Sometimes fans and creators actually manage to think alike. As screenwriter Michael Waldron (Loki, Rick and Morty) reveals in our in-depth, spoiler-heavy interview about the making of Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, before MCU followers started speculating online that Tom Cruise would appear in the film as an alternate-world version of Iron Man, Waldron had the very 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 away if you haven’t yet seen Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.)
My favorite part of this movie was when you introduce the alternate-Earth heroes of the Illuminati — and then promptly have Wanda slaughter them, which freaked out some fans. Where did that idea come from?
Yeah, that’s a blast. That’s probably my favorite sequence in the movie. The idea for that was not in my outline; I was writing the first draft and I guess I felt like, as I put it, the movie needed to get drunk. It felt like we’re at the point where I need to find the madness in the multiverse here. I had no idea: Would I be able to use these characters? Would this even be possible? But I knew with Sam [Raimi] that if we did it this way, it would be amazing. And so I wrote it in.
I was watching Aliens a lot as I was writing. Because just tonally this movie is a thriller and a [feature-length] chase. I just love how Aliens goes to great lengths to tell you how badass the space Marines are — and then they just get slaughtered. Then you are really scared of the Xenomorphs for the rest of that movie, and that’s what I wanted to accomplish with Wanda. At the end of that Illuminati sequence. I hope you were truly terrified of the Scarlet Witch. It’s been awesome being in the theater hearing the cheers, then the gasps and the groans. [Laughs] I mean, you know, people were feeling something at the movies. That’s good!
What was your thinking behind having Wanda Maximoff become a full-in villain in this movie, especially since it’s a bit of a change in course from WandaVision?
Well, first off, it’s true to who the comics’ version of the character is and what she does in the comics. It was always where Wanda was headed in the MCU, even as I inherited the movie. The question just became, when would it happen? Certainly, there was a version of this movie where Wanda was part of the ensemble that ended, I guess, with her turning bad, and then she could have been an antagonist of another movie. But I feel like in that case, you would have had a watered-down version of Wanda going bad because it’s still Dr. Strange’s movie. She wouldn’t be the protagonist, and she wouldn’t really be the antagonist. You’d have to have a [different] antagonist throughout the entirety of most of the film.
You know, she’s doing bad stuff throughout WandaVision. She does make the heroic choice to let go of all those people. But it’s also revealed to her that the family she’s built is not real. Then she gets the Darkhold at the end of the series and learns that there is a real version of her children out there. And if you’ve got the Book of the Damned whispering in your ear long enough that your kids are out there and you could go get ’em, maybe that can push you to do some terrible things.
What factors were involved in figuring out who would be in the Illuminati?
The final lineup in that group is beyond my wildest dreams of who we could get — and then dispatch. [Laughs] I never dreamed we’d be able to do that. But the lineup is close to, I think, who was originally in my first draft, which was: “Okay, I know it can’t actually be this.” And then it ended up being close to that. It was just a moving target of who’s available and who’s right. It became, “All right, if you’re putting together an Illuminati, who would actually need to be in it?” You’d have people with certain power sets. And we tried to be true to what kind of characters were represented in the Illuminati in the comics.
Fans were totally right about Patrick Stewart appearing as an alternate Professor X, but totally wrong about Tom Cruise — who had once been slated to star as Iron Man years before Robert Downey Jr. — showing up as an alternate Iron Man. Did the fans just totally make up the Tom Cruise thing?
Yeah, that was totally made up. I mean, there’s no cut footage of Tom Cruise! But I love Tom Cruise, and I said to [Marvel Studios president] Kevin [Feige] at one point, I was like, Could we get Tom Cruise’s Iron Man? I remember reading about that in Ain’t It Cool News back in the day, that Tom Cruise was going to be Iron Man.
So it’s totally made up by the fans — but you also tried to make it up, is what you’re saying?
Yeah, exactly. As it was being talked about online, I was like, Yeah, that’d be cool!
So what did Kevin say when you asked him that?
Well, I mean, he was shooting Mission Impossible 7 and 8.
So to be totally clear, did anyone reach out to Tom Cruise?
I don’t believe so. I just don’t think it was ever an option, because of availability.
Here’s a very geeky question for you. Quentin Beck [Jake Gyllenhaal] in Spider-Man: Far From Home says that the main MCU Earth is known as Earth-616. It turned out he was lying about the multiverse and wasn’t really from another universe. But in this movie, that’s presented as the correct dimensional designation. Can you explain? And if not, I may have an out for you…
Yeah, let me know! [Laughs] I guess it begs the question, What did Quentin know? He was a smart guy. Um, is it just a coincidence? That’s… I don’t know. But what’s your out?
