George Miller on How Filmmaking Is Like Playing in the NBA: “You Constantly Have to Adjust”
George Miller felt like he was dreaming.
The Australian filmmaker arrived in Cannes on Thursday, 24 hours after leaving home on the other side of the world. With only a few hours to exhale and freshen up, he was under the lights of the Grand Théâtre Lumière with 2,200 guests on their feet showering his film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, with a six-minute standing ovation.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the film with an audience, and it’s very moving,” Miller said during his post-screening comments, something of a new tradition this year. “I’m very, very grateful.”
It was the first time any audience has seen a new Miller movie since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the high-octane blockbuster that earned the auteur a new generation of fans, some of whom may think they are dreaming when they check out his latest. Starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, the MGM and FilmNation release tells the story of a respected narratologist who uncorks a genie, or djinn, after buying a damaged bottle in an Istanbul market.
He offers to grant three wishes in exchange for his freedom, only to spark a debate about wish-making while the genie details three stories from past entanglements. Miller adapted the story with Augusta Gore from The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, a collection of short stories published by author A. S. Byatt, text he first encountered in the 1990s, a fact that may have added to his fantasy state.
“I’m not sure if I had woken up and found myself in the middle of the night inside the theater watching the film,” Miller told The Hollywood Reporter days after the premiere inside a suite at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes in reference to his jet-lagged state last week. Fully refreshed, Miller opened up about how the project came together, his close collaborations with his stars and the latest on Furiosa, which starts filming shortly after he returns Down Under.
At the film’s after-party, I heard you describe the independently financed project as a “little, big film.” Did you try to get it set up at a studio first?
It wasn’t a studio film. It’s a film that had to be independently financed. The first person who saw the script once we had the cast was Mike De Luca. He had just come to MGM, and straightaway he said, “Let’s do it.” FilmNation Entertainment sold the rest of the world, and they quickly got good response, so it was definitely the best way to do it. It’s not the scale of something a studio would do necessarily. It’s a film that a studio probably wouldn’t quite have been able to make with that many hands involved.
Speaking of Mike De Luca, what do you make of his exit and the Amazon acquisition? Will that affect the release?
First of all, he will be there until the release of the film. And as far as Amazon, it won’t go straight to streaming. That’s in the contract and the arrangement with MGM is that it must have a full theatrical release. There are good people at Amazon, and they basically said that’s going to be the case. The beauty of Mike De Luca is that he’s a filmmaker himself. He’s written screenplays and is a talented producer. I know the stories of [when he was at New Line] making Lord of the Rings, and he always sided with the filmmakers rather than the studio. He proved to be that kind of executive when we were making the film, and he’s always been very, very impressive. The other thing I will say about MGM is that all the people around Mike, the team doing the trailers and marketing, they are all very impressive, too.
You first read the story in the ‘90s. At what point did you know this could or should be adapted into a film?
When we had a mature draft of a screenplay. It wasn’t something that I said, “We’ve got to make it,” and instantly bought the rights. It is something that evolved over a long period of time, and during those years, we were writing it and doing other projects. Then there came a time when we had a screenplay that we could show to cast.
I remember it very well because it was exactly five years ago here in Cannes that I met Tilda. It was a wonderful moment, but we hadn’t completed the screenplay by that point. But when I met Tilda, I thought, my God, she’s wonderful. A year or so later, we sent her the screenplay. Once she said yes, then it became a question of who could play the djinn. There was only one person — [Idris]. I still can’t think of anyone else who could play it other than Idris, who we also happened to meet around the same time.
I love that it started right here in Cannes and ended with you working with two beloved actors. Being that this is your first film since Mad Max: Fury Road, what was it like going from that experience — a production filled with enormous challenges, drama and highly publicized clashes between Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy — to Three Thousand Years of Longing? Did you have any PTSD?
There’s always a subtle PTSD from every film that you do. There’s always scar tissue you have to manage no matter what you’re going into next. Each film has its own set of issues. To use an analogy, each film is like playing an NBA basketball game. You have to be prepared for every surprise. You don’t know where the ball is going to bounce or when the defense is going to attack. You have to avoid injury and constantly have to adjust and remain agile to win the game. But I must say, it was a very, very lovely experience to see them together. They are filmmaker-actors in the sense that they really do want to get the best film made. From the get-go, you could see they were helping — not only helping each other, but they were also helping us as a crew, strategizing with us.
