Russell Crowe stars in The Water Diviner, his first feature film as director. The film deals with World War I battle Gallipoli and its aftermath, affecting Crowe’s family in Australia. “The battle of Gallipoli is a cultural touchstone in Australia,” says Crowe. Indeed, in terms of the country’s movie history, the acclaimed 1981 Gallipoli, an early hit for Mel Gibson, remains and much-loved favourite.
Did you buy a rugby team?
Yeah. Nine years ago. Yep. I bought my childhood team. You know that I’ve supported since I was five years old.
And they’re in the national?
Well they were perennial losers when I took them over and in a nine-year process we took them from being losers to being competitive to being dominant and last year on the fifth of October they raised the NRL Championship Trophy for the first time in 43 years.
Wow. How did you feel?
Pretty damn proud.
What do you attribute their success to?
What do I attribute it to? Essential change of culture, every step from the, the level of corporate due diligence in my life in the last nine years has been very intense, but it’s funny when they won because I’ve imagined many times, what will I do? You know? Will I scream? Will I yell? Will I drop to my knees and offer a prayer of thanks? You know? And I didn’t really do anything. You know when it came that point in the game and we couldn’t be caught and the day was going to be ours I just had this deep sense of satisfaction come over me, because sport in Australia is so important. It’s such a great motivator for everything else, you know? The club is married to its geography and the geography of South Sidney takes in, you know, some of the most dense areas of government housing, the highest aboriginal, urbanized aboriginal population in Australia, but also some of the most expensive real estate, so it’s a very complicated mix of people. So to reconnect the club to the community and get all of those people facing in the same direction, it was a big job but ultimately, you know, extremely satisfying because it doesn’t, the success of South Sidney doesn’t create more football players as such. It creates doctors and lawyers and more kids who simply fulfil their dreams because they have a nine-year example front of them, a shining example that you can pull yourself up from your bootstraps and become the thing that you want to be.
From the bottom to the top.
From the bottom to the top.
As a director, is that any way similar to putting the right team together for a film?
Directing a movie after you’ve done that is way simpler.
And why did you want to take this step with your life and your career?
Well, I think it’s simply the right time, you know. I’ve said for many years that it’s a natural transition for a certain type of actor to step into the director’s shoes and I’ve always been a very narrative based performer. I’m focused on the story or where we are in the story, where my character is in the story. I’ve also been very technically aware what lens we’re using, how are the cameras going to do with this movement and what the director is actually hoping to achieve. Because I’m not the guy that believes in the old cliché, for very good reason, the camera either loves you or doesn’t.
The camera is inanimate and it needs to be fed. So if you’re that type of actor in the first place, then the step and the transition to director is not actually as large as some people might think.
Did anything about directing surprise you? Are you the director you thought you’d be?
I created an energy on the set which was all about contribution and the recognition of that contribution. I created an energy around me where everybody knew that they were allowed to be at their very best, so no. You work with filmmakers and they may have made x amount of films but they’re always doing it. That’s their energy. Their set is one particular way. I work with different people all the time so I experience different energies and different ways of solving things and over time you cherry pick and you go this is something that I will learn from and it’s a positive thing. And there are also times where you go this is something I’m learning to never do. So certainly I know as a fundamental that everything about a film crew and film set. I’m about setting a platform for performance. It’s a visual medium. That’s what we’re there to do, you know and some sets you’re on it’s the last thought process is what the actor may require or you know the actor could be more comfortable in order to achieve something they’re looking to achieve, so I just based my film set and the focus of the film set on getting performances.
Who inspired you the most from the people who you’ve worked with that you can actually see their fingerprint on your work? Channelled through you, of course. Who do you attribute that to?
I have no problem in saying that if somebody’s got a good idea I will have stolen that from them completely! But influence when you’re working in a creative environment is a standard thing whether it’s on writing or it’s painting or sculpture or whatever it is. Now even if you’re creating a computer program for the traffic lights of Paris you know you might hit a bump in what you’re trying to do and go to the Louvre, see a statue and find your next step. You can’t assume what the influence is going to be or where it’s going to come from, but you know certainly the pursuit of beauty which really is what making a feature film is all about even if that beauty is in something stark and horrible you know. You know beauty influence beauty.
Your performance in front of the camera you gave as the father was just as touching as the one behind it.
Really, it was a beautiful movie all throughout. What did you bring to it as being a dad and you could just see it on your face all the time that the lives of these boys were just so tormenting and …
Well you know once you become a parent every single thing in your life is seen through the prism of parenthood. It’s a simple given.
So, obviously, if I read a story about a man who has three kids and they go away to war and don’t come back, as a father of two that’s going to hit me at a very central level. But there’s so many things about this script that hit me at that place, you know. The battle of Gallipoli is a cultural touchstone in Australia that’s quite often seen as the moment in time when those young nations were forged. That’s the first time that they’re fighting under their own flag and it was a societal movement to get young men to volunteer to go away, you know. Part and part of that was like the adventure of it, you know. You come from a small outback town in Australia, go and see the world young man, you know and it wasn’t until reports started coming back from the front not only the amount of deaths but the nature in which people were dying that people started to think that perhaps they shouldn’t have been so encouraging, you know.
And also in the idea here of the special power that this character has, Connor? The Water Diviner, as the movie’s called.
I don’t see it. I don’t see it as a special power.
I think intuition is available to all of us and we use it very naturally on a daily basis whether it be in social encounters or business encounters you know. We see sportsmen on a very regular basis do things purely from intuitive places you know and it’s conversation that is often easier had with women because they believe in it a little bit more, you know and you know have a certain reliance on their feminine intuition, but I think it’s available to everybody, you know. You have the parental intuition where you just know at a certain point in the day something’s happened at school and then your kid gets home from school and you say how was your day was it good? And they go well blah, blah did such and such and you go all right that’s what that was about, you know. Or you talk to young women who aren’t yet parents and talk to them about a particular ex-boyfriend who became an ex-boyfriend because of an intuitive moment that, that person wasn’t in the right place, you know. So we all have it available to us, you know so kind of pushing it out as something sort of magical is just not really, it’s not true you know.
A lot of what Joshua does is pure, practical, you know he reads the topography. He can see where water has fallen previously. He can track where the water has run. He goes to the most logical place where that water might have pooled and then looks for signs in the ground that it could have in fact seeped under the surface because as it says in the film he lives in an area where it doesn’t rain for three or four years at a time. That next step is actually the special bit, you know. The person that diving rods will interact with is not everybody, you know it’s a very small percentage of the population if it’s real, you know, and he takes that same focus into the battlefield.
He has his son’s diary which brings him to a certain point. He has a hand drawn map which gives him other information. You know the entire Lone Pine Battlefield is the size of two championship tennis courts. Nine thousand people died in four days in an area the size of two championship tennis courts and he knows the battalion of his children so he knows in which end of the battlefield they’re in so it gets, the place where he’s looking get smaller and smaller and then there’s that point of pure parental intuition where he has been considering this for four years. He’s been reading that diary and thinking through the experience of his children so it’s kind of, to me, that level of intensity and focus when you’re actually dealing with somebody who is used to finding the impossible anyway for a living you know. That step is not an extreme step at all.
I don’t want to give anything way but I thought the, the great moment of this movie is the battle sequence with the three boys and what happens there. Can you just talk about the emotional point of shooting that scene where your actors pretty much can’t move and can you guys just talk about the direction he gave you to sort of play those? Sort of taking away all of your acting skill but it’s an incredibly powerful scene. Can you just talk about that scene without giving it away?
Maybe I’ll set it up a little bit then you can kick off from where I set it up. So we had a boot camp about three months before we started shooting where I took these fellows and a bunch of other fellows, the process of the audition was very arduous and it came down to a final twelve and I was going to choose my cast out of those twelve so then I took them into an audition that was nine hours long and it tested them on many different levels, intellectually, emotionally but also just looking for who is still contributing. Because when you’re filming the days are long and the guy that gives up after five hours you don’t want that guy.
