On Tuesday, just a few days after the premiere of his latest movie, Three Thousand Years of Longing, at the Cannes Film Festival, Australian director George Miller is heading home to direct Furiosa, the fourth installment in his phantasmagoric Mad Max series.
The cast is already out there, he said Saturday. Theyve been shooting second unit. Miller has been working on Furiosa in between screenings, interviews and having what looks like a very good time at the festival. Nowadays, modern communication allows you to be there, he said, obviously pleased with his multitasking. Its really great.
Miller is a Cannes veteran, but while hes served on three of the festivals juries in 30 years, only two of his movies have been presented here, both out of competition. The last time was for his masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, which set the festival afire in 2015. Audiences and critics alike gave the movie plenty of love, and it received a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, winning half a dozen statuettes. Predictably, though, it lost best picture to Spotlight, which encapsulates the kind of self-flattering, ostensibly serious work the academy has historically embraced.
I suspect that Fury Road was simply too far out, too uncategorizable and narratively playful, to suit old-guard academy members. It was probably also too much fun. Fun is for kiddie movies, which presumably is why Miller did win an Oscar for Happy Feet, a fanciful yet classically Milleresque, technically flawless tale filled with deep feelings and great questions that tethers environmental catastrophe to the story of a cute tap-dancing penguin named Mumble.
When we congregate with strangers in the dark, Miller once said, its a kind of dreaming. Sometimes those dreams are nightmares.
It takes about a day to fly between Australia and France. Miller, who turned 77 in March, will be making the trip twice in less than a week, but if he was tired, he didnt look it. To escape the din of the crowds, we met on the terrace at the office of FilmNation, which is handling the new movies international distribution and sales. A colleague had described Miller as professorial and alerted me that he was prone to digressions, a trait that the filmmaker cheerfully volunteered as he issued forth on movies, Einstein, the forces of the universe, Joseph Campbell and how cellphones use relativity to work.
Einstein makes a special appearance in Three Thousand Years, which is as nearly unclassifiable as its director. As the title suggests, the movie spans millenniums to tell the sweeping story of an ancient djinn (Idris Elba) and a modern-day scholar, Alithea (Tilda Swinton). Shes traveled to Turkey for a conference Alithea studies narratives, puzzling through them just like Miller does but her plans take an unforeseen turn when she opens a peculiar blue-and-white-striped bottle that shes bought, inadvertently releasing the djinn from a long captivity. What follows is a fantastical fable of love and suffering, imprisonment and release, mythology and the material world.
The djinn tries to grant her three wishes, but it gets complicated. Instead, he starts recounting episodes from his long life, all involving women and intrigues that led to his repeat captivity. He tells stories, but so does Alithea, who also narrates. As the movie continues, it shifts between the CGI-heavy past and the present, always returning to the djinn and Alithea, who grow progressively close. Three Thousand Years is essentially about storytelling, which means its about desire: The yearning expressed in the djinns tales, the longing awakened in Alithea and the craving the viewer has to find out what happens next.
Three Thousand Years is based on The Djinn in the Nightingales Eye, a story in a collection from British writer A.S. Byatt. Miller doesnt read fiction (he did as a kid), but someone rightly sussed that he might like the book. He was especially taken with Nightingale it kept playing in my mind as stories do and secured the rights. Miller said that Byatt was surprised he had singled out this story, which shed written quickly. But it was also grounded in her own life history. She too had once gone to a conference in Istanbul. Everything in the story is true, she told him, except for the djinn.
Miller wrote the script with his daughter, Augusta Gore; his wife, Margaret Sixel, edited the movie. Shes edited several of his other movies, winning an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller clearly likes creating in a familial setup and has worked with some crew members repeatedly, including cinematographer John Seale, who shot Three Thousand Years and Fury Road. Miller has been with one of his collaborators, Guy Norris, for 41 years; Norris was the stunt coordinator on The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) and is serving as the second-unit director on Furiosa.
Norris holds a special place in the Mad Max history because of an accident he had while driving a stunt car for The Road Warrior. One of the signatures of the Mad Max series is the elegantly choreographed, seemingly gravity-defying practical stunts, and this one involved Norris driving into two other vehicles and then into a ditch. It didnt go as planned and he flew through the air the wrong way, missing his high-tech cushioning (a pile of cardboard boxes) and badly hurting himself ouch. In the video of the accident (its available online), you can see that Miller was among the first to race to Norris side. You might expect that from any decent person, except that in this case the visibly worried filmmaker was also a doctor.
Miller, who grew up in a small town in Queensland, Australia, attended medical school with his fraternal brother, John. (They have two other brothers.) A movie lover since childhood, Miller made his first film, a short, while in school. By the time he made his first feature, a low-budget wonder called Mad Max, he was a doctor. His day job came in handy, he explained, because every time the production ran out of money, he worked as an emergency physician to make money. He practiced for about a decade, only finally quitting when he made Road Warrior. Filmmaking, he thought, was a really interesting thing to do, but there was no real career.
He and his former producing partner Byron Kennedy (who died in 1983) had made Mad Max out of what Miller describes as pure curiosity. As Miller talks, its clear that curiosity remains a driving force for him. One particularly lovely story that he shares hinges on a lecture at school delivered by architect and designer Buckminster Fuller. He synthesized so much that was rumbling around loosely my mind, said Miller, who was struck by Fullers remark that I am not a noun, I seem to be a verb. Suddenly, Miller wasnt a medical student, he was simply studying medicine which liberated him.
Miller has been going and shooting and moving ever since. He too is a verb, I think, and not a noun, and shows no sign of stopping. Listening to him spin story after story, I suddenly thought I knew why he didnt read fiction or at least I thought I did, so I asked if his imagination crowded his head, leaving no room for other peoples stories. Definitely, he said. If Im walking down the street, theres some story or something going in my head. As Ive often said to my family, If Im the guy sitting in the nursing home in a wheelchair staring at the ceiling, probably theres some sort of story going on.
For now, though, its just go, go, go.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times