South East

Marvel’s Magical Mystery Tour

by Mark Salisbury

Marvel’s Magical Mystery Tour

As the latest in a long line of Marvel movies to shoot in the UK, Doctor Strange is making the most of the south east’s excellent locations and infrastructure. Mark Salisbury reports.

When it comes to assembling the Earth’s mightiest superheroes, Marvel Studios – home to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest – likes to do it in the UK. Doctor Strange is the latest Marvel fi lm to shoot in the territory after Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and was based at Surrey’s Longcross Studios. X-Men: First Class, from 20th Century Fox in association with Marvel, also shot in the UK. The story of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange who, after a horrific car accident, discovers a hidden world of magic and alternative dimensions, Doctor Strange is part of the studio’s third phase of films that kicks off with Captain America: Civil War and takes Marvel into uncharted territory.

“Given the nature of the story, there’s some pretty ambitious set pieces and concepts,” reveals Executive Producer Charles Newirth. “Once you introduce magic into a story, you can do all sorts of crazy new things visually. So the challenge has been two-fold, dreaming up sequences that audiences haven’t seen before, then figuring out how we’re going to pull these off on a soundstage, backlot or on the crowded streets of Nepal.”

Doubling for the world
Directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous magician alongside Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams, Doctor Strange is set in the exotic locales of New York, London and Nepal. But while the production shot for a week in Kathmandu in November 2015, and a further week in New York in April 2016, the majority is being shot on location in England, and at Longcross and Shepperton studios.

“This film is set predominantly in New York,” says Supervising Location Manager Jamie Lengyel, who worked on Avengers: Age of Ultron prior to Doctor Strange. “The challenge [is that] we’re shooting in three continents but we’re bringing as much as we can back to London and the south east; as much as possible within range of our studio base. So a lot of my work has been matching London for New York.” To that end, the production chose to fi lm at Londoneast-uk Business & Technical Park in Dagenham, east London, on the site of a former pharmaceutical company that was “a perfect location for a hi-tech hospital”, says Lengyel. “It provided all the operating theatres and corridors and tied in with our hospital set [at Longcross Studios] and the exterior we chose in New York.”

Additionally, Royal Oak skate park under the A40 Westway dual carriageway stood in for the Bronx, and Ropemaker Street in the City doubled for midtown Manhattan. “We’re trying to do as many elements as possible in London.” Besides doubling for New York and, occasionally,
Hong Kong, London also features as itself, with the production shooting in Whitehall Place, the National Liberal Club and Great Scotland Yard. “We did some significant work in terms of shutting down a street in central London,” says Newirth. “From the producing side, that gives us tremendous production value. We were able to take advantage of the architecture of the city.” Another London location utilised by the production was the Caroline Gardens Chapel in Peckham, south London, which sits within the capital’s largest complex of almshouses, built for retired publicans. “An extraordinary location,” says Lengyel. “To bring a movie of this size into that environment takes a lot of work on the ground with a lot of residents.”

Outside of the capital, Derrickson shot for two days at Exeter College Chapel, Oxford, over Christmas. “We had to be sensitive to the location, this beautiful old chapel,” says Newirth, “also respecting what the building represented.”

“Again, it was taking advantage of the wealth of period architecture we have,” says Lengyel, “and was a perfect match for our requirements. It was a question of working closely with the specific college and also the colleges immediately adjacent that we inevitably affect, because one of the challenges with these films is the scale of the operation and the number of equipment vehicles that need to be as close as possible to our set.” The production also shot interior VFX plates at Salisbury Cathedral. “It’s a super-friendly location within one hour of the studio,” Lengyel continues, “and one that’s very keen to get onto the location map.”

Another location in the south of England that stood in for New York was the Thames at Northfleet, Kent, which portrayed the Hudson River for part of a driving sequence that will be pieced together from elements shot at Longcross as well as New York. “That took a considerable amount of work,” reveals Lengyel, “with the complications of the tide and at night.”

Indeed, given so many shots across a variety of south east locations, the team relied heavily on the support of the local infrastructure. “It’s a VFX-heavy movie,” says Lengyel, “so when we are on location our shots are very much led by pre-vis. That requires a lot of co-operation from every location, and from the filming offices. And with a movie of this nature there are always scheduling changes; we’re often planning the same event over three or four weekends to give us the flexibility of when that shooting day is going to be.”

While the bulk of the studio work was shot at Longcross, given the size of Doctor Strange, the production also spilled on to several stages at Shepperton. As well as studio and office space, Longcross provided a huge backlot including a two-mile test track and 550ft diameter slip pad. “It’s a former military testing place so you have unusual spaces,” says Lengyel. “A lot of films come here and take advantage of the fact you can piece together elements from existing buildings.”

“There’s a lot of flexibility here, which makes it attractive and easy for us,” confirms Newirth. “At Longcross we have everybody under one facility; everything from wardrobe to construction to special effects to props.”

A case in point is a three-block Hong Kong street set that Production Designer Charles Wood built between a soundstage and office building, transforming the area into a neon-lit Kowloon street complete with temporary roof covering to protect it from the rain. “If you were on the street, you’d think you were in Kowloon,” says Newirth. On Longcross’s largest stage, Stage 1, Wood replicated a Kathmandu temple and street. “It was several sets connecting into another,” says Executive Producer Stephen Broussard. “Having spent so much time in Nepal, when we walked onto the set, it smelt like Nepal, our production designer was burning the same kind of incense for the visuals. It was a weirdly disorienting sensory experience, but really cool.”

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