‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ crew on bringing the story to life
Nine years since his most recent film and 15 since his last in the superhero genre, Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” marks director Sam Raimi’s reentry into moviemaking.
The filmmaker, who helped establish the genre with the original Tobey Maguire-led “Spider-Man” trilogy in the early aughts, said returning to the format for Marvel Studios (which launched in 2008 with “Iron Man”) was drastically different than his time working on the Sony pictures between 2002 and 2007.
“It’s very exciting to see how Marvel has streamlined their operation,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place to work. There was nothing like that to help you as a filmmaker when productions were all one-offs, before there was a company that simply saw to the integrity of the characters.”
Raimi was tapped to direct after original “Doctor Strange” director Scott Derrickson stepped away from the sequel over reported “creative differences” with the studio. After taking a meeting with Marvel brass and discussing the script for more than an hour, Raimi was in. The following day he met with screenwriter Michael Waldron, and the two decided to overhaul the script entirely, just days away from when shooting was scheduled to begin.
Waldron, creator and head writer of Season 1 of “Loki,” took on “Multiverse of Madness” shortly after completing the Disney+ series “so I was very plugged into everything MCU,” he said. “As soon as I got brought on board, the first thing I did was read all of the ‘WandaVision’ scripts because they were in the process of shooting that. And I went back and watched most of Sam’s films to try to [determine his strengths], in the same way that, if you’re going to be writing for a particular actor, you want to write towards their strengths.”
Those strengths included being a “tremendous visual filmmaker” as well as an “amazing leader,” Waldron says. “Above all else he’s unflappable under immense pressure, and believe me, we were under immense pressure for a long time. With Sam as our leader, it always felt like an adventure, never like a slog. The exciting thing was seeing how motivated all of that was by character, by story. Everything’s only in service of the characters, and that was really fun. I learned so much.”
“Because this production had already been going in pre-production, it was a little bit of a moving train,” said Raimi. “We had a start date already, a composer and cinematographer had been hired, and production teams were setting up in London. Offices had already been acquired. But Michael and I wanted to tell our own story, so he really ended up rewriting the entire script from scratch.”
“It was our job to keep it simple,” said Waldron. “Sam did a great job of always reminding me that the movie needed to be accessible even to people who maybe weren’t super well-versed in the MCU or in the multiverse and all this sci-fi stuff. We tried to make a movie that could be followed by somebody who maybe just stumbled into the theater off the street. That was our goal.”
At the same time, juggling all the plot points and serving as a continuation of projects like “WandaVision,” “Doctor Strange,” “What If...?” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was “a lot,” Waldron says. “It was a lot of weight for this movie to bear, and [simultaneously we had to] keep it focused on our central characters. You just want to find the heartbeats of your story,” he said. “For us, it was Stephen Strange in his journey and Wanda in her story and letting those be your North Stars.”
For Strange, that was confronting his potential for evil and making the conscious choice to remain good. "[In the film], our Stephen has been encountering increasingly cautionary tales of himself in the multiverse,” said Waldron. “First the version that turned on America [Chavez] and tried to take her power. Then the truth of the Earth 838-Stephen that the Illuminati had to kill because he destroyed another universe. To meet a Strange who hadn’t just made one bad decision or mistake but, rather, had consciously, willingly turned evil, was the final escalation for Stephen to really question whether or not he was actually as heroic as he believed.”
Conversely, for Wanda, it was about reckoning with the dark places that her grief could take her as evinced by her mental subjugation of the residents of Westview in “WandaVision.”
“At the end of that story, she’s given the Darkhold and learns that her children are out there in the multiverse,” said Waldron. “And so it felt like she was at a little bit of a crossroads at the end of ‘WandaVision.’ And that’s where we picked up our story. It felt like she had gotten most of the way to a place where she could be pushed by Stephen and others standing in the way of what she wanted to do some pretty villainous things. She started out a villain and then joined the Avengers but has always sort of ridden that line to some extent.”
“Elizabeth came in with a very high understanding of both her character and the work that Michael had done on the script,” said Raimi. “And we had been part of many discussions about her character, working on the script and refining what it was that she felt she needed out of Wanda. We both had a very similar understanding of the way that it should be performed, but she always surprised me and put a lot more heart and soul and humanity in the core of everything she did than I was assuming was there. I was always surprised at the quality of her excellent acting skills.”
The film, the first MCU entry billed as a “horror” despite maintaining a PG-13 rating, features Raimi’s signature brand of camp-inflected horror.
“We were trying to have fun but not be too funny,” said the director. “So it was a different kind of tone that I was going for; not really like those ‘Evil Dead’ movies, which are kind of goofy. But I do like over-the-top visuals, and I think the audience for this movie had a big appetite. I think they came in to see some fantastic things, and we all tried to rise to the occasion. I love working in the Marvel format. I think it was a good blend of what I do and what they do.”
In fact, Raimi was able to sail through production with his artistic vision mostly unchallenged.
“I think that the level of horror that Marvel had in their heads was about the exact same as Michael and I had in our heads as far as impact-wise, gore-wise, horror-wise,” he said. “Without it being said, there was like a mutual understanding that there should be a lot of fun, spooky and even scary moments, but all under the bigger category of a fun adventure. And so there were only minor tweaks back and forth, but actually I can’t even remember any.”
“I kept wondering when are they going to tell us [to dial it back], but no, we had all the freedom, it felt like, to make the biggest, craziest movie we could,” said Waldron.
Working on the film was a hugely collaborative process, Raimi says. For instance, one sequence early on in the film offers a glimpse at several different universes as Strange and America Chavez shoot through the multiverse while fleeing the Scarlet Witch. Those universes were imagined by Marvel’s art directors and concept artists, led by production designer Charles Wood.
"[In the script] I tried to give a basic foundation of what the universe was like, but this being my second MCU project, I knew to trust the production designers and art directors and all those brilliant folks [to execute their own vision],” said Waldron. “I didn’t spend a ton of my time trying to build an entire sci-fi world on the page. I knew I could trust Sam and our collaborators to do that.”
The art department’s concept designs also informed the one-eyed tentacle monster that Strange and Chavez face off with in the beginning of the film.
“Concept artists and illustrators and [later] CGI artists, shaders and colorists all had a hand in determining the look of that thing,” said Raimi. “But that job of creating the monster goes past them even to the effects editors, working on timings for the creature’s movements. And people in the final grade are adding and changing aspects of it in some way or another. Simultaneously, the creature’s roar is being designed by some great foley artist and recording artists [incorporating] things like Tasmanian devils and other creatures. Then the mixers [determine] how these sounds are combined for the creature when it shouts. And Danny Elfman’s musical score is probably the last most important component of making that monster come to life.”
Later in the film is a scene where two Strange variants go head to head in a musical showdown. Storyboard artist Doug Lefler came up with the idea, collaborating with VFX supervisor Janek Sirrs and Elfman to bring the sequence to life. “Together we went forward as a team and somehow met the deadlines,” said Raimi. “Just barely, though.”
In a full-circle moment, Raimi’s early aughts “Spider-Man” films have recently been grandfathered into the MCU with Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which featured appearances from former live-action Spider-Men Maguire and Andrew Garfield alongside the MCU’s official web-slinger, Tom Holland. “I loved ‘No Way Home,’ ” said Raimi. “I thought it was a complete audience thrill ride. The crowd I was with were ooh-ing and ahh-ing, and it had a great heart to it. It was great seeing my old friends again.”
When asked whether he’d be open to returning to the character now that franchise producer Amy Pascal announced that Holland may star in another three films about the web-slinger, Raimi demurred. “I love Spider-Man,” he said. “And I love Tom Holland in the role. [But] if I made a Spider-Man movie, it would probably have to be with Tobey or he’d break my neck.”
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