Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Marvel’s latest feature hits Blu-ray/DVD on February 28th, and among its many extra features is a commentary track from director Scott Derrickson. We gave it a listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Commentator: Scott Derrickson (director, co-writer)
1. The new Marvel opening logo made its debut on Doctor Strange.
2. He recorded the commentary the day before the film had its big premiere in LA. “So I’m doing this commentary track for better or for worse without knowing audience reactions, critical reactions, or box-office performance.” He prefers it this way as his approach to film-making has grown into a “philosophical perspective about making a movie, about film-making in general.” He says it’s the only real way to do so as “you can’t rely upon critical reactions or box-office to tell you whether or not you did a good job.”
3. Kamar-tage, the compounds acting as headquarters for the sorcerers, is set in four cities around the world. They wanted to ensure a global presence as the sorcerers are protecting the Earth, not just the United States.
4. The term used for the fractal effect is called “Mandlebrotting,” from mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. He’d seen it in various gifs and YouTube videos and was “mesmerized” by it.
5. He likes stories about magic, but he feels “that in cinema magic has grown a little tired.” Sounds like someone needs to sit down and watch Now You See Me. (But seriously, do not watch Now You See Me.)
6. His wife is a nurse so he gets flak if he messes up real medical/health-related details.
7. Strange’s Hippocratic oath as a doctor also guides his actions as a sorcerer/superhero in that his goal is to avoid doing harm. It’s an interesting approach as it leaves him fighting “evil” along the lines of heroes who never kill their opponent and therefore continually fight the same fight. What I’m saying is I look forward to the eventual meet-up between Strange and Deadpool.
8. He went through eight meetings with Marvel to get the job. “I remember counting them.” As with many of the other applicants, he brought a specific vision to his pitch, and it clearly appealed to Kevin Feige and the others. Derrickson gives Feige credit for handing the keys of these massive films to directors like James Gunn and the Russo brothers saying most studios wouldn’t have even considered them ‐ or him ‐ for the job. His only big-budget experience was The Day the Earth Stood Still which was less than half the budget of this one. “They respect passion, experience, and talent.”
9. Doctor Strange is Derrickson’s favorite comic book. Seems awfully convenient, but I’ll allow it.
10. He loves the presence of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” here, from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “one of the first great psychedelic albums.”
11. Part of what appeals to him about Strange is a character who’s defined by an expertise and success that he then loses through tragedy. “I really believe that tragedies and trauma… are often times the very things that are necessary in our lives to dislodge us from ourselves and to reckon who we really are.”
12. The three core elements he felt needed to be retained from the comics were Strange’s origin, his meeting the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and his introduction to sorcery. “Other than that there were a lot of things that could be taken or left from the comics.”
13. One of his favorite scenes in the film is the bit where Christine (Rachel McAdams) visits Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) apartment after the post-accident surgery. “Every time I would watch this scene cut together in the editing room I felt like I was looking at some indie film that we shot in an apartment in New York. It just has a quality of performance and drama that’s not typical for comic book movies and event movies.”
14. Hong Kong was chosen as one of the two Eastern cities “mostly for visual reasons just because of the look of that city.” Kathmandu, Nepal was picked in part because when Derrickson visited he felt like Strange does, “overwhelmed disorientation at the stimulus of the place and the visual power and uniqueness of it.”
15. The devastating earthquake hit Nepal after they scouted and approved the locales but before they were scheduled to begin filming. It destroyed some of the locations they had planned on shooting. “There were piles of rubble everywhere,” but he and Cumberbatch agreed that it would be beneficial to still shoot there as their tourism dollars could only help the local economy as did the hiring of locals as extras and crew members.
16. He acknowledges that hiring Swinton was the most controversial bit of casting to ever grace his career. “A bit unfortunate I think, a bit of it is due to the timing of our movie.” He says no issue arose after the first trailer dropped, and Derrickson also disputes the application of the term “whitewashing” in this situation. “The Ancient One is not always Asian in the comics,” he says, adding that the title is handed down over the years across various iterations. “Whitewashing” also implies racist intentions, and that’s an accusation he disputes without reservation. “I felt really tortured by the decision of who to cast in this role because I was up against felt like a bit of a no-win situation.” He says both Wong (played here by Benedict Wong) and the Ancient One were “bad racial stereotypes” in the comics, with Wong being the more offensive of the two. His decision was to distance the film from the stereotypical Asian ‐ the Fu Manchu type ‐ so his “first decision was to cast a woman,” particularly one in her fifties. He considered female Asian actors, but “I could not find a way to avoid having this character be what she is, a magical, mythical, martial arts mentor with some hidden motives and secrets, and everything I just described in a woman, if that woman is Asian, is a dragon lady.”
