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George Miller, Tilda Swinton & Idris Elba on why 'Three Thousand Years of Longing' is not a Disney fairy tale

George Miller's follow-up to Fury Road stars Idris Elba as a djinn who couldn't be further from a Robin Williams-voiced genie.

By James Grebey
Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

George Miller’s last movie, the critically acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road, was a high-octane, post-apocalyptic, non-stop car chase jam-packed with stunts the likes of which you’ve never seen. How did he follow that up? With a fairy tale. 

Of course, this being a George Miller movie, Three Thousand Years of Longing is not your average, generic fairy tale. It’s something much more specific — both stranger and sweeter. It’s a familiar premise: A woman named Alithea (Tilda Swinton) unleashes a djinn (Idris Elba) from a magic lamp, and the djinn offers her three wishes. The bulk of the movie is the two of them sitting in a hotel room as the cautious-yet-curious Alithea gets the djinn to relate his 3,000-year history of love and loss, told through visually dazzling flashbacks. 

Speaking to SYFY WIRE and other members of the entertainment press at a virtual conference ahead of the Aug. 26 premiere, Miller said he was quite taken by the short story the film is based on, A. S. Byatt’s 1994 novella The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.

“It was so loaded with material, and most of it was kind of paradoxical. I mean, it's a story that sets in a hotel room. It’s a conversation that happens over a relatively short period of time, and yet the content basically is across three thousand years,” Miller said. “It's a fairy story, and yet it seemed to have a lot of truth in it, which, again, is very, very interesting.” 

“But what's really the benefit of telling these kinds of stories, fairy tales, is that you're working with metaphor and symbolism that can be read by each person who happens to be experiencing this according to their own world view on it and make their own meaning of the thing,” Miller continued. “And at the same time, they're sharing meanings with the collective.” 

Swinton’s character, Alithea, knows all about those collective stories. It’s why she’s inherently wary and suspicious of any genie or djinn’s promise of three wishes, as she knows how quickly they can backfire (indeed, we see examples of just that happening many times in tales from the djinn’s past). And yet, Alithea, who Swinton describes as someone who doesn’t “feel much on [their] account, but [she’s] gonna find feeling through the stories of other people's lives,” wants to know more about the djinn.

Elba’s wish-granting djinn may be a staple fairy tale archetype, but he is a far cry from the Robin Williams-voiced Genie that audiences are used to. Elba invented a new accent for the character. His djinn is alternatively cold and deeply passionate; impossibly inhuman and all-too-relatable. Disney, this ain’t. That, Elba says, was by design. 

“It was really important to me, actually, to veer away from anything that we may have seen before, because I think this character's journey is only really believable to the audience if we feel like we have never seen anything like this before, isn’t it?” Ebla explained. “[Otherwise] the audience is gonna go ‘Oh, okay, haha, funny story, haha, tell me a joke. Do the wish thing. You know, do the magic thing.’”

Swinton, who has dealt with magic before in films like Doctor Strange and Suspiria, wanted to make sure that Alithea steered clear of any familiar tropes, too. 

“An academic of a certain age, a woman who lives by herself, you know, we can immediately see all the dangers,” Swinton said. “It would be quite easy to work a kind of stereotype with Alithea just as it would be easy to work with a stereotype with the djinn.”  

“I've had the fun in my life to work with a number of stories about immortals,” Swinton says. “But I have tended to play the immortal. And the great opportunity here was to play the human, was to play the mortal in the face of the immortal.” 

“You have two characters, one is a scholar, a creature of reason, and the other is a creature of emotion and desire. And one is very mortal and the other, it can live indefinitely,” Miller says. “Ultimately, it's about stories and what they do to us, and in particular, love.”  

Three Thousand Years of Longing opens in theaters Aug. 26.

Looking for more fantasy action? Check out the best fantasy movies on Peacock right now.