The Water Diviner Russell Crowe Interview

Speaking in London to Red Carpet News acclaimed actor and filmmaker Russell Crowe explained his choice to make his directing debut with poignant war film The Water Diviner. Based on a true story it follows the quest of a determined Australian father to find his three son’s who are missing presumed dead in Gallipoli.

What made you chose this as your directorial debut?

I suppose there’s a cultural connection to it. But ‘choose you’ is the right way of putting it because obviously people say why did you chose this particular thing but it is the opposite of that. I was just getting on with my life; I was preparing a bunch of other stuff and in the middle of things, then I read the script and everything changed. Quite a long time ago, in about 2003/2004 I put together another project and I was going to direct it. 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. It just felt odd. 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 didn’t do that. However, if I’d known it was going to take 10 years for me to get back into that same situation again I would change that decision. But also there was a thing about that that was very simple. It was a little urban piece and it was like a Roshomon sort of thing, four perspectives on the same event.

A part of making films and this job of directing films is partly the pure and simple challenge of it. So I suppose all the things that came towards me, part of the thing that made me not do this project or that project was because it wasn’t a big enough challenge. It wasn’t something that scared me. Then when I read The Water Diviner I was having the same kind of visceral connection to the piece I would normally have if I was going to be acting in something. I was making notes on behalf of the character and correcting dialogue, you know the things that I do. But there was this other thing that was happening where in some sort of fundamental way I believed that I was the only person who could tell the story the way it needed to be told. That’s the sort of arrogance of a director in the first place. 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 and see things in the shadows. There was stuff in that script that from a cultural perspective I just thought being a New Zealand born Australian, a 100 years after Gallipoli there was perspective in that which I really believed needed to be put in front of people.

How important was Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli in shaping your understanding of the conflict and having worked with him did you ever talk to him about it?

It’s just coincidence that these two films are kind of companion pieces. Peter’s film finishes with his 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 many cases didn’t come back. I didn’t seek out Peter or have any discussions with him about this. But certainly the work of Australian directors in the 70s and early 80s, Andrew Lesley and I had a number of conversations about that golden era of Australian cinema. Even in a digital world and shooting with an Aria Lexus, we wanted to give the look of the film that same feeling of the look of the mid-70s. Culturally Peter’s movie talks of the kind of iconography that we’re used to in Australia. These young boys put up their hands to volunteer to go across to the other side of the world to fight for Britain. Socially it was sold as a big adventure. At that time it was probably very difficult not to put your hand up. In a lot of those little country towns, you know you had the whole white feather sort of thing if you weren’t prepared to go to war, if you weren’t going to stand up for king and country. What I saw in this script was to have a completely different perspective form the one we normally take. When I read it the first time it was very exciting for me but also fundamentally very embarrassing for me, because I realised for all the times that I’ve been to dawn services. The moments of silences that I’ve taken to remember the sacrifice these young soldiers made for me at Gallipoli I’d never for a single second spent time thinking about the other point of view, the Turkish attitude.

People talk and talk about reciprocal respect because Turkey has been very generous to Australia and the other countries involved in the conflict. Particularly in relation to that area of land, it’s a national park and our sons are buried there in marked graves. But one of the first things you discover in this process is that Turkish people don’t even call it Gallipoli. The call it Chanasa. We’re in this situation where we don’t even know that, we don’t even know this fundamental thing that they call this whole conflict by a completely separate name. So for me I was so important that we begin this conversation again.

So we waved off our sons and fathers who were going off on this big adventure. They were sold something completely different. They weren’t sold the harrowing ordeal of being under machine gun fire whilst trying to go up a vertical cliff. That was never discussed when they were getting on that boat. But I was doing research in Istanbul in a high school in the middle of town and I noticed this big clock that had stopped. I asked our guide if the clocks were broken or something and he said no they’ve been that way since 1915. Because on a particular day the mums and dads dropped their kid of at school and part way through the day the government came and took the senior kids to make them into soldiers. That’s a big difference, between people who are voluntarily getting on boats to go halfway round the world on ostensibly what they think is a big adventure that they will never get the opportunity to have again; to a nation that’s being invaded who is losing men at such a rapid rate that they essentially have to empty the high school and essentially send children to the front. It’s an original experience for a New Zealand or Australian audience to sit in a cinema and to realise that the grief is shared in such a fundamental way. In war there is heroism on both sides. Obviously in history the victor gets the soils and gets to write history, but there was heroism and compassion on both sides.

For me this is an unashamedly anti-war film. It doesn’t glorify the situation, but in fact shows it for its reality. There’s a scenes in the film in no man’s land and so many people who have come to me after seeing the film and said, I never saw things from that perspective. Ever other Gallipoli film we see people go over the top and if they catch a bullet the drop dead there and then. We grief and mourn the loss of life but we never think of life ebbing away over 5, 6 or 10 hours as you painfully bleed out, to actually feel that happening. For me it’s about showing audiences another step in that reality, so that when you are recognising the sacrifice you are actually recognising not something that’s about iconography, but about humanity. People often say to me surely there are right reasons to go to war. My perspective is surely there’s a better way of asking that question.

Does actually being a father yourself affect your perspective on the story?

