CANNES – George Miller's “Three Thousand Years of Longing” spans millennia, but it can often feel longer waiting in between films from the “Mad Max” director.
Seven years after Miller's “Fury Road” blazed its way across movie screens, the 77-year-old filmmaker is finally back with a movie two decades in the works, and with a lot on its mind about what's temporary and what's eternal.
In “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” which opens in theaters Aug. 26, Tilda Swinton plays an academic named Alithea, a “narratologist" specializing in stories about stories, who encounters a wish-granting djinn (Idris Elba) who emerges from an old glass bottle bought in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. When no wish comes to her mind, he tells her 3,000 years worth of stories that hurtle the film through time and that ultimately bring Alithea and the djinn closer. If “Fury Road” beat a ferocious, straightforward narrative line, “Three Thousand Years,” adapted from an A.S. Byatt short story, ruminatively skips through time. It's an intimate chamber piece sculpted in epic proportions.
“Big cinema,” Swinton called it as she, Elba and Miller assembled earlier this year in a hotel room in Cannes, France, shortly before “The Thousand Years of Longing” made its red-carpet premiere and while Miller's “Fury Road” follow-up, “Furiosa,” was ramping up production back in Australia.
In the discussion that followed, the trio were clearly enthralled to be together again after shooting the film through the pandemic, and still animated by the movie's ideas and its widescreen ambitions. “The faith to throw oneself over the highest bar,” Swinton said of Miller's long-gesticulating endeavor. “Who better to jump that bar?”
Remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
AP: The film opens with wonder and enchantment as something like endangered species in a modern digital world. Is that a feeling you three connect with?
SWINTON: I’m really happy to hear you use the word “enchantment.” It is about enchantment. It’s about faith. It’s about the willingness to take a leap and essentially be open to change. It’s not that it’s necessarily threatened but it can get obscured. Reality is overrated.
ELBA: As an actor, you sometimes live in this weird space of reality. It’s a bit like the djinn. People see me and they go, “Oh my God. Can you give me something?” It’s a picture or a signature or whatever. I find myself wondering what am I, really? Who am I? But I realize my role in my life or in society as a storyteller and someone who makes people believe something is incredibly important. To get to sit in a room with the master, himself (gestures toward Miller), and to be able to tell a story about storytelling is incredible. Enchantment is an incredible word. I don’t think it will ever get lost.
MILLER: What’s really interesting to me, despite all these technological advances, is that we remain definitely hardwired for story. You could argue there are more stories being told today than ever before. I was really struck by the fact that Napoleon had read every single book that existed at his time. Now it’s impossible to read every book, see every TV show, every movie. I don’t think stories are replaced. I think they just continuously evolve. There was a British census where people were asked what their religion was and a very high percentage put in Jedi. It’s replacing one form of mythology for the other. I think the more bewildering the world becomes, the more we tend to fall into story. Sometimes those stories can be toxic.
SWINTON: We’ve now had a very sharp reminder that it’s possible for an entire nation, an entire culture to be told a story and believe it, to the exclusion of any other story. Maybe what we’re talking about is a kind of porousness of stories, so it’s possible to be open to many stories. Maybe that’s the mentally healthy and spiritually healthy thing to propose.
AP: You're refencing Russia's war in Ukraine but when you began “Three Thousand Years” were your thoughts on moments that storytelling shaped your own lives?
ELBA: My father started off his stories “I’ll tell you something for nothing.” This is my late dad.
SWINTON: Do you tell those stories to your son?
ELBA: If we’re driving to school and I try to avoid the phone. The only way to keep him looking interested with me is by telling a story. I’ll be like: “Well, today, I’m working in this plane. And you wouldn’t believe it. This plane, they took the wings off.” And I’m in. In that magic moment of him listening, questioning is the rich stuff.
AP: George, as a myth-maker who can conjure worlds, you're not so unlike the djinn. Why were you drawn toward a movie that digs into the nature of storytelling?
MILLER: One of my favorite quotes about story is the Swahili storyteller who end their story by saying: "The story has been told. If it was bad, it was my fault because I’m the storyteller. If it was good, then it belongs to everybody.” There’s absolutely no question that stories, once told, get traction or not and they mean something to people in one way or the other. So you can’t think about them lightly. I’ve known people who can beguile you with their stories. I know that I struggle with that. I can’t get up and spontaneously tell a story well. But I can do it in the ultra-slow motion of telling a movie where I think about every nuance, every rhythm of it, and it’s finally there. After all, it’s just 100 minutes.
AP: Tilda and Idris, does making a movie like this prompt you to reflect on what compels you as actors to tell stories?
SWINTON: I’ve never made anything quite like this. Even though in a funny way the film is about one of my favorite things — inarticulacy — or rather the effort that we go to communicate with one another. Knowing that it’s almost impossible to understand each other, we still try, and that really touches me. It’s certainly one of the things that keeps me making films. It always feels very difficult to get something out of your head and convey it to someone else. But the fact that one makes the gesture is very moving. This film is about that but it’s very articulately made. To actually shoot with George and to understand how he constructs the architecture of the film even if the film is about something quite amorphous and quite tender, that’s a masterclass. Keeping that center soft was something we talked a lot about.
ELBA: I’m a bit like George. I’d be fascinated with my dad telling stories but I was never good at that. I remember when I went to a boy’s school. I was one of the funny boys. In the drama class, those kids couldn’t do it. They couldn’t make believe. I never forget the teacher's phrase “make believe” and how it resonated with me. Suddenly, I could tell you the best story in the world because I was making you believe I could. I was really aware of the irony of working with George and Tilda and I’m playing a guy who has to tell stories honestly to get his freedom. I was Idris acting his socks off playing a man who was not allowed to act his socks off but had to tell these honest, engaging stories.
AP: George, you first encountered the short story this is based on in the late 1990s. Why do you think that this film stuck with you for so long?
MILLER: There’s lots of stories that I had. It’s a bit Darwinian. Some of them insist on themselves. I felt it was a very potent story. It’s like a metal detector or a Geiger counter, when something really activates it. You go: "Oh, there’s a rich seam in here somewhere.” You don’t know where it will go. You can sort of vaguely sense where it will go when you read the richness of scene. Time will tell. You hope the story belongs to everybody.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP