Q&A: Doctor Strange Screenwriter Jon Spaihts On Making The Mystical Real And Blowing Minds
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts has a busy few years ahead of him in the world of potential blockbusters. He’s involved with two of the biggest films at the close of 2016, handling the script for both Marvel’s introduction of comic-book sorcerer Doctor Strange and the space travel thriller/love story combo Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. He’s also behind the Mummy reboot starring Tom Cruise coming next summer and has been tied to the new take on Van Helsing that’s currently in development.
This streak has been years in the making, considering that Spaihts’s script for Passengers was first recognized by The Black List, a compendium of Hollywood’s best unproduced films, back in 2007 and was originally supposed to have Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon as the leads. Spaihts got the gig writing for Prometheus, his first real credit, off of the Passengers script, but that turned into a famously knotty situation filled with competing visions and Damon Lindelof rewrites.
Still, Spaihts gained a reputation as someone to turn to when you’re looking to bring big concepts to the screen in a relatable way. That skill was intrinsic to taking on Doctor Strange, which blends mysticism, abstract scientific concepts about the universe, levitating capes, reality-collapsing action sequences, Benedict Cumberbatch put-downs, and some seriously psychedelic visual effects. “The fundamental notion of a doctor and a man of science being forced to question his beliefs in the hope of healing himself and ultimately opening his rigid mind to previously unacceptable ideas, that’s very compelling to everyone,” says Spaihts. “It’s really an experience that we all have in miniature at various times in our lives as we’re growing intellectually and growing as people. We open our minds and the world gets bigger. He’s just having an extraordinary version of that experience.”
We spoke with Spaihts about Strange, the difficulties in bringing the realities of space travel to the screen, and the imperative goal to blow minds.
When you’re writing a script and you get to the part where the main character astral-projects and then goes on a transcendental journey where he realizes the magnitude of the multiverse around us, what does that look like on the page?
The first voyage outside himself that Doctor Strange takes in the film is a set piece that we called the “magical mystery tour” when we were thinking it up. Getting that right was in some ways part of the fundamental audition I had to do to move the thing forward and actually go write a script, so it was one of the earliest things I wrote. In its first incarnation it was a little bit more literal, kind of tunnelling down into the layers of our cosmos and then right through into the multiverse, but it always had the general form it has in the film where it is a kind of cosmic roller-coaster ride meeting a physics and philosophy lesson, with the goal of both shattering whatever preconceptions of glib understanding that our hero may have had and opening his eyes to the possibilities of a larger reality. It always had chapters, and it always evoked psychedelic visuals.
There are things in it that I never thought of that came along after I was on the project, and there are things in it that are very much part of that first written incarnation of it. The goal is just to imply and evoke, with a few poetic phrases, the mind-bending visuals you ultimately know need to give that sequence life.
Why was that scene such a crucial part in you getting the job?
All of us involved in the launch effort around this project—Kevin Feige [who runs Marvel Studios], our executive producer Stephen Broussard, our director Scott Derrickson, and myself—believed that we would be failing the challenge of this movie if our film was less audacious and mold-breaking than the comic books that we were inspired by. If we did less than Ditko and Lee to blow people’s minds, then we would have failed. So the goal was to find a vision of magic that had deep cosmic roots that seemed to go down to the very fundamental foundation of reality and make people believe that this is a magical power floating through the roots of existence and that sorcerers are doing a variation of what astronomers and cosmologists and religious philosophers are doing. It’s all looking for the root understanding of reality or multiple realities.
You have some history in the dot-com world, and there is a community within it that is interested in learning about different levels of consciousness and mind expansion. Were you ever part of those circles?
Well, I studied physics at Princeton when I was a college student, and my initial intention was to major in it but to also be a writer. What I discovered, because it was a very high-powered physics program with its own fusion reactor, was that to keep up with my fellow students in that program I would need to dedicate myself to math and physics all the time and let writing go. And I couldn’t let writing go, so I let physics go and became a science fan and a storyteller. But I never stopped loving the deeper sciences, and I read as deeply into lay science as I can. I try to keep up, and the scientific perspective is always part of my creative approach.
What does that keeping up entail?
It entails watching developments in both physics investigations testing the Standard Model and looking for supersymmetry over at CERN, and then the more theoretical cosmologists who are testing many-worlds theory and string theory as purely theoretical and mathematical explanations for our reality that might ultimately unify quantum physics and gravitation and macrophysics. All of it is way above my head, but it’s fascinating to chase and to stay as much abreast of as I can.