From the first conversation I had with Idris, he said, “I would like to do the movie, and is it possible for us to shoot all the backstories or the flashbacks first?” He wanted to be able to tell the stories to [Tilda’s character] after having experienced it so he could have that under his belt. He also said, “I don’t want to do the voiceovers in a recording studio.”
He wanted to tell the stories face-to-face. That was a really smart thing. I mean, it hadn’t even occurred to me but it shows how he was always thinking of the overall film, not just himself. Tilda is the same. I came out of the film realizing why all these directors she works with always want more of Tilda. She really is something. She’s an artist and human being and one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. Every time Wes Anderson or David Fincher has a new project, no wonder they want as much Tilda as possible.
Do you want more Tilda? Is there a role for her in Furiosa?
To be perfectly honest, it was the first thing I thought about. As you know, in Suspiria, she played three roles, one of which is an old man, so I thought, well, she could play one of the men [in Furiosa]. But unfortunately, there was no role that she would fit. I said to her, “I really, really tried, especially for me, but there wasn’t anything.” If you force a character into a film, it’s usually the first one to end up on the cutting room floor. I would never do that to her, but I definitely wanted to make it happen. I’ve thought of all the other films that I have and the ideas I have in my mind to see what she can play. Same with Idris. I must say, he’s wonderful. Watching them work together was such a delight for me. Having the characters on the page and in your head is one thing, but it’s another to see the actors manifest the characters.
How was it to reunite with your collaborators on the crew? And how are you adjusting to next working on Furiosa — any new rules that you are bringing after Fury Road?
On this film, we worked with so many people who worked on Fury Road, and it will be the same for Furiosa. I think the only person missing is [cinematographer] Johnny Seale, who finally retired at 80. Yeah. He came out of retirement for Fury Road, and then, 10 years later, he came out of retirement again. He said, “Just one more.” He was very happy to do it because it was mainly set in Sydney where he lives. He’s a sailor and just wanted to go off and sail with his family, with his grandchildren.
And look, whatever was dysfunctional on Fury Road, by far, the majority of the work was done by exemplary professionals. It was excellent. I think the biggest dysfunction, apart from what went on between Charlize and Tom, was the studio. The studio was in upheaval, and everybody was nervous about trying to compete for jobs or not lose their jobs. That made for a pretty messy mix. But the preparation and the rigor of everybody else were very strong. It wasn’t all chaos.
There’s been some upheaval at Warner Bros. again, with a new parent company in Discovery and layoffs looming. How has it been to work with the studio on Furiosa and how far along are you?
We’ve been working with Warner Bros. on this for quite a while. We are pretty heavily into production. The cast is assembled in Broken Hill, which is in the outback in Australia. They’re all going through training on motorbikes and cars, rehearsing scenes and getting stuff together. Guy Norris has been shooting. We’ve worked together for 41 years after first working together on Mad Max. He was 21, a young stuntman, and we’ve worked together ever since. He’s done second unit directing and stunt coordination. He’s been shooting and working out one of the key action sequences leading up to [my trip] to Cannes. The moment I get back to Sydney, we will be shooting. But my impression is that, from everything I hear, Warner Bros. is close to stabilizing. [David] Zaslav and his people are great, and it feels like a calm is coming.
Have you met Zaslav?
I haven’t yet.
Back to Cannes. I was in the theater for the premiere of Three Thousand Years of Longing and saw you take the microphone at the end of the screening. What do you make of that new tradition?
It’s really good. I didn’t know that we were doing that, to be perfectly honest. To get here from Australia, it’s literally 24 hours from when you leave until you arrive. For me, it was 3 o’clock in the morning [Australia time] when that was happening. I’ve often called the process of watching movies public dreaming so for me, it felt like a dream. I’m not sure if I had woken up and found myself in the middle of the night inside the theater watching the film. I didn’t expect to be participating apart from the response.
It all felt like a dream — even the fact that the movie screened in Cannes felt very slim. We were just lucky to get the film made. We were meant to shoot in Istanbul and in London [but because of COVID] we couldn’t. We had to shoot in Australia because it was during the thick of COVID at the time of the delta variant. So, to make it from that to Cannes has been great. The whole experience was lovely.
Interview edited for length and clarity.