EXCLUSIVE: George Miller has gotten his green light and a March production start in Australia on Three Thousand Years of Longing, with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton now locked to star. That Miller is making this film isn’t a surprise: independent distributors rarely get a shot at a big-ticket film from a commercially successful auteur like Miller as he was coming off his Best Picture-nominated Warner Bros blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road. FilmNation had a crowd eager to open their wallets for international rights when the script was shown to buyers at 2018’s AFM. CAA Media Finance is selling North American and Chinese distribution rights and FilmNation is finishing overseas sales, but Miller has the money he needs to make his movie.
While the market for independently constructed films has been challenging, it has been strong for packages like this one, driven by self-generating writers and directors. That both Roland Emmerich’s Midway and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out raised large budgets for films that performed well at the box office bolsters the idea that distributors here and abroad are ready to pay large sums.
At the time Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman first broke the story about Miller’s next film, the buyers who read the script kept the plot line close to the vest. Miller, who is producing with Doug Mitchell, spoke to Deadline this week about the formal setting of a start date that will move from Australia to London and Istanbul, but he wasn’t eager to give away the store. The genial filmmaker — whose career started with 1979’s no-budget Mad Max and culminated in 2015’s $150 million-budgeted Mad Max: Fury Road – said he preferred to remain circumspect on the new film and exactly what Elba and Swinton will be doing in the lead roles. But he had a lot to say on everything from a search for substance that leads him to take his time between films, to his position in the debate on superhero films as cinema, to what is happening with the Fury Road sequel.
“Look, I’m happy to talk about the new film very elliptically, but I’ve always felt that if you talk about these films before they’re actually completed, you jinx them,” he told Deadline. “And ultimately until it’s done you don’t know what it is. I see the title of this film as a riddle, and it’s more or less at heart a two-hander, even though it’s way more complex than that. Tilda and Idris are the two characters at the center of this thing. I can’t even decide what genre it is, to be honest. And that’s a good thing. I like to think in these days that to have a chance of people taking notice of what you’re doing, without being overly flamboyant, your film needs to be uniquely familiar. That’s the term I use. The audience is looking for that, something that seems fresh and atypical. In this case, every time I think, oh it’s this kind of film, I say yes but also it’s that kind of film. I would hope that translates into people feeling that what we’re trying to do is interesting.
“One thing I can tell you; it’s not [another Fury Road],” he said. “It’s a movie that is very strongly visual, but it’s almost the opposite of Fury Road. It’s almost all interior and there’s a lot of conversation in it. There are action scenes, but they are by the by and I guess you could say it’s the anti-Mad Max.”
How did Miller arrive on Elba and Swinton?
“It arose out of the characters as written,” he said. “I met both of them at some events at separate times and the moment I got to talk to them, they suddenly just slotted into the roles. I was really very happy they were available and interested and that they responded very well to the material. My hope is they will be doing something quite different than either of them has done before. I know I’m being a bit enigmatic but I don’t want to say more about the content of the film.”
If the title is a riddle, it is something that Miller has puzzled over for a long time.
“I guess I’m hardwired to story in some way, and for me what happens is, stories seed in your head and they rattle around,” Miller said. “It becomes rather Darwinian, survival of the fittest: the ones that have the most comprehensive promise are the ones that survive. This story I have been working on and thinking about for at least 15 years. There would always be several of these stories in my mind and it’s interesting, the ones that tend to fall away and why they fall away. The ones that are more insistent are usually so because they tick a lot of boxes and organically do a lot of things.”
“The best way I can say it is, I really like stories where there is a lot of iceberg under the tip,” Miller said. “Too often, a story can be quite dazzling but it’s amazing how quickly you can forget about it. I must say, going back to Mad Max: Fury Road, that was the thing that satisfied me the most. For a film like that, it could have been read just on the surface. It was very, very hard to get in a lot of subtext and exposition while you are on the run. That was the formal exercise of that film and I was really happy when people started to read a lot of stuff underneath that film. They saw the allegory. I think that’s why the film got traction to the extent it did. That’s my hope on this film even though you never know until it’s out there and people tell you what the film is.”
When I tell Miller how obsessed I became about the mutant guitar virtuoso strapped to the front of a post-apocalyptic speaker-laden vehicle to provide the frantic soundtrack to the mayhem and Cirque du Soleil-like aerial attackers pole vaulting and trying to stop the truck driven by Charlize Theron’s Furioso character and Tom Hardy’s Mad Max as they carted away the runaway virgin brides of the bizarre masked leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Miller said that character is a good example of what he strived for. Sure, the character – called Coma-Doof Warrior – was a visual spectacle, an apocalyptic Eddie Van Halen complete with flames shooting out of his musical instrument – but Miller laid out for me an entire backstory for the character that viewers never saw.
“I would like to think he’s still alive, somehow,” Miller said as I expressed hope that the character returns for the next film even though his condition at film’s end was uncertain. “In fact, we’ve got a whole backstory on how he came to be in that position. I often think about it. The approach to the film was, you have to be able to explain everything. Not only all the characters, but every object, how it all found its way into this world and how it survived. In his case, he was blind from birth. When things started going a bit crazy, he and his mother were left in a mining town. The only way they could survive was to go into a place where there was a competitive advantage to being blind. And that was to go deep down into a mine shaft where they were able to survive. He took what was most precious to him, a musical instrument, probably a guitar.”
