American cinema
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Tilda Swinton as Alithea in a still from Three Thousand Years of Longing, co-written and directed by George Miller. Photo: Elise Lockwood

Three Thousand Years of Longing is Mad Max director’s epic fairy-tale movie that took him a quarter of a century to make – here’s why

  • George Miller tells the Post he was seeking to create ‘transcendent moments’ in his latest film, starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba
  • Co-written with his daughter Augusta Gore, the film, about an academic who encounters a wish-granting djinn, ‘deals with all the big issues in life’, he says

When George Miller was growing up in Queensland, Australia, in the mid-1950s, he and his twin brother John were gifted a vinyl record. On it was American film director Orson Welles narrating Oscar Wilde’s dreamy children’s fairy story, “The Happy Prince”.

“We played it a thousand times, over a year, two years,” he says. “It’s basically where I got my politics from, where I got the notion of the heroic gesture from. It just had everything in that story. That had a huge influence [on me].”

No surprise then that Miller eventually became a filmmaker, albeit by the way of studying medicine at the University of New South Wales.

Miller is famed for the quartet of Mad Max films, the post-apocalyptic franchise he created and returned to so viscerally with the fourth instalment, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

But he has always believed in the power of magic and fables, shown through films such as The Witches of Eastwick (1987), which he directed, and the world of a talking pig in Babe (1995), which he produced and co-wrote.

It was during the mid-’90s, when Babe took US$254.1 million worldwide and was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one, that Miller encountered A.S. Byatt’s novella “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”.

Review: Three Thousand Years of Longing – George Miller’s enchanting tale

He was captivated by the adult fairy tale, about a solitary academic who encounters a wish-granting djinn.

“It deals with all the big issues of life,” he says. “All the things that resonate with us. What is love? How does it manifest? How do you know it’s love? Is it real or is it a madness?”

While Byatt granted him the rights to adapt it, it has taken Miller close to a quarter of a century to bring it to the big screen. Sidetracked by other films, he was always chipping away at the script.

He co-wrote it with Augusta Gore, his daughter from his first marriage, and they retitled it Three Thousand Years of Longing, an appropriate title for such an achingly romantic film.

(From left) George Miller, Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba at the premiere of “Three Thousand Years of Longing” at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Photo: AP

Ironically, when we last met after Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller told me he planned to follow that with “something quick and small just to reboot the brain”.

Compared to the logistics of shooting Fury Road in the Namibian desert, Three Thousand Years of Longing might have seemed like a breeze.

But it still took a further seven years, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant that the delayed US$60 million production had to be entirely shot in Sydney, Australia.

You want an audience to feel something viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, anthropologically, spiritually, mythologically. All of it
George Miller

He’d had the good fortune, though, to find the right actors for his leads.

When he met Tilda Swinton, the flame-haired Scottish star of Michael Clayton and Memoria, he felt immediately she was ideal to play Dr Alithea Binnie, a narratologist who travels to Türkiye for a conference, where she meets the djinn – a sprite that has been trapped inside a trinket for three millennia.

“There’s something about Tilda,” Miller says. “I swear, I felt the movie gods shone down on me.”

A still from Three Thousand Years of Longing. Photo: Elise Lockwood

Around the same time, Miller met Idris Elba (The Wire) on the awards circuit, and felt he was right for the djinn, who grants Alithea three wishes in return for his freedom.

Miller calls both meetings “significant”, claiming that the moment he was introduced to both actors he couldn’t think of anyone else playing the roles.

Elba praises Miller’s “vivid imagination”, but also his “genteel” and “personable” style.

“He’s a doctor, so you get that sense that he’ll give you a cuddle as well as his vision,” Elba says.

The 10 best movies from this year’s Cannes Film Festival

Sitting opposite me for this interview, wearing a navy shirt and with his grey hair swept back, the 77-year-old Miller is exactly as Elba describes.

When we meet, it’s the day after the premiere of Three Thousand Years of Longing at the Cannes Film Festival in France, when the red carpet was invaded by a naked woman protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“That’s the nature of [Cannes],” says Miller, who has served on the festival jury in the past. “The unexpected makes it memorable. I’m not saying that slapping someone at the Oscars is necessarily a good thing. But someone doing this is great. The unusual is what stands out.”
A still from Three Thousand Years of Longing. Photo: Elise Lockwood

“Unusual” is exactly what Three Thousand Years of Longing is.

When the early reviews dropped, the suggestion was that it was merely a palate cleanser between Mad Max movies.

“Now, can we please get on with Furiosa?” carped The Hollywood Reporter, referring to the prequel to Fury Road that Miller is now shooting in Australia, with Anya Taylor-Joy replacing the titular character Charlize Theron previously played.

That rather does a disservice to this picture-book film – particularly with Miller’s veteran cinematographer John Seale enticed out of retirement to shoot it.

(From left) Tilda Swinton, George Miller and Idris Elba on the set of “Three Thousand Years of Longing”. Photo: Elise Lockwood
Swinton has compared Three Thousand Years of Longing to being in the live-action equivalent of a Hayao Miyazaki movie, the Japanese animation master behind Spirited Away.

Moreover, it’s an elegant ode to storytelling. When Alithea refuses the djinn’s offer of three wishes in exchange for his freedom, he tells his tale, one that transports us back to a world of sultans, concubines and even the Queen of Sheba.

Like all good fairy tales, there will be love and loss along the way.

“He’s a mess,” Miller laughs when he speaks of the pointy-eared, lovelorn djinn. “I mean, Idris said [it] … he said, ‘The guy really screws up every time.’”

A still from Three Thousand Years of Longing. Photo: Elise Lockwood

He recalls Elba asking him if he liked the Disney animated cartoon Pinocchio, another fable, about a wooden boy who wants to be real.

“I said, ‘Idris, it’s my second favourite movie of all time.’ He said, ‘Pinocchio keeps on making a mess of things. This is like Pinocchio.’ I said, ‘Yes, but look what happens to him at the end. He finds some grace.’”

Above all, Miller hopes Three Thousand Years of Longing will be something we can all connect to.

“For me, you’re simply looking for stories, whether you succeed or not, which are experienced by the whole of the human being,” he says.

“In other words, you want an audience to feel something viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, anthropologically, spiritually, mythologically. All of it.

“I love it in a horror movie, where I’m suddenly screaming along with the main character. Or when I get emotional [in a movie], where someone’s grieving for another.”

A still from Three Thousand Years of Longing. Photo: Elise Lockwood

Most of all, he’s seeking those “transcendent moments” in cinema “which somehow take you to a much, much more universal place than you ever experienced before”.

Maybe that’s why Three Thousand Years of Longing is such an important film for Miller. Maybe that’s why he spent 25 years of his life trying to get it made.

Without doubt, it took this consummate storyteller back to his Australian childhood, when he was listening to Orson Welles narrate Oscar Wilde.

Now, all these years on, he may just be the happiest of princes.

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook