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.
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”.
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.
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.
He’d had the good fortune, though, to find the right actors for his leads.
“There’s something about Tilda,” Miller says. “I swear, I felt the movie gods shone down on me.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.’”
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.”
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.