We're supposed to be talking about Marvel's new superhero film Doctor Strange but instead I'm discussing spiritual awakenings in India with star Benedict Cumberbatch and the metaphysical planes of existence with the film's director Scott Derrickson.

Fans of the comic probably aren't surprised. Doctor Strange embraces spacey, out-there scientific concepts like the endless dimensions that lie within parallel multiverses, blends eastern mysticism with western religion and combines these ideas with surrealistic, psychedelia-soaked artwork that turns reality inside out.

Doctor Strange... it's a bit trippy, man.

"From my earliest memories I have had an awareness or a consciousness of spirituality and a belief that the material world is not the only thing. It's not even the main thing," Derrickson, who grew up loving the comic, tells me. "Doctor Strange represented something closer to what the world felt like to me than other more grounded comics. I was an odd kid."


His awareness of the spiritual unknown explains Derrickson's filmography. He's co-written and directed spine-chilling supernatural horrors The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil and the Sinister series. Not the sort of movies you usually associate with family friendly Marvel. Not until you grasp the spiritual weirdness and galactic mind-bending nature of Doctor Strange.

"He's probably the only comic book character that I'm uniquely suited to make," Derrickson laughs.

Cumberbatch on the other hand only heard of Doctor Strange a few years back.

"A journalist said to me, 'you'd make a good Doctor Strange'. I went, 'doctor Who?' and he said, 'that as well,'" Cumberbatch recalls.

"I said, 'no, I'm not playing Dr. Who. But what do you mean Doctor Strange?'"

Interest piqued, Cumberbatch looked up the character. He dug the science and spirituality of the comic, but felt the character's haughtiness and arrogance was too close to his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on the telly series Sherlock.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

However a conversation with Derrickson about the character's transformation in the movie, mentally, physically and spiritually, along with a sneak peek at the reality-twisting visual effects being conjured up, convinced him to join the project.

"It was an opportunity to evolve the superhero genre and do something unique and fresh and new. It had to be. It was time," Derrickson explains.

"If we continued to repeat the kinds of stories and visuals that we've seen for the last decade then the superhero genre would fizzle out. It has a lot more life in it, but that life is only going to exist if people make fearless, bold, evolutionary choices and start to expand what a comic book movie can be. That was the intent with Doctor Strange."

It was this desire to turn things upside down and the opportunity that Doctor Strange presented to grapple with the bigger questions of life, the universe and, well, everything, that appealed to the both of them in very specific ways.

"I had a very incredible encounter when I was 19," Cumberbatch tells me. "I went to teach in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a converted Nepalese house in a little hill station outside of Darjeeling in West Bengal in India.

"It was the most extraordinary experience for a white kid who had been to a boarding school. I saved up and went on a gap year teaching programme and had this mind-altering and soul-altering experience. It was this incredible culture exchange where I feel, unfairly, that I learnt a lot more than I taught.

"I embroiled myself in Popular Science literature, learning about quantum mechanics, string theory and chaos. There's this wonderful intersection where science meets mysticism. Even just looking at the natural world and what we know of science and being in awe of it. There's something in there. Not a spirit, necessarily, but something that goes beyond the simple flesh and blood of our lives and our reality.

"I had that interest but also I practiced meditation. I looked at that specific religious structure, Tibetan Buddhism, which is beautiful and fascinating and it all led to the beginning of a journey that I've been on ever since. Which is mindfulness really, rather than anything else. It's not necessarily faith or belief. It's about practicing moments of stillness and concentration. There are crossovers with the experience I had as a teenager and the reading I was doing in Popular Science which all fed into this world. It does meet somewhere here.

"This is a fantastical superhero film, of course, but the profundity of the message is the power of the mind is something to be really respected. The mind has the power to shape or reshape your reality. No matter how distressing that reality may be. There is solace and help within that strength."

Derrickson also fed his beliefs into shaping the picture. Between the two of them they've ensured Doctor Strange is entirely unlike any other Marvel superhero film you've seen. But it also holds an incredibly personal resonance for him.

