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George Miller on the Idris Elba Idea That Changed How He Made ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’

The filmmaker takes TheWrap inside his dramatic fantasy, his unmade ‘Contact’ and what to expect from ‘Furiosa’

George Miller is back. And not a moment too soon.

The acclaimed Australian auteur, who has been responsible for everything from “Happy Feet” to “Mad Max: Fury Road” (and the upcoming spin-off “Furiosa”), returns this weekend with “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” a long-in-development adaptation of “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” a short story collection by A.S. Byatt. Tilda Swinton stars as a bookish scholar who accidentally unleashes a mystical genie (played by Idris Elba) from a lamp. After he emerges, he tells her the story of how he got in the lamp and tales about his previous masters, all while forming a close emotional relationship with his new ward. It’s strange and gorgeous and very Miller, full of rococo visual flourishes and snappy editorial tics.

It should be noted that when I got on the Zoom with Miller, he noticed artwork on my wall. Some of it was inspired by “Mad Max: Fury Road” (obviously). This made Miller think of something. “I remember the first time I went to Warner Bros. way back in the ’80s. I walked into their offices, and there were posters around the wall of the films I’d made. They were all as you’re walking through the corridors of the offices,” Miller said. “I remember asking somebody, ‘Were they just put up there because we’re visiting?’ They admitted that whoever visits, all their posters went up. Next time I walked in, I saw there were a whole lot of Clint Eastwood movies, and I said, ‘Ah, Clint Eastwood’s been in the office.’ It’s a similar thing to you.”

This story is very funny but it’s also evocative of the way that memory and storytelling works in “Three Thousand Years of Longing;” it splashes, like water out of a vase, and intermingles with modern life. We also talked to Miller about what was so important about the story (which was announced several years ago), what changed when the movie shifted during the pandemic, how his version of “Contact” (ultimately made by Robert Zemeckis) would have been different and how “Furiosa” will be different than “Fury Road.”

This project was first announced in 2018. Did anything change from that version to the one that is arriving now?

I think the biggest change was that there were scenes in which in the modern-day people were wearing masks. At the beginning in Istanbul, she arrives at the airport. Some people are wearing masks. When she goes to the conference in Istanbul, they’re wearing masks. Ditto when we go to London at the end of the movie or in the third act of the movie, but finally, in the final scene, which is three years into the future, no one’s wearing masks.

Just logistically, the biggest change was we were to shoot in London and we were to shoot in Istanbul on location. We had cast a couple of Turkish actors for roles, and by the time the eight-month delay was finished, two of the actors weren’t available because they’re in long-form TV series. Whereas the actors… We have a number of very, very fine Turkish actors who came down, quarantined in Australia. They were the only change, really the only change in the making it.

Obviously, it takes so much for you to get behind a project and so much to mount a production. Why was this project so important to you?

Well, it was a story that was based on an A.S. Byatt novella that I read in the late ’90s. The moment I turned the last page, it just stuck in my mind and wouldn’t let go, which is the way it goes with the stories that, they gestate in the back of your mind. At a certain point, you have to tell the story.

The reasons why? In a relatively short story, there was so much. It was so rich and mainly in its contradictions that here was a story that was a fairy tale, but it had a lot of truthful resonance. Even though it was a story that ostensibly happens in a hotel room, it spans 3,000 years. It deals with what’s real and what’s not real. It deals with a creature, the Tilda Swinton character, a creature of reason with the Idris Elba, a character who is a creature of emotion and passions and desires. One is mortal. One lives indefinitely.

All of those things and the conflict that arises because of their situation reveals so much about all these issues – life, death, and what is the nature of stories, not only how we tell stories, but why we tell sorties. Ultimately, I think it’s got a lot to say about what is love, what are the gestures that really define the love between one individual and another.

Was there one section of the movie that was particularly difficult to shoot? The Sheba section feels relatively straightforward but then you look in the background and there are all these amazingly designed creatures. Nothing is simple.

I mean, it was very deliberate that the deeper we went in time, into time where there’s no recorded history, which is the time of Sheba and Solomon, I mean, and this happens in all cultures, the more fantastical they become. The time of the Ottoman Empire, the history is very available and we end up in 19th-century Turkey, Istanbul with the Sofia story and then finally in modern-day London and Istanbul. As we move through time the style of the accuracy has to increase. One, as I say, is more fantasy than the other.

Look, I mean, the difficulty is the totality of the film, not any individual section. You have to use the right tools to tell those stories. One of the interesting things was also working with really wonderful cast. Working with Tilda and Idris, who I knew all their work but it wasn’t until I met them as individuals and outside of the film. Once I had encountered them as who they are as people … we were in the process of writing the film, and eventually, when we finished, I had them in mind. I went to them and said, “Hey, are you interested in doing this?” I’m very, very lucky that they both were attracted to it.

One of the first things that happened was that Idris said, “Look, I really would like to do the movie, but could we shoot all the stories that Djinn tells before I have to tell them to Tilda’s character?” It was such an obvious way to go, but in all the time I’d been preparing the film, it never occurred to me. Of course, that’s what we did. And when he was telling her the story, it had that much more authority. Those kinds of strategies were really important to the telling of the story and making the film.

three-thousand-years-of-longing
MGM

You have the book about Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon” behind you. And you had a “Napoleon” in your career. It’s this anniversary this year so what can you say about your version of “Contact?”

Look, briefly, I would say the version that we were to make took the wonderful work of Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan that they’d put into the book. The version we were to make was written by Menno Meyjes, the Dutch screenwriter who did “The Color Purple” and the third Indiana Jones and a whole bunch of other stuff. He’s a very, very fine writer and a very sophisticated writer, both in language and ideas.

That screenplay was very, very strong and very powerful and the studio was keen on it for quite some time, but at a certain point, they got cold feet. I’m not going to say it was an art film, but it would be closer to what Kubrick might have done than perhaps a more sort of… Let’s say a safer version of the film. I’m not saying that the film was going to be inaccessible. I’m just saying I like to think that what we were aiming for, at least at that time, was something that matched the level and scope that was inherent in the original novel.

Because Carl was at the thick of this stuff, it was something… He was at the center of it, and so there was a very profound authenticity in it and the ideas. Anyway, that’s a kind of short answer, but it got to the point where studio got cold feet and I was basically sacked off the film, but that’s not to say I didn’t have a wonderful year working on it. I learned so much.

You’re in the middle of “Furiosa” right now. Can you say what the look is going to be? Are you looking to push things in the same way that you did “Fury Road” or are you kind of maintaining the aesthetic that you established with that one?

No. It’s continuous almost with “Fury Road,” so it has to follow … I mean, “Fury Road” is a film that happened, after the preamble to the story in “Fury Road,” it happened over three days and two nights. This story is a saga, which happens over 15 years. So already it’s different, but, of course, the characters. There are recurring characters, and it’s a recurring world in this story. There’s definitely qualities of this film that are unique and then also, there’s a familiarity to it. I think that’s where expectation is.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is now playing exclusively in theaters.