Russell Crowe, The Diviner Interview
Academy Award winner Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut and stars in “The Water Diviner,” an epic and inspiring tale of an Australian farmer who travels to Turkey four years after the bloody Battle of Gallipoli in search of his three beloved sons who never returned home from the war. Arriving in Istanbul, he is thrust into a vastly different world, where he encounters others who have suffered their own terrible losses in the conflict. The film features an impressive cast that also includes Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole, Steve Bastoni, Michael Dorman, Dylan Georgiades, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Sommers, and Isabel Lucas.
At the beginning of our roundtable interview with Crowe, Erdogan and Sommers, Crowe gave each of us an official team cap for the South Sydney Rabbitohs to celebrate the fact that for the first time in their 43-year history they are now the most successful professional team in the history of the Australian Rugby League in terms of total championships won. Afterwards, the director and cast talked about what attracted them to the project, the appeal of the story and their characters, how the intense and immersive boot camp experience helped them bond and prepare for their roles, Crowe’s transition process from actor to director, and the personal connection his character shares with his dad in real life.
Check it all out in the interview below:
RUSSELL CROWE: I don’t know if you know, but 9 years ago I spent some of my ill-gotten gains on buying a majority shareholding in my childhood Rugby League team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs. They had become perennial losers when I was a kid. They are a championship team now, but the previous four seasons before I took over, they came absolutely last. One of those years, they came second to last, but it was only because one of the other teams had their points taken off them for cheating the salary cap. So, I took the team over, changed the culture from the ground up, and took them from being perennial losers to being competitive, from competitive to being dominant, and then last year, on the 5th of October, we raised the NRL trophy for the first time in 43 years since I was 7 years old. Then, earlier this year in Europe, we went and played the European Super League Champion which was St. Helens, and we are now also the World Club Challenge Holder. We have every single trophy in the game of Rugby League that we could possibly compete for right now.
Q: It sounds like a movie.
CROWE: No, that’s actually real life. That’s the best thing about it. It’s real life. It’s not a movie. It actually happened.
Q: Is that better than an Oscar to you?
CROWE: It’s a very deeply satisfying thing, man, because sport in Australia is so community connected. We don’t have the thing with franchises like they do in America where they can move from city to city. Your geography is where you live, and South Sydney, the district, which goes from the CBD to the airport, to the coast and the beaches below Bronte in Sydney, has some of the most dense areas of government housing. It has the highest population of urbanized aboriginals, but it also has some of the most expensive real estate in the country. It’s a very complex grouping of people. So, to reconnect the club to the community and get all of those diverse people all facing in the same direction was a complicated and trying thing to push towards. But bit by bit, gradually, everybody started to believe. And the benefit of this, which again is slightly difficult to explain to Americans, because yes, of course, my investment has exponentially increased with the success of the team, so on the one hand, it is business and there’s an economy involved, but the reality is that because it’s so community based, it’s my community penance. To bring this team back to the level of winning a championship in my district that I grew up in, it creates more doctors and lawyers, not more sportsman necessarily. It creates more kids who will go out and fulfill their dreams because they have a 9-year shining example of just how tough it can be. But if you keep focused and concentrated, you will achieve your goal. That’s the great benefit of this. Sport for me is about inspiring kids. Here’s the rules, here’s the play area, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. This is all about teaching kids how to approach life. If we’re not playing sport to benefit kids, I’m not really sure why we play sport.
Q: It’s like sports versus war. That was the whole idea behind the Olympics that they would work out their differences on the field through competition.
CROWE: There was a journalist in Washington, D.C. that said, “Any war should start with one mother from one side and one mother from the other side. Let them have a conversation and see if they both can’t just stop it before it even begins.” Send out your best mom.
Q: Was directing something that was always on your radar and how did your background as an actor prepare you to direct?
