George Miller’s filmmaking career feels like no other: after conceiving his iconic Aussie antihero in Mad Max, he shifted from idiosyncratic star vehicles (The Witches Of Eastwick) to shepherding not one but two family friendly animal-centric franchises (Babe and Happy Feet), only to return in highly inventive form to Max’s apocalyptic Outback with Fury Road and its forthcoming prequel, Furiosa. Miller’s current offering, Three Thousand Years Of Longing, is a sprawling tale of love, desire, and storytelling itself starring Tilda Swinton as a “narratologist” and Idris Elba as the Djinn who offers her three wishes.
Miller talked to The A.V. Club via Zoom from his native Australia, where he’s currently shooting Furiosa, about Three Thousand Years’ narrative, metaphorical, and thematic foundations. He also examined mythmaking as a cornerstone of communication, offered some insights into what inspired Furiosa.
The A.V. Club: The first thing that struck me about Three Thousand Years Of Longing is that it serves as an amazing metaphor for any ordinary relationship—processing your partner’s past so you can build a future together. Was it the literal or the symbolic telling of this story that appealed to you the most?
George Miller: Well, to be honest, it was both, because that’s what we expect from all stories. All stories are allegorical, even personal stories that we tell. So to combine both is a chance to tell a story that may have more resonance, and certainly that was the thing that attracted me. When I read the source material, A.S. Byatt’s Three Thousand Years Of Longing, the paradoxes of the film so contained in a relatively small story—after all, it was just a conversation—were just wonderful.
I mean, a creature of reason in Alithea and a creature of emotion and desire and wants in the Djinn, someone who is mortal and someone who can live indefinitely. What is real and what is not real? What are the gestures that define love? How do we know each other? That conversation in the hotel room is about a real-time conversation, about 70 minutes. But in that 70 minutes, it spans 3,000 years, in which both of them reveal what they can of themselves to the point where she’s able to ask for love, which, of course, can only happen at the end of the movie when [the Djinn] comes to visit her of his own volition. All of that was really attractive.
AVC: So many stories today are about mythmaking. In what ways did you want to deconstruct that idea or shine a new light on that?
GM: For me, we’re hardwired for stories, no question. It’s what glues us together. Alithea herself says in the film, stories are how we make a bewildering universe coherent. And it’s true. You and I would probably sit down and tell each other stories as we get to know each other. It’s what happens with your neighbors. It’s what happens with your sporting team. It’s what happens in a legal story, in medical stories, political stories, community stories, national stories, mythological stories, religious stories, and scientific stories—they’re all part of the same continuum. And there’s no question in my mind, that’s how we evolved. That’s how we survived.
There’s cautionary tales in every story of childhood, every fairy story that endures. You go to any longstanding culture, I’m lucky enough to be with Indigenous First Nations people in the center of Australia, and there are stories in those communities which are continuous from several thousand years ago. Nomadic people in what is essentially the desert of Australia can only understand their existence and how to survive in it and how to function in it through their stories. They would write songs and perform and they would do dot art to explain the world to them. So I became very intensely aware that whether it’s watching superhero movies or intimate little stories—or something you might see on TikTok—that’s all part of the same process.
AVC: This film depicts a variety of historical international locales filtered through the storytelling of the Djinn. How careful were you to employ a sense of magical realism without falling into the trap of exoticizing these cultures?
GM: That was something we had to be quite rigorous about according to the organizing ideas in the film. And one of them was, the further we go back in time, just as we do as human beings, the more fantastical the stories become. The story of Sheba and Solomon is not something that was written down. There were biblical or religious stories told in many cultures long after it happened, but there was nobody there to record it, and we’re not even sure if there was a Queen of Sheba. We’re not even sure which part of North Africa she came from. So we could make it become more exotic then—we had creatures in her throne room, a “zeraffe,” as we called it, a giraffe with the markings of a zebra.
And when we got to the Ottoman world, there is recorded history. When Suleiman the Magnificent had his son assassinated, someone wrote down what was said at that moment, and what the circumstances were—all told through the Djinn and experienced in the mind of, first of all, Alithea, and then the audience. And then we get to the 19th century with Sophia, the story of the unsung genius, that’s becoming more real. And then in the modern day, and because we’re shooting in the time of COVID, you’ll see a lot of people wearing masks. And then three years hence, nobody’s wearing them, because it’s three years later.
