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The Water Diviner - Russell Crowe interview

The Water Diviner

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RUSSELL Crowe discusses the reasons behind making his directorial debut with Gallipoli based drama The Water Diviner and how the film became an unwitting companion piece to Peter Weir’s iconic war movie, Gallipoli.

He also reveals some of his research, including understanding the Gallipoli campaign from the Turkish perspective as well as the British and Australian viewpoint, and why his film remains unashamedly anti-war in its message. He was speaking at a recent UK press conference.

Q. How did this story choose you? What compelled you to make it your directorial debut?
Russell Crowe: Well, I suppose it was a cultural connection, but “choose you” is the right way of putting it. Obviously, people always say: “Well, why did you choose this particular thing?” But it is the opposite, really. I was just getting on with my life and preparing a bunch of stuff and in the middle of other things and I just read this script and everything changed. Quite a long time ago I put together a project, about 2003/2004, and I was going to direct it, and in a strange way I realised that it was just too easy; it felt wrong. It was financed in one meeting, everyone was happy with what I wanted to do and it just felt odd and I realised that people were only connected to it because I was a famous bastard. They didn’t really have any belief that I would bring a particular viewpoint as a director.

So, I deconstructed it and I didn’t do that. However, if I’d known it was going to take 10 years for me to get it back in that situation again I would have changed that decision. But also there was thing about that film that was very simple. It was a little urban piece, a sort of Rashamon sort of thing: four perspectives on the same event. But a part of making films – and doing this film particularly … directing – is the pure and simple challenge of it, you know. So I suppose of all the things that came towards me, part of the decision to not do this project or that project was because it wasn’t a big enough challenge. It wasn’t something that scared me.

And when I read 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 and, you know, I was making notes on half the characters, I was correcting dialogue and other things that I do – but there was this other thing happening, where in some sort of fundamental way I believed that I was the only person who could tell this story in the way it needed to be told. And that’s the sort of arrogance of a director in the first place, you know? I had this fundamental belief at the end of reading it for the first time that I was the person who had to take responsibility for this particular story. I thought I could read between the lines, I thought I could read between the shadows.

There was stuff in that script that I just thought from a cultural perspective, being a New Zealand-born Australian, that 100 years after Gallipoli, there was perspective in that that I really believed needed to be put in front of people.

Q. How important was Peter Weir’s Gallipoli to the understanding of this film? And obviously you’ve worked with him on Master and Commander. Did you seek out his advice and if so, what advice did he give you?
Russell Crowe: It’s purely 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 left behind, when their young sons went to war and a lot of people didn’t come back. I didn’t seek out Peter and didn’t have any discussions with him about this, but certainly the work of Australian directors in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, people like Peter, like Fred Schepesi, like Bruce Bereseford, Philip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong, had an impact. [Cinematographer] Andrew Lesnie and I had a number of conversations about what we considered to be a golden era in Australian film. And even in a digital world we wanted to give the look of the film the same feeling that same feeling as that 35mm look of the mid-70s.

Culturally, Peter’s movie talks of the kind of iconography that we’re used to in Australia, you know? That these young boys put up their hands as volunteers to go to the other side of the world to defend Britain. Whereas socially, it was a big adventure: that was the way it was sold, you know? And at that time it was probably very difficult not to put your hand up because in a lot of little country towns there was the “white feather” thing if you weren’t prepared to go to war and stand up for King and Country. But what I saw with this script was an opportunity to have a completely different perspective from the one we normally take.

The Water Diviner

What I had was an experience when I read it for the first time that was very exciting, but also very embarrassing for me. All the times I’ve been to Dawn Services, all the moments of silence I’ve taken to remember the sacrifice that these young soldiers had made at Gallipoli, I had never for a single second, I realized, spent any time thinking about the other point of view: the Turkish attitude. People talk in terms of reciprocal respect: Turkey’s been very generous to Australia and the other countries involved in that conflict in terms of the area of land. It’s a national park and our sons are buried there in marked graves, but one of the things you discover in the process is that the Turkish people don’t even call Gallipoli “Gallipoli”. They call it “Çanakkale”. So, even in this situation where we have this lip service about mutual respect, we didn’t even know that. We didn’t even know a fundamental thing that they call this conflict by a completely separate name. So, to me it was so important to be like: “Let’s begin this conversation again. Let’s look at what this really was.”

So, we waved off our fathers and sons and uncles, who were going off on this big adventure. They were sold a completely different thing. They weren’t sold what the experience was: the harrowing experience of being under machine-gun fire trying to climb a vertical cliff. You know, that was never discussed when they were getting on board that boat. But I started doing the research and started doing location scouts and I’m in Istanbul and I’m in a high school right in the middle of town and I’m standing on the floor of the high school and there are these big clocks which had stopped on a particular time. I asked when I was being shown around if the clocks were broken and they said, no, they’d been that way since 1915. On a particular day, mums and dads dropped their kids off at school in the morning, and part way through the day the government came and took all the senior kids and made them soldiers.

That’s a big difference between people who are voluntarily getting on a boat and going half-way around the world on what they ostensibly think is an adventure that they will never get the opportunity to have again, to a nation that is being invaded, that is losing men at such a rapid rate that they’ve got to empty the high schools of, essentially, children and send them to the front. That’s a different experience. And I think that’s an original experience for an Australian or a New Zealander to sit in a cinema and realise that the grief is shared in such a fundamental way, that the experience is essentially the same.

From an over-arching point-of-view, in war there is heroism on both sides. Obviously, the victor gets the spoils, the victor gets to write history, but there’s heroism and compassion on both sides, and to me that’s very important. This is an unashamedly anti-war film. It doesn’t glorify the situation; in fact it shows the reality. So, you know that moment [in the film] between the trenches in No Man’s Land, the amount of people who have come to me after and said: “You know, I’ve never thought about it from that point of view.” You think about it and every other Gallipoli story we have, they go up over the trenches and if they receive a bullet they drop dead right there and it’s done. We grieve the loss of life and the waste of life, but I never thought about life ebbing away in that manner… of what it would be to be like to feel your life force drain away for five hours, six hours, eight hours, 10 hours, as you just gradually bleed out.

To me, the service of a piece like this is to show people another step, another form of the reality. So, when you are recognising the sacrifice, you’re actually recognising not something that’s about iconography, but something that’s about humanity. It’s very simple: this is not a situation that we should be indulging in. People say to me when I start talking like this that surely there are the right reasons to go to war, and my perspective is: surely there’s a better way of asking that question?

The Water Diviner

Q. Do you feel that being the father to two sons gave you a deeper connection to this story?
Russell Crowe: As anybody in the room who is a parent knows, once you’re a parent, male or female, every single thing that happens in your life is seen through the prism of being a parent. So, no doubt reading the script affected me in a deeper way because I’m the father of two boys. It didn’t influence my desire to direct it, but once I’m on the way I certainly know that this is something my children will see, and in a way I want them to know certain fundamentals about the way their dad feels about things like this.

I had a very strange conversation with my little boy, because he let me in on this little bit of a plan he had that I was unaware of. He said to me, because we were actually talking about career choices and the two of them have got lots of things that they want to do, but my little boy said to me that after he’s been to school and university, he’s going to go and do a couple of battles and when he gets back he’s going to get on with his career. I said: “Why would you want to go and do a couple of battles?” And he said, “Money.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “Well, you know, I’ll go off to war, make some money and come back and use that money to then do the other creative things that I want to do.”

And I said: “It do doesn’t really work that way, mate. You don’t really get paid that much. You get the odd tax benefit, some medical cover if you need it, but it’s not a high paid job.” And he goes: “Really? I would have thought you’d get at least a million a battle!” And there is a fundamental logic in what he’s saying. It probably should be that way, right? People are putting their lives on the line on behalf of their fellow countrymen. But I said: “It doesn’t work that way.” And a little while after he saw the movie, he then asked me if I could set up a situation where his best mate at school could see it as well. So, I did and after he’d seen it I asked them if they liked the film and they were like: “Yeah, but we’re not gonna join the army anymore.”

So, that’s just relating to my kids, but if I can put a little more truth in their minds and make them see it’s not a comic book situation, it’s a life and death situation, and get that sort of thing straight in his head… if all that the whole process of doing this film for three years came down to was showing one of my kids the truth of the situation, then it’s still of great benefit to me.

