Sometimes fans and creators manage to think alike. As screenwriter Michael Waldron (Loki, Rick and Morty) reveals in our in-depth interview full of spoilers about the making Dr. Strange in the multiverse of madness, before MCU followers began speculating online that Tom Cruise would appear in the film as an alternative world version of Iron Man, Waldron had the same idea. The writer also discussed some of the film’s more controversial moments, and much more. (Again: this interview is full of spoilers; click on if you haven’t seen it yet Dr. Strange in the multiverse of madness.)
My favorite part of this film was when you introduce the heroes of the Illuminati of the Alternative Earth – and then immediately make Wanda slaughter them, which drove some fans crazy. Where did that idea come from?
Yes, it’s a real explosion. It’s probably my favorite sequence in the movie. The idea for it was not within my bounds; I wrote the first draft and I think I felt like, like I said, the movie should get drunk. I felt like we were at the point where I had to find madness in the multiverse here. I had no idea: would I be able to use these signs? Would that even be possible? But I knew with Sam [Raimi] that it would be amazing if we did it this way. And so I wrote it down.
I watched Aliens a lot while I was writing. Because only tonal this film is a thriller and [feature-length] hunt. I just love how Aliens he goes to great lengths to tell you how nasty space Marines are – and then they just slaughter them. Then you’re really scared of Xenomorph until the end of that movie, and that’s what I wanted to achieve with Wanda. At the end of that Illuminati sequence. I hope you were really scared of the Scarlet Witches. It was great to be in the theater to hear cheers, then panting and moaning. [Laughs] I mean, you know, people felt something in the cinema. That’s good!
What did you think behind Wanda Maximoff becoming the complete villain in this film, especially since it changed the course a bit from WandaVision?
Well, first, the truth is who the comic book version of the character is and what she does in the comic book. It was always the place where Wanda led the MCU, even while I inherited the film. The question just became, when would that happen? Certainly, there was a version of this film in which Wanda was part of an ensemble that ended, I guess, by becoming bad, and then she could have been the antagonist of some other film. But I feel that in that case I would have a diluted version of Wanda that would go bad because it’s still Dr. Strange’s film. She would not be the protagonist, nor would she actually be the antagonist. You should have a [different] an antagonist throughout most of the film.
You know, she does all the bad things WandaVision. She makes a heroic choice to let all those people go. But it was also revealed to her that the family she had built was not real. He then gets Darkhold at the end of the series and finds out that there is a real version of her children out there. And if the Book of the Damned whispers in your ear long enough that your kids are out and you can go get them, maybe that might make you do some horrible things.
What factors were involved in revealing who will be in the Illuminati?
The final lineup in that group is beyond my wildest dreams of who we could get – and then send. [Laughs] I never dreamed we could do it. But the lineup is close, I think, to whoever was originally in my first draft, and that was, “Okay, I know he can’t actually be this. ” And then it ended up close to that. It was just a moving target of who is available and who is right. It became, “Okay, if you’re putting together the Illuminati, who should actually be in it?” You would have people with certain strengths. And we tried to be true to what kind of characters are represented in the Illuminati in comics.
Fans were absolutely right that Patrick Stewart appeared as Deputy Professor X, but completely wrong that Tom Cruise – who was once supposed to play Iron Man long before Robert Downey Jr. – appeared as a replacement Iron Man. Did the fans just completely invent the Tom Cruise thing?
Yes, it was completely fabricated. I mean, no cut-out footage of Tom Cruise! But I love Tom Cruise, and I said [Marvel Studios president] Kevin [Feige] at one point, I thought, can we get Tom Cruise’s Iron Man? I remember reading about it a long time ago in Ain’t It Cool News, that Tom Cruise would be Iron Man.
So, it was completely invented by the fans – but you also tried to invent it, will you say?
Yeah right. While it was being talked about on the internet, I thought, yes, that would be great!
So what did Kevin say when you asked him that?
Well, I mean, he fired Mission Impossible 7 and 8.
To be completely clear, did anyone contact Tom Cruise?
I do not believe. I just think it was never an option, because of the availability.
Here’s one very nerdy question for you. Quentin Beck [Jake Gyllenhaal] in Spider-Man: Far from home says the main MCU Earth is known as Earth-616. It turned out that he lied about the multiverse and that he was not actually from another universe. But in this film, it turned out to be the correct mark of dimensions. Can you explain? And if not, maybe I have something for you …
Yes, let me know! [Laughs] I guess the question is, what did Quentin know? He was a smart guy. Um, is that just a coincidence? It’s … I don’t know. But what’s out there?
