Clarity of vision

Time allows for reflection and revision for a creator

Clarity of vision
Image: Legendary / WB

A while back, I read a book about the history of the MCU by Gavin Edwards, Dave Gonzales, and Joanna Robinson. It's a good overview of how Marvel and Marvel Studios built up this massive engine to churn out superhero blockbusters, starting back in 2009 with Iron Man. Superhero films had something of a hit-or-miss track record, and with the success of the franchise, they've come to dominate the film industry and theaters.

One of the things that really stuck with me from that overview was just how precarious it is when you pull the curtain back to see how it comes together. Theatergoers generally only get to see the finished product, and the only time we get an inkling of the sausage's production is when something goes really wrong, like bad CGI or an incoherent story. What that book showed was that most Marvel films come together as they're in production: Disney sets a release date, and the cast and crew race to meet it, sometimes working up to the last minute to get things finished up. (A podcast that I listened to recently did something similar with Lucasfilm's Star Wars films.)

The process (varying a little from film to film) is that Marvel Studios has a longer roadmap, and hires some writers to script out the films that are part of it, sometimes before the director or cast are set. They go through that pre-production process, but are continually tweaking, adding, and subtracting from that script as production goes on. They might bring in additional writers to polish the script just prior or during production. Some of this is influenced by Iron Man's production, where Robert Downey Jr. heavily improvised on set, but also that the film didn't really have a third act (a climactic battle between Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane) until super late in its production.

The film that they set out to make is often quite a bit different than the version that ends up in theaters. It seems to have worked well for Marvel, but we've been seeing cracks in that system in some of the latest releases, especially in its streaming shows, like She-Hulk, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Secret Invasion, as well as films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Marvels, where you see issues in stories or seams where it feels like you can see where things were changed later in production.

This isn't necessarily limited to big-budget superhero films: it's any creative endeavor where creatives go into a process and have to rush it. John Scalzi's novels The Consuming Fire and Starter Villain, where he's said that he's had to work on both quickly – the former in a mere two weeks and the latter up to the last possible minute. This isn't to ding Scalzi, but while I think his books are perfectly readable and fun, I've been coming away from them feeling like they could have been quite a bit better given more time in the editing process. (Especially The Consuming Fire). When I interviewed Craig Alanson a couple of years ago to learn about his process, I was shocked that his particular production cycle saw him churning out a massive book every three months in order to keep his fans satisfied.

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There's a commercial process at play here, which is important to keep in mind: the film / book / TV industries require high release tempos for some of their marquee names. And, I think that there is space on bookstore shelves and movie theaters for books and films that fall into the "commercial product" and "Art" buckets, with the understanding that this is less buckets and more a spectrum.

What got me thinking about this is a Tweet from screenwriter Joe Russo (not the Marvel director), in which he says that he spoke with a VFX artist who worked on Dune Part 2, who explained that the reason why the visual effects looked so good was "Specificity of vision. The way the footage is captured and blocked. Creative choices made on the assets early and consistently. Less executive meddling late in the process."

That's not a ton to go on, but if it's accurate, I think it highlights a couple of reasons why Dune has done so well as a blockbuster: director Denis Villeneuve had a good idea of what he was doing going into the film, with a script in place and a good idea of what they were going to be shooting. Villeneuve has said that he's planning on writing a third installment of the series, based off of Dune: Messiah, but has also noted that he's working to make sure that the script is done, telling The Hollywood Reporter "I want to come back with a strong screenplay. It’s almost done but it needs work, a bit, now.”

I think that's a good sign. Given the box office haul and acclaim that Part 2 has gotten, rushing Dune 3 into theaters for a repeat performance seems like a thing that a studio would do, not realizing that the film's success comes from a solid story and excellent visuals, things that you really can't rush if you want it to be good. What's the maxim? Quick, Cheap, or Good; you can only pick two.

Warner Bros. seems like it's intent on building out a bigger franchise out of Dune and its successors, and that could work if they have the patience to take the time to do it right, rather than rushing it for the sake of hitting a release date. Dune Part 2 was announced with a release date, but the plan seems to have always been to do the film in two parts, and worked in such a way that they could immediately get started when they had the green light to do so.

I think the results speak for themselves: the film has been a financial and critical success, and I think it's inevitable that we'll get a Dune Part 3 greenlit at some point in the near future. It also seems like it'll take a while, as Villeneuve already has a handful of other films on his plate, like an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, a remake of Cleopatra, and a third unannounced film.

