Screenwriter Jon Spaihts: Doctor Strange Has the Best Origin Story

The Doctor Strange co-writer on penning the Sorcerer Supreme’s story, Passengers, The Mummy and his new sci-fi adaptation.

Benedict Cumberbatch As Doctor Strange

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts first started making noise around Hollywood in a big way in 2007, when his original science fiction script Passengers made it onto the Black List of best unproduced screenplays. Flash forward a decade later, and not only are we two months out from the long-awaited release of Passengers (starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence), but Spaihts is also a co-writer — with director Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill — on the latest chapter in the epic Marvel Cinematic Universe saga, Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange is an origin story, similar in some ways to Iron Man, but the doctor (Benedict Cumberbatch) learns the ways of magic instead of technology and opens up a whole new mystical and supernatural wing in the MCU. It’s the first comics-based script for Spaihts, and also a rare foray (for him) outside of sci-fi, although he’s also worked recently in the horror genre on the upcoming premiere entry in the Universal Monsters shared universe, The Mummy.

We spoke with Spaihts by phone last week about Doctor Strange, The Mummy, Passengers and his other projects — including the legendary science fiction novel he’s currently in the midst of adapting.

Den of Geek: What if any mandate did you get from Marvel when you came on board to this?

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Jon Spaihts: Very little mandate. We really just sat down to figure out what the story ought to be. There was Kevin Feige and our executive producer Stephen Broussard from Marvel, and then Scott Derrickson and I, sitting around a table and trying to figure out what versions of a Dr. Strange story to tell. It was really in play whether we should tackle an origin story at all, or whether perhaps to release him into the world fully formed and then sketch his back story in on the fly. In the end, his origin story from the comics is so compelling that we found it undeniable.

His is one of the most elegant origin stories. You already had some great bones to work with there.

Absolutely. I think it is the best comic book origin story. It has a tragic sweep and an epic scale that makes it a real saga in its own right.

You do raise an interesting question, because I think maybe there’s a sense that the next step is to move away from origin stories a little bit and kind of fill in the back story as you go. Do you think that that’s a way for these films to move forward?

I think so. I think we’re seeing that begin to happen a little bit. We just saw the Black Panther step into an ensemble film, and make his introduction in that as a hero already. I don’t actually know how the Black Panther film is going to go. I don’t know the story. But I can see a path there to introducing characters in ensemble films so that we can make their acquaintance and then launching their first standalone films with them in costume as superheroes from the get go. It’s a way to step out of the potentially repetitious origin story business.

Was the comic book genre something you’ve been kind of chomping to get into yourself?

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Not necessarily comic books generally, but certainly the comic books I loved. Doctor Strange was a personal favorite my whole life. When I heard that a Doctor Strange production was starting up, I pursued it fanatically and was lucky enough to get in the room early on. We all got along well in terms of the way they saw the character and the way to handle him on screen. I was very fortunate to be part of the process.

The villains in the movie are Kaecilius and Dormammu. Were any others tossed around?

Yeah, we talked about some of the big darks and what the world would look like if they were the bad guys. Nightmare, obviously, has great film possibilities, making reality itself fluid, although it introduces story issues there as well. If reality is unreliable, it’s going to weaken investment in a tale, so that was a thing we wrestled with a little bit. I’ve always loved Shuma-Gorath and the darkness that flows from that villainy, where you can get these Lovecraftian, elder god and zombie invasion stories. That’s a very different quality of adventure for Strange to have. Yeah, we did talk about various possibilities, but again, because his origin story is so compelling and it does kind of have a big bad built into it to a certain extent, we were just drawn in by that gravitational attraction.

Screenwriting is a visual medium, but did the nature of the comics themselves and the artwork in this case make you spend more time on writing more visually than usual, if that makes any sense?

It does make sense, but in my case, trying to evoke the visual is one of the most important parts of my process. I am already trying as hard as I can to make the reader see pictures given the very few words that I get to set the scene. It’s not that I tried harder, it’s just that I had some rather more mind bending things to evoke with a few words. It really helped in this case that the process was so integrated. Kevin Feige and Scott Derrickson were right there at the table, and the prodigious, creative machinery of Marvel was at our beck and call, so concept artists were doing renderings even while we were still breaking story and outlining. As we conceived the world, we already in a feedback loop with the visual creatives.

How much did things change when you passed it on to Scott and Cargill?

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It evolved nicely. The bones stayed in place. It’s all very recognizable. It stands to reason, because Scott and I were both working shoulder to shoulder throughout the process from the beginning, so you wouldn’t expect any radical variations. All the big set pieces in my draft are still there in the final film. Some of them are beat per beat like I wrote them. Some of them have evolved rather fantastically since I had left them last. It was a combination of sort of Old Home Week and some big surprises. I was lucky enough to come back aboard at the end and help them bring it home and do some more work then. Really, it was a great experience for me at both ends. Derrickson and Cargill did fantastic work. They’re great guys.

You’ve had that experience where you hand something off and it goes into a different phase of development, and other writers take swings at it. For readers who are perhaps fledgling screenwriters out there, what’s the best approach to kind of dealing with that — writing something, letting it go, and then seeing it maybe take a different course?

