CANNES, France — On Tuesday, just a few days after the premiere of his latest movie, “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” at the Cannes Film Festival, the 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 when I interviewed him Saturday. “They’ve 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. “It’s really great.”
Miller is a Cannes veteran, but while he’s served on three of the festival’s 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, “it’s 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 didn’t look it. To escape the din of the crowds, we met on the terrace at the office of FilmNation, which is handling the new movie’s 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). She’s 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 she’s 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 C.G.I.-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 it’s about desire: The yearning expressed in the djinn’s 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 Nightingale’s Eye,” a story in a collection from the British writer A.S. Byatt. Miller doesn’t 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 she’d 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. She’s 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 the 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” (a.k.a. “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 didn’t 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 (it’s available online), you can see that Miller was among the first to race to Norris’s 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, it’s clear that curiosity remains a driving force for him. One particularly lovely story that he shares hinges on a lecture at school delivered by the architect and designer Buckminster Fuller. “He synthesized so much that was rumbling around loosely my mind,” said Miller, who was struck by Fuller’s remark that “I am not a noun, I seem to be a verb.” Suddenly, Miller wasn’t 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 didn’t read fiction — or at least I thought I did, so I asked if his imagination crowded his head, leaving no room for other’s people’s stories. “Definitely,” he said. “If I’m walking down the street, there’s some story or something going in my head. As I’ve often said to my family, ‘If I’m the guy sitting in the nursing home in a wheelchair staring at the ceiling, probably there’s some sort of story going on.’”
For now, though, it’s just go, go, go.