That wait is a good thing in my book: over the last couple of decades, we as an audience have been conditioned for instant (or at least quick) gratification. Enjoy this Star Wars/Marvel/DC/etc. film? Look for the next a year from now. This trilogy of books is being released every three months. This TV show will come out every year with 8-10 massively-budgeted episodes. When the calendar becomes the driver for a story's completion, the artistic vision takes a hit.

HBO's Game of Thrones comes to mind here: it famously flubbed its last couple of seasons, all while author George R.R. Martin has been scribbling away at the next, penultimate installment. It feels very much like the show and its creators rushed its ending, while Martin has been deliberate in his work to complete it. It's impossible to say if Winds of Winter will turn out to be better than the show, but if there's anything that's illustrative of fandom's craving for content and glowing with rage when it's not delivered to them, it's Martin's deliberative pace.

Time allows for reflection and revision for a creator. Ideas don't always happen from the get-go, and I've often found as I write that I'll find connections and things that I didn't recognize or understand while writing an initial draft, and only once I finish, step back and see the bigger picture and how things can be tweaked to be better. Having that clarity of vision helps a story grow like roots reaching into the soil: the more time and care [generally] means a stronger end result.

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Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently Reading

While I've had Dune on my mind, I went and picked up Frank Herbert's Dune: Messiah and read and listened through it. I think I read it when I was in high school or college, but I didn't remember anything other than glimpses. (I did see the SCI FI channel series though). It was an interesting followup, and a very different read from that of the first installment. I'll have to pick up Children of Dune next. This time around read this in three places: the audiobook edition while driving two and from work, the mass market paperback while out and about, and the Folio Society edition at home. It was a fun experience.

I also picked up and read The Art and Soul of Dune Part 2 by Tanya Lapointe and Stefanie Broos, the behind-the-scenes book about the making of the film, which is loaded with concept art, production photographs, and descriptions of the work that went into the film. (And which reinforced my thinking that there was a lot of deliberative thought that went into the writing and design of the film.)

Currently on the list? Martha Wells' System Collapse and Katherine Arden's The Warm Hands of Ghosts, both of which I'm enjoying.

Further reading

Dune & the climate. The History Channel's website has a story up by Jesse Greenspan up about Frank Herbert and Dune, specifically about it helped bring environmentalism into genre fiction.

Expanse playthings

Who doesn't want to play with the crew of the Rocinante?

The Expanse: now in action figure form
Pick up your own crew of the Rocinante

Fanfic problems. 404 Media's Samantha Cole has a fascinating story about how some sellers on Etsy and other marketplaces are selling fanfiction that's been turned into hard copies, and it's roiling the community. Fanfiction is unauthored, fan-written stories, and a cardinal rule here is that you're not to make money off of them. (h/t to TO subscriber Max Covill!)

Another fanfiction-related story comes via Maddie Ellis of Today, who writes about author SenLinYu turned a 900-page Harry Potter story into a book deal (after stripping out the Harry Potter references.)

Field Notes. I don't think that I've hit preorder quite as quickly: Christopher Brown revealed the cover of his upcoming nonfiction book, A Natural History of Empty Lots: Field Notes from Urban Edgelands, Back Alleys, and Other Wild Places, his upcoming nonfiction book based on his excellent newsletter, Field Notes. It sounds like it'll be an outstanding read.

March books

16 new SF/F books to check out this month. I'll have the second list coming out in a week or so.

16 new sci-fi and fantasy books to read in March 2024
16 new books to add to your TBR

The Original Dunes Part 1 and 2

Denis Villeneuve's Dune is now out in theaters, and it's a good opportunity to look back on how it was originally published

The original Dunes Part 1 and 2
Denis Villeneuve Dune is now out in theaters, and it’s a good opportunity to look back on how it was originally published

The prescient Stanislaw Lem. Rivka Galchen writes about Stanislaw Lem and his uncanny ability to imagine the future for The New Yorker. It's a decent profile of Lem and some choice moments in the history of science fiction.

Three Body stories. Two stories caught my eye about Chinese science fiction, timed for Cixin Liu's Three-Body Problem (And the upcoming series based on it). First up, Simina Mistreanu writes about the history of Chinese science fiction via the AP, wrapping in some of the recent issues about last year's Hugo Awards. Over on The Telegraph, Simon Ings interviews Liu about his work and writing.

War Stories

The Folio Society has a new edition of Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers, and it got me thinking about some storytelling lessons.

War stories
Some thoughts on the storytelling lessons from Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers