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Doctor Strange 2 director Sam Raimi: "I had a superhero overdose for a while"

The innovative Spider-Man supremo returns to directing – and superhero movies – for the first time in nearly a decade. But why did a “craftsman” position on Doctor Strange 2 make him return from the sidelines?

Sam Raimi
Getty
Published: Saturday, 7th May 2022 at 9:00 am
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To hear Sam Raimi tell it, his decision to make the Doctor Strange sequel couldn’t have been simpler.

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“As a kid, he was one of my favourite comic books,” the 62-year-old director tells me over Zoom.

“Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was an amateur magician, and Doctor Strange was a magician superhero. So it was kind of like a fantasy for me, to become a superhero as a magician. But mostly I love [Benedict Cumberbatch’s] portrayal of the character. I love how complex he made him, and where he and [director] Scott Derrickson left the character – he still had a lot to learn, and a lot to grow to, to be a complete human being, as the picture ended.

“It was a very easy thing to come back into the movies, and take on the job of telling his next adventure.”

In other words Marvel called, Raimi answered. But it feels like there must be a little more to the story than he’s initially willing to offer. After all, until Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness the once-prolific Raimi hadn’t helmed a film in nearly a decade, with 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful (starring James Franco as a younger Wizard of Oz) the last time he sat in the director’s chair.

From his early beginnings in horror in the early 80s through to his work on Spider-Man and beyond, Raimi had directed a film every couple of years through his career until Oz the Great and Powerful – after which he just seemed to stop.

Instead, recently Raimi has worked more quietly as a producer (and directing some short episodes for ill-fated streaming service Quibi) keeping out of the spotlight as the superhero genre he helped innovate with his Spider-Man trilogy grew to dominate the multiplexes. Clearly, something made him step back, and something made him return – so what happened?

“I don’t exactly have a proper answer for you, because it’s not clear in my head,” Raimi says eventually.But I’ll tell you that after Oz I needed some time off.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: (L to R) Benedict Wong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen and Sam Raimi attend the "Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness" photocall in Trafalgar Square on April 26, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: (L to R) Benedict Wong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen and Sam Raimi attend the "Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness" photocall in Trafalgar Square on April 26, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

Oz wasn’t a flop by any means – it made back its budget and more – but it wasn’t a huge hit either, grossing less money than many had hoped and attracting tepid reviews. And clearly the process of making the massive, high-budget film had an impact on Raimi, who decided to take a step back after its release.

“I wanted to not repeat myself,” he says now. “I wanted to have a hunger for [directing] again, and approach it like a student making their first film.”

This is what led Raimi to more producing work, which he says he treated as an apprenticeship of sorts – an apprenticeship to re-learn a craft that had already netted him acclaim and massive box office numbers over three decades in the industry.

“I needed to learn again,” he insists. “And I absorbed a lot from directors that I was producing. I’d see what they were doing with their dailies. I would see how they were directing actors, and take tips from them, and learn what not to do, and watch how they would let the camera roll when I would have called ‘cut’.

“And they got a little bit better of a performance, from letting that happen. I was wondering why they asked for an extra take, and then realising when I saw the performance why they did. So I opened myself up again,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the garden, and just had to recharge my batteries, and try it again for the first time.

“When that call came in [for Doctor Strange] I thought, ‘I love that character, and actually I’m ready for this right now. I feel recharged and ready to go.’”

Though as it turns out, his years in the movie wilderness did have one unexpected effect. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a complicated film, picking up from the events of the 2016 Doctor Strange film, the Elizabeth Olsen-starring Disney Plus show WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame and last December’s Spider-Man No Way Home.

In the story Cumberbatch’s master sorcerer jumps between universes, meets parallel versions of himself and other familiar characters and has to protect a crumbling multiverse. No small story for Raimi to wrestle with – especially given that he’d largely ignored superhero movies for the last 10 years or so.

Raimi admits that after his time making the Spider-Man trilogy his thirst for superhero stories had been quenched, leading him to “shut off” from the genre and largely avoid seeing the newer releases from Marvel and their competitors.

“I needed a little break for a while. I had a superhero overdose for a bit,” he says. “I had to be re-educated in certain characters and storylines. But Marvel guided me as to which ones were important for this particular chapter to be told.

“But I love those new Spider-Man movies,” he adds. “I’ve seen almost all of them, and I think they’ve really done the character justice.”

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, and Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, and Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved. Marvel Studios

And in more important areas, Raimi didn’t need a catch-up. Despite numerous advances in filmmaking since the last time he directed a superhero movie, he says the process still felt the same to him, stemming from the characters first created on the pages of comic books.

