrogance. In the early part of the film, he brings those both in equal measure. And you needed someone that had the intellectual toughness and the emotional toughness to not be walked all over by him.”
For McAdams, becoming part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was an exciting opportunity. “I love the way they do films,” McAdams says. “You get to work with the best of the best in the world. There are no corners cut. Everything’s done really high end and you get a lot of time to make everything look so fantastic and believable. It’s just a really high level of filmmaking and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”
Playing a well-known character that has a history in the Marvel comics was an interesting angle for the talented actor. As McAdams explains, “There’s definitely a pressure to get close to people’s impression of what the character is. I’m fortunate in that she’s kind of an amalgamation of a few women in the comics and Scott’s own invention. So, it’s a fairly original jumping-off point for me.”
On her approach to researching the character, McAdams says, “I read a few of the comics. Scott Derrickson pointed me towards ‘The Oath’ in particular. He thought that would be the most helpful for my character. She’s not really in the Super Hero world yet in this one. She’s very much in the real world, in the hospital and in doctor land. For me it was interesting to get to know Strange in terms of the comics and see where my character might potentially be headed.”
Describing her character’s interaction with Doctor Strange, McAdams says, “Stephen Strange is a very famous, successful neurosurgeon at the same hospital that Christine works at. They are former boyfriend and girlfriend when we pick up in the story. So we start at the end of their relationship, which is a little bit different. It’s not a classic love story, which I thought was really clever.”
For McAdams, working with director Scott Derrickson was a very positive experience. “It’s a well-oiled machine here,” McAdams comments. “It doesn’t ever feel like it’s big. Scott has somehow made the set feel quite intimate. His enthusiasm and passion for the Doctor Strange world is very evident. He did so much work leading up to starting the project that I just felt like I was in such good hands. He knows what he wants, and it’s all pretty clear. So, it’s easy to come in and get to work. Scott’s so excited and positive about it all, and he’s been a real pleasure to work with.”
Academy Award® winner Tilda Swinton signed on to play The Ancient One, a wise and centuries-old figure who has safeguarded the secrets of the mystic arts for a very long time.
When it came to casting The Ancient One, filmmakers faced the challenge of finding an actor who could embody an otherworldly quality, but at the same time ground the idea of the age-old character in reality. Tilda Swinton was an actor that came to mind almost immediately. Scott Derrickson explains that it was “a matter of who could bring the qualities that The Ancient One possesses in the comics to a 2016 movie in a fresh way.”
Commenting on Swinton’s capacity for the role of The Ancient One, producer Kevin Feige says, “We could think of no steadier hand than Tilda to guide us through a lot of dialogue and otherworldly and supernatural exposition about the difference between the science that Strange is rooted in and the magic that The Ancient One has embraced and is going to pull him into. She has done exactly the amazing job we hoped she would.”
Swinton was delighted when the call came from Marvel offering her the role. “To be invited to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good day for me. That’s a family I am so happy to play with. And then The Ancient One was irresistible. I didn’t know the Doctor Strange world. But the way it was described to me was just tantalizing. I couldn’t wait to see this film.”
The fact that “Doctor Strange” presents a whole new world of magic and alternate dimensions appealed to the renowned actor. “It is introducing us to another world,” Swinton says. “It’s about the mind and our capacity to affect our reality with our thoughts. It’s about bending things; it’s not about breaking things. What I find so inspiring about Marvel is that they tend to be pretty experimental as filmmakers. They’re always taking technology right to the edge and beyond the edge. Regularly they’re inventing new technology to do things that a year ago they wouldn’t have been able to do.”
Though little is known of her mysterious character, Swinton offers, “We learn fairly early on in the story, when Strange is curious about The Ancient One, that she is Celtic and is of a completely indeterminate age. Nobody knows The Ancient One’s name. No one really cares; they just accept and revere this unique being and go forward. There’s a kind of joke around Kamar-Taj that nobody really knows anything about The Ancient One. She simply is.”
After Doctor Stephen Strange, a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon, has a car crash, he loses the use of his hands and seeks alternative ways of healing when operations to restore his hands fail. Offering insight on the how he meets The Ancient One and how their relationship evolves, Swinton says, “Strange hears about this legendary healer in this place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu. So, he basically spends his last pennies on a ticket and goes to Nepal and finds The Ancient One, who’s not exactly what he expected. He is not impressed at all. But then she shows him her skills, and he realizes that he has to learn from her, so it evolves into a mentor-pupil relationship.”
Mordo is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Like Doctor Strange, Mordo was an apprentice of The Ancient One who also learned the mystic arts and the paths of alternative dimensions. To describe Mordo, Feige says, “Mordo is a mentor and best friend to Stephen Strange in this film. He really is a good guy who has gone through the journey that Strange is currently going on before, and he acts as a guide for Strange when he gets to this facility. He introduces him to The Ancient One who is the head teacher for this organization.”
Explaining the reasoning behind casting Chewitel Ejiofor as Mordo, Derrickson offers, “When it came to casting Mordo, I wanted to find an actor who could complement Benedict as Doctor Strange and who could work at the same deep levels as Benedict. As soon as Chiwetel Ejiofor came up we all wanted him—it was a one-conversation event. Chewitel is so good and so complex in everything he’s done. He’s always very nuanced.”
