George Miller, director of Three Thousand Years of Longing, discusses metaphors, mythmaking, and his Mad Max prequel. Furiosa
The iconic Australian filmmaker also discusses his storytelling process and what makes the Mad Max films so popular.
After conceiving his iconic Aussie antihero in Mad Max, George Miller 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 to Max’s apocalyptic Outback in highly inventive form with Fury Road and its forthcoming prequel, Furiosa. Three Thousand Years Of Longing, Miller’s latest film, is a sprawling tale of love, desire, and storytelling itself, starring Tilda Swinton as a “narratologist” and Idris Elba as the Djinn who grants her three wishes.
Miller spoke with The A.V. Club via Zoom from his native Australia, where he is currently filming Furiosa, about the narrative, metaphorical, and thematic foundations of Three Thousand Years. He also looked at mythmaking as a form of communication and provided some insight into what inspired Furiosa.
The A.V. Club: The first thing that struck me about Three Thousand Years Of Longing was how well it served as a metaphor for any ordinary relationship—processing your partner’s past in order to build a future together. Was it the literal or symbolic telling of this story that you found most appealing?
George Miller: To be honest, it was both, which is what we expect from all stories. Even the most personal stories we tell are allegorical. So combining both is an opportunity to tell a story with greater resonance, which is certainly what drew me in. When I read the source material, A.S. Byatt’s Three Thousand Years Of Longing, the film’s paradoxes, which were contained in such a small story—after all, it was just a conversation—were just wonderful.
I mean, in Alithea, a creature of reason, and in the Djinn, a creature of emotion, desire, and wants, someone mortal and someone who can live indefinitely. What is true and what is not true? What are the expressions of love? How did we become acquainted? That conversation in the hotel room lasted about 70 minutes in real time. But in that 70 minutes, it spans 3,000 years, during which both of them reveal what they can of themselves to the point where she can ask for love, which, of course, can only happen at the end of the film when [the Djinn] comes to visit her on his own volition. That was all very appealing.
AVC: Today, so many stories are about mythmaking. In what ways did you want to deconstruct or reframe that concept?
GM: We’re hardwired for stories, no doubt about it. It is what holds us together. In the film, Alithea says, “stories are how we make a bewildering universe coherent.” That is correct. As we get to know each other, we’d probably sit down and tell each other stories. It’s what your neighbours go through. This is what happens to your sports team. It’s the same thing that happens in legal stories, medical stories, political stories, community stories, national stories, mythological stories, religious stories, and scientific stories. And there is no doubt in my mind that this is how we evolved. That’s how we got by.
Every childhood story, every fairy tale that endures, contains cautionary tales. You go to any long-standing culture, and I’m fortunate to be with Indigenous First Nations people in the centre of Australia, and there are stories in those communities that date back thousands of years. Nomadic people in what is essentially Australia’s desert can only understand their existence, how to survive and function in it, through their stories. They would write songs, perform them, and create dot art to help them understand the world. So I became acutely aware that watching superhero movies, intimate little stories, or something you might see on TikTok are all part of the same process.
AVC: This film depicts a variety of historical international locations as filtered through the Djinn’s storytelling. How careful were you to avoid exoticizing these cultures by employing a sense of magical realism?
GM: That was something we had to be very strict about because of the organising ideas in the film. And one of them was that the further back in time we go, just like humans, the more fantastical the stories become. The story of Sheba and Solomon has not been written down. Long after it happened, there were biblical or religious stories told in many cultures, but no one was there to record it, and we don’t even know if there was a Queen of Sheba. We have no idea where she came from in North Africa. So we could make it more exotic—we had creatures in her throne room, including a “zeraffe,” a giraffe with zebra markings.
And there is written history when we get to the Ottoman world. When Suleiman the Magnificent had his son assassinated, someone recorded what was said and the circumstances—all told through the Djinn and experienced in the minds of Alithea first, and then the audience. Then we arrive in the nineteenth century with Sophia, the story of the unsung genius that is becoming more real. Then, in the present day, and because we’re filming during the COVID era, you’ll notice a lot of people wearing masks. Then, three years later, no one is wearing them because it is three years later.
We had to go over everything very carefully, keeping in mind that this is a story. “Wait a minute, didn’t Sheba go to Solomon?” says [Alithea]. “No, he came to her,” the Djinn responds. “But there are paintings about it,” she says. It’s in the Bible, and Handel composed music about it,” and so on. “Madam, I was there,” he says. As a result, it is very much his point of view.
AVC: Your recent films have a unique sense of cultural relevance to them. How much of that is just being a world observer, and how much is a deliberate effort to question contemporary ideas?
GM: It was not done on purpose. All I believe you can do is observe us as much as possible, try to understand us, and tell a story that you hope is persuasive. And I’ve discovered that all stories, even the best documentaries, are allegorical to some extent. And if they are, it means that they have a poetic dimension to them, which means that they are interpreted differently depending on the worldview of each member of the audience. That varies—some is collective, while others are not. And I’ve really, really come to realise that since I started making movies.
I was really surprised 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, from the first Mad Max, which I thought was specifically [centred on] Australia. Max was viewed as a lone Viking warrior or a Norse warrior in Scandinavia. Until that point, I had never heard of Joseph Campbell and knew very little about [Carl Jung]. But then I realised it wasn’t because I was particularly clever that the film had those resonances. It’s because I unconsciously tapped into something. That, I believe, has continued ever since. Fury Road appeared to foreshadow the times, but that was conceived and shot at least a decade before. But there were consistent human behaviours that seemed to amplify those things. So, as hard as you try, I don’t think anyone can do it. You’re well aware of it. But it is only after the story has been told that people either receive it or reject it and make their own interpretation of it.
AVC: You brought up Mad Max: Fury Road. I understand you’re working on Furiosa. You’ve made a lot of sequels, but it appears that if storytelling is successful, we want the creator to go back and explain what happened before moving forward with a character. What are the risks and opportunities in telling a story with a predetermined ending?
GM: It’s very interesting because it’s at the heart of the process. When we wrote Mad Max, the goal was to tell a fast-paced story and see how much the audience could pick up in passing. One of the tricks of Mad Max: Fury Road was that there would be references to where she came from and why they were doing things, but it was always on the run. There were very few quiet moments. We never explained what happened to her arm. We never describe the actual Green Place Of Many Mothers. We never explained how the Citadel worked. So we had the screenplay almost finished before we shot Fury Road, and we did it because we wanted to explain Furiosa to everyone—Charlize when she took on the role, and all the actors and designers and everyone else working on the Citadel, and so on. I had the impression that this was a pretty good screenplay, and I kept telling myself, “If Fury Road works, I’d really like to tell this story.”
So it came about, not by chance, but because there was a need to explain [Fury Road’s] world, which, as I said, essentially happened over three days and two nights. It tries to explain how that world came to be. Nico Lathouris and I also wrote, not a screenplay, but almost in novel form, about what happened to Max the year before, and that’s something we’ll look into later. But, in telling each other the story of Furiosa, they had to explain everything in Fury Road. I have a backstory for the Doof Warrior, who plays the guitar, in my head. How does a blind man who can only play the guitar survive in a wasteland where everyone is in desperate need of help? How did he end up there? When we made Fury Road, we wrote short stories for each character.
AVC: You mentioned how stories can help us process the world around us. How does that idea help you choose your projects going forward at this point in your career, when you’ve accomplished so much and may not have as much time as you’d like to tell every story you want?
GM: Well, that’s very interesting. They pick you. It’s very Darwinian, in my opinion—survival of the fittest. After Fury Road, because we already had a pretty good, really evolved draught of Three Thousand Years, I said, “I definitely want to do Three Thousand Years.” And we got the chance because Warner Brothers, who were eager to do Furiosa, were in the midst of a regime change. And I reasoned that we should try this one. That’s how it works: they insist on being made one way or another.