- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Growing up a New Zealander-Australian, Russell Crowe was intimately familiar with the Dardanelles Campaign, a veritable slaughterhouse battle over a tiny Turkish peninsula also known as Gallipoli.

The British-led World War I Allies launched the attack against the Ottoman Turks a century ago this week. By the time the dust settled in January 1916, the Allies had suffered 141,000 dead and wounded, according to the website New Zealand History; the victorious Ottomans, meanwhile, had suffered 250,000 casualties.

“Gallipoli is a cultural touchstone in New Zealand and Australia. It’s often seen as the point in time where those young nations were forged,” Mr. Crowe, 51, told The Washington Times.

Before World War I, he said, the two were still mere colonies of the British Empire, and thus this was the first war where the antipodal soldiers “are fighting under their [own] flags. Australians and New Zealanders have a deep connection with this battle because it’s the beginning of the countries; it’s the baptism of fire; it’s the fact that we got involved in selling a story to our kids and then watched them die.”

Mr. Crowe’s film, “The Water Diviner,” follows an Australian Outback farmer named Joshua Connor, portrayed by Mr. Crowe, who loses all three of his sons to the Gallipoli campaign. Despite his grief, he makes the long journey to the Mediterranean in an attempt to find his sons’ remains so that they might be buried at home on the family farm.

While patriotism — the notion of defending the “mother country” of England — was certainly on the minds of those who joined the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the war also provided young men “a chance to travel across the world. These are guys who [might] have seen stuff only in books,” Mr. Crowe said.

But the journey for most of the Anzacs became a travelogue of hell in “the war to end all wars.” It was also a new kind of “machine age” warfare, with young men massacred by the thousands thanks to such technological weapons as machine guns, artillery and chemical warfare. Mr. Crowe said it was also the first war where journalists related the enormous casualties from the front in something like real time.

Because of his connection to his homeland’s history, when the screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios for “The Water Diviner” passed his desk, Mr. Crowe knew that he wanted to make the film and personally shepherd it to completion. Accordingly, Mr. Crowe signed on not only to star but also to make his debut in the director’s chair.

“I felt like I was seeing the film,” Mr. Crowe said. “I found this voice coming out of me saying, ‘You must take responsibility for this film.’ I understand this story; nobody else can do this story the way I can do this story. I said [at the time] I’m very much interested, but I’m only interested if it’s my responsibility in total.”

The script came to the Academy Award-winning actor at just the right time, he said. In addition to a year in which he completed five films, he was also in the midst of a romantic separation. In some small way, “The Water Diviner” gave Mr. Crowe a chance to explore his country’s past and to focus on while making sense of the new chapter in his life.

Mr. Crowe had been producing work for others for years and directed some music videos for bands for his production company in Sydney, Fear of God, but taking the reins of a full-length film was a new animal entirely.

“You need a remarkable amount of energy and stamina to direct a feature film,” he said. “It’s not like a six-, 10- or 20-week engagement as an actor. [“The Water Diviner”] has been going on for three years and then after that there will be DVD [marketing] or whatever that I have to do as well, so it goes on for a long time.”

Mr. Crowe has spent years being directed by the likes of legendary directors Ron Howard, Ridley Scott and fellow Aussie Peter Weir, and at the same time has watched and learned the craft of filmmaking.

“Influence is kind of like a gateway to the beauty you’re pursuing, whatever creative outlet that happens to be,” Mr. Crowe said of taking notes from directors he has worked with before.

Not only must a director yell “action!” and “cut!” but make decisions about everything from wardrobe to music to locations.

“The cliche is can you deal with 10,000 questions, [but] it’s 10,000 questions a day,” Mr. Crowe said of being in the director’s chair.

“You’re in charge of everything. It’s the burden but [also] the beauty and the reason that you do it,” he said with a laugh. “You’re bringing people, you’re bringing hearts and minds [together on a film set], and that’s an incredibly privileged position. And I didn’t actually realize that before going in exactly what that meant I could do.”

To wit, Mr. Crowe hired costumer Tess Schofield, whom he recalled from a previous project “was a little more focused on how a suit fit a man,” and chose as his first assistant director Chris Webb, with whom he had worked on a film in 1989.

At the end of that particular shoot, “I said to [Mr. Webb], ‘When I start directing, I’m going to need a man like you,’” Mr. Crowe recalled. “And he has a very dry, laconic sense of humor, and he said, ‘I shall be awaiting the call,’ which came 25 years later.”

In addition to all of his daily duties as helmer — “all of your heads of department get so much work done with a glass of wine in their hand,” he said — Mr. Crowe said he frequently had to check himself as the star of the film, being mindful of his ego and of the small budget and tight schedule.

“You sort of have to call bull–- on your own stuff,” he said. “I don’t have the time to indulge in [excessive takes or prima donna behavior] because it’s an independent movie and we’ve got a limited budget. But I could still see, when I look at the monitor, I know if I’ve connected or not. And sometimes it’s kind of funny because I’ll be at the monitor going, ‘Oh, you idiot!’ but I can do another take.”

The film was shot on location in Australia and in Turkey. The Turkish filming presented a need for cultural sensitivity given the history of the Gallipoli campaign. Mr. Crowe initially reached out to Turkish civic leaders in Australia, working his way up the ladders to Istanbul, where he and the producers hoped to shoot on the streets and inside Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque, which had never been open to a film.

“Our philosophy the whole time was it doesn’t matter if this person is the person that gets to say ‘yes,’ but we have to make sure that this person is the person who will have no part of ‘no,’” Mr. Crowe said. He and producers promised that no prayers would be interrupted, and only ambient light would be used for the scene depicting Connor’s visit to the grand mosque.

With a curious cultural minister asking him why “The Water Diviner” should be permitted to film there, Mr. Crowe improvised on the spot: “Our footprint will be small, but the resonance of what we do will be great.”

As the film turns on the relationship that slowly builds between Connor and an Ottoman officer named Hassan, portrayed by Turkish actor Yilmaz Erdogan, Mr. Crowe said, it was important to him that Turks have a positive response to the film as well as his countrymen back home.

He recalled that when the film premiered in Turkey, 2,000 Turkish women had “thick eyeliner streaked down their faces” from weeping.

“Their shared grief after the war, and their attitude toward the future is a big part of the movie,” Mr. Crowe said.

While the film is mostly fictionalized, the germ of the script came from a letter sent by the real-life Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes, played in the film by Jai Courtney, relating to his superiors that “one old chap managed to get here from Australia today. He’s on the battlefields bagging and tagging bones looking for his sons’ grave. We looked after him, because we couldn’t put him a boat [away].”

“That was the quote that exploded in the writers’ mind,” Mr. Crowe said. “Who is this guy? They ended up reverse-engineering a narrative to match the line. It essentially looks like the journey of a madman. So you go from a man of that level of grief and loss to where we are at the end of the story. It’s quite a journey to go on.”

Fittingly, “The Water Diviner” will open in Washington and elsewhere in North America on Saturday, marked in Australia and New Zealand as ANZAC Day.

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