Ejiofor found a lot to like about his character: “The way that he is written is somebody who’s very loyal, very engaged and very powerful and has a great physical energy. Mordo is a great defender of ideas and ideals. That’s something that’s great to play especially when some of those things get challenged by an outsider.
“In the way that he presents himself there is a sort of inner calm, a kind of Buddhist energy, like a sense of coming from a place of peace and focus,” Ejiofor continues. “And then the sense of alert and direct action and being connected to one’s self and one’s environment. In that sense he’s a very honest, engaged character. That is the spirit he brings to his interactions with people. But also when things become difficult, that’s the spirit he brings to combat and to fighting.”
For Ejiofor, the “element of wonder” was the highlight of making “Doctor Strange.” “Some of the sequences that we’ve done and that we’ve achieved have been so intricate and so complicated but well realized by the filmmaking team,” he says. “For actors, of course, there’s that moment when you’re like the last element of this and you walk onto a set and are genuinely thrilled to be there. That’s happened a few times on this film for me. What I would really love people to experience when they see it, is just some of the kind of joy that I felt, and I know other members of the cast felt, when we saw and understood the visual sequences that we were going to be involved in.”
Benedict Wong plays Wong, the keeper of Kamar-Taj’s vast library of mystical tomes. For Wong, stepping on the Marvel set was an experience he will long remember. “Your suspension of disbelief is just gone. You walk on and the attention to detail that the production designers have made in this world is overwhelming. It’s just like you’ve stepped into Nepal and there you are training with everybody. And everybody’s doing their katas in this incredible backdrop. You are transported.”
Describing his character’s place in the “Doctor Strange” world, Wong offers, “Wong is a fellow sorcerer with the Kamar-Taj. He’s involved in the training of young disciples and gearing them up and getting them ready to protect against extra-dimensional forces. Wong is very serious about his job. He is the keeper and protector of the library of mystical books in Kamar-Taj. He is otherworldly wise and has seen everything before. Wong is stoic and loyal, and he’s forever watching. I think he comes from a long lineage of that.”
Mads Mikkelsen plays the villain Kaecilius. Like many students at Kamar-Taj, Kaecilius arrived at the mystical compound seeking the secrets of The Multiverse but he turned his back on The Ancient One and her teachings when he believed certain knowledge was being kept from him.
Explaining why Danish actor Mikkelsen is perfect for the role, Broussard says, “We really needed someone with an incredible amount of sinister gravitas, someone that you knew you did not want to have Strange thrown in the mix against. Mads is amazing. He has an incredible, very unique, charismatic presence and can deliver fear and sinisterness with just a look or the way he carries himself.”
When Mikkelsen was approached to be in “Doctor Strange,” it did not take long for him to jump on board. “Scott Derrickson pitched it to me, and he ended up saying magic and flying Kung Fu,” Mikkelsen says. “I said, ‘Hold it right there. I’m on.’ It’s a world of a 15-year-old boy’s fantasy. Everything we ever dreamt of when we were kids is what we’re doing right now on this film.”
Although the Kung Fu may have been an irrefutable element, it was the story that appealed to Mikkelsen as an actor. “We’re dealing with a man who is a fantastic surgeon and who has a touch of arrogance to him,” he comments. “When something terrible happens, he has to confront his fears and his beliefs. I thought that was a very human and brilliant way of setting up a Super Hero. Let him start there and see where he goes.”
Describing his character, Mikkelsen says, “Kaecilius is a character who if the majority is looking for the truth here, he’s looking over there for the truth. He’s caught up on the wrong side of the river in a sense. He believes if he’s going that way the world will be much more beautiful and all his questions will be answered eventually.”
Rounding out the talented cast are Benjamin Bratt as Jonathan Pangborn; Michael Stuhlbarg, playing Doctor Nic West; and Scott Adkins, who plays an ardent follower of Kaecilius.
CREATING THE WORLDS
Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” was shot in several locations around the world, including London, New York, Hong Kong and Kathmandu, Nepal. This, combined with the building of 21 practical sets, helped to ground the film in reality and add to the belief that the characters could exist.
Director Scott Derrickson wanted the film to be rich, dark and luminous, so he worked closely with production designer Charles Wood, researching the Marvel comics—particularly the art of Steve Ditko—plus photography and art for visual references. Pre-vis (pre-visualizations) were critical for the production, and they were carefully worked on for over a year as designs needed to be created for environments that do not exist in reality. These pre-vis served as a guide for filmmakers in executing the scenes.
Concept art became a roadmap of how the film should look. Wood’s team broke the story down, with each artist taking a section of the film to begin to define the language of the film’s design. They needed to take into consideration that some of Strange’s journey takes place in reality and some of it in otherworldy places. To help realize Derrickson’s vision, the Art Department created approximately 800 drawings, 3000 concept drawings and 40 set models over the course of the film.
In order to navigate the story, as it transitions from one reality to another and into two, three, four dimensional worlds and beyond, color, light, reflection and graphics were all intrinsic to the design of the film. “We tried to introduce that luminescent sense of color and light and reflection into a lot of these kind of dreamy worlds,” Wood says. “A lot of the spaces we produced are quite graphic as well. Because the film is based on a comic, we were always striving for imagery that was strong and graphic, not so much colorful but rich, which segues into these magical spaces that Doctor Strange visits. It’s an interesting film because you’re never quite sure when you open that door on a real set what you’re going to step into.”
For the look of the film, Wood examined references of atmosphere, barnacles and coral, collapsed buildings, damaged buildings, desert landscapes, Ditko structures, Eldritch light, installation art, sculptures, interior spaces, medical spaces, spacetime, surrealism, textures and patterns, twisted buildings and the underground.
Cumberbatch found the outstanding practical sets awe-inspiring, and comments, “Every set we stepped onto, Charles Wood had just surpassed himself. Every single set is a sublime work of art—the amount of labor and attention to detail in them. The scales have been vast on some of these sets. It is extraordinary to work in those environments because you don’t have to fake it in your head.
“Every single set is a reminder of how big a film universe you’re part of. Instead of being debilitating or dwarfing, it’s utterly inspiring. You just lean into it. You still have to concentrate on getting your performance right. You can’t scale it up to the drama of the scenery. But it’s so epic in reality that you sometimes feel that you don’t have to do that much to honor it. It’s going to be a mind-blowingly beautiful film as well as a stunning visual effects fest. That’s in no small part thanks to the extraordinary construction of these beautiful sets and everything that’s in them,” the actor concludes.
Having never been part of a Marvel film before, Ejiofor was equally impressed when he stepped on set. “The overall design of the film is remarkable,” he says. “I haven’t done a Marvel film before, so I don’t know how the size and the scale and the intricacies of these sets compare to other ones, but certainly for me I was kind of completely mind-blown by the scale of it and the craftsmanship. You could investigate any inch of the set and totally be in awe of what was being achieved. Amongst all the other things that I think are amazing about this project, I think that that the production design of it is really staggering.
“It’s a sort of 360-degree experience. You’re just part of it and I love that, especially with something like this that requires a bit of a leap of imagination. To have design elements that are completely in control of that makes you feel like everybody who is working on the look of the film and the visual landscape of the film is so completely aware of what it is,” Ejiofor concludes.
PRINCIPAL SETS & LOCATIONS
The hospital-based scenes were built and decorated on stages in London; however, Scott
Derrickson, Ben Davis (DP) and Charles Wood visited New York’s operating rooms and emergency rooms during prep. They looked at ultra-modern technical operating rooms, as well as frenetic ERs to guide them towards the lighting and textures they would need to create a realistic hospital onscreen.
“Whatever we had to do, had to be authentic,” says Wood. “That was really important. So the first thing we did was meet a neurosurgeon in New York. I thought I was going to meet with him for a few minutes and talk to him because I knew nothing, obviously, about neurosurgery. But he took me to a live operation, which was quite something. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The majority of the medical equipment used on the hospital sets was real and sourced from all over the world, especially Germany, France, and the United States. “You realize the medical profession is a very international business,” says Wood. “And it’s a very bespoke business. And an operating table alone is worth tens of thousands of pounds.”
For the hospital scenes, the aim was to find as many extras with genuine medical experience as possible as it would add to the realism of the background scenes. Once cast, the extras were allocated to scenes relevant to their actual experience. ER nurses and real-life paramedics were enlisted in the emergency room scenes. Most of the medical extras had little or no experience on a film set, so it was important to add a few veteran background artists to help them understand the workings of a feature-film set.
For research purposes, Benedict Cumberbatch spent time with neurosurgeons, including Dr. William Harkness, who was the medical advisor for the film. Harkness helped Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams gain an understanding of how doctors move and work, the research they undertake, and the details and pressures they face as surgeons.
Playing a neurosurgeon was a first for Cumberbatch, who says of the experience: “It’s extraordinary to step into all of these environments. The surgeries were so detailed, accurate, beautifully lit, and beautifully manageable as playing spaces. But they were still very specifically attended to as places that could possibly carry out some neurosurgery, minus the 21st century unscrubbed-up film crew. Procedurally we were going through drills with our technical advisor, Dr. Harkness. There was also a fantastic nurse on set. A lot of the extras had practiced in medicine or surgery. So we had a great deal of expertise floating around in that room.”
Rachel McAdams adds, “We had some really great medical experts with us and Benedict was always picking their brains. We were working on dummies; we were not working on actual hearts and brains, but he wanted to know what was going on with every little artery and valve.”
STRANGE’S NEW YORK APARTMENT
Stephen Strange’s New York apartment was created at Longcross Studios in London. The design was for a retrofitted, modernized space within a downtown New York warehouse, with cast-iron columns attesting to its former history. The decor was purposely simple, yet expensive, with smooth lines and glass. The front door was based on an actual warehouse door. If the apartment existed in its entirety, it would be approximately 100×65 ft., which is an impressive size for a New York apartment.
Based on an early 20th century loft, Strange’s apartment fits a man of his wealth and stature but also his personality. As Wood explains, “We wanted to get a lot of reflections from the city into the room because it’s all about him pondering, thinking, and all alone. So a lot of the surfaces were lacquered. We tried to get the floor to reflect in the ceiling and the city to reflect in the glass, which was a complete nightmare for Ben Davis, our DP, but he’s brilliant like that. So it’s actually a very simple space.”
The apartment flooring was recycled from the Farmhouse set in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and over half the glass was recycled from the Avengers Tower. The design of the set also had to take into account that it would be revamped twice into hospital sets.
KATHMANDU and KAMAR-TAJ
Production kicked off by filming some exterior scenes involving Stephen Strange in Kathmandu, Nepal, in November 2015. It was decided that the scenes taking place in the Kamar-Taj, the sanctuary where the disciples train, would be designed and built on the soundstages in London.
