Academy Award winner Russell Crowe makes his feature directorial debut with the war drama The Water Diviner, which tells the deeply personal tale of one man’s life-changing journey to discover what happened to his sons at the bloody Battle of Gallipoli. Once he is in Istanbul, Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) finds an unlikely ally in Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), a Turkish officer who may be his only hope in finding out what happened to his children.
At the film’s press day, actor/director Russell Crowe spoke at a roundtable interview about why this story spoke so deeply to him, the biggest challenges in making this film, that he never got anything less than what he needed from his lead actor (being himself), how he approached the battle scenes, having a balance of lightness and darkness, what he learned about the Ottoman Empire, the process of getting permission to shoot on location in Turkey, realizing how suited he is to being a director, and how he only wants to tell stories, as an actor and as a director, that touch his heart.
Collider: What was it about this story that you felt compelled to tell, as a director?
RUSSELL CROWE: In one of those strange quirks of fate, I didn’t really choose this piece. It crept up and chose me. I was in the middle of an extremely busy year. It was the busiest of my professional life. In a 16-month period, I did five feature films, one after the other. Normally, if you show an interest in multiple projects at the same time, they cannibalize each other and you get to do one. But for some strange reason, five groups of producers managed to communicate with each other, exactly the weeks that they required, so I ended up working continuously for 16 months. In the middle of that, and personal complications, like my kids and separation and a whole bunch of stuff, arrived this script. I just had a very deep and resonant connection to it, the first time that I read it. There’s a cultural connection, in that the Battle of Gallipoli and Australia and New Zealand’s involvement in the first world war is a definitive cultural touchstone where I come from. It’s the first time the Australians and New Zealanders fought under their own flag. Prior to that, they were seen as extensions of the British Empire. And this is a story about a man with three sons, who go off to war and don’t come back. I’m a father with two boys, so that hits me on a very essential level. There was also an opportunity that I saw in the script to actually redefine the perspective that we have on this conflict and to re-balance it and to show very clearly that, in any armed conflict, you’re going to have bravery and compassion and grief on both sides.
What were the biggest challenges in making this?
CROWE: I’ve worked in this business for a long time. I started doing stuff in front of a camera in 1970, when I was six years old. I’ve done 25 years of lead roles in feature films now. I know the nature of film. I speak the language. I am of the gypsy tribe. So, a lot of the things that other people from outside the business would see as crazy or strange are just a natural part of the working process. Preparation is key, and detail and collaboration are the rule, but no matter how many hours you spend preparing, there’s always something. We were shooting a steam train sequence in a place called Quorn, on the first day of a six-day process of shooting the steam train sequence. I had a couple hundred extras, a couple hundred crew, a steam train, explosions, guns going off, squibs blowing up and people falling off of the train. And then, that morning at 5 am, they told me, “Oh, by the way, the temperature today will rise to 49.5 degrees Celsius, which is 121.6, and that will be the average temperature through the course of this week.” We’re in the bush in the Outback. Once you get to 39 or 40 degrees, there’s a complete and total fire ban. I was doing a steam train sequence, and steam trains require fire to move. That was the first problem of my working week. I had to solve that, just so I could get on with my day.
Was it hard to direct yourself?
CROWE: Not really ‘cause I can rely on me, unlike some actors. I never got anything less than what I needed from the lead actor.
How did you approach the battle scenes?
CROWE: Through my readings from various memoirs about Gallipoli, there was a cliche that it was very polite trench warfare. There were a lot of people dying, but it was still polite. But when you start reading those memoirs and diaries, you realize that it got pretty essential, pretty quickly. It was hand-to-hand and it was vicious, and I wanted to show that, in this film. There have been many films made about this subject matter in Australia and New Zealand, in the past, but none of them have taken it to that level of truth. One of the most important parts for me was about what happens in No Man’s Land after the gunfire dies down. You never see that in film. You never hear that in film. If you’re gonna approach a subject matter like this, it bears some responsibility to the audience, currently, to not reduce the experience, and to the men and women who serve, to not reduce the danger that they face, but also for the generations to come. You’re not putting war on footage that is wrapped up in Jingoism and patriotism, and that seems clean and simple, where it’s about bravery and courage. War, essentially, is about grief.
A lot of the scenes are very graphic and painful, but you also have a sweet love story. Did you intentionally want to have that balance?
CROWE: It’s funny ‘cause people lean into that relationship between Joshua and Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) as a romance or a love story, but they never even tough hands. They don’t kiss, they talk. Here they are, both from different sides of a conflict, but they recognize, in each other, that they share a grief. It’s actually Ayshe’s son that leads her to a place of understanding of this man. But all they do is talk, and when they start to talk, they talk easily. It’s funny that people put such an emphasis on romance and love. I wanted them to be connected. I wanted that part of the movie to show you a potential for the future. We don’t know what it’s going to be, by the time this particular story ends, but there is a potential for the future. It’s one of the great things we need in life. We can go through tragedy and we’re humans, so we get over it and we persevere. I wanted people to leave this story, which has some incredible sadness and sad moments, but also some lightness, as well, particularly through the little boy’s character, with a lightness in their heart, thinking that even after all this darkness, things are going to be okay.