“I think the basics are the same of making the movies,” he tells me. “It’s still about identifying the great characters that Stan Lee, in this case, has created, and identifying the human being within the archetype – the flaws within them that we can identify with – and bringing that character to the screen.”

“But I think the technology has advanced so dramatically over the last 15 years that it’s made it much easier to pull off the special effect.

“I guess there never was a limit,” he corrects himself. “I mean, even back in the ‘30s, with the German technology of the Schüfftan mirror in the miniatures, and the rear-screen and front-screen projection – I think anything was possible then. But the seamlessness with which it can be pulled off is quite extraordinary today.”

Raimi cites these improved effects as the reason why “extraordinary” stories about the multiverse – essentially, the idea of endless parallel realities with twisted versions of familiar characters – have become so de rigeur of late, both in superhero movies and more generally (for a different take on the topic, audiences might well enjoy checking out Everything Everywhere All At Once when it releases in the UK later this month).

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Marvel Entertainment/YouTube

However, he still says that working the different universes into one film was a “daunting” task, which he had to set to work on early with screenwriter Michael Waldron when the pair took over from original director Scott Derrickson.

“Defining the multiverses was the most daunting thing for me, as we began,” he says. “How on earth are we going to show our universe as different from a second universe that’s parallel to our own; different than a third universe that’s parallel to our own; and different from a fourth universe that’s parallel to our own?

“How will we define this visually, sonically, with photography? What will be the tools we use to create a complete universe? It’s not world-building, it’s universe-building. How on earth are we going to approach that?

“We had to really iron out as much as we could. It was the subject of many production meetings with Charlie Wood, our production designer, and his art teams, and John Mathieson and his photography, and what colours would we use? What textures?

“What would the environment sound like? What was the music? The feeling of those environments continued to be refined, just until probably last week.”

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Marvel Studios

Now, after years of work fans are starting to see the fruits of Raimi and Marvel’s labours – and despite these new technologies and the need to fit in with Marvel’s grand plan, those who’ve seen the film have claimed that Raimi’s fingerprints are all over it. If you scroll through the first reactions to the film, his name is mentioned in almost every tweet, and it’s clear that plenty of people are seeing it as a creative comeback of sorts.

In fact, the only person who’d strongly disagree that Doctor Strange 2 is clearly a Sam Raimi movie…is Sam Raimi.

“I felt absolutely free,” he notes carefully when asked how he navigated working within Marvel’s wider film universe. “But my goal was not actually to put my mark on it, but to recognise where the fans had been with the characters; where the storyline had been; and really tell the next instalment.

“I came in more as a craftsman whose job it was to pick up the bridge that had been built to a certain point, and create my extension in an interesting way, and leave it off with the next bridge-builder to carry on.”

Essentially, Raimi seems to see his role on this film as a journeyman director keeping a firm hand on the tiller, not seeking to impose his own vision on what’s come before. Given his career, this seems (pardon the pun) a little strange – but given the background of his break from directing, it’s downright bizarre. After years of waiting, why not return with a more personal, creatively free project? To put it simply, why did Sam Raimi come back to do Doctor Strange 2, of all things?

Raimi’s reasons, of course, remain his own. Fans will just be delighted to see him directing again whatever the story behind it – and in any case, it seems like Doctor Strange might just be a gateway for him to start work on other projects.

“Because I’ve just finished this, I don’t even know what I’m doing next,” he says. “My head is still spinning with the mix reverberating in my ears from two weeks ago, and the last of the colour-timing changes blurring and clearing my vision.

“But I hope to start another movie as soon as I can figure out what it is.”

He doesn’t deny that after the “fun spooky, but not gut-wrenchingly horrific” Multiverse of Madness he might enjoy a return to “real horror” like the Evil Dead movies that gave him his start.

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“I love making horror pictures,” he says. “I love being in the audience when you’ve designed a suspense sequence and then a scare, and watching the audience react, knowing that it’s going to come.”

He grins slightly, warming to his theme.

“You feel like a bad kid that’s going to jump out in the playground and scare another kid. It’s a very base enjoyment, but it’s really a lot of fun as the director.”

And maybe that’s the only answer to this directing mystery we ever needed. Because at this point, after all these years of waiting, doesn’t Sam Raimi deserve a little fun?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness comes to UK cinemas on Thursday 5th May, while you can sign up for Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year. For more, check out our dedicated Fantasy page or our full TV Guide.

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