On the benefits of shooting on location, the director says, “I’ve been doing it for a while now and every time you go on location, you see things that you didn’t imagine that spark new ideas. In this case the most surprising scout that we did was Kathmandu, Nepal. I’ve been all over the world, but there’s no place on the planet like Kathmandu. It is a city with almost no Western influence in it. It is a large city that is so deeply mystical and religious in all operations, and in a most peaceful, beautiful, colorful way. The visual qualities of that city are unlike anyplace else.”
The first scene of principal photography was shot in Pashupati, home of Pashupatinath Temple, a famous Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. There were 300 extras, made up of locals and tourists, along with cows and dogs. The production had an audience of curious locals, as well as the many families of wild monkeys that freely roam Nepal.
Cumberbatch considers kicking off the shoot in Nepal an important aspect of the film: “Kathmandu was absolutely vital to this film. I think not least because it’s so based in something that is exotic. It was a magical way to start the shoot. It’s important to a film like this, which has a profound gearshift into a spiritual and otherworldly dimension, that the portal for that be in a place that actually happens in itself, regardless of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be incredibly spiritual and marvelous.”
Shooting in Nepal out of the gate was an experience that Chewitel Ejiofor credits with helping him understand his character. “We were in Nepal for a few days at the start of the shoot,” he relates. “It was great to get a sense of the reality of that place and good for my character, Mordo, to connect with the sense of spirituality that you find in places like that in the world. I hadn’t been to Nepal before. But it’s only when you’re there that you really get that sense of connectivity and human relation, which is so rare. It was a good starting point for my character, understanding where he is and what his overall mindset is at the beginning of the film.”
By the time production reached the fourth day of shooting, they had a large crowd of Benedict Cumberbatch fans who had followed them to Patan Durbar Square, the site of the day’s shoot. Patan Durbar Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was sadly badly damaged in the 2015 earthquakes. There was a crowd of hundreds shouting Cumberbatch’s name, so he decided to go to a window upstairs in a building overlooking the square to wave at the crowd. That was an instant success as the crowd went wild for him.
But for Cumberbatch, filming in Kathmandu was a very personal experience as well. “Being in Kathmandu with an entire film crew was astonishing, and kept on surprising me,” Cumberbatch comments. “These beautiful places that you’d be lucky enough to get to as a traveler, let alone call it working, and then to watch that sunset over Boudhanath Stupa after a day of filming. That was perfection, really special, and tied the whole experience together for me. It was a brilliant footnote at the beginning of this long journey.”
Back in London, production created a Kathmandu street, loosely based on a real street in Nepal, which led into the Kamar-Taj courtyard. The set used real fruits, vegetables and meats, and for added authenticity, there were dogs and pigeons on set. “The recreation of Kathmandu in London was so extraordinary,” Cumberbatch enthuses. “They recreated an actual street, and there were Nepalese extras here that had relatives who lived on that street. They were freaking out with the notion that if they went into that shop, they’d then be able to go upstairs to say hello to their cousin. We brought with us the smell of incense, maybe not quite the kind of full-on smell of being in a town like that, but even on that level, the odd flash of smoke or incense or food stuff, whatever it was that the set was being dressed with, was so evocative that you felt like you were back there. You could’ve just blinked and been back in Kathmandu. It’s extraordinary.”
The idea was that the shots of Benedict Cumberbatch actually on the streets of Kathmandu would blend seamlessly when he turns the corner and walks onto the Kamar-Taj set on the soundstage at Longcross. “We did a few days filming in Kathmandu, filming Benedict in some of the temples, some of the streets, and he ends up going around the corner and it’s a set in London,” Wood relates. “That’s tricky. That’s very hard because Kathmandu is a most beautiful city and it’s steeped in history. It’s many millennia old, I’m sure. To transition from that level of detail and history, with the shape of the streets, the warping of the buildings, these ancient bricks and these ancient tiles was a real challenge. It was quite terrifying because if it didn’t work, it really didn’t work. But the art directors did a great job of putting that street set all together.”
But that was not the end if for Wood and his team—they then had to create the inside of the Kamar-Taj, where The Ancient One and her disciples reside. Wood had an army of sculptors creating beautiful columns and wall decorations and craftsmen building screens and doors to evoke the exotic feel of the ancient sanctuary.
Wood’s goal was to make an audience feel that The Ancient One really existed in this place. “And that it was truly spiritual, truly magical and was truly on top of a building that we photographed in Kathmandu that really existed there,” Wood concludes.
Fans will be happy to learn that Doctor Strange will inhabit his archetypal Sanctum Sanctorum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Sanctum Sanctorum is intended to be a home for a Master of Mystic Arts, and as such it is a fortress that defends the West from dark forces. The Oculus (the round window) in the Chamber of Relics is the symbol of the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Eye of Agamotto is of the same design.
“Every hero has a base of operations,” Feige says. “Thor is traditionally in Asgard, Tony Stark, of course, his Malibu mansion and Stark, now Avengers, Tower. Dr. Strange has that as well, and early in the film it’s the hospital in which he works, and midway through the film it’s this temple in Kathmandu named Kamar-Taj where he does much of his learning. There’s an incident that happens there that sends him back to New York where he is from, and there’s a place called the Sanctum Sanctorum, which is right there on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village—where it’s been since the early incarnations of this character in the comic books.”