Q. When you were filming this did you put yourself in the shoes of your character and imagine it was the search for your own sons?
Russell Crowe: Yeah! I always sort of considered this thing as the journey of a mad man, you know. He’s brought his kids up the best way he knows how, he’s loved them, and this situation happens, and no matter what was churning in his stomach, he still didn’t say anything, he still didn’t do anything about it. He let what was happening socially dominate even to the point – and I made a point out of this you might not have picked up – that one of his children wasn’t even legally of age, and he’s allowed his son to go, because in a funny way it was safer if the three of them went together. So, yeah, many times I’d just be in that battlefield not just from Joshua’s point of view but from every single soldier’s point of view.

When you start reading stuff about Lone Pine… The Lone Pine battlefield is actually the size of two championship tennis courts and 9,000 people died in four days. And one thing I read was that the bodies were [piled up] nine-high coming out of the trench. You had to climb over nine corpses before you got the joy of being shot as well. That’s a silly way of saying it, but you understand what I’m saying. It’s horrific. I went to Gallipoli right at the beginning of the process. I got on a boat at Mykonos and we went North and then due west into Anzac cove, so I had that experience of what it’s like to come into that coastline with the darkness as the light’s coming up and you see the shapes emerging out of the rising sun and a whole bunch of stuff became really apparent.

When you’re heading into Anzac cove – and I’ve actually still got a photograph of it on my phone cause it was a brilliantly clear blue sky and there is the orb the sun right there – you are going into this battle situation staring into the sun. So, any movement in that water, any glint is going to be seen for miles away. Even in the first rays of dawn, there’s nowhere to hide. When you read the books you find out that they were a blink away from achieving their objective on first day, but they didn’t achieve it on the first day – and that led to this untold slaughter that went on.

It was just very interesting for me to have that experience and then to walk amongst the battlefields and realize the terrain is just so opposite to what would make this a slightly bad experience to those doing the invading. That’s a hard word you see, “invasion”. Australians and New Zealanders don’t talk about Gallipoli in terms of invasion. I started talking about it and using that word and at first there were a few people who were getting upset in the same way that in any country, if you work for a newspaper you know exactly the dude you can go and talk to get a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to something to do with the military. So, they were getting those responses. Then people started to see the film and that kind of criticism just evaporated because people realized it’s made with a great deal of love and a great deal of care and the things that it talks about are things that we should talk about.

The Water Diviner

Q. Are there any anti-British sentiments in the film?
Russell Crowe: We’re way beyond that now. That’s one of the sensibilities that’s within Peter’s film. Some people say that’s in this film, but there are three British characters in the film. The first one is a jovial Scottish bloke who thinks it’s really funny that Joshua’s bag just got nicked. It’s a lot less dangerous a situation than he’s used to or has experienced and that, to him, is funny. And then you have Captain Brindley, who’s a man caught inside the bureaucracy of everything that he has to do. But if you look inside his office he has banks and banks of filing cabinets: he has 10,000 Australian and New Zealand bodies just to deal with, not including the British and the French and the Canadian and the Napolese – and the Newfoundlanders who fought there as a sovereign nation. So, Brindley is going to have a particular attitude and it’s an understandable attitude when he’s the guy administrating that loss of life.

And the third character is a young lieutenant who works in Brindley’s office. And as he says: my brother died on that bloody peninsula… So there’s a balance there. There’s no sort of finger wagging or finger-pointing in terms of that. As Australians and New Zealanders, we’re actually beyond that thing of saying that our attitude should be anti-British. A lot of things changed after the First World War, particularly after this battle, in that never again did Australian and New Zealand soldiers go into a battle situation commanded by an officer from another country. I think we’re actually beyond that thing of seeing this as a British negative. Plus, more stuff has come to light and you realize it’s not necessarily the officers. There was a tradition at the time to do that military thing of sending up wave after wave of soldiers and then hopefully at a certain point you overwhelm the enemy. That was just a strategy that was employed. It wasn’t a particularly anti-Australian or anti-New Zealand thing that British officers were doing and people have come to understand that.

And people have also come to understand that we landed in the wrong spot, so you have a situation where you have one of the tenders going into the coast, ends up thinking a point on the land is a different point to the one they’re aiming at, and they actually end up landing right underneath a vertical cliff when they should have been landing a little bit further up the coast, a little bit further north where the slope was gentler and there were fewer people defending it.

Read our review of The Water Diviner

Read our interview with Olga Kurylenko