Film about a genie starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton is partly true, says director at Cannes

George Miller reveals the inside story of his big-screen premiere, Three Thousand Years of Longing, based on an AS Byatt story

A lonely, real-life experience in an Istanbul hotel room – an imagined moment of escapist magic – inspired the British author AS Byatt to write a romantic fantasy about a genie in a bottle, George Miller has revealed after the Cannes premiere of his big-screen version.

When the filmmaker, best known for directing the Mad Max franchise, first visited Byatt to ask for permission to make a film of her short story, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, she told him that much of the background detail in it was true.

Miller, speaking at the film festival on the Côte d’Azur about his romantic new film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, explained he had admired Byatt’s story for a long time and always hoped to put it on screen.

“When we went to AS Byatt to ask for the rights, she asked me why I had chosen that story, and I told her it was because it felt real,” recalled Miller. “She replied that everything in this story is true, except for the appearance of the djinn. She did go to a conference in Istanbul and did meet many of the people in the story.”

Miller’s exotic and spectacular film, made with the British stars Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, who joined him in Cannes on Saturday, has divided critics with its playful and unconventional narrative and its sense of wonder.

“The original story probed a lot of things that are at the heart of most of the tales that we tell each other as human beings,” said Miller, in defence of his choice. “All the themes seemed to be encapsulated in this one story.” The 85-year-old novelist’s Possession was also made into a successful film in 2002.

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in a scene from Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in a scene from Three Thousand Years of Longing. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Miller, who is now working on Mad Max: Furiosa, due out in 2024 with Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth, said he hoped some of this “authenticity” remains in his new fantasy film.

While action film fans may be baffled by his decision to tell an Arabian Nights-style fairytale, Miller said it comes from his interest in mythology and allegory. The 77-year-old Australian director, who also made the children’s hits Babe and Happy Feet, said he believes such legends are the basis of all storytelling and the reason why superhero franchises, some of them drawn from Norse, Roman and Greek myths, are still so popular. “These stories have endured and will endure as long as they change and morph into something else,” he said.

A chance meeting with Elba solved the problem of casting the djinn, the director added. “Casting was really important because, to the extent that we wanted to be fanciful, we needed to find a way to be as grounded as possible first,” said Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Augusta Gore.

“During the writing, I had a good idea of most of the characters, but if I had not met Idris through friends at the Bafta awards, I have no idea who could have played the djinn.”

Elba, 49, said he did not consider the part as that of a romantic hero. “The djinn is quite a flawed spirit in his longing. He is far from heroic.” The actor, who contracted Covid during filming in 2020, said he had been attracted to the role because he always avoided playing the same kind of character twice if he can.

Swinton, who plays the female lead role of Alithea Binnie, an academic loosely based on Byatt herself in the original story, said Miller initially told her the hi-tech film, set in Istanbul and London as well as in the ancient court of the Queen of Sheba, was going to be “a little chamber piece”.

“I feel in meeting George Miller we have met a real djinn,” said Swinton, 61, adding that the key thing for her was to keep telling many different kinds of stories, both on screen and in journalism.

“Particularly in recent months, we have seen that the thing that’s really dangerous is if you have only one story. So we must keep them all coming, keep it multifarious and keep it contradictory. It is possible that when people can’t hear any other stories, just one story, then things can really go down the tubes fast.

“So it feels very apposite to make this film now and to keep our eyes and our ears and our hearts open.”

• This article was amended on 22 May 2022. Mad Max: Furiosa is due out in 2024 with Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth, not in 2023 with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron as an earlier version said. And the film version of AS Byatt’s Possession was released in 2002, not 1981; that was a different film of the same name.


Vanessa Thorpe in Cannes

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