Do you get into this stuff for your own personal interest or is it more of a creative jumping-off point?
It’s always both things. I will never probably have the mathematical foundation to truly understand what string theorists are talking about, but it feels good, just for its own sake, to get as close to an understanding as you can. Then everything I learn about the world, whether it’s the simple arcana of how commercial products are manufactured and designed and how they reach our shelves and where the chips come from and who does the code, to more profound things like whether or not a black hole might be penetrable as a wormhole, whether or not universes might be accessible from here, whether space can be stretched and compressed to enable faster-than-light travel without violating physical law—all of those things have tremendous story potential.
How do you make those ideas fun or captivating to an audience?
All of those things in the abstract are just points of interest. You need a human story to intersect those points of interest with real stakes on the line, and then things start to be fun, where you can see the ramifications, you see the impact on people’s lives of big changes—like taking a man of science, like a surgeon, and robbing him of his understanding of the universe and forcing him into a newer and wider understanding.
What were some of the jumping-off points or some of the things you researched for the Doctor Strange script?
It was less a matter of doing specific scientific research for this film than connecting some of the ideas in this mystical universe of sorcery and the nature of the soul and the mind and the universe to scientific concepts from my own reading and general nerdiness. The multiverse as a real physical construct within physics overlapping with a more mystical understanding of many possible worlds—the notion of there being a root down at the quantum level between intention and reality, between consciousness and existence—it’s not a matter of trying to explain the mystery of magic away with a pat mechanism of a pseudoscience, it’s just a matter of trying to ground it in a domain. You want magic to feel real. You want the mystical understanding of the cosmos to feel compatible with a scientific understanding of the cosmos, like it extends our understanding rather than unwriting it.
I read an interview you did in 2012, around the release of Prometheus, when you had three prominent but unproduced science-fiction scripts, where they asked you why it was so hard to get an outer-space movie made. Now Passengers is coming out later this year and there other films on the way that are in that vein. So is it easier to get space movies made now or is it still hard?
It’s still hard. The string of recent successes in Gravity and The Martian and hopefully Passengers will help a lot. These are grounded movies with their feet in real physics and their dramatic meat in realistic stories. I think it will get easier to make them. To some extent it’s about teaching people about the possibilities, and to some extent it’s about technology. Space and spacecraft and zero gravity and so forth are very difficult to render. That may be one of the most fundamental differences. Real space movies have to involve zero gravity and a world without up or down. In space opera like Star Trek or Star Wars, the spaceships are always right-side-up with respect to one another and they’ve all got artificial gravity—you walk around them and they’re essentially nautical stories being told against the background of space. Real space travel is much weirder than that.
An X-wing fighter flies like an airplane. If you look at the physics, it’s actually quite impossible. Real vectoring in space, real orbital mechanics, is very counterintuitive, very strange, and very hard to render. It’s expensive, and there’s a learning curve. Some of it is about raising audience literacy to the point where they understand that. Now with the international space station generating a bunch of video, and Space X and other companies pursuing private space flight, I think it’s on all of our radars much more than it has been since the moonshots. The science of filmmaking is making these visions possible now.
What do you think our society hopes for the most from space travel, and what’s our biggest fear of it?
There are two great fears. The great fear on one end is that we will fail, that we won’t get there, that we’ll lose lives on the way, that it’s too hard and too far. All the way on the other end of the spectrum of possibility, the other great fear is that we might get there and not like what we find. The world may hold startling developments and shocking unknowns. That, of course, is where the classic fables of scary aliens come from, and the early Star Trek notions of encountering cosmic forces out there that could menace us or transform us and make us unrecognizable. The reality of space travel I think is somewhere in the middle. We will get there, it will be hard, it will take a long time, and in the end, the most extraordinary thing we will find when we get there will be ourselves.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that much more than wiser beings from beyond the stars bringing us enlightenment or death or salvation, we are likely to find ourselves the wisest beings on the scene. Making the right choices on the worlds we explore is going to be our biggest challenge.
Do you think we’re too eager to give up on the planet we have?
I think the greatest danger of the promise of space travel is that it can lead us to be cavalier about the world we live on, if we assume we can find or make more worlds. I think in our lifetimes we surely will not, probably in the lifetimes of our great-great-grand-descendants we will not. The more you learn about the real vastness of space and the real challenges of space travel, the more completely you appreciate the necessity of taking very good care of this world and being good stewards of it.