17. The trippy bit around the 30:15 mark has been referred to as “a little bit of the horror director coming out. For people who don’t watch horror it’s pretty horrific I guess.”
18. The imagery at 30:32 is a nod to Ant-Man and the quantum realm.
19. “Who are you in this vast multi-verse Mr. Strange?” is one of the film’s most important lines of dialogue, while the wi-fi password joke is one of its biggest laughs.
20. Cumberbatch was Derrickson’s and Marvel’s first choice for the title role, but while he wanted to do it he was attached to a play that would have meant delaying the start of production and missing their summer release date. They looked at other actors but always came back to Cumberbatch, so with some prodding by Derrickson Feige agreed to push back the release date to make it work.
21. He says Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Kaecilius, is “one of the most positive actors I’ve ever worked with, just constantly, perpetually positive in the best way. He was like a kid in a candy shop on this movie because he always wanted to be in a kung-fu movie.” Derrickson recalls first explaining the role to him and detailing the character’s motivation, “and he was very interested in all that, but when I told him he was going to have to train for the fight scenes” his excitement grew ten-fold saying “That’s all you had to say, I’ll do it, I’m in.”
22. “I tend to gravitate towards simple plots with complex characters,” he says, “because I think most bad movies are complex plots with simple characters.” If wannabe filmmakers reading this column take anything from them I hope it’s this lesson.
23. Test audiences wanted more of the training montage, so “we shot some more… and just added it to the movie.”
24. He says activists for more Asian representation in film “have to be loud and angry and dogged and relentless because otherwise, no one will listen to them. Representation of Asian-Americans throughout Hollywood cinema is abysmal.” His passion for the issue is clear, and while he previously explained his reasoning for casting Swinton ‐ “Whether you agree with it or not, I certainly did it with the best possible motives.” ‐ he was adamant about balancing it with the Wong character. “I made sure that he was essential. The trick was to invert him from the comics. Instead of a manservant, he’s a librarian. Instead of a sidekick, he’s Strange’s intellectual mentor.”
25. They used a high number of visual effects houses because of their short post-production schedule (which was Cumberbatch’s fault).
26. He says Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Mordo, is probably the person he spoke to most on-set, “because he knows everything. He is one of the most educated people you will ever meet, and when it comes to history he might be the most educated person I know.” Derrickson watched 12 Years a Slave the morning before he met Ejiofor, “and I just couldn’t speak without talking about” the film.
27. Mikkelsen not only loved the wirework but he was also good at it. “Fifty years old, and he did almost all of his own stunts during this [hallway] fight sequence.”
28. The mechanical device that Strange throws at Kaecilius is called the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. “We just took the name out as we edited the scene down.”
29. Origin stories face a problem of real estate ‐ running time ‐ making the decisions as to what should stay or go important ones. “That’s why I left Clea out of the movie, a critical character in the comic books, we didn’t have time to introduce here.” He adds that he “thought about using Nightmare as the primary villain, but it would have taken too much time to develop him.”
30. Derrickson draws a comparison between Strange and Kaecilius saying both men found themselves in a downward spiral before finding new purpose through investigating possibilities. The latter is the villain, but his monologue to Strange (while entrapped in the Crimson Bands) makes sense, but “can it ever be a good thing for that passion and that intention to drive you to kill people.” He makes the comparison to real-world zealots who accept collateral damage in the name of furthering religious belief.
31. The “astral battle” in the hospital draws heavily on a Doctor Strange graphic novel called The Oath. This sequence is the one he wrote in advance, essentially on spec, to get the job directing the movie. It was a twelve-page scene that was part of his ninety-minute presentation to Marvel.
32. He says McAdams’ reactions in this scene and throughout the film “were why I wanted Rachel McAdams in this movie. “She’s sweet and she’s strong, she’s got great physical comedic timing.” He fails to mention that she’s long since perfected the character of “woman whose male companion can travel through time” as evidenced in About Time, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Midnight in Paris.
33. Derrickson loves the Stan Lee cameo ‐ he’s a on a bus, reading Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception ‐ but he didn’t shoot it himself. James Gunn filmed it during production of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and it’s one of four that Lee took part in. One for Strange, one for Guardians 2, and presumably the other two for Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnorak. He has yet to meet Lee in person.
34. He’s heard people say the big city folding scene is a ripoff of Inception, but while they drew on it ‐ “I thought Inception was one of the most visually interesting movies of the last six or seven years, but it was seven years ago now that it came out and I felt like it was the tip of an interesting visual effects iceberg and I wanted to go crazy with the idea of spacial manipulation.” He says he was building on Christopher Nolan’s sequence the way Nolan was building on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the climactic snow fight at the end. That’s what we film-makers do, we borrow from other sources.”
35. The balcony chat between Strange and the Ancient One is “probably” his favorite scene in the movie. It contains the film’s most significant line ‐ “It’s not about you.” ‐ which Derrickson coincidentally referenced on Twitter while I was writing up the commentary.
Doctor Strange was the number one movie the weekend before and after Trump was elected.
The seminal line of the film: "It's not about you."
— N O S ⋊ Ɔ I ᴚ ᴚ Ǝ ᗡ ⊥ ⊥ O Ɔ S (@scottderrickson) February 15, 2017
36. He says he’s felt since he was a child that the real world is bigger than what he can sense around him, and that view of the world as a mystical, spiritual place is part of what drew him to this character. “I think every artist feels that way to some degree. I think every scientist feels that way to some degree, people who explore and venture into discovery, we all feel that way. I think people who don’t do that for a living feel that way and need things like art and science to show them what they don’t understand or to give them a sense that the world is a wondrous and magical place.”
37. Derrickson met James Cameron on the set of Avatar as he was welcoming filmmakers to show them his camera/motion capture technology, “and I remember him saying that one of the lessons that he learned in doing The Abyss was that he had focused so much on these big giant visual effects sequences that what he was surprised by was that the best scene in the movie was two people and an air tank.” This is accurate and also a good time to remind the world that The Abyss is still ‐ unbelievably ‐ unavailable on Blu-ray.
38. The bit with the cloak wiping Strange’s tears was Cumberbatch’s idea.
39. He says Marvel isn’t “motivated by how much money they make, they want to make money so they can keep making movies. I’ve had a great experience working with them.”
40. The scene where Mordo “starts to break” has Derrickson commenting that he thinks Mordo’s right in his take on the situation regarding the Ancient One’s duplicitous actions. It’s meant to offer a legitimate counterpoint to her and Strange. “He’s almost like a fundamentalist. He has the rules, the fixed way that things should be,” and that’s why he reacts so violently to these revelations. “In the end I sided with Strange in that sometimes you have to break the rules for the greater good.”
41. The end sequence includes Derrickson’s playful riff on the city-wide destruction that typically ends Marvel movies. “In this case instead of tearing up a city I wanted to put a city back together.”
42. He apologies to his high school English teacher for his handful of “umms” throughout the commentary.
43. As much as I love the forward fight/reverse destruction scene in Hong Kong, the film’s final beat ‐ the boss fight in the sky ‐ has the opposite effect for me. Derrickson explains its intention and purpose extremely well though and increases my appreciation of it a bit. “I love the idea of Strange going into a dimension without time and bringing time into it. It seemed important that the ending deal with time because time was so thematically present in the movie.” He describes Dormammu as “this big, lumbering god-like being that is trapped by time, at this point he doesn’t even get it, he doesn’t even really understand what’s happening to him because he doesn’t understand the concept of time, he doesn’t exist in a place where things age.” The scene ultimately is meant to show that Strange has finally accepted that it’s not all about him and that he has to make self-sacrifice.
44. He says he hit the target he set for his last film, Deliver Us from Evil, despite it not doing well critically or financially.
45. Mordo’s conclusion points to the complexities of these characters in relation to choosing the lesser of two evils. The character’s final stance about consequences and having a price to pay contains a truth, “but it’s too rigid. That’s the nature of fundamentalism. That’s the nature of closed-mindedness. In the end I believe in rules, I believe in truth versus falsehood, I believe in right and wrong, but I also believe that all things are relative to varying degrees depending on the circumstances.”
46. “The symbolism of the watch is a little heavy,” he says, “but it works for me.” It acknowledges that Strange “still carries the brokenness that is himself with him.”
47. Michael Giacchino scored the film, but he also composed the Marvel logo music that opens these films.
48. He stops the commentary early in the end credits saying he didn’t shoot the tag with Thor (Taika Waititi did) and “the last scene with Mordo speaks for itself.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“This movie was made out of respect for those Lee/Ditko comics.”
“It is a movie about magic, and I didn’t want magic to feel familiar.”
“I didn’t really set out to try and say anything with this movie.”
“What can I say about Mads.”
“This training section is longer than I expected it to be.”
“I don’t know if I could have done a better job on this movie with diversity.”
“This is the movie that I set out to make.”
Derrickson is a knowledgeable guy, both about his own film and film-making in general, and he delivers an entertaining and informative commentary. He’s a fascinating speaker too with fun anecdotes, detailed explanations, and great quotes at the ready from the likes of Walt Disney and Virginia Woolf. Fans of the film or even just of the process itself will want to give it a listen.