You need the guy who is still going to be present in the twelfth hour and still thinking and coming up with an idea, so once we’d gone through that process and these guys had won the roles we went to my farm which is northern New South Wales in Australia and put them through this quite extensive and tortuous experience, where they’re getting up early in morning and they’re dealing with their body. They might do yoga. They might go on a long walk. They might do a weight session. Then they’ll go and ride horses for a number of hours to get that skill set under their belt. Then they might do some lessons with their weaponry to get that skill under their belt. Then you take them on a 50 kilometre bike ride. Or you might put some arrows in their hands and say if you don’t hit the Bullseye you don’t get dinner tonight. You put them in a pressurized situation and then at night-time you have lectures about the geopolitics about the history of the Ottoman Empire. You fill their hearts and minds with the things that you want them to know about and all you’re asking for then is that they take the knowledge that you crammed into them in ten days, and if they’re just consistent then they’ll bring themselves to the point where their first shooting day and they will have a mile of depth behind their eyes because they know the character that they’re playing. They know the situation that they’re in. They know the history of the times. They know they have the weapons skill on board, the horse riding skill on board. They have everything and they’re comfortable with everything and it shows right here. That’s that reason behind it, so you can see, you know, I’ve taken a group of urbanizes surfie dudes and taken them back a hundred years. You know? Anyway, so you can talk about the experience and don’t forget to talk lovingly about me because I still know where you live.
Tell me about your Peter O’Toole experience
This is all just coming from him. But see that’s the you know… Peter O’Toole was at the Academy Awards a few years ago. He was talking about acting and he said it’s the quiet contemplation that gives you the power, the amount of time that you give over to thinking about what you’re going to do that brings detail and brings depth, and this is what I try to encourage these boys with. I showed them how I would prepare, prepare for a feature film and hopefully over time I’ve set a standard within them that they will come back to and use over and over again.
Will you direct again? Are you working on something else?
Okay? Just, here’s the thing, as an actor I used to think that I had the greatest job in the world.
And then I did this. You know? And at this stage in my life this is, it really suits me to be doing this to you know but this is a gamble. This is the risk in play. It’s a three-year process to direct a movie to this point now where it’s finally coming out and what’s on the line is essentially if I get a commercial result I buy my freedom. For 25 years I’ve been a gun for hire actor making lead roles and feature films and if Ridley Scott’s going to, wants to shoot in Morocco, we go to Morocco. If Darren Aronofsky wants to shoot in Iceland well, we’re going to Iceland. You know? I’ve got two boys. I’ve got an eight year old and an eleven year old and I need to be home more, you know. So if I can wrest creative control, you know, then I benefit in two ways. One is suits me now at this stage to actually run the show to, you know, make those creative decisions and also it means that my pre-production, post-production, the majority of any given year is going to be spent where my kids are so that’s the gamble but I need a commercial result.
You just turned 51, congratulations. You just had a birthday this week and I wonder if it was at this point in your life where you said this is the kind of challenge, kind of life midlife bucket list kind of thing that I wonder…
No. It’s just, just, it’s nothing really like that. It’s a simple progression you know, to have learnt x amount over time to get to the point where the accumulated on-set experience and knowledge of what it takes to make a feature film is simply vast. You know? I started working in front of the camera when I was six years old. I’ve been doing lead roles and feature films for 25 years, for 25 years so now I’m in that situation where I was just at a point where it wasn’t any longer simply an intellectual concept to direct. It was something that I had to do. You know? I was ready for it.
Directing yourself? Was that kind of weird as an actor?
It’s the occasional schizoid day where you find yourself talking to yourself on the monitor. You know and you go, oh you idiot I said go left. We’ll do it again. You know. So it’s sort of a, but generally in a way because I’m creating the composition of the shot to then step into the shot it’s easier to be more efficient because I’ve cut out the middle man.
The Water Diviner is available to download on digital HD on July 27 and on Blu-ray™, and DVD August 10 2015, courtesy of Entertainment One