Acclaimed Australian auteur George Miller, who has been responsible for everything from Happy Feet to Mad Max: Fury Road, directed and co-wrote the screenplay of Three Thousand Years Of Longing, a long-in-development adaptation of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, a short story collection by A.S. Byatt, that was sparked when Miller’s production company, Kennedy Miller Mitchell, bought the rights to the story in the late 1990s.
“It’s a story that seemed to probe many of the mysteries and paradoxes of life, and so succinctly. Once read it stayed with me, as some stories tend to do…then, one day it occurred to me that it should be a film,” says Miller, who first encountered Alithea and the Djinn when he read British author A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ in the late 1990s.
“It felt unique, something that you couldn’t quite fit into any genre and it ticked one very important box – there must be a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. There are stories within stories, a little like One Thousand and One Nights” says Miller.
“The moment I turned the last page, it just stuck in my mind and wouldn’t let go, which is the way it goes with the stories that, they gestate in the back of your mind. At a certain point, you have to tell the story.”
“In a relatively short story, there was so much. It was so rich and mainly in its contradictions that there was a story that was a fairy tale, but it had a lot of truthful resonance. Even though it was a story that ostensibly happens in a hotel room, it spans 3,000 years. It deals with what’s real and what’s not real. It deals with a creature, the Tilda Swinton character, a creature of reason with the Idris Elba, a character who is a creature of emotion and passions and desires. One is mortal. One lives indefinitely. All of those things and the conflict that arises because of their situation reveal so much about all these issues – life, death, and what is the nature of stories, not only how we tell stories, but why we tell sorties. Ultimately, I think it’s got a lot to say about what is love, what are the gestures that really define the love between one individual and another.”
“The deeper we went in time, into a time where there’s no recorded history, which is the time of Sheba and Solomon, I mean, and this happens in all cultures, the more fantastical they become. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, the history is very available and we end up in 19th-century Turkey, Istanbul with the Sofia story, and then finally in modern-day London and Istanbul. As we move through time the style of the accuracy has to increase. One, as I say, is more fantasy than the other.”
In the film, Dr Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is an academic – content with life and a creature of reason. While in Istanbul attending a conference, she happens to encounter a Djinn (Idris Elba) who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. This presents two problems. First, she doubts that he is real and secondly because she is a scholar of story and mythology, she knows all the cautionary tales of wishes gone wrong. The Djinn pleads his case by telling her fantastical stories of his past. Eventually, she is beguiled and makes a wish that surprises them both.
Oscar-winning filmmaker George Miller was born in Australia. He began his professional life as a doctor and detoured into filmmaking, as a writer, director, and producer. His films include the blockbuster Babe, Happy Feet and Mad Max movies, among countless others. He is widely regarded as a creative mastermind and one of the most influential filmmakers of this age. He is the patron of the Australian Film Institute and of the Sydney Film Festival. He served as President of the Jury for the Palme d’or at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. He won an Oscar in 2006 and has been awarded both the Order of Australia and the French Order of Arts and Letters for his services to cinema.
Developing The Screenplay
As the screenplay developed, with Miller co-writing with Augusta Gore, Miller was conscious that the film would be very different to his previous feature, 2015’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“Fury Road was mostly set outdoors, this film is mostly indoors,” he notes. “Fury Road had little dialogue; in this film, a large part of the action happens through the discourse between Alithea and the Djinn. Fury Road played out in a compressed time frame – three days and two nights. This story happens over three thousand years.”
But for Miller, the commonality was in the dynamic narrative possibilities.
“I approach stories like people use Geiger counters,” he explains, “looking for rich, dramatic ‘radiation’. Is there a deep seam to mine?”
For producer Doug Mitchell (who also produced Mad Max: Fury Road, Happy Feet and Babe with Miller) Three Thousand Years Of Longing is a uniquely original movie. It has elements of action, adventure, and historical epic, but at its core, the film explores what’s real and what’s fantasy. And then, above all, it’s about love: the mystery of love.”
To Mitchell, the key ingredient is the director, George Miller: “It starts with George. He’s an extraordinary, talented filmmaker, and the nature of George is he doesn’t repeat himself. He loves trying something new. He owns the material. He does a massive amount of homework and studying, and he brings that to the set and shoots it. He has a tremendous inspirational quality for the crews he works with. They adore him and he adores them, and so what you get is this extraordinarily visual, articulate filmmaker.”
“In many cultures, there’s the notion of Djinn,” says Miller, “otherwise known as Genie. Magical creatures of varied kinds fulfilling wishes. This Djinn has been trapped in and out of the bottle for three thousand years, so he’s pretty desperate. What drives him is that he wants to understand what it is to be human,” says Miller.
“He tells Alithea stories of his encounters – The Queen of Sheba, for whom he has a love never requited. He tries to guide a slave girl through the intrigues of the court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Then in the 1850s, he finds a hidden genius in Zefir, who has a deep longing for an understanding of the nature of the universe but is locked away like a bird in the great mansion of a wealthy merchant. The Djinn falls deeply in love with her, but it goes terribly wrong.”
“He’s a magical being with powers and yet he’s also vulnerable, trapped by a spell. I wasn’t sure who could play him” says Miller.
“I was at an awards ceremony, and I met Idris. I’d seen him on the screen but meeting him in person had another dimension to it and I knew he could take on the Djinn. Apart from his talent, it’s the charisma. On the one hand, Idris is completely accessible. He could be your best friend. On the other hand, there is a deep reserve of mystery. That paradox, I believe, is the essence of charisma.” Once he read the screenplay, Elba was drawn to a character who had started to fall into the complexities of desire.
“He’s immortal, so it’s uncharacteristic for him to fall in love and share human emotion, wants and desires,” Elba observes. “That is what begins to unravel his journey. The stories he tells Alithea are a way of giving Alithea background, convincing her to ask for three wishes, but in truth, for him this is therapy. This is a chance for him to reflect on what has been happening for three thousand years, and perhaps he will not make the same mistakes in the future. That’s where the stories he tells really have their weight and importance to him.”
Once brought onto the film, Elba and Miller began moulding the Djinn into something new. They analyzed what had been done before in film and worked to try and find the truth of the character.
“I’d like to think that this is a djinn, a genie, unlike any we’ve seen before,” says Miller. “He’s somehow more vulnerable, more human. He’s made of ‘subtle fire’ – what we now call electromagnetism – and so he’s an unlikely presence in the modern world and, indeed, threatened by it.”
“The Djinn’s stories take us through the film,” adds Elba, “and when you’ve got that much real estate for a character, you want them to be able to connect with the audience. We wanted to do that authentically through our story, without spoon-feeding our audience with tropes. We examined him from a physical perspective, from a dialogue and accent perspective. We examined it from my own biological makeup and how that affects, or not, the depiction of the character.”
Even though initially the audience, and Alithea, are unsure if the Djinn is real, he gradually becomes more available to her. “You begin to see that this guy is traumatized in some way, this has been a real struggle for him,” adds Miller. “We get to know him as more than a magical figure.”
Alithea Binnie is a narratologist. She studies stories throughout the ages.
“We seemed to be hard-wired for story” poses Miller. “Why?”
Tilda Swinton explains: “Alithea is tracing the many different stories that there ever have been all over this earth, and figuring out similarities, figuring out the through lines, figuring out the essential truths to all stories and various codes to human stories. Somebody said to me once that homosapiens should rather be more homo-narrans. That the storytelling ape is really what we are, more than wise; or rather, maybe the wisdom comes from being storytellers.”
The paradox in Alithea is that although she is fascinated by stories, her own life stories have no meaning for her.
“Alithea has all this knowledge, she is a specialist, but a specialist in being an observer,” says Swinton. “She is listening to, reading, understanding, and writing about other people’s lives, other people’s stories and fantasies, but she’s not really a participant. We come to know why that’s the case, to know that at a certain point in her life, she kind of opted out. She says she doesn’t have any wishes, but she learns about desire, she learns to want things, and she learns to negotiate that. That’s her evolution.”
The casting of Swinton followed a similar path to the casting of her co-star. “I knew Tilda’s work, obviously, but I was lucky enough to meet her at a dinner at a film festival,” recalls Miller, as had been the case with Idris. “The moment we talked, I knew she had to play Alithea. In her work, Tilda is known as a kind of shapeshifter but when I met her in person she was extraordinary. When she read the screenplay, I was thrilled that she wanted to take it on.”
