George Miller has never been one to get penned into a single genre. Though the Aussie director first hit it big as the writer-director of the bombastic and bleak Mad Max movies, he’s also the mind behind both of the Babe films, about a cute little talking pig with a heart of gold. He also crafted the animated Happy Feet franchise, for which he won his only Academy Award.
Above everything, Miller just loves stories—whether they’re about grizzled road warriors on a quest for water or floppy penguins who’ve just got to boogie. His latest project, Three Thousand Years of Longing, is in part about that love. The film follows a lonely narratologist (Tilda Swinton) as she ventures to a story conference in Turkey, stumbles across a bottle in a bazaar, and ends up releasing a larger-than-life djinn (Idris Elba) into her hotel room. The two engage in a long discussion about the genie’s centuries-long history and the circumstances that left him trapped in the bottle. There are action sequences and beautiful scenery and odd characters along the way, but at its core, Three Thousand Years is about the joy of crafting and telling a story, as well as how we represent ourselves to others.
WIRED caught up with Miller in Australia, where he’s working on Furiosa, the prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road. Via Zoom, he told us about how growing up with a twin made him fall in love with stories, the Babe fan interaction that made him think, and why after all these years he’s still learning how to make movies.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WIRED: When did you first fall in love with stories?
George Miller: Well, all my life, really. Stories help you navigate existence and empathize a little bit more.
My twin brother—we were not identical twins, but we spent the first 22 years of our lives together, virtually every day. We went to the same primary school, same boarding school, same high school, we did the same course at university. And every day, we were exchanging our experiences and telling stories. He is a wonderful storyteller, and very, very funny, so I was always engaged by his stories. I was always trying to make my versions of the day exciting for him too.
I think also it’s because I grew up in relative isolation as a kid in the ’50s in rural Australia. There was no television. There was the Saturday matinee at the local picture palace, though, where we all congregated. Kids from all over the countryside would come there. And there was radio, and there were comics, and there were books. The rest of our time was spent at play. And with all of that, I think I was serving some sort of unwitting apprenticeship to become a filmmaker, which I'm still doing all these years later, really.
It wasn’t until I actually got to make my first film and we were shooting and cutting something for time that I suddenly saw that film is narrative, above all. And I’m still trying to figure out not only how to tell stories on film but what it means that we’re somehow hardwired for story. Across time and space, whoever we are, in all cultures, we actually figure out the world through stories, whether it’s little personal stories or community stories or the great mythological stories, which ultimately become the great religious beliefs … these are all part of the same continuum.
It’s a great mystery, and if you’re lucky enough to be a storyteller, you occasionally—at least for yourself—get to shine some light onto the process and the need for making things a story.
In the movie, Tilda Swinton’s character, Alithea, seems convinced that all historical myths and stories can be explained through logic and science, but that changes with the introduction of the djinn. Do you think there are forces or creatures out there beyond what we might be able to explain?
No, I don’t think there are creatures out there. There certainly are events and phenomena out there, though, that are beyond our ability to explain. That has always been the case, as Alithea says herself. She says, “mythos is what we knew back then, and science is what we know so far.” That’s the narrative of humans as we collectively acquire knowledge. It’s gotten to the stage where a lot of that knowledge is corrupted, depending on what bubble or which community you care to join, but regardless of all of that anti-science rhetoric, you and I are talking across thousands of miles simply because of the likes of Newton and Maxwell.
In all messages and stories, there’s a teller and a receiver. How you receive Cinderella as a middle-aged man might not be how an eight-year-old girl does. When you’re putting together a movie, do you try and craft what you want people to receive, or are you more interested in seeing what they get and where they take it?
It’s really an interesting thing. It’s both, and where you find the balance is really how a film has meaning, or engages an audience one way or another. I can say this with the authority of someone who’s experienced the very thing you’re talking about.
First of all, all stories worth their salt are allegorical in one way or another. In other words, there’s more to them than meets the eye. They’re also very poetic, meaning that they are in the eyes of the beholder. Now, whether they’re fairy tales or documentary movies or very analytical books or newspaper stories, any story has to have that quality if it is to have any resonance.
It’s always Cinderella that’s said to mean something different to everybody, but it just has to have a big enough audience to have the discourse. The most striking example to me was Babe. I remember I was in South Africa and someone said to me very emphatically that the film is about apartheid, specifically. The film declares at the beginning that it’s about an unprejudiced heart and how it changed our valley forever, or something like that. That’s said in the narration. But this man said, “No, no, it’s specifically about apartheid,” and I said, “What do you mean?”
He pointed out that there was a moment when the farmer is looking out the window. The pig is deciding to learn to be a sheep pig and herd different animals, and he’d separated the brown chickens from the white chickens. That was purely accidental, because we were trying to show that he could organize by asking the various animals of the farm kindly, but that was an indicator to him that it was specifically about apartheid. It had never occurred to me.
Now I realize that kind of thing is in every story if it has that poetic dimension. Even a sporting story, or whatever. It’s not accidental, either, because they’re deliberately poetic. That’s why we often tell stories through some sort of avatar, which might be an animal or a superhero or some other figure.
The person who had the best answer to your question was Freddie Mercury. Someone came up to him and said, “I think I understand what ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is all about,” and proceeded to say this and that. Freddie Mercury's response was, “If you see it, dear, it’s there.”
That’s why I’m drawn to these stories. The Mad Max world is an allegorical world. The Babes and the Happy Feets, those are allegorical worlds.
This movie obviously is, because it’s a fairy tale. The paradox is that there are often very deep truths that resonate through fairy tales. It’s why some of those details endure.