Through this process, what did you learn about the Ottoman Empire?
CROWE: It’s an interesting thing that bears examination and possibly a lot of discussion that a hundred years later, we’re still engaged in armed conflict in the same geography. The countries that we know as Iran, Iraq and Syria were all part of the Ottoman Empire. I do occasionally wonder, if you were to bring to life one of those young men who sacrificed themselves in what was advertised to them as the Great War, and the war to end all war, and show them that we’re still engaged in armed conflict in the same area, I’m not sure that they would be pleased about what their sacrifices amounted to.
How was the experience of filming in Turkey? Were they suspicious of you, when you first approached them about what this film would be?
CROWE: Every time people have made a film about Turks, in the past, there have always been problems. People will still talk about Midnight Express, on a daily basis. They hated the way that they were portrayed in Midnight Express. A lot of people were like, “Well, what are you going to do? If you’re making a Gallipoli story from an Australian perspective, how could it possibly benefit us to help you?” So, we gave them the script. I spoke to Australian-Turkish cultural leaders, to find out what lay in front of me, as far as the places we wanted to shoot in. My process with that was, with every conversation, I wanted to make a friend for the idea. That person may not have the power to say yes or no, but he could certainly affect what that end decision may be. We were asking for official permission to shoot in the Blue Mosque. The slight challenge there was that it had never been granted, in history. We had different meetings and we made a lot of friends of the idea because we let them read the script and we talked about it openly. They knew, from reading the script, that there was a different perspective and that it wasn’t painting the Turks with one dark stroke, as the bad guys. It was more balanced. And the minister of culture said to me, “I believe in you. I believe in the script. But what words can you give me to say to the imam, who benefits zero from allowing you to do this? What should I say to him that would bring what you want to do closer to you?” It just came out and I said, “What you need to tell him is that our footprint will be minuscule, but the resonance of what we do will be huge.” We designed it so that what we were asking for did not impact the day of the mosque. We didn’t have any vehicles within the grounds of the mosque. We used available light. We walked in with everything we needed. We carried in track and little LED bars for light pops, and we shot within two hours. We were in and out and gone without a single piece of tape left on the ground to ever say that we’d been there. Everything we said we’d do, we did.
Did completing this film inspire you to want to jump right in and direct again, and did this experience change how you want to approach directing, the next time?
CROWE: It’s fundamentally changed my attitude because I used to think I had the greatest job in the world, and then I did this and I realized how much more this suits me. I love the composition of shots, colors, textures, camera movement, the music, the choice to be silent at some points, and all the myriad of things that you’re responsible for. It’s such an intimate experience, being a director, artistically. It’s deep and it’s satisfying and it’s wonderful, on so many levels, but it’s also really scary. I’m responsible for all of it, and I’ve got nowhere to hide. Now that people are finally seeing it, it’s an interesting experience. It’s far more important to me, in a strange way, because it comes from me. It’s born of me. I’m not just a part of a story in somebody else’s vision. It’s different.
For your next film, do you want to do something entirely different?
CROWE: I don’t know. I stood in front of what this was, with all of its complications of language, of shooting in two different countries, of battle scenes and storm scenes and steam train scenes, and all of that stuff, and knew that I’d have to approach all of that with an independent Australian film budget, and I went, “It’s impossible.” And then, the next thought process was, “When do we start?” People were like, “This is crazy! Why would you do something this big, on this scale, as your first thing?” It never really occurred to me not to. It was a really important story, and I wanted to tell that story. When you have an independent film, as with any film, you have a defined schedule and a defined set of assets. I chose to spend some of those assets on the preparation of my cast, which came back to bite me on the bum later when I was doing riot scenes on the streets of Istanbul. I turned up one day for this particular riot, where there were 2,500 people in this particular square, and I had 21 Turkish extras and nine soldiers because that’s all we could afford on that day. So, you just have to be very selective in your shots to get that riot feeling.
What allows you to be so versatile and so adaptable?
CROWE: I just don’t think I have any need to define myself, in the way other people have tried to define me. That’s not me. I do my job from a simple, honest perspective. I wait until something touches my heart. I can read 20, 30 or 50 scripts. There was actually one period where I read 50 before I found one that I wanted to do, and I can never predict what it’s going to be. Sometimes something sounds interesting, but if I read it and I don’t get goosebumps and I don’t start making notes, on behalf of the character, than I simply don’t do it. I don’t care what the pedigree is and I don’t care what the check is. If I’m waiting for that response, that’s probably why my choices feel so diverse. Obviously, someplace I’ve never been is going to be more attractive to me than something that feels repetitive. It’s the same with the process of choosing a script [to direct]. I’ve had the intellectual concept of wanting to be a director for a long time, but it took something that just grabbed me in such a visceral place to actually make me take it on.
The Water Diviner opens in theaters on April 24th.