In the Marvel Comic Universe Stephen Strange is a New Yorker, so New York itself is a huge part of the mythology of Doctor Strange. It was important to the filmmakers to stay faithful and close to Bleecker St. to create a New York that nodded to the comic origins of Doctor Strange, so the exterior street look of the Sanctum Sanctorum was shot in Greenwich Village. “We knew we had to go to New York and actually shoot some of that texture to make sure it felt like you’re really there,” Broussard says, “but Bleecker Street these days is very commercial with a lot of high-end shops and doesn’t quite look like the village of Stan Lee’s 1960s. We found another corner that had the same feel that we think they were going for in the comics and digitally inserted the Sanctum Sanctorum and designed its architecture to feel like it belonged in a New York of yesteryear.”
Creating the design of the Sanctum Sanctorum set back at Longcross Studios was a challenge for the production designer and his team. Wood explains, “You can easily fall into this Victorian space, which is right because it’s from a building of that period, meaning the late 19th century. But what we wanted to do was give it a twist. So we looked at art deco. We looked at Bauhaus. We looked at neo-classical architecture and we looked at regency. And what we tried to do is come up with this slightly odd mix of architectural styles. Meaning when you go into the house you can’t quite put your finger on when this house was built—we wanted to make it ambiguous.”
The other challenge was scale, in the sense of how big the house would look and be. “I wanted Benedict to walk through the front door and go, ‘Whoa,’ which he did actually, which was great,” Woods says. “That’s exactly the reaction I hoped he would have because it needs to be that. It’s a Valhalla. It’s a big character in our movie.”
According to Wood, the Sanctum Sanctorum has its own personality. “It’s impossibly long. It’s never-ending. It does weird things. You don’t want to get stuck behind a certain door. It’s very dark, but it’s not dark for the sake of being dark. It’s shadowy. It’s mysterious without being creepy. And then the color palette was very strong in that. We looked at indigo as one very strong color—deep, deep blues. Strange is in blue, at least for some of the time, so we tried to play on that, adding deep vermilions, cochineals and very deep lacquers.”
It took nearly 10 months to finalize the design and the details of the Sanctum Sanctorum foyer with five artists working on the design from start to finish. The six columns in the foyer were a unique design sculpted in plaster to look like wood and were 30-feet high. The mandala design in the foyer floor at the bottom of the staircases measured 30 feet in diameter and was made using MDF (medium-density fiberboard) panels and finished to look like wood and marble with metal details.
The Sanctum Sanctorum features the Gateway Rotunda and the Chamber of Relics. The Gateway Rotunda is a round room containing three window gateways that lead to other earthbound locations. The Chamber of Relics is a dark, museum-like place with relics housed in glass cases. The glass cabinets used to house the relics were made by the prop department.
Many designs were created and developed for the final design of the iconic, curved glass oculus window. It took roughly four months to develop, build and fit the oculus window, which was a clay sculpt cast in fiberglass and painted bronze. When completed it measured 14 feet in diameter. The fantastic view of Greenwich Village seen through the oculus was a hand-painted backdrop, which took three weeks to complete.
To start the process of recreating the Hong Kong Street set in London, filmmakers traveled to Hong Kong to do research and film aerial plate shots of the city. Art director Jordan Crockett took hundreds of reference images and surveyed shop-dressing details.
Once back in the U.K., filmmakers surveyed the existing Longcross location and started to map out a street layout complete with road markings, junctions, street signs and storefronts. “We put a lot of time into studying how people do business in Hong Kong,” Wood says. “And the type of cars people drive, what a post box looks like, what a traffic light looks like, down to the tiniest little sticker on a handrail. It’s all here.”
The finished set was 570 ft. long, with an overall set build of 1430 ft. and was the biggest piece of work for the art department. The set featured 35 shop fronts, which were all based on real shops found in Hong Kong—restaurants, food stalls, dry cleaning, car mechanics, watch shop, butcher, herbal medicine, general stores, paper and printing. In addition there were over 80 neon signs. Production even built a roof over the entire set to protect it from rain.
The Hong Kong street scenes were shot in several stages of destruction, commencing with clean and gradually becoming destroyed. This is the opposite of how it will be shown on screen as in the script the destruction is in reverse, so it goes from destroyed to clean. This meant that everything had to be aged down, from shop signs to vehicles.
Alexandra Byrne, who is no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the film’s costume designer. “This is my fifth film with Marvel, so I could be called a Marvel veteran,” Byrne says. “I started with the first ‘Thor,’ which was my first Super Hero, my first time in L.A., and my first time reading a comic book, so it was a learning curve in the extreme. Obviously, I’ve learned a bit since then.”
For Byrne creating the costumes was about having respect for where the characters started off in the comics. From there it was an organic process. As ideas were sketched and designs discussed, the costumes instinctively came together. “I tried to read as many of the ‘Doctor Strange’ comics as I could because it’s gone through different generations with different artists working on it,” Byrne says. “Everybody will have an image of Strange from one of the comics. As a designer I try to know as much as I can before making choices. I love the work of Steve Ditko. I love looking at that. I tried to look at everything to understand.”
Byrne’s research included not only looking at the comics but looking at ancient mysticism and fashion as well. She then created mood boards and looked for the language that was particular and true to each character, in order to give a sense of gravitas and simplicity, and subtle nuances within the costume. Byrne and her team took into account walk, posture, fighting style and the specific information about the character that the costume needed to relay. As the story hits various moments, the costumes help tell the story.