For the rational Alithea, encountering the Djinn prompts her to question her sanity.
“She struggles with ‘am I mad, or is this real, and if so, what is reality?’” adds Miller.
Bringing The Characters To Life
Preparations for the film became in large part a collaboration between Miller, Swinton, and Elba. Along with Augusta Gore, plus Miller’s long-time collaborator, dramaturg Nico Lathouris, and Susan Hegarty, Elba’s dialect coach, they held roundtable workshops over a period of many years about the characters, the story, and their relationship.
“When Tilda and Idris came along, it was incredible how much depth and insight they brought,” says Gore. “Significant changes were made to the screenplay, which on one level was shocking because we thought we had worked it out so rigorously, but the rehearsal time afforded us the opportunity, first with Zoom rehearsals, then in the room together, to examine every dimension of the screenplay.”
Miller adds: “What was most important was the interplay between the two characters. What the conflict between them reveals. It’s not so much what an individual actor does, but what the two of them do to each other.”
“Both Tilda and Idris are what I call ‘filmmaking actors’,” he says. “They are insightful about the process, and they are there to get the film made. They are true artists in that way. They’re interested in how the whole team can work together to enhance the entirety of the piece.”
With the film shooting in Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic, the actors had to conduct rehearsals via Zoom during mandatory 14-day quarantines.
“We shot Fury Road in the Namibian desert with one thousand people,” Mitchell says. “This film we would be shooting primarily in studios, with 350 people. There was also a reduced level of physical danger. After Fury Road – with real vehicles and speed – the anxiety level was reduced for me!”
The film plays out first in a hotel room in Istanbul, then back and forth between the shifting timeframes of Djinn’s past and the present, with a third act set in a house in London.
A vital decision about the shooting order of sequences was suggested by Idris Elba. “If we shot the hotel room scenes first if I was telling stories that I hadn’t gone through yet, I wouldn’t be able to fully feel the three thousand years of longing. By shooting Djinn’s stories first, they became very real memories for me as an actor, those very specific detailed worlds. The sets are incredible, and I wanted to experience that before I come out of my bottle and sit down and convince Alithea Binnie that she needs to make three wishes.”
For Miller: “That was really, really smart of Idris. I hadn’t yet considered in which sequence order to shoot, and Idris made clear that that was by far the best strategy. So, by the time Tilda arrived for the shoot, he has already lived those stories.”
One of the aspects that Elba hadn’t anticipated when he first came onto the film, was that he would need to deeply examine the pure art of storytelling.
“I traced back in my life some of the great storytellers I’ve met, one of whom is my dad, and studied the mechanism of storytelling,” he says. “How do you keep someone engaged? What happens with jumping to the third person to let the listener fill in the blanks? If you do a little digging, you start to see that some of the greatest storytellers do it naturally and some do it in a more manipulated way. I used all that knowledge to influence what I did within my performance.”
For the filmmakers, seeing Three Thousand Years Of Longing in a cinema is their greatest hope for audiences
“When we go into the cinema, it’s a kind of public dreaming,” says Miller. “You are invited into the story, and hopefully caught up in it. Sharing dreams with strangers, on the big screen. We worked so hard on the images and sounds, making them congruent. We tried to tell a story that keeps you leaning forward in your seat and, if it’s any good, to follow you out of the cinema.”
“Three Thousand Years Of Longing is not just giving us a good story, it’s also about the importance of
stories,” adds Elba. “This film will sit as a time capsule. This is the story we tell. I’m hoping that we continue
to find ingenious ways to engage an audience in a story. You could quite easily sit around the tree, or a fire
and tell the story of Alithea meeting the Djinn, and it would still be compelling, but with what George and
our team created around it, visually, sonically, is amazing.”
For Tilda Swinton, “Even though George wanted to make this film years ago, there’s never been a better
time to make this film and for audiences to reconsider how important narrative is in our lives.”
“What happened to us with the pandemic, and other global forces, there’s been a threat to the possibility of us being able to create narratives. We’re getting used to finding a way to renegotiate how we create narratives. Being storyless is not a good place for human beings to be. It is a threat to our mental health. This film is a real opportunity for people to re-evaluate and re-worship stories as an essential part of how we work. So, bring on Three Thousand Years Of Longing, to reboot the narrative drive in our systems.”