Jon Spaihts is one of Hollywood’s heavy hitter screenwriters with two blockbuster films opening within two months of each other. Marvel’s latest superhero movie Doctor Strange is out this week, and it’s a personal achievement to him as well. “I’m really happy with it myself,” Spaihts said of the finished film. “I’m very proud and so excited to see this hero on the screen finally. I’ve been waiting to see him my whole life.”
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Stephen Strange, a surgeon who permanently injures his hands in an automobile accident. Searching for a cure, he discovers mystical powers to bend reality instead. But as the classic Spider-Man comics tell us, with great power comes great responsibility, so now Dr. Strange is responsible for protecting our universe.
Passengers is also Spaihts’ baby. The script about two astronauts woken early from hypersleep was a Black List screenplay, and the film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt opens December 21. We spoke with Spaihts, who began his Hollywood career with produced scripts for The Darkest Hour and Prometheus, by phone this week in anticipation of Doctor Strange opening Friday, November 4.
Cinema Thread: Was Doctor Strange a similar job to Prometheus where you had to figure out a new story in an existing world, this time being the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Jon Spaihts: To some extent. There are a lot of precedents that you need to honor in that world. There’s a long canon of story. In this instance, there was the beautifully formed origin story of Doctor Strange as originally told in the comics. We all decided as we sat down together and looked at figuring out what story we were going to tell that the origin story was too good to pass up. What fell to us then was to find ways to update and freshen that origin story so that even for longtime fans, it would be new and surprising, so that it would play for a modern audience—because parts of that origin story are over 50 years old.
CT: How did you describe the folding and kaleidoscoping visuals in screenplay form?
Ultimately, you can’t fill the pages with black ink trying to make people see a picture. So when you’re going to do really groundbreaking visual stuff, it’s necessary to find a kind of haiku-like language to evoke it and then trust your visual team to realize it the rest of the way.
It helps that as we conceived all of these sequences, we were working closely together. So [producers] Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard were in the room. [Director] Scott Derrickson and I were sitting side by side. [Derrickson] was throwing out visuals, I was pitching things back and then artists would come in and start doing concept renditions even as we were breaking stories. So we had the formidable machinery of Marvel’s creative engine at our service and it was quite a ride.
CT: Was there anything you couldn’t do with Doctor Strange because it might conflict with Marvel’s future plans?
JS: We never ran into a roadblock of that kind. Kevin Feige was a very generous creative collaborator and willing to consider anything. I think people will find that there are reasons in the larger cinematic universe for Dr. Strange’s using the particular powers he does in this first film. It does play into a larger saga, but apart from planting certain seeds that prepare certain stories in Kevin Feige’s larger roadmap, we had a pretty free hand.
CT: Scott Derrickson said the first tag in the credits was filmed by another director. Was the final tag after the credits part of your script?
JS: The final tag was something I wrote in post and that Scott shot. We came to it over the course of the process. We invented a character in my first draft for this film and when it was time to think of a tag for the movie, I think we all wanted to see that character again. There was a character in the first draft so compelling that we wanted to see him again and he guided us towards that final moment.
CT: Was the Wifi password joke yours?
JS: Yes, that is mine and I’m very happy about it. It’s also a shout-out to one of my favorite Doctor Strange comics.
CT: How many cape jokes were in the script?
JS: The notion of the cape as a willful creature of its own was an important part of our story from the beginning. We wanted it to be halfway between a treasure and a character of its own.
CT: Is Passengers essentially a two-hander, or a three hander with the robot bartender?
JS: It certainly has the shape of a two-hander. It’s a love story and a love story in which I think the woman and the man are given equal weight and equal power. So it is very much a story of two big personalities and forceful people colliding and their life stories being forever altered by each other.
CT: Something I’ve thought about a lot is that as much as Hollywood is doing more franchises than ever, they’ve sort of lost the idea of a high concept movie. Does a high concept like “only two people awake on a spaceship” show that a premise like that can be enough to get people interested?
JS: Yes, it surely does and of course the history of film does because film is filled with indelible characters who are originated in screenplays.
It’s a recent idea that it’s only safe to move forward with a character who’s been proven in some other medium or derived from a comic book or a TV show or a novel or a lunchbox.
The viability of original stories should not need proving because there are hundreds of compelling examples in the history of film that I’m hoping that Passengers will become one more proof that this is a road we should not stop going down.
CT: Is it also a chance to do science fiction with less action and more intellect?
JS: Yes, I think so and I think we’re seeing some of that now. To some extent perhaps enabled by technology finally catching up to the demands of realistic space storytelling. Zero gravity and the cosmos itself are difficult things to depict. To some extent people running around in artificial gravity and zapping each other with pistols is Keystone Cops in different costumes. Now as we’re seeing in some of the very grounded science-fiction that has come out lately, cinema is ready to tell very realistic stories of the conquest of space. They’ve begun close to home, in orbit or on Mars, but I am hoping that hard science space opera is in the future.
CT: Has the trailer for Passengers revealed too much?
JS: I think not. Trailers are always difficult, but truly the most central matter of the story is not in the trailer at all. For that, I congratulate the studio.
CT: It looks we see some seduction on the spaceship. Did you script in detail those scenes like Jennifer Lawrence’s character climbing on the table?
JS: Yes, those moments were written very specifically.
CT: When you did Prometheus, they minimized the connection to Alien. Is it a little funny that now they’re going full on with Alien: Covenant?
JS: Yeah, honestly, when I signed aboard and when Ridley [Scott] and I were working on Prometheus, our intention was very much to embrace the Alien-ness of the movie. It was a late turn to try to obscure that aspect of the film and I’m glad to see the franchise turning back toward Alien.
CT: How is the job of The Mummy and Van Helsing, creating a new shared universe?
JS: I have loved that work and I think the potential there is extraordinary for a new set of dark, mythic films, each with its own lore that will ultimately connect and intermingle into a new and darker cinematic universe. There are a lot of exciting antagonists and protagonists that I’m looking forward to meeting.
CT: What was your role on the team behind Pacific Rim: Maelstrom?
JS: I helped to do a lot of work moving that film toward production, but I believe that Steven DeKnight, the director, has come aboard with many story ideas of his own. Truth be told, I don’t know how much of my work will remain in that film. I think I helped to move it forward but it is very much the director’s story now.