Byrne started by defining what the people in the Kamar-Taj compound would wear. The Kamar-Taj is a centuries-old school for learning the mystic arts, so presumably it would have a hierarchy of disciplines as well as different types of students. From that language, Byrne began to create the types of looks needed, and throughout the film, people’s ranks are designated by the clothes they wear. There are uniforms for each stage of learning: Novice (gray); Apprentice (red); Disciple (blue); and Master (individual choice). The Disciple costumes have motifs based on runes and ancient language embroidered on them.
When Stephen Strange is new he is a novice, so he wears a plain gray uniform. As he progresses through the ranks, more color gets brought into what he is wearing, eventually ending up in a blue look, which serves as the foundation for what will become the classic comic-book look.
The color palette for the film is primarily block colors, purposely designed to not be distracting. There are tone-on-tone details, for example, the varying shades of blue for Strange’s hero costume. Byrne says, “Within the Kamar-Taj, you start at novice, then apprentice, then disciple. So we decided the disciples would have motifs, which are based on the runic language we developed embroidered onto their clothes. I decided to use color very much as a block color but to actually do color so that it’s tone-on-tone detail. So the embroidery is all shades of blue within blue so that as you come into the character more you keep discovering more about him.”
It was important that Kamar-Taj costumes look real. They needed to be dirty and worn and have visible repairs to support the notion that the characters wear them for training, and with the role of martial arts in the film, it was imperative that the main cast and supporting characters could move freely in them. They are not Super Hero costumes made from Lycra but rather layered pieces that were labor-intensive to create as they had to be detailed and individualized for each actor. Up to 20 stunt costumes needed to be made as well, with technical solutions to enable movement.
A challenge for Byrne and her department was the Cloak of Levitation that Strange ultimately wears. In the “Doctor Strange” mythology, the deep red Cloak of Levitation is a 12th century design by the weaver Enitharmon. It is a unique cloak that allows the wearer to fly and levitate. The cloak can choose to act of its own free will, and it can also be commanded to act by the person wearing it.
“The cloak is a huge challenge because it has to do so many things,” Byrne says. “It needs to be original. It needs to move. It needs to behave. It needs to be extraordinary. It needs to be unknown. You can draw to a certain point but after that it is about making prototypes. It’s all about the weight of the fabric, how the fabric moves, how it drapes. So we just started making, them and we have a graveyard of prototypes. It’s a lot of red hanging on rails, but that’s part of the process.”
The creation of the cloak was the biggest piece of work for the costume department, and took the longest amount of time due to the intricate design details, which included embroidery, printing and flocking. Various versions of the cloak were made for filming purposes, depending on what action was required for the scene. There was also a hero version for the walking and talking scenes; the action cloak; cloaks of different weights, lengths, shapes and collars; a sport version that has less fabric and was made slightly differently for less weight and easy movement; a sport short version for fighting and running; and a shoulder-only cloak for VFX replacement. In total, 18 Cloaks of Levitation were made for the film.
The silhouette of the Cloak of Levitation is hugely important in the comic-book world. Alexandra Byrne’s design for the cloak has a symmetrical silhouette with an asymmetrical design. “The silhouette is important when you go into some of these psychedelic worlds,” Byrne explains. “The hit of color on the screen is going to be enormous. So for a moment while you’re taking that in, your character is going to become a silhouette even if they are in full color. But they are still going to read as that until the audience has gotten their bearings within this world.”
The cloak was very heavy and after the Eye of Agamotto was placed around his neck, it was the last part of the costume that Benedict Cumberbatch was dressed in on set. The cloak was then held in place by two screws attached to the body of the costume that were concealed by two brass wings. This prevented the weight of the cloak from strangling the actor and also prevented it from swiveling out of place.
Offering insight into Doctor Strange’s overall look, Derrickson says, “Marvel has always done such a good job of respecting the mythologies that they’re adapting when it comes to the look of characters and when it comes to costumes. They explored the various looks that he had from different artists in different periods. Sometimes he’s all in blue and sometimes it’s a more traditional red cloak and the dark blue clothing. Different artists tried different things based on the period in which they were working, so there was a nice range of possibilities to play with. But it’s also very actor specific; you can’t just put one costume on any actor. So they constructed the costume specifically to make visual sense for Benedict.”
In the comics, Doctor Strange has a very unique costume with a very high collar and cape, based on the ancient robes of the organization that he finds himself with. Commenting on his look in the film, Feige says, “Our incredibly talented visual development team used all of that as the basis for what will be embodied by Doctor Strange. It needed to be iconic in its own right. It needed to be very different from any of the other Avengers because Doctor Strange will most likely find himself standing one day next to Tony Stark, next to Thor, next to the other Avengers. So we wanted him to very much feel a part of the broader team and yet completely individualized and separate from anybody else.”
The total look of Doctor Strange was meticulously thought out as his appearance changes over the course of his arduous journey. “We were really keen to go for as close a look as possible. We wanted something that moved and that had dynamism for all of the action that he was going to go through,” Cumberbatch informs. “His look needed to tell a story as well as his progressive achievement within the Kamar-Taj. So there’s this whole kind of notching up from apprentice to master that you see within his costume and his look.”