Dream. It came to him in a multiverse dream.
Here you are!
Let’s talk about the final act. When the movie gets “drunk,” he stays drunk. How did you get to the place where Zombie Dr. Strange?
Well, we had a great confrontation with Sinister Strange, and a lot of it was inspired by Benedict who really sang. I remember, for our third act, we were always kind of stuck around how Strange would come back for this last conflict. [When we were] in London, as we prepared, we never seemed to have an answer. One day I was sitting with Richie Palmer, our producer, and we’re like, he has to walk in his dreams. He has Darkhold; it must be a dream walk. We literally wondered, but who would he dream of in? There must be a body. And we both had a light bulb moment at the same time: There’s a dead Strange from that opening that can come through the portal with America! I quickly typed in the suggestion and put it there.
And for Sam’s part, he was excited. But he didn’t want to just go in and play all his biggest hits just to hell. He didn’t want to make a zombie just because he was Sam Raimi. It really had to be Strange’s best move. Kevin was very excited about it; Benedict was excited about the challenge, about the physicality, and everything. And I was excited because it seemed like we just had such a great, exciting ending to the movie. A zombie who has this emotional last moment with America. [Laughs] I was very excited about it. And Benedict was so good. For that, he had to wear makeup for six hours or even longer. But we have a guy who put on makeup for the White Walker Game of Thrones made kits for it, and it really looked amazing.
How did you decide on the semi-cliffhanger finish of Dr. Strange who developed a third eye in the middle of his forehead and fell to his knees in agony?
I felt like we had a happy ending. We were like, “God, you know, for a movie where a lot of bad shit happens, we have a happy ending here.” We really finished it and it didn’t seem right. We kept thinking about what Mordo had warned Strange in the first film: “The bill is coming in.” It’s like Wong says, “You owned your body.” Like, will this guy ever face the consequences? And I felt like a great homage to horror movies where that last twist exists.
When John Kraczinski’s Reed Richards is presented as from the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange says, “Didn’t you guys write maps of the 1960s?” Was it just a joke about the Beatles about the name or did it want to suggest that maybe there was actually a Fantastic Four in the 1960s at the main MCU?
I think Benedict riffed it, and I think it was just a joke about Fab Four, Fantastic Four. Yeah, I think it was just a gag.
Fair enough. Can you point out certain things you learned from Sam Raimi?
It was a film school every day for two and a half years, and it awakened my own appetite for directing. It’s crazy how I felt like this was something I had to do now. Because I felt like I was being taught by a master. Just the way he uses the camera, if nothing else, is so inventive. There are no rules, but everything is in the service of character. It’s never a cool camera move to do a cool camera. This is because it will better immerse you in Strange’s point of view or help you feel the disorienting feeling they are experiencing. He is a master.
When you and Sam took over later [original director] Scott Derrickson is gone, what were the steps from the blank page to the first version?
Well, I came about a week before Sam, almost at the same time. It was February 2020, and we initially started production in May 2020. The idea was just to take the bones of what exists, and can we get that in shape for filming in three months. So I had three weeks to write a brand new draft using some very good ideas given to me by Scott and Jade Bartlett, who was the original writer. It is almost impossible to write a film in three weeks. And then in the middle of that third week, where I was already going crazy, COVID happened and the world closed. I wondered, did I manifest this break in reality? But then the movie pushed [its release date], and Sam and I could say okay, let’s put all this aside. Let’s start over [a new] version of the movie and start from scratch. Then I had a little more time to work on the first draft of three weeks.
Dates of recording and release of everything – SPider-Man: Away from home, WandaVision – he was moving to a certain extent. How did those things affect the way you had to approach this?
You always wanted to stand alone. From my friendship with [WandaVision head writer] Jac [Schaeffer] and from reading the script I knew WandaVision will be huge. There has always been pressure on how hard it is to follow, but let’s just try to fulfill this character and continue this story in a way that is full of respect but also opens new foundations. WITH Spider-Man: No way home, the shift was originally that we would be the first film to break ground in the multiverse at MCU. When we switched, all of a sudden it was like we were waiting, Dr. Strange was on a whole multiverse adventure and that actually gave us some permission. It was kind of nice. It was okay, he understands more about it. We don’t want to feed this so much with a spoon for the audience.