Well it’s interesting. I think, oddly enough, perhaps paradoxically, if you’re doing it right, it has to suck. Meaning that the only way that you could be absolutely cavalier about the production of a creative work being taken away from you and passed on to another artist would be if your heart wasn’t really in it to begin with, and then you’re a hack, phoning it in.

If you’re really breathing the story and living it the way I think you need to be to do your best work, there’s always a pang when a project moves on. That’s simply the reality of screenwriting in this era. That is what it is. You will cycle through more often than not. The experience I’ve had on Passengers where I’ve been in the saddle from end to end is very rare. I think it can easily never happen to me again in a long successful career. It’s always a pang and the best defense against it is simply to have a lot of irons in the fire. Have other darlings, so that you could be looking forward towards the completion of your next thing and not back at the way the last thing ended, when the often inevitable turn comes.

Are you still kind of pinching yourself that we’re about to see Passengers on the screen in two months, 10 years after this project was first on everybody’s radar?

I am. There are ways in which it won’t be real until I’m sitting in a theater eating popcorn. There are ways it probably won’t feel real even then. It’s a slow process of amazement and awakening. I was lucky enough to be on set throughout production. I was very involved in post, so I’ve really just had my hands in this one as much as a writer can, which is very unusual. Even so, every time I see it again, and there are new VFX shots and more score from the extraordinary Thomas Newman, I’m blown away all over again. It’s still magic.

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I read that you wrote that as a sort of response to a lot of the dystopian science fiction that we’ve seen. Were you trying to channel a more literary strain of science fiction that’s a little more outward looking about humanity’s future?

Yes, although literary doesn’t necessarily need to mean serious or somber. There’s a strong Douglas Adams influence on me. Certainly Passengers reflects that at least in its choice to portray the far future as being culturally very familiar, as opposed to going Cloud Atlas and imagining the dialects and styles of the rest of the future being so radically evolved that you spend most of the runtime of the movie wrapping your head around what you’re seeing and hearing, which makes it more difficult to invest in a story. Douglas Adams had a way of making the future very ordinary, which allowed you to appreciate its absurdities and the ordinary human drama of daily life in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. I’ve learned some things from that. I’m playing a couple of those games in Passengers.

But yes, I also believe in the joy and wonder of the golden age of sci-fi that I grew up reading. The beautiful post-war stuff, where people believed that technology really might save and liberate us all, and make everything beautiful, and that the future might be a Buck Rogers future as opposed to a Blade Runner future. I certainly wouldn’t want to plunge off the opposite extreme into mindless optimism, but I do want to feel hope and excitement and the possibility of glory when I go down the science fiction road.

Let me ask you about two other projects that have your name on them. The Mummy. Horror movie? Action movie? Are you still involved in it? I know a few people have kind of kicked that one around too.

Yeah, there have been a lot of artists on that one, but I was the first writer on. I did a bunch of drafts. Then I co-wrote a bunch of drafts with the director, Alex Kurtzman, a lovely guy. I’ve had a lot to do with the shaping of it. It is both a horror movie and an action-adventure movie. It’s horror adventure, which is a genre I love. I think there’s real homage in it to the kind of original Boris Karloff Mummy movies, the classic Universal monster pictures, but of course, those have been updated to the modern possibilities of cinema and the modern sensibilities. There’s a lot in them that’s fresh. I have very high hopes. At present, I’m not involved. I’m just sitting around like the rest of the public, waiting to lay my eyes on a movie.

And Pacific Rim: Maelstrom?

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Pacific Rim I did a lot of work on in a short time and, I think, helped the move forward toward production, but as I understand it, when the director Steven DeKnight came on board, he came with a lot of story notions of his own. I think it’s very much his vision now.

When you turn on the computer in the morning, what’s the first file you open? What are you working on now?

The Forever War, an adaptation of a Joe Haldeman novel.

Yes!

It’s a top five book for me in all of science fiction. I couldn’t be happier to be working on it. I think that unlike a lot of great sci-fi novels that are very hard to adapt, The Forever War has always been begging to be a film. I’m doing it for Channing Tatum. No director attached to it yet.

They’ve been talking about making it for a while. I’m glad to hear it’s moving forward.

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Yeah, I’m thrilled myself. It’s both military epic and an epic love story. That’s a real treasure.

You wrote a number of things early on that initially didn’t get produced or were in development for a long time. But now a lot of your stuff is hitting the screen.

Well it’s certainly a better world when movies are hitting the screen. There, again, the best advice I can give is to have a lot of irons in the fire. Things take a long time. Things go to sleep and then wake up again. The trick is to never stop believing in the stories that you’ve told, but never to stop telling new ones. Maybe the most important idea is to cultivate the willful belief that your best idea is still ahead of you. Never write your Passengers and then cling to it as your one hope of realizing your dreams as a story teller. By all means, push Passengers forward for the rest of your life, but then write 10 other things, expecting each one to be better. Plant as many seeds as possible and one day, you’ll find yourself standing in a forest.

Doctor Strange is out in theaters now.