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The secret to Doctor Strange’s power is finger-tutting

Cast and creators discuss the superhero’s magical mystery tour

Marvel Studios

Amid a swirl of early positive reviews for Doctor Strange, it’s safe to say that star Benedict Cumberbatch won’t be stacking comic book shop shelves anytime soon. But it’s clear that he’s already gone full Marvel nerd.

At a press conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., Cumberbatch shared his reaction to his own reflection the first time he looked in the mirror in full Doctor Strange regalia. "I was sort of giddy, like a child on Halloween," he said, "and I ended up just giggling." At the time, costume designer Alexandra Byrne called it his "superhero moment."

Cumberbatch’s character, gifted-neurosurgeon-turned-mystical-arts-practitioner Stephen Strange, is enjoying more than just a moment. In fact, by tapping into other dimensions, Doctor Strange ushers in the exhilarating next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.

Director Scott Derrickson, primarily known for writing and directing horror films, was thrilled to get a crack at leading Marvel in this new direction. "Watching the movies as a fan," he said, "I felt ready for some daring, weird left turns in the MCU." Derrickson pinpointed Guardians of the Galaxy as the first Marvel film to do something radically different. "I was so pleasantly surprised when I saw how bold that movie was," he said.

Derrickson’s excitement regarding Doctor Strange stems from his passion for comic books as well as from his overall love for movies, and he spoke about how the challenge of adapting Steve Ditko’s iconic artwork for the screen inspired him and his effects team to use visual effects for creation rather than mass destruction. "We got more creative with [VFX] to find new ways to give [audience members] some kind of visceral experience that's unique," he said. "The movies that do that are memorable and change the way you feel about cinema in general."

Doctor Strange certainly does that, with breathtaking, multidimensional sequences that set a high bar for visual spectacles to come.

Intriguingly, Derrickson remarked that the most "creatively rewarding" part of the Doctor Strange design process was attempting to capture the impossible — or, as Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) might say, he forgot everything he thought he knew in order to move past perceived limitations.

Derrickson discussed the two most visually impressive scenes in the film: the final fight sequence and the scene where Strange travels through dimensions for the first time, described merrily by Derrickson as "the magical mystery tour."

For both scenes, Derrickson storyboarded ideas, a process which involved drawing out every single shot — "some of it being impossible to do," he said. At that point, the visual effects team, led by Stephane Ceretti, would step in to bring this "unprecedented" symphony of sight to the big screen.

Marvel Studios

"Some of our ideas didn’t work," Derrickson admitted. "Personally, every day I got into work and thought, ‘Somebody’s gonna come knock on my door and say, ‘You gotta back off. This is getting too weird.’" Needless to say, that never happened.

Overall? "The challenge was to try to make a movie that is as visually progressive by movie standards as the Ditko art was in the ‘60s," said Derrickson. "And visual effects have just caught up to the point that we can do some of the things we did in this movie." Derrickson and Feige both stressed the importance of pushing the boundaries of possibility and imagination with the set pieces for the film. Derrickson added: "I remember saying in my early meetings [for the film] that my goal was for every set piece in the movie to be the weirdest set piece in any other movie."

The astounding visual effects influenced the cast as well. The magic summoned by the characters in the movie was (obviously ... sadly …) added in post-production, and Ancient One actress Tilda Swinton, who has already seen the film, was floored by the ability of the VFX team to turn the actors’ choreographed hand movements into ... well, magic. Of course, Swinton noted, the cast still worked hard to perfect their impeccably precise spellcasting motions, dipping into a technique that in street dance circles is called "tutting."

"We had a proper master working with us for weeks," Swinton enthused. "Just as much as learning martial arts, we were learning how to tut with Jayfunk."

As Stephen Strange, Cumberbatch got to exercise his fair share of martial arts and finger tutting. Yet while his physical appearance and penchant for playing egotistically brilliant characters makes him perfect for the role, it almost didn’t come to pass. Derrickson told the story of Cumberbatch’s recruitment for the role: "Benedict really wanted to do it, but he was doing Hamlet in the theater in London. We were a summer release movie, so [the scheduling] wasn't going to work. I came back and I met with a bunch of other actors — good actors! — but I just felt like it had to be Benedict. Kevin [Feige] agreed, so we pushed the schedule for him."

To his credit, Cumberbatch expressed gratitude for the opportunity, insisting that the support for his casting is "incredibly flattering." (Cumberbatch will next don Strange’s trademark Cloak of Levitation in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.)

Other cast members were also enthusiastic about their roles. Benedict Wong (who plays fellow mystical arts practitioner Wong), after revealing his fascination with comic books as a kid, observed with a grin: "It's lovely to see that my investment as a child is coming to fruition." Mads Mikkelsen (rogue sorcerer Kaecilius) had a dual reason for wanting to be a part of Doctor Strange: "Basically, half of my life I was reading comic books, and the other half I was watching Bruce Lee," he said. Getting to combine his love for comics and his love for martial arts films was "a dream come true."

Marvel Studios

As ER doctor Christine Palmer, Rachel McAdams got to practice her own kind of magic: medicine. "My mom's a nurse," McAdams said, "and I was always fascinated by what she did because it was so far from anything I really understood." While her co-stars were engaging in martial arts, McAdams shadowed a female neurosurgeon in Toronto and learned medical terms and practices from another neurosurgeon on set. "In a pinch, I could probably suture someone up now," McAdams laughed, though she admitted she’s still pretty queasy around blood.

McAdams clearly wasn’t the only one that stretched beyond her comfort zone for the sake of the movie. With its high-concept experimentation and invocation of impossible magic, Doctor Strange required innovation and open-mindedness on all fronts — a message presented in the film that, Swinton pointed out, is eerily appropriate for our times.

"Something really radical that's said in this film is that ego and fear are things to be lived beyond," Swinton said. That’s a lesson we all stand to learn.

Doctor Strange will hit theaters on Nov. 4.