U.S. director Scott Derrickson attends a press conference to promote his latest movie
U.S. director Scott Derrickson attends a press conference to promote his latest movie "Doctor Strange" in Hong Kong, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

"The world feels fantastical to me. I have a feeling that any scientific explanation or any religious explanation of it is very limited," Derrickson tells me. "It's much more mysterious than we let on. The unknown is massive. And that can be frightening, hence all my horror films.

"My gravitation towards horror was always about my belief in mysticism, in the metaphysical, in there being more than the material world. That combined with the fact I grew up very afraid and grew up with a lot of fear.

"I've worked hard in my life to confront my fears and overcome my fears and those two things put together result in the horror films. And when it comes to Doctor Strange I feel, having gotten to my age, I've purged a lot of that fear and I was really ready to make a movie about the bright side of how I see things."

Which is?

"Life is a spiritual experience and it's about growth. I think we're here to overcome ourselves to evolve as individuals," Derrickson replies, before clarifying with, "I'm not talking about new age bullshit, and I'm not talking about religious theology. I'm talking about there's a way to live and a way not to live. And the way to live is to have an awareness of how mysterious the universe is. To grow as a human being, to evolve and become a better human being. Doctor Strange is about those two things."

If it's all beginning to sound a little heavy or a little too out there, it's worth noting that this is the big picture stuff. It is still a comic book movie. So, for those that don't know, what's the general gist?

"Doctor Stephen Strange is a neurosurgeon who has a cataclysmic car crash that ruins his hands but also his mind," Cumberbatch answers. "He tries to chase becoming what he was, which was a very materialistic-driven and slightly isolated lone figure. He's charming, he's funny, but he's also very arrogant and obsessed with the prowess he has in his chosen field. In searching for healing after his hands are irreparably damaged he discovers that he has a power that is untapped, something that's latent in all of us, that is beyond what he's experienced in his idea of what reality is.

"From that he's trained and taken into a world of incredible testing and difficulty. And he has to fend off and really test his mettle against forces he's never encountered before, and that we've never seen in the Marvel cinematic universe.

"He becomes a sorcerer and opens up the multiverse to the cinematic universe. So he's a very key character in that context of broadening the bracket of the frame of these adventures."

Indeed, this movie will forever change the direction of Marvel's intricately connected cinematic universe. In fact it pretty much destroys it. The key word is "multiverse". But what the heck is that? I ask Derrickson to explain it in layman's terms.

"Multiverse theory suggests our dimensional experience of height, width, depth and time, are just four dimensions of many others," he answers. "There are many other dimensions [but] we just don't have the means of accessing those dimensions or sensing them. Some intersect our own world and some are outside of it.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

"It's a scientific theory. It's not proven, there's no scientific evidence of it yet. But it is a solid scientific theory. But we didn't root the movie in science, I think magic should be magic, but it certainly makes for great imaginative storytelling."

Are people ready for these deeper questions and mind boggling ideas in their comic book movies, I ask Cumberbatch.

"Absolutely," he answers immediately. "It's the wheel that keeps on being reinvented, which is why people come back for more. People say that a frame in The Avengers can get quite crowded, well that frame just got a lot bigger. And in a very different way.

"It's a different area in a different environment yet it's still very much a Marvel film. Even though I'm late to the party as far as the genre goes I think this is a new beginning. It's very exciting to be part of it."

Derrickson also sounds every bit as excited by the movie, which he admits is the superhero movie he's always wanted to see.

"To do all this in the process of tapping into something as awesome as the Marvel cinematic universe and trying to create visual set pieces that are about more than just blowing shit up. It's all kind of incredible," he says before adding, "It's in the dreams come true category for me."

WHO: Star Benedict Cumberbatch and director Scott Derrickson
WHAT: Marvel's surrealistic, universe changing new film Doctor Strange.
WHEN: In cinemas, Thursday 27th.