Editor’s note: This interview was originally published at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. MGM releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 26.
Cannes likes George Miller, and he likes Cannes. It’s where he debuted “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2015, and made his third Competition jury appearance the following year, this time as its president. Now his latest film, “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” has an out-of-competition slot with an epic and gorgeously wrought fairy-tale romance between a Djinn eager for freedom (Idris Elba) and a successful but lonely academic who studies storytelling (another Cannes perennial, Tilda Swinton). He tells her a bang of a tale; she makes wishes. They negotiate the terms in an Istanbul hotel room. Is love a wish fulfilled?
For all its epic scope, it’s a smaller-scale drama dominated by dialogue and reviews are mixed. That’s unsurprising; this movie is like nothing you have seen, and critics don’t know what to make of it. Although crammed with ingenious magical creatures and VFX, it’s not an action movie. Its two 50-ish leads are romantic, but they talk more than they make love.
Developed over a decade, Miller co-wrote the movie with his daughter Augusta Gore and the result is something that’s smaller than “Fury Road,” but with a $60-million budget that’s bigger than most Cannes entries.
People were also unsure what to make of “Fury Road” at first, which wound up grossing $375.4 million worldwide and won six out of 10 Oscar nominations, but it’s unlikely that “Three Thousand Years” will duplicate those feats. Miller had the freedom to make the movie he wanted because FilmNation sold territories around the world. Everyone will open the film in theaters this fall, including Amazon-owned MGM, which Miller insists remains committed to open the film on 2,000 screens in September. (How much outgoing executive Michael DeLuca can support the film is another question.)
“Three Thousand Years” brings the return of several “Fury Road” veterans, including cinematographer John Seale, Oscar-winning editor Margaret Sixel (who is also Miller’s wife), and Miller’s producing partner Doug Mitchell. What his new film really has going for it is originality; Miller follows his own peculiar instincts about what will engage audiences as well as himself.
“You don’t have any choice but to try to be uniquely familiar,” he told IndieWire in Cannes. “You will always be looking for something. But it has to be based on what’s already familiar. Otherwise, it’s so out there that it won’t make any connection with anybody.”
Miller loves to dissect storytelling, from ancient fairy tales to Joseph Campbell’s journeying heroes. Today’s Marvel superheroes are just new versions of the Greek, Roman, and Norse gods, he says, and Elba’s Djinn is a modern reworking of tropes from “The Arabian Nights.” Miller discovered this particular Djinn in a 1994 A.S. Byatt short story. When he met the author to discuss rights, she asked, “Why did you pick this story?”
“There’s something more authentic about this one,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “because everything about the story is true, except for the Djinn.”
Miller wanted to write the script with his “Lorenzo’s Oil” collaborator, Nick Enright, but his old friend developed terminal cancer and suggested that Miller work with his own daughter. Father and daughter wrote fitfully, off and on, over the years.
“The film can be read on many levels, depending on the audience,” Gore said at the Cannes press conference. “On the one hand, it’s about a narratologist who stumbles on a Djinn who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. But on the other hand, it’s a conversation about the interplay between science and myth, between technology and magic, between the ideas of immortality and what it means to live a mortal life with love and desire and fear, and all the things that we go through all the time.”
When the movie was finally a go, Miller met Swinton over dinner at Cannes and found himself smitten. He found his Djinn in Elba, who asked that they shoot his flashbacks first, as well as him telling her the stories. When Swinton arrived on set, Miller showed her the sequences, “to just give her one look at what story he was going to tell,” he said.
Miller shot Elba as five times larger than Swinton. When the Djinn flies out of Alithea’s blue bottle, he’s bursting the edges of a hotel room that Miller rendered in miniature with the use of laser-printed tiny lamps, books, furniture, and a perfect Apple laptop. Elba shrinks down to a more reasonable size, but Miller still scaled up the Djinn by 15 percent, making Elba’s 6’3″ become 6’10”. The actor stood on boxes wearing platform heels, occasionally losing his balance. At the Cannes afterparty, the 5’11” Swinton told me that she loved feeling small, for once.
“She has to play to him,” said Miller. “So if it’s 15 percent, their eyes had to meet. He dwarfed her to some extent. Tilda wasn’t working with green screen all the time. If they had to make eye contact, we’d have Tilda talking to a little monitor up there so she could look at his face even though he was five times bigger, to connect them as much as possible.”
The Djinn design included elf ears, merman scales, and artfully disguised privates. He also had long, extra-thick lashes — an addition Miller made after Elba said he’d been working with horses and found their eyes deeply expressive. “Idris and Tilda are filmmaking actors,” said Miller. “They’re very astute, their instincts are very strong. And I found myself listening to them carefully. Idris talked about his language, and he did this speaking in tongues, which we called Djinnrish. Little things like that he brought.”
Listening to his actors sets Miller apart. “Miller is an interesting person amongst action directors,” said Kyle Buchanan, author of the recent bestselling oral history “Blood, Sweat, & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,'” “because he has such interest in human life, borne out of the fact that he started as a doctor. When it comes to his actors, there’s a fascinating degree to which he gives them a certain amount of freedom to explore, create, and inhabit those characters.”
The pandemic made it impossible to shoot on locations scouted in London and Istanbul. In Sydney, Australia, Miller built or virtually replicated everything — Istanbul airport, Topkapi Palace, the Imperial Court, the Grand Bazaar — using tiles and photographs.
He created fanciful creatures and literally live instruments, from a giraffe with the markings of a zebra, to the ifret spider monster that sprays scuttling scarabs. All that storytelling is the Djinn wooing the skeptical Alithea to make her three wishes and set him free. “He has to, after 3,000 years,” said Miller. “She’s affected by his vulnerability, and she wants his love.”
Next Up: Miller, who is 77, is already back in the saddle, supervising pre-production from afar on “Furiosa,” a “Fury Road” prequel set 15 years earlier starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, with support from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Burke. It’s due May 24, 2024.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. MGM will release it in theaters on Friday, August 26.