In the beginning of the story, Strange is a well-kept man, who takes care of himself and looks great despite the fact that he doesn’t fuss with his appearance. But after the accident that ruins his hands, Strange begins to let himself go. As Cumberbatch explains, “It’s not about his appearance anymore at all. He becomes obsessed with curing his hands so everything else goes by the wayside. Clothes tell a story, though, as well as his unkempt reality, with facial hair and crazy wild long hair. He starts to sell everything, so the remaining things get a little bit more worn.
“There aren’t too many buttons on the clothes because of the shake in his hands, so the clothes get simpler on the outside. They’re not stylish and really get overused. They’re dirty and frayed around the edges. That detailing is very important for an actor to help build a character. All of this was brilliantly considered and conceived by Alexandra Byrne and her team,” Cumberbatch concludes.
Byrne worked closely with Jeremy Woodhead (hair and makeup designer) to further define Strange’s look. For close-ups onscreen, the eye color, hair color and length, the collars on the costumes, etc., all needed to be taken into consideration. “The comic book obviously has very, very identifiable characteristics for Doctor Strange, which is the gray temples and the goatee beard and the dark hair, none of which Benedict has in real life,” Woodhead says. “We experimented with lots of different beards of different colors. In the comic books they’re quite dark to match his hair. But that didn’t actually suit Benedict when we came to test it. So we lightened that up and put some gray through it and worked with different wigs and different looks to actually evolve the Doctor Strange hero look, which as it turned out ended up being his own hair with extra little bits added in.”
Creating Strange’s mangled hands after the accident was a challenge that fell to Woodhead and his team. As Woodhead explains: “It basically broke down into five different stages. And each stage had a different set of molds. For some of the scenes we actually see the operations. We had to make prosthetic hands for those where you actually see the skin is opened up and the surgeon’s tools are in there kind of pulling things around. They look like Benedict’s hands in the film. The scars had to be kind of mapped as well, so it was working very closely with the art department and the props department to get all those sorts of things right. We had to consult a surgeon to ask about how the scars worked and what they would be like after each operation and where the cuts would be and so on.”
When it came to designing the look for Tilda Swinton’s character, The Ancient One, Byrne wanted to find a language that was very particular and true to the character. For the costume designer, it had to have gravitas to it and simplicity. Describing her approach, Byrne says, “I think that it is all about setting up very subtle contradictions and nuances within the costume. So we worked very closely with filmmakers in developing the walk, the posture, the style of fighting, and worked very closely with Jeremy Woodhead [makeup and hair designer] because obviously how she looks in her face and her hair is very important because it’s about the sum of information that you’re bringing to the character.”
Elaborating on The Ancient One’s look, Swinton says, “With The Ancient One, we wanted to go for something very fluid, very sort of non-specific and pure and ageless. Neither young nor old: only ageless. So we ended up going for something pretty raw and unadorned and modern and that has an archaic feel too: something eternal. The Ancient One carries deep scars on her skull, indicating a long, long life, the survival of great battles, a warrior’s path: the toughness of this detail underscores the light touch of her presence with a dark and serious note: she may make one a delicious cup of tea, but The Ancient One is also the ultimate badass.”
Continuing, she adds, “Doctor Strange is in a human universe and we in Kamar-Taj live in the modern world. But at the same time we’re touching eternal looks. In terms of costume, we draw on a deliberately wide spectrum of influences across the ages and the planet: for example, the plaited linen detail on the bodices echoes the bindings of Egyptian mummies, the layering of the many-lined coats recalls tailoring across both centuries and continents. Buddhist robes were definitely a reference in developing The Ancient One’s costume, not least in the color palette, although perhaps the strongest influence is contemporary fashion designer Haider Ackermann, who inspired much of the leatherwork and the flowing silhouette overall. The Ancient One’s look is a glorious mash-up, historically resonant and freshly present in the same gesture.”
After several wigs were tried, Woodhead and the filmmakers decided that the bald look would be perfect for The Ancient One, so a whole prosthetic was made with scars as well to speak to the fact act that she has obviously been through fights and battles in her over 500-year history. Putting the bald-cap prosthetic on Swinton takes about an hour and a half to do with makeup and involves hiding her own hair underneath it.
For Ejiofor’s costume, Byrne referred to the fact that Mordo is one of the masters of the Kamar-Taj, so his costume needs to befit his status. As she states, “The most important part costume-wise is that he feels like he is just one of the masters within the Kamar-Taj. And then his story takes off from there. So I don’t want to dress his story. I want to dress his origin.”
Describing Mordo’s look, Ejiofor says, “The costumes have a sense of something ancient, something spiritual. Mordo’s costume has a robe-ish quality to it but also there’s a physical practicality to it. There’s a fighting practicality in the way that his bands work and the way that his harnesses work. There’s a great juxtaposition in the character with this peaceful quality and this readiness for conflict as well.”
The props team, led by Barry Gibbs, created many props, including the weapons. In many cases, there were three versions: hero, stunt and VFX. Among the first things they concentrated on were the objects found in the Chamber of Relics, which are magical objects. These are objects that have been enchanted with a finite and specific magical ability. They exist because some types of magic are too powerful to be channeled through the human body and need to be hosted or contained within an object.
The relics made by the props department include: the Eye of Agamotto; the Staff of Living Tribunal belonging to Mordo; the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak; the Wand of Watoom; and the Brazier of Bom’Galiath.
The Eye of Agamotto is particularly important to Strange. It is an amulet worn around the neck that can radiate a powerful, mystical light that allows the wearer to see through all disguises and illusions, and into alternate dimensions. “There are four designs for the eye: the New York eye, the London eye, the Hong Kong eye, and also another version, which opens, and reveals the power,” Gibbs informs. “We don’t just make four; we probably end up making nearer sixty of them. We make stunt ones; we make ones which light up; we make lightweight ones; we make hero ones. The real ones we cast in bronze; the others are normally made from resin or rubbers.”
For the director, creating the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation for the film were very important tasks to get right. Derrickson explains, “Those were things that anybody who read ‘Doctor Strange’ comics when they were young found to be unique in not just the Marvel universe but in the universe of comic books. These two particular things that were worn by this character had a presence and a power that was greater than what you saw in other Super Heroes’ wardrobes. The Cloak of Levitation is almost like a personality. It does things even apart from Doctor Strange. In the comics the Eye of Agamotto is almost like deus ex machina in half the episodes, where when the situation is unwinnable, Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto. But I did take very seriously the need to bring the Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto into the modern world and make them cool, make them believable and make them interesting.”
In addition to relics, the prop department also created many weapons and devices, including Sling Rings, held objects resembling brass knuckles that when spun open dimensional gateways to place on Earth; Strange’s luminous whip and rune shields; Mordo’s boots; and Kaecilius’ two scythes of light and space shards.
One of the biggest stunts in the film is the crash scene where Strange’s hands are irreparably mangled. The crash scene involved Stephen Strange’s car, a beautiful Lamborghini, whose top speed reaches 220 mph. Lamborghini provided six cars for the UK shoot and two cars for the New York shoot. All the Lamborghinis were painted and vinyl-wrapped to ensure that they all matched perfectly. Each vehicle had to be modified and made safe for both the actor and stunt driver. There were hero cars, which were pristine, as well as special effects and stunt versions.
The audience sees Strange exit an underground garage in his Lamborghini to attend a black-tie event. The car leaving the garage was filmed in New York City, as was the coverage on the Westside Highway and through the Palisades, including aerial coverage. But the scene where the car skids and smashes into a crash barrier was filmed in the U.K. For the crash sequence, the SFX Lamborghini was crashed twice, using stunts and pulleys. The car crash stunt driver was Ben Collins, also known as Stig from the TV show “Top Gear.”
In the magic of post-production, the car flies over the edge of the road, through a forest and then lands in the water. The car submerged in the water was actually shot, but was a technical challenge for production to execute safely, with a limited number of takes. The final part of the scene is when Strange is seen underwater in the car. This was filmed in a tank at Longcross with Cumberbatch in a section of the submerged Lamborghini.
On the excitement of filming the crash scene, Cumberbatch says, “I was in a water tank at 4 a.m., strapped into a Lamborghini, cut in half, being turned upside down, post the car crash, trapped inside the carcass of the car half-unconscious as the water was rising into it with a camera going underneath to capture me upside down. It was so surreal.”
Julian Daniels, a dancer and martial artist with a black belt in karate-do, came on board to teach the actors hand movements and gestures to complement the magical elements of the story. Daniels is a celebrated master of the art of tutting, which is a very specific sub-style of popping, a street dance that came from California in the late 1960s. Tutting uses the arms and hands to make geometric shapes, like angles and boxes. It also breaks down even smaller to finger tutting, which is making boxes and shapes with just fingers.
Daniels started with a drawing that the VFX department gave him depicting what is happening in the scene and what the image is that will be the product of the hand movement conjuring. Daniels then works on the movements that will trace the image. For example, Daniels offers, “Say we have a drawing of Tilda sitting cross-legged with a huge circular mandala-type thing in front of her. I take the print-out and sit cross-legged on the floor in front of it, working on some way to concoct it with hands.”
Tilda Swinton was very involved with getting the hand movements to work for her in that scene and made suggestions that Daniels found very helpful. “At one point we were rehearsing the mandala in the mirror and it wasn’t quite working,” Daniels says. “Tilda suggested we try to draw parallels between the movements in the surgery that Strange does in the beginning of the movie. We went and watched some of that footage, focusing on the hands. And from that I went back and basically redid the entire thing and came back with something else that both of us were really on board with. And then that became the mandala. Tilda was definitely very involved with creating that one.”
In addition to developing the hand choreography the cast used to create the mandalas of light, Daniels also choreographed the synchronized kata dance on the rooftop of the Kamar-Taj, in which the Kamar-Taj students participated. Working together with fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, the team trained a group of 60 martial artists and extras to perform the movements intrinsic to the Kamar-Taj fighting style.
Commenting on the experience, Swinton says, “It was like being at a most delicious school. We were learning all these things that we would never otherwise have learned. You want to do something that draws on certain disciplines or certain traditions but at the same time you want to do something that’s never been done before. You want to make it original and the fight directors have done a phenomenal job of creating a particular style of fighting that only people who have studied under The Ancient One in Kamar-Taj will know.”
Summing up what may be a universal feeling, Mads Mikkelsen comments, “The preparation on this film has been immense in the sense of being physically prepared for this because it’s a certain fighting style they created for the film. They allowed us to do, if not all of it, most of it. It was tough but it was really fun. It’s not every day you get to smash glass and get paid for it.”
THE MYSTIC ARTS AND “DOCTOR STRANGE”
These concepts of the mystical arts and magic are represented and are utilized by the heroes and villains throughout “Doctor Strange”: