“This is off-topic but it’s an interesting story,” George Miller starts, kicking off a story about Ken Hall, a pioneering filmmaker and the first Australian to win an Oscar.
Miller, himself an Oscar winner and six-time nominee, relates an incident around 1938 in which Hall’s attempt to record sound with Australian-made equipment is foiled by the ructions of a farmer’s biplane. But it all worked out thanks to a pair of semaphore flags and a little ingenuity.
“It was a fantastic lesson to me when filmmaking because people need to be resourceful, to adjust to the moment.”
As the Hall diversion illustrates, the loquacious Miller is always a storyteller, whether that’s formally on screen through his works including Happy Feet, Mad Max: Fury Road and Babe, or when he casually launches into a anecdote.
It’s an instinct he can’t suppress.
“When I first started making films, I never really thought consciously about telling stories,” he tells news.com.au. “We all tell stories. I grew up with a twin brother and we always told each other stories. Always.
“But it was never something I was consciously interested in doing. When I finally made films, it started me up. Even simple films, you have to ask the question, ‘What is the narrative?’. It’s not only how do we tell stories but why do we tell them?”
That compulsion to explore storytelling, narratives and mythmaking is in every frame of Three Thousand Years of Longing, the drama Miller shot in Sydney with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton.
Adapted from an A.S. Byatt short story Miller read two decades earlier, the feature tells the story of an academic, a narratologist, to be specific. Alithea (Swinton) chances upon a fire-damaged glass bottle and from it springs a djinn (Elba) who offers her three wishes.
To overcome her resistance to the wish-granting, the djinn regales her with tales of his past, of his former masters including the Queen of Sheba and a concubine in a sultan’s court. These stories are grand and intimate, fantastical and real. They’re entertaining as hell but they also reveal something.
“When I read [Byatt’s] story, it wouldn’t let me go,” Miller says. “It’s a story of contradictions and paradoxes. It deals with big things – a mortal and an immortal. What is the nature of love? Someone who’s a creature of reason and someone who is a creature of emotion and desire. And so on and so on.”
Miller was also drawn to Three Thousand Years of Longing because of who Byatt is, as someone whose work is immersed in storytelling.
“She is a scholar of story. She’s not only a literary figure, she’s someone who really puts a lot of store by stories.”
Miller argues that every facet of life is a narrative, it’s how we frame our existence and everything that came before. He points to First Australians whose histories are etched in the stories they tell.
“It makes sense of the universe, it tells them how to conduct themselves just as all mythologies and all stories do,” Miller explains. “Whatever the form. We’re all doing the same things. Religious mythologies. As the film says, I believe even Marvel superheroes movies fall into that category.
“If we look at our lives, at how we behave as humans, it’s a way through which we make our existence. In particular, sharing stories with each other.
“Everything we do has a narrative to it. If there’s a court case, it’s driven by narrative one way through the prism of the law. If there’s a medical history, in order to diagnoses something and to figure out how to treat it, it’s called the history.
“And trying to understand your family story.
“Objects often get their value from stories. If it’s a work of art, if it doesn’t have any provenance, it can be a piece of genius but it doesn’t have any value.
“False narratives give rise to wars and demagogues, they’re dangerous stories.
“Stories are the way we make our way through the world. That’s something I’ve been acutely aware of ever since I started being a storyteller, which is fundamentally what I do.”
Three Thousand Years of Longing is in cinemas now
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