‘We’re wired for stories’: Mad Max director George Miller on myths, medicine and a pointy-eared Idris Elba | george miller

Sget over me if I ramble, says director George Miller, perched on his stool like a saloon bar storyteller, half-drunk with the joys of film history and literal theory. He covered Buster Keaton and Joseph Campbell, native art and the Queen of Sheba. He says we don’t even know if the Queen of Sheba was real, but she is real in legends and what could be more real than a tale? “We are creatures of history, we are wired for history. This is how we make sense of the world.

Miller – soft-spoken and stocky; 77 last March – is best known for his dystopian Mad Max photos, but his resume is eclectic and he’s touched on all sorts of things. Tearjerkers (Lorenzo’s Oil, 1992), comedies (The Witches of Eastwick, 1987), children’s capers (Happy Feet, 2006; Babe, 1995), etc. Most good films, he believes, come from a similar place. Look closely enough and you begin to see links and bridges; the larger pattern.

“Let’s get back to Babe,” he said, warming to his theme. “The first thing that struck me when I read Dick King-Smith’s children’s book was that it was very clearly a hero’s journey. Babe is the agent of change. He renounces his self-interest for the greater good. But when I said that, people were appalled, they looked at me like I was crazy. They said, “But George, he’s a talking pig.”

We are behind the scenes of the Cannes Film Festival. Miller is here for the premiere of Three Thousand Years of Longing, his latest beat-changing kick that may turn out to be part of a larger scheme. Based on a short story by AS Byatt, it’s such a serious and heartfelt fairy tale romance that it almost dares the viewer to laugh at it. Three Thousand Years of Longing stars pointy-eared Idris Elba as the mystical Djinn and bespectacled Tilda Swinton as the lonely professor. The Djinn says he can grant a wish to the teacher. But she is too shrewd, too distrustful; she continues to question herself. “Wishing is a hazardous art,” she complains.

‘Agent of Change’… Babe. Photo: Universal Pictures/Allstar

What would Miller wish if he met a jinn? Argh, he says, he doesn’t know. The Djinn cannot grant immortality or end human suffering. Everything else would probably end up feeling weird. “Let’s imagine that I want to win the 100 meters and break the record at the Olympic Games. So I make this wish and I will do it. It wouldn’t mean anything because it’s undeserved, it’s hollow. He is still thinking. “So I want my film to do very well in Cannes tonight. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay – it’s a work issue.

Miller was raised in Queensland, Australia, by Greek immigrant parents, and for a time in his twenties led two lives as Clark Kent: working as a doctor at St Vincent’s Hospital in Brisbane for a week, shooting his low-budget photos the Next. But naturally, he said, there was a trend here too.

“Oh, I definitely wouldn’t make movies like I do without medical school. First of all, it’s all about perspective. As a doctor, you look at the complete human being, under a microscope or on an x-ray or as part of a collective. Viscerally, intellectually, spiritually, anthropologically. And then, on a practical level, it’s invaluable. The first night shoot reminded me of emergency night sessions. Resolution Thinking on your feet. Never knowing what was coming through the door. So I had a lot of practice before I went on a movie set.

Miller made his first Mad Max picture in 1979, portraying a pre-famous Mel Gibson as the last law enforcement trooper and dressing Melbourne’s suburbs as a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film was a success and it made Miller’s career. And that surprised him because he assumed he had missed it.

“The movie was a complete disaster for me in terms of what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I really thought that I was not cut out to make films. My partner, Byron Kennedy, and I had raised quite a meager budget from our closest friends at school. So there was an obligation to return their money. It was a terrible thing if we didn’t. We didn’t have money for an editor, so I edited the film myself for a year. And every day, for a year, I was confronted with the evidence of what I hadn’t done, of what I had failed to do. Why did I put the camera there? Why didn’t I ask the actors to go faster? Every day in front of this film, this wreck.

Mel Gibson in Millers Mad Max 2: Road Warrior
Mel Gibson in Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Photography: Warner Bros/Allstar

Apologies, he said. He started wandering again. Long story short, the movie came out and different audiences projected their own mythos into it. “In Japan they saw it as a samurai movie. The French called it a western on wheels. In Scandinavia it was a Viking movie. And I was smart enough to know it wasn’t the result of something I had done consciously. If the work had gone well, I might have been a victim of pride.

Miller then filmed two Mad Max sequels in the 80s. In 2015, he resurrected the concept of the thunderous Fury Road. He is now working on Furiosa, a tale about the origins of Fury Road, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Charlize Theron’s former role. This, I tell him, is the most obvious pattern. The director may flirt with jinns, penguins and talking pigs, but Mad Max is his first love, his life’s work. Or is it too big a claim?

“Too big!” he says. The only Mad Max spin-off he deliberately planned on doing was Furiosa, the new one, simply because it just seemed so logical. All the others, he insists, were happy accidents or sudden arrivals, like those patients who blew off the emergency room door. “It’s like John Lennon said: life is what happens when you make other plans. I have all kinds of other projects. But somehow I keep coming back to Mad Max.

Here is a question a jinn might ask. Does Miller think he was more valuable to the world as a filmmaker than he would have been as a doctor?

“Ah,” he said. “Well, I think I have a bit of authority to answer this one. Because I have a twin brother, John, who I went to medical school with – and he’s still practicing. He is about to retire at the end of this year. And he really is a great doctor. I’m not saying that because he’s my brother. He’s everything you’d want in a doctor. He has treated three generations of the same family. Expats come back to Australia to see him. He is involved in community health, disease prevention. I would never have been near the doctor he is. I would have been OK But not compared to him.

Idris Elba as Djinn in Three Thousand Years of Nostalgia
Idris Elba as Djinn in Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing. Photography: Elise Lockwood/MGM

The publicist must conclude. Miller waves her off; he’s still chewing this one. “The only way I can justify what I do is that there’s a social obligation to tell stories,” he says. “So hopefully people will get some value out of it. And it’s happened to me twice – once in the US and once in Australia where a young woman came to me and said: “I just had a baby girl and I want to call her Furiosa. So maybe that means something. He grimaces. “But can that be weighed against my brother’s work? don’t know. Probably not.”

It’s funny, he said. The last person who asked him something like that remotely was his father, 50 years ago, when he dropped out of medical school. “’Why do you want to give up medicine to make movies? Isn’t medicine better?’ Miller didn’t have a good answer for his father that day. He’s not quite convinced he has one now. “So that’s real life work,” he says. “Five decades thinking about this one question.”

Three Thousand Years of Longing is released in Australia on September 1 and in the UK on September 2.

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