As anyone who is a mother or a father knows, as soon as you have children every single thing that happens in your life is seen through the prism of being a parent. I’m the father of two boys, that didn’t necessarily influence my desire to make this film, but I certainly knew it was something that my children would see and in a way I want them to know certain fundamentals about how their dad feels about things like this.

I had a very strange conversation with my little boy. He let me in on a little bit of a plan he had that I was unaware of.  We were talking about career choices and my little boy said to me “After I finish school or university Dad, I’m going to go do a couple of battles and then I’m going to come back and get on with my career.” I asked him why would you go and do a couple of battles? he said “Money!”. I asked him again what you are talking about. He said “Well you know I’ll go to do a few battles to get some money and then I’ll come home to use that to do all the other creative things I want to do.”  I told him it doesn’t really work that way man, you know soldiers don’t actually get paid all that much, you get the odd tax benefit and medical but it’s not a high paid job. He was like “Really? I would have thought you’d get like at least a million a battle?” There is a fundamental logic to what he’s saying; I mean it probably should be like that with people who are putting their lives on the line to fight for their country. So I explained to him it doesn’t work like that and a little while later he saw the movie and then he asked me if I could set up a situation where he could watch it again with his best mat from school. So I did. After he’d seen it I asked him if he’d liked it and he said “Yeah, but we’re not going to go join the army any more”. I mean that’s just relating to my kids and I put a little more truth in his mind so that he knows it’s not like a comic book situation, it’s a real life or death situation. Getting that sort of thing straight in his head! You know if all that the whole three year process of making this film comes down to is making him aware of this situation then it’s still of great benefit to me.

When you were playing the part did you put yourself in the situation of imagining having to search for you own sons?

Yeah I always considered this the journey of a madman. He’s brought his kids with love and the best way he knows how. But this situation comes along and no matter what was churning in hi stomach he still didn’t say anything or try to stop it. He let what was happening socially dominate, even to the point where one of his children wasn’t even legally of age to do it and he’s allowed his son to go. Because in a funny way it’s safer if the three of them go on the ‘adventure’ together. So many times I would be in the middle of the battle field and be thinking not just form Joshua’s point of view, but from every single soldiers point of view. The Lone Pine battlefield is in total the size of two championship tennis courts and 9000 people died fighting there in four days. One thing I read was that the bodies were 9 high coming out of the trench. So you had to climb over 9 corpses before you were shot yourself. It’s horrific.

I went on a boat to Gallipoli and then headed due west into Anzac cove so I had that experience of coming into that coastline in the darkness as the sun comes up. To see the shapes come out of the rising sun. There’s a brilliantly blue sky and there is the orb on the sun right there. A whole bunch of stuff suddenly becomes really apparent. I’ve still got a photograph of it and when you are heading into Anzac cove you are going into this battle situation, staring into the sun. So any movement in the water any metal glinting is just going to be seen from miles away. Even in the first rays of dawn there’s nowhere to hide. When you read the books you find out they were actually a blink away from achieving their objective on the first day, but they didn’t make it on the first day and that lead to this untold slaughter that went on. It was very interesting for me to have that experience and then to walk among the battlefields and to realise that the terrain is so opposite to what would make this a better experience for an invasion. That’s a hard word to say though because Australians don’t talk about Gallipoli in terms of being an invasion. I started talking about that and using that word and at first some people got very upset about it. I guess it’s the same in every country at every newspaper, you know the person you can go to if you want to get a kneejerk reaction form people when it comes to the military. But then people started to see the film and that kind of criticism started to evaporate because people realised it’s made with a great deal of love and care. The things that it talks about are the things we should talk about.

Do you there there’s any sentiment of resentment towards the British over the conflict?

We’re way beyond that now. That’s one of the things within Peter’s film. Some people say that it’s in this film as well but there are three British characters in the film. The first is a jovial Scotsman who thinks it’s funny when he sees a bloke getting his bag nicked. I mean it’s a less dangerous situation than he’s used to being in so that to him is a little funny. Then you have Captain Brinley who is a man caught inside of the bureaucracy of what he has to do, but if you look in his office he has banks and banks off filing cabinets, he has 10,000 Australian and New Zealand bodies to deal with, not even including the British, French and Nepalese. It’s everyone else that fought there, like the New Finlanders who fought there as a sovereign nation. So Brinley is going to have a particular attitude towards it and it’s an understandable one when he’s the person administrating that loss of life. The third British character is a young lieutenant in Brinley’s office and as he says at one point, his brother died on that bloody peninsula, his fiancé works at the red cross and might be able to help Joshua. So there’s a balance there. There’s no finger waving or blame point. As Australians and New Zealanders we’re beyond saying that our attitude should be anti-British. A lot of things changed after the First World War and after this battle. Never again did Australian troops go into battle being commanded by officers from another country. But I think we’re actually beyond seeing this as a British negative.

When it comes to the officers there was a tradition at the time militarily o doing that thing of sending wave after wave of soldiers at a time and hopefully overwhelming the enemy. It wasn’t a particularly anti-Australian or Anti-New Zealand thing that the British officers were doing. People have come to understand that. People also now understand that we landed at the wrong spot. So you had a situation where one of the tenders that are going into the coast ends up thinking one point on the land is another and the landers end up landing right beneath a vertical cliff. They should have been landing a little further up the coast where the slope was a lot more gentle and there was actually less people defending that area.

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