At the Cannes Film Festival, director George Miller talks about the influence of India on the making of his new film Three Thousand Years Of Longing, while actors Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba discuss their characters and the future of cinema.
The most fascinating thing about Three Thousand Years Of Longing is how difficult it is to define it. It's a romance, it's an epic, a fantasy — it's also a story about the power of stories. Is that what drew you into it?
George Miller: Oh, yes, definitely. In those few sentences, you've described it all. It was exactly what drew me into it; it was very rich. If there was a detector, like a Geiger detector, that detects a really rich seam to mine, that was all there in that story. It's a relatively short film, about 100 minutes long, but it was still able to deal with all those things you mentioned. There was an allegory and that's always a more efficient way of getting a lot of that stuff across.
In a film like this, where visually you can go anywhere because it is a fantasy, how do you resist making technology a crutch? It could easily become a substitute for storytelling.
GM: This is a great question. The first thing you have to do is to decide are the organising principles of how you tell the story: how you deal with each world, at every level of design. For instance, the deeper you go into the past, the more fantastical it becomes. When you go three thousand years ahead — to the time of Sheba — there is no historical record. There are several theories about where she might have come from or whether you're in Ethiopia or Yemen; there are different versions of Sheba. In the city I live in, Sydney, there is a huge 19th-century painting of Sheba going to visit Solomon and yet, in this story, the Djinn insists that Solomon came to visit her. And she (the character Alithea) says 'But people wrote music about, it's in all the holy books,' and he says, 'But, I was there.'
Here, we have one creature who is a 'zeraffe' — a giraffe with the stripes of a zebra — but when we jump to 2000 years later, to the time of the Ottoman sultans and we spend about a hundred years there and the fantastical qualities there are far less. Then we go to the 19th century with Zafir and what is fantastical is in the imagination expressed through mathematics. And then we end up in the modern-day. So those sorts of strategies give you the discipline for how it looks. Do you know where I learnt that the most? When I first went to New Delhi, India. The layers of the culture were so apparent in the first night we were there: there were people in modern dress, there were people in variations of that, there were modern buildings and there were ruins that seemed to be very old and everything in between. It was the first city I've ever been in where I was so disoriented as a human being.
There is a book called 'The City Of Djinns', where the author writes about living in modern-day Delhi while telling the stories from, I think, Indira Gandhi's assassination to way back in the mythological past or vice versa. And suddenly it made sense! And it was a big influence on this film, believe it or not. Interestingly enough, when we go back into the past we have the licence to tell stories in a much more flamboyant way than you normally would. Of course, we can intrude fantasy into the real world but it still has to be based in reality, the ever-changing reality of the real world. That was one of the rules of storytelling that we had to adhere to. So when Alathia goes into a modern airport, it's got all the technology. When the Djinn goes into that world, he is bombarded by the electromagnetic forces — which are always present in the universe, but we harness them, since Maxwell and Einstien. So that's the way you try to discipline the story. And I hope that if we have done that okay, it would be apparent to an audience. I've never been asked anything like this before but it's the way we approached it.
Please come back to India, we would love to have you again!
GM: I'll never forget that time. There's a line in the movie that comes from the time a man was guiding us around the city and I saw a huge poster of a movie star and said, 'Gee, she's very beautiful.' And the man said, 'She's not beautiful, she is beauty itself.' And that's what the Djinn says in the movie.
George Miller said in an interview that he has been mulling Three Thousand Years of Longing for over fifteen years and it's a sort of a Darwinian situation: the best story survives. Is that how it works for the two of you in terms of choosing projects and is that why you chose this?
Idris Elba: Wow, good question.
Tilda Swinton: I don't really feel that I choose my work. It just sort of grows, like in a garden. You turn around and go, 'Oh, that conversation that I've been having with you for the past five years is actually going to turn into a film.' And actually, this film is a very good example of that because I sat down, in Cannes, at lunch five years ago and I was very shy because I didn't know enough people there. I sat down opposite this gentleman who looked very kind, I didn't know who he was and we just started to chat. About fifteen minutes into the conversation, I realised it was George Miller. I was absolutely struck to the heart. We spent most of that day and evening together and we kind of became friends. And then, about a year later, he sent me an email. So anyway, that's not a choice. I would've chosen if I could but it is just serendipity really: you meet people, you start a conversation, you like each other and you cook something up.
IE: I put names in a hat and just pull something out.
How do you decide the totality of a Djinn? What are the references and how did you construct him?
IE: So there's no totality. This is George Miller and everything is for the taking here. And actually what's interesting is that so much of 'Idris' was allowed to be brought in: on the page, in the room, in the performance. There was a lot of encouragement to dig into parts of my psyche, my performance tools to bring something we have not seen from me, all while being under the construct of the Djinn. And because none of us know what a Djinn is actually like, this came with such a beautiful, textured challenge. And to do it in front of my friend, Tilda, who is a joy; we were so caring of each other, we both supported each other in ways that had nothing to do with our characters. So this was a real group effort. It was incredible.
Tilda, Apichatpong Weerasethakul said about you that you participate in a film like another worker and that you are as much a filmmaker as he is. Would you agree with that?
TS: I started working in a filmmaking collective with Derek Jarman and he always called us filmmakers, all of us, even the electricians. So, that's the sort of atmosphere that I grew up in. If I had to write something down on a passport, I would rather write 'filmmaker' than 'actor'. I've always felt a bit weird about being named an actor because I never wanted to be an actor. And I still don't really wanna be an actor. It's not something I claim. But one of the things that I most love about making films and the thing that keeps me going, even when I feel I should stop, is the camaraderie, is being in that team. Being in a crew is the best. Absolutely the best. And so, I'm proud to say that I'm a filmmaker.
There has been so much debate — especially in the last two years — about the future of film and what the big-screen experience is going to be like. What gives the two of you hope about cinema?
TS: The thing that gives me hope — and I never, ever lost it — is that in the last two years, even though before the last two years people were asking these questions due to the relationship to digital media, the truth is, when the pandemic came along, everybody, not just cine-nerds like us, said that the things they really missed were friends and family, live music and cinema. Those were the three things everybody missed. So, in a way, it was aversion therapy: 'we gotta keep valuing this thing, this thing is magic and we need to preserve it'. And I know during the pandemic, people actually spent even more time watching films at the end of their beds. But, now that it might be possible for people to back into the cinemas, I think they have, I hope and I believe, a renewed value for the magic of what I call big cinema.
IE: Yeah, I completely agree.