A dream. It came to him in a multiversal dream.
There you go!
Let’s talk about the final act. Once the movie gets “drunk,” it stays drunk. How did you get to the place of creating a Zombie Dr. Strange?
Well, we had the great face-off with Sinister Strange, and so much of that was driven by Benedict really making that sing. I remember, for our third act we were always kind of stuck over just how Strange was going to get back for this final conflict. [When we were] in London as we were prepping, it never felt like we quite had the answer. One day I was sitting with Richie Palmer, our producer, and we’re like, he’s got to dreamwalk. He’s got the Darkhold; it’s got to be dreamwalking. We literally asked ourselves, but who is he going to dreamwalk into? There’s gotta be a body. And we both had the lightbulb moment at the same time: There is a dead Strange from that opening that can come through the portal with America! I quickly typed up a pitch and put it out there.
And to Sam’s credit, he was excited. But he didn’t want to just come in and play all of his greatest hits just for the hell of it. He didn’t want to do a zombie thing just because he’s Sam Raimi. It had to really be Strange’s best move. Kevin was really excited about it; Benedict was excited about it for the challenge, for the physicality and everything. And I was excited because it felt like we just had such an excellent, thrilling end of the movie. A zombie having this emotional final moment with America. [Laughs] I was really excited about that. And Benedict was so good. He had to be in makeup for six hours or even longer to do that. But we got the guy who did the White Walker make-up for Game of Thrones did the kits for that, and it really did look amazing.
How did you decide on the sort of semi-cliffhanger ending of Dr. Strange developing a third eye in the middle of his forehead and dropping to his knees in agony?
I felt like we had a happy ending. We were like, like, “Gee, you know, for a movie where a lot of bad shit happens, we got kind of a happy ending here.” We really wrapped it up and that didn’t quite seem right. We kept thinking about what Mordo warned Strange in the first movie: “The bill comes due.” It’s like Wong says, “You possessed your own corpse.” Like, is this guy ever going to face any consequences? And it just felt like a great nod to horror movies where there’s that final twist.
When John Kraczinski’s Reed Richards is introduced as being from the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange says, “Didn’t you guys chart in the 1960s?” Was that just a Beatles-referencing joke about the name, or was it meant to suggest that perhaps in the main MCU there actually had been a Fantastic Four in the 1960s?
I think Benedict riffed that, and I think that was just a joke about Fab Four, Fantastic Four. Yeah, I think that was just a gag.
Fair enough. Can you point to specific things you learned from Sam Raimi?
It was film school every day for two and a half years, and it whet my own appetite to direct. It’s crazy how it felt like this is something I have to do now. Because I felt like I learned at the hand of a master. Just the way he uses the camera, if nothing else, is so inventive. There’s no rules, but it’s all in service of character. It’s never a cool camera move for a cool camera move’s sake. It’s because this is going to better immerse you in Strange’s point of view or help you feel the disorienting feeling they’re experiencing. He’s a master.
When you and Sam took over after [original director] Scott Derrickson left, what were the steps from blank page to first draft?
Well I came on about a week before Sam, almost at the same time. That was February 2020, and initially, we were going into production in May of 2020. The idea was to just take the bones of what exists, and can we get that into shape to shoot in three months. So I had three weeks to write a whole new draft using some very good ideas that were there from Scott and Jade Bartlett, who was the original writer. Writing a movie in three weeks is almost impossible. And then halfway through that third week, where I’ve already gone insane, COVID happened, and the world shut down. I was like, did I manifest this break in reality? But then the movie pushed [its release date], and Sam and I were able to say all right, let’s set all this aside. Let’s basically start over with [a new] version of movie, and start from scratch. Then I had a little more time to work on a first draft than three weeks.
The shooting and release dates of everything — Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision — moved around to an 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 scripts, I knew WandaVision was going to be tremendous. There was always the pressure of what a hard thing to follow up, but let’s just try to do this character justice and continue that story in a way that’s reverent but also breaks new ground. With Spider-Man: No Way Home, the shift was originally we were going to be the first movie that broke the ground on the multiverse in the MCU. When we shifted, suddenly it’s like wait, Dr. Strange has been on a whole multiversal adventure, and that actually gave us some license. It was kind of nice. It was like okay, he understands more about that. We don’t want to spoon feed this as much to the audience.