Stepping behind the Camera: A Conversation with Russell Crowe
THE WATER DIVINER is Russell Crowe’s directorial debut and is inspired by historical events.
The Fan Carpet’s Shelley Marsden was in attendance where Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe talks about what inspired his anti-war movie The Water Diviner, and why he wants his directorial debut to ‘rewrite’ history.
Russell Crowe’s first film in the director’s chair begins in 1919, just after the Battle of Gallipoli, as a heartbroken Australian farmer, Connor (Crowe), travels to Turkey to find his three missing sons, as per his late wife’s dying wishes. While staying at a hotel in Istanbul, he meets Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), the hotel owner and the pair initiate a profound and complex relationship. In Gallipoli, he finds the graves of two of his sons, but unearths evidence that one was taken prisoner and could still be alive.
The famously gruff actor, 50, revealed his soft side as he explained how he hopes his passion project, the big-hearted The Water Diviner will bring some humanity into filmic depictions of war, and help his two sons understand the difference between violent video games and the true horrors of conflict.
You grew up on film sets, working with some of the greatest directors on earth – how did this story ‘choose’ you and why make it your directorial debut?
I had a cultural connection to it, but choose you is the right way to put it. I was getting on with my life and in the middle of a bunch of other stuff, I read the script and everything changed. Quite a long time ago say 2003/2004 I put together a project – an urban piece, four perspectives on the same event – and was going to direct it, but I realised it was too easy, it felt wrong. It was financed in one meeting and I realised people had only agreed to it because I was a famous bastard. They didn’t have any real belief that I’d bring a particular viewpoint as a director. So I deconstructed it. But if I’d known it would have taken me ten years to get back into again I would change that decision! Anything I chose not to do before now was because it didn’t present me with a big enough challenge, it wasn’t something that scared me. With The Water Diviner, I was having the same visceral connection to the piece that I would normally have if I was going to be acting in something. But also, in some fundamental way, I believed I was the only person who could tell the story the way it needed told, take the responsibility of it. That’s the arrogance of a director in the first place. Being a New Zealand-born Australian, 100 years after the fact of Gallipoli, there was perspective I believed needed to be put in front of people.
How important was Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli (1981) in shaping your understanding of the conflict, and having worked with him did you seek out his advice?
It’s pure coincidence that these two films are kind of companion pieces. Peter’s film finishes with Mark Lee’s character going over the top, and freeze frames the moment the bullet strikes him. This story is about the grief of the parents who are left behind, when their young sons went to war and in a lot of cases never returned. I didn’t seek Peter out, or have any discussions with him about this movie but certainly the work of Australian directors in the 70s and early 80s, like Peter, like Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong…
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and I had a number of conversations about that time which we both considered to be a golden era of Australian film, and even in a digital world we wanted to give our film that same 35mm mid-70s look. Culturally, Peter’s movie talks of the iconography that we’re used to in Australia – that these young boys put up their hands and volunteered to go across to the other side of the world to defend Britain, whereas socially it was actually a big adventure – that’s how it was sold, that at that time it was hard not to put your hand up. You had to fight for king and country.
But you did something different…?
What I saw in the script was the opportunity to show a completely different perspective. The first time I read it, it was exciting but embarrassing at the same time. I realised that for all the times that I’ve been to dawn services and moments of silence I’ve had, I’d never spent any time thinking about the other point of view. What was the Turkish attitude? People talk about mutual respect in terms of that area of land – but in this process the first thing I discovered was that Turkish people don’t even call Gallipoli, Gallipoli. They call it Çanakkale. We have this lip service about respect, but we don’t even know that they call the whole conflict by a different name! I wanted to start up a new conversation. We waved off our sons, fathers, whatever and they weren’t sold the harrowing experience they were heading towards – being under machine gun fire and trying to go up a vertical cliff. That was never discussed when they were getting on that boat.
I started doing the research, the location scouts, and I was in Istanbul in a high school in the centre of town and a big clock was stopped at a particular time. I asked the guy was it broken and he said no, it had actually been that way since 1915. On a particular day, parents dropped their kids off for school, and part way through the day the government came and pulled the senior kids out and made them into soldiers.
That’s a big difference between people voluntarily getting on a boat and a nation being invaded, which is losing men at such a rapid rate they’ve got to empty the high schools of, essentially, children – and send them to the front. It’s an original experience for an Australian or New Zealand to sit in the cinema and watch. The grief is shared. In war, the victor gets to write history but there is heroism and compassion on both sides. The Water Diviner is an unashamedly anti-war film – in fact it shows war in all its brutality; that scene in which a soldier feels is life-force ebbing away over hours as he bleeds out. It’s very simple – this is not a situation we should be indulging in. It’s about humanity.
Do you think being a father yourself gave you a deeper understanding of Joshua in the film?
As anyone who is a parent knows, once you are a parent male or female, everything that happens in your life is seen through the prism of being a parent. So no doubt, reading the script it’s affecting me in a deeper way because I’m the father of two boys. I know it’s something my children will see, and in a way I want them to know some basic fundamentals about how their dad feels about some things. I had a strange conversation with the smallest one recently. We were talking about career choices, and he let me in on a little plan he’d had, and he said to me: “After I finish school and uni dad, I’m going to go off and do a couple of battles.” I said: “Why would you go and do a couple of battles?” and he said, “Money! Don’t soldiers get at least a million a battle?!” There’s a logic to that. People that put their lives on the line should, but it doesn’t work that way. A few days later, he saw the movie and I asked him what he thought. He said: “Er, yeah dad, we’re not going to join the army any more…” So yeah, I managed to put a bit of truth in his head, war wasn’t a comic book situation. Even if that’s everything that were to come out of the three years it took to make this movie, it would still be of great benefit to me.
THE WATER DIVINER IS IN CINEMAS FROM APRIL 3