Behind the Scenes - Greg Johnson Interview

Having served as the screenwriter for all four of Marvel/Lions Gates Direct To DVD features, Greg Johnson is more than familiar with the particulars of writing these features. The Marvel Animation Age caught up with Greg to talk about scripting The Sorcerer Supreme just in time for it’s release.

Marvel Animation Age: How did you come to work on Dr. Strange and why was he chosen to star in his own feature?

Greg Johnson: Allow me to get a running start at this question. Part of maintaining a career in animation is to be able to share the same vision for a project that the client does. In this case, Marvel. More specifically, Avi Arad. Part of what makes working in animation so much fun is bringing your own ‘take’ to things. But if that ‘take’ doesn’t match the boss’s, then it can be a miserable experience. I have had the good fortune of working with Avi on several series. I was part of the team that revamped the Iron Man show in the 90’s. From there, I went onto the Incredible Hulk. The first season was definitely more of creator driven effort, and the network - being new - didn’t know enough to actually get in the way. After a successful first season, though, they figured it out. With their own agenda in hand, the network got rid of those in the production that pushed too hard against them, and then promptly shifted the focus. I did my best on the scripts, but… oh well. One of the times in my career where my ‘take’ didn’t match the networks.

(Side note: the network executive at the time had just come off of overseeing Power Rangers, and it was obvious she saw the Hulk as an extension of that – a normal person transforming into a fighting machine. She wanted him to have a signature ‘move’ when he transformed, and a signature line. That’s where ‘eat green’ came from.)

Through it all, though, Avi really appreciated my efforts, and particularly enjoyed the story-telling in that first season. I next crossed paths with him when I was asked to write a couple of freelance episodes on the first season of X-Men: Evolution, and then was hired on as a story editor midway through that season.

Through the run of X-Men: Evolution, a new exec was rising in the ranks at Marvel – Craig Kyle. I’ve never seen someone so passionate about the characters and the world of Marvel, yet able to distance himself enough to be objective. It was obvious back then that he was destined to control the fates of many superheroes… and a few writers. So when the first DTV was being developed, I was asked to adapt it. At the risk of repeating myself, sharing the same vision and excitement as those who hire you, is key to being asked back. Fortunately, working with Craig, I was able to give Avi the movies he wanted. So when he felt it was time to finally bring Doctor Strange out of the Sanctum Sanctorum, he asked me to adapt it.

First of all, this was a great honor, because I knew how much this character meant to Avi. The expectations were high. So the first thing Craig and I did was develop a story we thought was so fresh and unique that Avi would leap for joy. He read it, and then called a meeting. I still remember sitting in that conference room with Avi, Kevin Feige, Craig Kyle, Frank Paur, and Eric Rollman. Everyone was always nice and courteous, but it became immediately obvious that the story we had put forth, although good on its own merits, was NOT Doctor Strange. It had all the same characters, but was not his origin. When the meeting was over, everyone left but Craig and I – and we were both feeling a bit deflated. As Eric was heading out, he said dryly “Good job, guys.”

So Craig and I went back to work with new clarity, and the story took shape fairly quickly. In hindsight, we can’t imagine doing our first version. What a mistake that would have been. We still think it’s a good story, but Avi was so right to corral our imaginations back into what was on the comic page in the very beginning.

MAA: The previews indicate the character initially starts as someone arrogant and un-likeable. Do you enjoy writing jerks and did you find it difficult to redeem him in the running time?

Johnson: If Strange was an arrogant jerk for no reason, then it would have been hard. As a character, he would have gotten old pretty quickly. So we dug into his past to find out why he behaves like he does. Why he’s thrown himself into his work, taking the impossible cases. Cases that no one else would touch. That way, if he were successful, he would be celebrated. If he failed, who could blame him? They were lost causes, anyway. Redeeming him by the end wasn’t so difficult once we understood him, but it does require believable steps along the way. Steps that need to also propel the plot, the agendas of the other characters, and end up culminating with a big finale. The biggest enemy to that is indeed the running time. It’s a balancing act, and some aspects of story or characterization, or even action sequences, don’t get as explored as much as I’d like.

MAA: Many writers have stated that Dr. Strange is a difficult character to write for because his powers have no apparent limitations. Did you come into any problems with this when penning the film?

Johnson: Strange’s powers and limitations became a focus early on. I approached it as if sorcery has many, many levels of competency. That’s a given, I know, but it needed to be established here. The first is the conceit that matter is energy, and magic is the art of controlling that energy. Therefore, with energy all around them, they can manipulate almost anything – once they are competent enough. So we started with the basics – creating weapons from the air, and becoming efficient in using them. I believe it would have been a mistake to give Doctor Strange the ability to do anything. Where could you go from there? If we do additional Doctor Strange movies, I would start layering in more of his abilities as he continues to grow in the mystic arts.

MAA: How important do you believe it is to stay true to the comics’ origin story? Is there ever any temptation to go in a completely different direction?

Johnson: As you’ll see in the opening question, the temptation is there and sometimes pursued. Sometimes that’s a result of an origin not having enough of a concise cinematic story capable of carrying a ‘movie.’ Sometimes the writer is just so inspired by the character that too many ideas flood in, requiring a reinvention of some of the basics. And sometimes, it’s ego. I’m sure plenty of writers approach this stuff with the mindset that they can do it so much better. Ego is not what drives me, I’m way too insecure for that. I tend to fall into the second category. Fortunately most of Marvel’s characters have fascinating back-stories.

MAA: Is there anything you wanted to fit into the film but couldn’t, for whatever reason?

Johnson: Clea. But when you watch the movie, you’ll see that there wasn’t a meaningful place for her. Yet, she’s not forgotten.

MAA: Do you think this version of Dr. Strange could be the starting point of a series for the character or do you think the character works better in a movie format? What would you like to do with the character if you were given the chance to revisit him?

Johnson: The large scope of Doctor Strange’s powers can easily get in the way of telling meaningful stories about him. If there is no limit to his abilities, then there’s not much you can explore dramatically. This would be challenging in a series, but not impossible. The key would be in giving him limitations, while exploring his ongoing education as sorcerer supreme.

MAA: Which Marvel characters origin would you like a crack at next? Are there any you feel are in dire need of an animated updating?

Johnson: Personally, I’d love to do Captain America’s origin – keeping it in the 1940’s. And as I’ve said before, the one character I’d love to do a movie on is Gambit. Such a charismatic character, with his rich past, can easily fill out a feature length story.

MAA: What do you consider your career best so far?

Johnson: It’s hard to answer that without sounding arrogant. I’m the harshest critic of my own stuff. But I would have to say this Doctor Strange movie is probably my favorite. The Comic-con screening was definitely a boost to my spirits. I don’t usually get to witness first-hand reactions, and overall it was very well received. There was even a Physician who approached us as a longtime Strange fan, and he had nice things to say about the medical aspects of the movie. I told my wife - see, all of those years watching ER really was research. I’ve also just finished the final script on Wolverine and the X-Men, and I’m very stoked about this series. You’ll be hearing more about it all in the coming months, but I truly believe most fans will not see this one coming.

The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Greg for taking the time to talk to us once again. Cheers Greg!