All of that we had to track through very carefully, always though aware that this is a story. [Alithea] says, “Wait a minute, didn’t Sheba go to Solomon?” And the Djinn says, “No, he came to her.” And she says, “But there’s paintings about it. It’s in the holy book, and Handl wrote music about it,” and so on. And he says, “Madam, I was there.” So it’s very much his specific point of view.
AVC: Your recent films have a particular kind of timeliness of cultural relevance to them. How much of that comes just from being an observer of the world, and how much of that is a deliberate effort to interrogate contemporary ideas?
GM: It’s definitely not deliberate. All I think you can do is observe who we are as much as possible, try to get some understanding, and try to tell a story that you hope is persuasive. And I’ve found that over and over again, all stories, even the best documentaries, are allegorical to some degree. And if they are, that means that there is a poetic dimension to them, meaning that it’s interpreted according to the worldview of each member of the audience. That varies—some of it’s collective, and others there’s not. And I have really, really come to understand that, ever since I began to make movies.
From the first Mad Max which I thought was specifically [centered in] Australia, I was really quite astonished and didn’t understand for a long time why it succeeded in Japan, why they saw it as a samurai movie, why in France they equated it to the American Western, a Western on wheels. Scandinavia saw Max as a lone Viking warrior or a Norse warrior. Until then, I had never heard of Joseph Campbell and just a little bit about [Carl Jung]. But then I suddenly realized the film didn’t have those resonances because I was particularly clever. It’s that I tapped into something unconsciously. I believe that’s happened ever since. Fury Road seemed to anticipate the times, but that was conceived and we were about to shoot at least a decade before. But there were consistent behaviors in us as human beings that seemed to amplify those things. And so I don’t think anybody can do that, as much as you try to. You’re certainly aware of it. But it’s only once the story’s being told that people either receive that or not, and make of it what they like.
AVC: You mentioned Mad Max: Fury Road. I know you’re working on Furiosa. You’ve made a lot of sequels, but there seems to be a notion now where if storytelling is successful, even more than moving forward with a character, we want the creator to go back and explain what happened before. What are the risks and the opportunities in telling a story whose ending is kind of known?
GM: Well, it’s really interesting because it’s the core of the process. When we wrote Mad Max, the task was to tell a story that was always on the run and to see how much the audience could pick up in passing. That was one of the tricks of Mad Max: Fury Road, that there would be references to things of where she’s from, why they’re doing things, but it was always on the run. There were very few moments of quiet. We never explained how she lost her arm. We never explain what the actual Green Place Of Many Mothers was. We never explained the workings of the Citadel. So we had the screenplay virtually complete before we shot Fury Road, and we did it because it arose out of wanting to explain to everybody who Furiosa was—to Charlize when she took on the role, and to all the actors and the designers and everybody else working on the Citadel and so on. The feeling was, gee, this is a pretty good screenplay, and then I kept saying to myself, “if Fury Road works, I’d really like to tell this story.”
So it came about, I’m not going to say accidentally, but it came out of a need to explain [Fury Road’s] world which, as I said, essentially happened over three days and two nights. It’s really trying to explain how that world came to be. We also wrote, not a screenplay, but almost in novel form, Nico Lathouris and I, what happened to Max in that year before, and that’s something that we’ll look at further down the track later. But in telling each other the story of Furiosa, everything in Fury Road had to be explained. In my mind, I have a back story of the Doof Warrior, who plays the guitar. How could a blind man who all he can do is play a guitar, how does he get to survive in a wasteland where everybody is in extremis? How did he come to be there? So we wrote little stories for every character when we made Fury Road.
AVC: You talk about the idea of stories helping us process the world around us. At this point in your career, when you’ve accomplished so much and may not have as much time as you would like to tell every story you like, how does that idea help you choose your projects going forward?
GM: Well, it’s really interesting. They choose you. I’ve often described it as very Darwinian—it’s survival of the fittest. One of them will become more insistent, and I ruminate about them more, and whenever that becomes the case, after Fury Road, because we already had a pretty good, really evolved draft of Three Thousand Years, I said, I definitely want to do Three Thousand Years. And we got the opportunity, because it was regime turmoil at Warner Brothers that were keen to do Furiosa. And I thought that we will give this one a shot. That’s how it happens: basically, they insist on being made one way or another.