The Ancient One and Baron Mordo stand in a courtyard in the secret city of Kamar-Taj, staring at a blank space. Waiting. Suddenly, an orange portal opens before them and through it stumbles Stephen Strange, in his initiates clothes and covered in ice, shivering, and he collapses at their feet. Doctor Strange has just passed an important test, mastering the control of his Sling Ring, a focusing object that allows him to open teleportation portals.
At least that’s how you’ll see it in November when you see Doctor Strange in your local theater. On set earlier this year it was a very bald Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor standing on a large soundstage that had been made to look like the non-specific Asian city of Kamar-Taj and watching Benedict Cumberbatch pretend to teleport. They did the shot many, many times, sometimes with quips, sometimes without, always with Cumberbatch throwing himself down with a commitment that surely left him a little bruised at the end of the day. Each take is different, but always Swinton has the same air of zen-like bemused pride in her student.
“The Ancient One, as you know, is the Sorcerer Supreme,” Swinton told us when she visited the assembled press in our little tent near the stage. “Strange comes to learn how to heal himself and The Ancient One has got the knowledge. What you’re seeing today is a part of the whole training section when he’s learning the moves and digging deep. So it’s all about that, it’s all about trying to push him to get there. It’s really important to The Ancient One that Doctor Strange does cut it because The Ancient One needs a successor, or certainly needs, you could say, a son. So The Ancient One is really invested in Doctor Strange.”
Seeing Swinton with her head shaved is one of those moments that’s not unlike seeing Ben Affleck in the Batsuit or Chris Evans wielding the shield - you feel like you’re actually looking at the character, not just the actor. Swinton always has the air of an ancient and unknowable being, but with her head shiny and bald and in her Kamar-Taj master outfit she gives the feeling of someone at whose feet you should prostrate yourself and beg for immortal wisdom.
The shaving of the head was central for Swinton’s transformation into the Ancient One.
“It certainly centers everything,” she said. “because we’re making shapes and these shapes are pretty rocking, they’re all pretty graphic. We’re filling a big universe, and so the look and the sort of plasticity of us is really important to us when we’re striking poses here. It’s very important, it’s really great. It’s such fun to work on, I was really lucky that Jeremy Woodhead, who’s the hair and makeup designer on this, is someone I know very well, I worked with him very closely on a Bong Joon-ho film called Snowpiercer and we worked on making that look. We worked again on this and that’s been really fun. And it took it’s time, that’s part of the fun, the development of all of it is a ride.”
That look, of course, has drawn criticism; in the comics The Ancient One is an Asian character. Swinton certainly is not.
“I would say the whole approach is about a kind of fluidity,” she explained when asked about the race swap. “There are many graphic artists who have interpreted The Ancient One as a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, we’re kind of shifting that a bit. We’re trying not to be fixed, we’re trying not to be fixed to any one thing, any one gender, any one spiritual discipline, and any one race even; we’re just trying to wing it beyond that. So it’s a new gesture really, just another interpretation.”
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said that the decision to make The Ancient One a white lady was something they talked over for a long time. “We talked about the Ancient One being a title that has been held probably for hundreds and hundreds of years by individuals, but there’ve been various ones, and the one we meet in this movie happens to be a female of Celtic descent,” he said. “Most people, even those who surround her, have forgotten exactly where she came from because she’s been around for - I think we state in the movie hundreds and hundreds of years – they’re not sure exactly how long. So that was one way of doing a new interpretation of that character.”
Also getting a new interpretation: Baron Mordo. One of the main members of Doctor Strange’s rogue’s gallery, Mordo in this film is actually more of a buddy.
“In the comic books that character was just really arch,” explained director Scott Derrickson. “Just really arch. It was a difficult character, very difficult character to adapt because of the very basic archness that he (has in the comics). So we wanted to keep what were the interesting aspects of him, his relationship with The Ancient One, but I felt that we had to start by establishing who he was before he got into that arch-villainy in the comics. And that's a lot of what we're doing in this movie; we're sort of building a foundational understanding of who he was before the guy that you met in that comic so that that turn isn't an arch turn.”
“In the source material, it’s a much more two-dimensional story in some ways,” said Ejiofor. “But one of the richest things of this is finding the other space and really trying to create something that’s very three dimensional and a person who has a real history and a real background and has a very good relationship with Kamar-Taj and the Ancient One and by extension Strange himself.
“He is one of the first allies to Strange and he wants to bring him into this community, this very special, tight-knit community, and see if Strange can fit in. I think that Mordo is the first to recognize the potential in Strange and becomes his primary advocate, initially. Their relationship is complicated. In some ways they’re quite similar but that lends itself to tensions between them. But overall he is the tutor that really brings him in.”
In the comics Strange and Mordo studied together at the feet of the Ancient One… until Mordo, driven by jealousy, killed the Ancient One to assume the mantle of the Sorcerer Supreme. Ejiofor wanted to find something a little different inside Mordo for the movie.
“I don’t think of him as a kind of envious or jealous entity,” he said. “I think he’s much purer than that. That’s what I mean by the comics create a slightly more two dimensional aspect. But the place, Kamar-Taj, what it means and what it means to Mordo, is so strong and his defense of it is so deep and his loyalty is so committed–to the ideas of Kamar-Taj, to the reality of Kamar-Taj, and to the Ancient One that he would react to any perceived threat but it wouldn’t come from a place of envy but from a place of protection and loyalty.”
That threat, in the first film, comes in the form of Kaecilius, a profoundly obscure character from Doctor Strange comics. Nobody on set wanted to say too much about Kaecilius, who is being played by Mads Mikkelsen, but we did get some hints that he perhaps was answering to a higher power.
“What we wanted was a character that was rooted in the real,” said Derrickson. “This is certainly what I was pitching from the beginning was an antagonist who was rooted in the real world who had, so that there could be an intimate relatability between Strange and his adversary. But who was empowered by something else, by something otherworldly, and connected to something else otherworldly - which comes straight from the comics.
“I always loved the Sauron-Saruman idea in Lord of the Rings, even though you never see Sauron, except I think in the prologue, but what a presence and what a power. And we do more than that with this other dimensional power. But it, I like that idea. So that Strange wasn’t combating something huge and fantastical all the way through the movie that had no human relatability.”
So Kaecilius is the Saruman to someone’s Sauron. Who could it be? Well, as we were looking over some of the props from the movie with prop master Barry Gibbs, we saw some books with some arcane symbols on them. Gibbs talked about the meaning of a few of those symbols. One, it turned out, was the symbol for Dread. Could it be the Dread Dormammu?
“Could be,” Gibbs said with typical Marvel crypticness, and then he laughed.