As for how he wound up strapped to one of Immortan Joe’s death vehicles, Miller said: “As they were careening through the wasteland, someone heard this music echoing out of that mine shaft, went down there and luckily they saw him as an asset. I think they killed his mother because she wasn’t of any use. They took him and he eventually ended up as the equivalent of the drummer, the fife player or the bagpiper, in Immortan Joe’s army.”
Miller said each and every character, from Theron’s one-armed Furiosa to Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, had an equally deep backstory. It recalled for me how Quentin Tarantino said he’s written numerous full teleplays for episodes of Bounty Law, the fictional canceled TV show that starred Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), as part of an effort to create a fully fleshed (and unseen onscreen) backstory for the lead character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Miller said the depth and subtext is the hardest part of strong storytelling, but it was ingrained in him the day he decided he wanted to be a filmmaker. I asked him for examples of movies he looks at for storytelling inspiration.
“The first movie that comes to mind immediately is Godfather Part II,” he said. “It’s one of those films. But sometimes it’s about films that have a particular impact and resonance with an individual at a certain time in their lives. It’s different for everyone. The movie Pinocchio had a huge influence on me when I was a kid, and in subsequent years. Pinocchio was very, very powerful. That is just one of those movies where there is so much subtext, just a massive iceberg under that tip.
“It’s just about every existential, moral problem that anyone could deal with, and that’s why it sticks,” he said. “If you look at all the great fairy tales, the ones that stick are the ones that have very confronting content. That’s almost the first thing I go to [in Pinocchio]. You tell a lie, well not a lie but you give yourself over as a kid…it’s really moralistic, but the idea is if you go out and become a really naughty boy and you drink and you smoke and all that sort of stuff, you’ll be turned into a donkey. It’s incredibly powerful stuff. And the heroism and redemption; it’s all right there in that one movie.
“Godfather II had that in terms of craft and content,” he said. “Way back in the day, Robert Altman’s MASH; I walked out of that cinema and felt I had seen nothing quite like that. That was the greatest day of my cinema going. I was at university at the time, and when I walked out of my second screening of MASH I said, I’ve got to see another movie for a palette cleanser. I walked into The Battle of Algiers. To have that happen to me in one day, I was left knowing that I had to make films.”
That brings Miller to the ongoing debate over whether superhero films qualify as cinema, with The Irishman director Martin Scorsese and to a degree Francis Ford Coppola sounding a warning about their dominance at the box office. Alejandro González Iñárritu voiced it a different way to me right after the premiere of the 2014 Best Picture winning superhero satire Birdman, though González Iñárritu’s gripe was more about the depiction of humanity waiting for a superhero to save them, which equated to people giving into helplessness and waiting for the government to serve that savior role in real life. Miller finds in a lot of the blockbuster fare the kind of storytelling integrity he requires and searches so hard for in his own films, and thinks it is unfair to marginalize the superhero, Star Wars and other franchise films.
“I watch all of them,” Miller said. “To be honest, in terms of this debate, cinema is cinema and it’s a very broad church. The test, ultimately, is what it means to the audience. There’s a great quote I saw that applies to all we do. It was from the Swahili storytellers. Each time they finished a story they would say, ‘The story has been told. If it was bad, it was my fault because I am the storyteller. And if it was good, it belongs to everybody.’
“It’s a mistake and a kind of hubris if a film does well at the box office to dismiss it as clever marketing or something else,” Miller said. “There’s more happening there, and it’s our obligation as storytellers to really try and understand it. To me, it’s all cinema. I don’t think you can ghettoize it and say, oh this is cinema or that is cinema. It applies to all the arts, to literature, the performing arts, painting and music, in all its form. It’s such a broad spectrum, a wide range and to say that anyone is more significant or more important than the other, is missing the point. It’s one big mosaic and each bit of work fits into it.”
Miller said that no matter the size of the canvas, it comes down to a creative feeling that comes from within, and determines the Darwinian survival of the fittest philosophy he described. It’s the one that drew him to Three Thousand Years of Longing, when he could easily have jumped into the next Mad Max installment.
“I’ve spent most of my life figuring out how to tell stories, and also why we tell stories,” Miller said. “I think there’s something very elemental about that process. One of the things behind the impulse to tell any story is an intuitive exploration. I talk as if it’s an intellectual exercise but ultimately the intuition overrides everything. I can’t even tell you why I’m drawn to certain films, while others that are brilliantly crafted somehow don’t have the ability to stay in mind or be stories you become obsessed with. When I describe it as a Darwinian exercise, it really is. It’s the survival of the fittest, the one that insists on being made. When you have that, then you follow that arc. I don’t make many films, and I’m not always looking toward the next film I do, but I have a lot of stories to tell and things that like this one, that came together over many years, and this is the one I am most keen to tell.”
And what about continuing the Mad Max road trip story? That will come right after, and Miller said he’s working on it even as Three Thousand Years of Longing moves into full prep. Once again, he wasn’t giving up where he’s taking it.
“I’m not done with the Mad Max story and I think you have to be a multi-tasker and there’s certainly another Mad Max coming down the pike after this,” he said. “We’re in preparation on that as well. It’s an interesting question, the idea of multi-tasking. I discuss this with other filmmakers and I think what happens to me is that when you’re working on one thing, and you get so distracted and focused on that one thing, it’s like a creative holiday to focus on the other one for a bit. It helps you achieve that objectivity, to look at the thing afresh each time and say, I thought I was doing this, but it doesn’t seem to be the case now.
“The more different the films are, the more interesting that is,” he said. “A really good example: I was working on Happy Feet Two while Fury Road was getting up and then falling down. They couldn’t have been more different. One was animation, the other live action. It worked for me.”