CROWE: I’ve been working in front of a camera since I was 6 years old. I’ve done 25 years now of lead roles in feature films, so that’s a massive, accumulated, direct, on set experience level. And over time, the idea of directing as an intellectual concept has been there for a long period. Pushing towards that, I’ve shot maybe 30 video clips of bands under various names and 3 full-length documentaries. So, I’ve been educating myself in the process and also preparing in terms of developing things. But this came out of the blue. This chose me rather than I chose it. I was in the middle of the most busy professional year I’ve ever had, hired between halfway through 2011 and the end of 2012. I did 5 feature films: “Man of Steel,” “Broken City,” “Les Miserables,” then “Noah” and “Winter’s Tale.” Normally, when you express interest in more than one thing, they’ll cannibalize themselves or cannibalize each other and you get to do one thing. But somehow five groups of producers managed to work it out so I was essentially working continuously. In the middle of all that, there’s personal stuff happening. There’s my kids, there’s a separation, there’s all of this stuff going on, and this script arrives. I read it, and I have such a visceral connection to it, a cultural connection, because the Battle of Gallipoli is a massive touchstone for Australians and New Zealanders and remains so today. It’s a story of a man with three sons who go to war and don’t come back. I’m a father of two boys. Of course, that’s going to hit me at an essential level. There was an opportunity in this script to actually do what very few war films or films that touch on war do, and that was to show a balance, that there’s going to be bravery and compassion and grief on both sides of any conflict. It just hit me on such a deep level and for so many reasons that I found this voice coming out of me that I’ve never actually heard before and probably the thing that I’ve been waiting for where I was saying that I have to take responsibility for this story. In a way, when you go and meet directors, the wishy washy one, the one that isn’t really sure about what they may or may not do or whatever, that’s not the person you want to work with. You want to go and talk to Ridley Scott who goes, “I’m going to do this and this and this, and it’s going to be like that. It’s going to be fabulous. I’m the only person in the whole world who can tell this story.” And you go, “Yeah man, I want to work with you.” This voice was coming out of me that hadn’t been there before. So, I knew that all that accumulated experience and intellectual concepts aside, I was ready.
Q: What did you learn about yourself as an actor from wearing a feature film director’s hat? Did it change your acting approach for the next project?
CROWE: It’s a simpler transition than somebody from outside of the business might imagine. If you’re a certain type of actor, then eventually stepping into a director’s shoes is a natural transition. I’ve always been the actor who’s very focused on the narrative, where my character is in the story, and how I can benefit the story. I’ve always had a technical aspect of what the lens is, how the camera is going to move, how I can feed the information the director applies within that move. If you’re that type of actor, narrative-based, technically proficient, the next step is actually not that far. And funnily enough, if I’m creating the composition, it’s easier for me as an actor because I’ve just cut out the middle man. Because I’ve created the composition and now I’m in it, I already know exactly what I want to get out of it. So, bang!
Q: For Chris and Yilmaz, can you talk about the appeal of your roles and what you each brought to this project?
CHRIS SOMMERS: For me, it was a huge sense of responsibility. You learn about these things in school, but your learning only goes so far because it’s just in terms of what you’ve been taught. I think what the script really illuminated for me was the sense of trying to understand the perspective. It was also what Russell was taking us through in terms of the process, because the whole thing was very immersive from the beginning, from the audition process to the research and the reading. It’s a privilege to do that as an actor – to prepare, to research, to train your body, to train your mind, to create a family. That’s something that was incredibly powerful as an actor to have this kind of an experience where essentially it’s a story about family, but also the shooting experience was family-like. From my perspective, it was a great honor to be able to go, okay, we’re telling a story that is a part of my DNA in terms of my history, in terms of my lineage and my family, but also to tell a great Australian story on a bigger scale. It’s something that we’ve never seen before. That was incredibly exciting but also moving. It was an experience that started something that I will continue on for a long time.
YILMAZ ERDOGAN: The first time for me it was very interesting for two reasons. One is working with the legendary Russell Crowe and pretending this is normal. The second part is Canakkkale, what we call the Battle of Gallipoli, and the war. As he said, it’s a major thing for us also. I grew up with that heroic story and everything. But the most important and beautiful part was how the script shows our point of view maybe for the first time, especially my character. I read the script, and Russell asked me, “Which role are you interested in?” and I said, “Major Hasan.” I was afraid the first time that maybe he would give another actor that role. So, I fought for it and I won. That was a very big responsibility to carry that character because he’s a symbol of our side. That’s not a regular project. It’s more emotional than that. It’s still amazing and I’m still pretending this is not a movie.
Q: Russell, can you talk about the personal connection your character shares with your dad who was a water diviner in real life?
CROWE: Well, he’d never call himself that. In fact, when I started talking to people about it, he rang me and he said, “Listen, man. You’ve got to stop telling people I’m a water diviner. I’ve never found a body of water in my life.” And I said, “Dad, in 1978, we were in Auckland. We came out of the house on Quona Avenue. The Council guys were on the street looking for a broken water pipe. You went inside. You got an old metal coat hanger. You undid it. You shaped it into a Y. You walked up and down the streets, stuck it in the grass, and said, “The break is here.” We went off to sport, we came back three hours later, and that’s exactly where the Council was digging. And my dad said, “Well yeah, I can find a broken pipe.” So yeah, I knew it was the real thing because I’d seen him do it. One of the writers, Andrew Anastasios, his grandfather was quite a famous water diviner in Australia, and completely, ironically, ridiculously and coincidentally, one of the people he found water for was Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson had a property in Northern Victoria and Andrew Anastasios’ grandfather found him a water source so he could feed the stock on the back lots. That’s just crazy.
Q: Russell told us how he transitioned from acting to directing. Did it seem easier for you as actors because you were working with a director who had thought about it from your side, too?
ERDOGAN: For me, it’s a very regular thing because I’m doing the same thing in my country. I’m directing movies at the same time. We have a company and I’m a producer as well. It felt very normal to me. On my side, if I’m just acting, this is kind of a holiday to me, because if you are a director, people are asking you thousands of questions all the time. This is not easy. But, in this film, I was just an actor in my trailer and some lovely assistant would come to me and say, “The set is ready, sir.” “Really? And without any questions.” But I know how the picture is working anyway. Russell has grown up on the sets. He’s a strong leader as a person. Direction is about mostly being a leader. That’s it.
SOMMERS: Yes, definitely. One of the great things that Russell managed to do was because he was so comfortable with knowing what he wanted was to really guide the actors through, particularly as I said before by the immersive experience where we were training. He’s a great horse rider, so even down to the idea of how we were riding, he became a mentor to a lot of the younger actors, which was a really great thing because of the sense of experience that he carries. But also, it meant that he was handing over the responsibility to us after the boot camp experience, when we’d been training for quite a period of time and reading stuff, and when we came to the shooting of the film.
ERDOGAN: Our horse riding days were one of my first experiences with horses. We are not happy, me and horses.
SOMMERS: You cannot tell them what to do. But Russell would say to you, “You are the authority of your character now.” There was a giving over. And there were times when he would say, “You have all these extras. They’re all soldiers. You need to go and lead these men.” And you knew that that was your job, because you were training as a soldier in terms of this time period, and this was your part of the story.
ERDOGAN: You’re just a Sergeant.
SOMMERS: That’s right.
ERDOGAN: Imagine my position. I’m a Major.
Q: Did you both do the boot camp and what was that experience like for you?
ERDOGAN: Yes. One day my lovely friends told me, “Tomorrow we have a bike ride and you should be asleep. It’s not easy.” The day before, it was my first time. I said, “Oh I love biking.” They said, “Oh no, it’s not so easy.” It was five hours. At 8:00 o’clock, we started riding and we rode until 1:00 o’clock. It wasn’t easy. When we were in the boot camp, I started doing new things. One of them was cricket. We tried to play that lovely game, but to hit that ball is very dangerous actually. Once Russell went like this (demonstrates his swing) and the ball whizzed by my head and I said, “Russell, this is dangerous.” I saw it on TV and it looked kind of like a children’s game, but it’s serious. When you play, it’s joyful actually, but football is better than cricket.
SOMMERS: That was one thing that we all did as part of the training. We’d do gym, we’d do cycling, we’d do weights. Then, as a group, because we’d go off in separate sections at times, we would come together to play sport, and we did cricket, soccer, touch football, and things like that. It was just a great way of bringing us all together as a group but also creating a sense of joyfulness in the training as well. It’s a game and a competitive spirit is healthy, but also there’s a bit of a celebration aspect of the idea of all eating together. I felt like the boot camp experience was so valuable because we were invited into more than just the world of the film in terms of what we were training.
ERDOGAN: Also, it was about languages. Some actors have to speak Turkish but they’re not Turkish. And then, there was the opposite, like me. It was a wonderful process for an actor. The first time I asked them, “Is this your regular training or is this Russell’s training?,” they said, “It’s Russell’s boot camp.” He always showed up for boot camp.
Q: What do you think the purpose of that is? Is it more a mental test even though it’s very physical?
ERDOGAN: It’s both actually.
SOMMERS: We did a number of things from archery to digging trenches. Archery was all about precision and concentration, because we were going to have to fire a rifle on screen and learn how to inhabit the character.
ERDOGAN: I wasn’t good at horse riding, but I was good at archery.
SOMMERS: Yes, that’s right. He’s a good shot. That helps.
ERDOGAN: Another interesting thing on the set is there was an actor, Damon. His duty was replacing Russell’s position. We did rehearsal with him. After that, Russell came and we shot the scene. I’m using my assistant mostly because it’s expensive to arrange professional actors for that. But it was a new thing for me. It was good. It was a useful thing.
SOMMERS: He also did something I’ve never experienced before which was playing music on the set. I thought that was a really great way of bringing us together.
ERDOGAN: One day we did a critical scene. We are in the trench at Canakkale (Gallipoli) and I’m very emotional, but the music on the set was very cheerful. I said, “Man, please give me another song.” And they changed the music. But otherwise, it was good and the parties were good. He’s an actor and he knows what your psychology is as an actor. It’s very, very important to an actor and very good for us. It’s about empathy.
SOMMERS: Also, sometimes he’d just be able to say one thing to let you know what you needed.
Q: How was it shooting the scene on the Gallipoli hillside when it was raining? It looked very cold.
SOMMERS: That was a beautiful gift that day because that was the only day that it rained. I remember on the day that it happened Russell said, “This is a gift. We need to go. We need to shoot. We need to do this.”
ERDOGAN: Normally, it was 49 degrees. The first time I thought we were using Fahrenheit. Then I thought, “Maybe this is not Fahrenheit.” I started a calculation and discovered it was Celsius. It was very hot.
SOMMERS: It contributed to the atmosphere, too.
ERDOGAN: When you look at the outside from inside, it was a storm but it was 49 degrees. Thank you for that.
Q: This is a story about a man in search of his family who learns something about another culture along the way which I really enjoyed, but I do have a question about the historical accuracy and why there isn’t any mention of the genocide?
CROWE: If you’ve got this question, how do you possibly connect the two things? How do you connect a man who’s come from Australia and gone to the battlefield of Gallipoli to what you’re talking about? How do you connect it geographically? How do you connect it in any way? It doesn’t connect. This is a story about an Australian man who travels to Turkey at a certain time and has X experiences, none of which crosses over to what you’re talking about. In this particular area of the world, it’s very complicated at this stage. There could be another thousand feature films made about things that were happening roughly around this broader geography and in this broader time period, but it has nothing to do with what you’re talking about.
You have to be very careful to understand that a lot of people put a massive amount of effort into bringing this movie to life and telling the story as accurately as they could from the clothing to the uniforms to the weaponry to the horses all the way down to the saddles and the type of horseshoes and everything. So, for somebody for their own political reasons to denigrate that work is just not fair. As I said, there are many complications in the world at that time within that geography, nearby or on the other side of the world. But, this story of a man who leaves Australia and goes to Turkey and has these particular experiences doesn’t cross over into what you’re talking about.
“The Water Diviner” opened in theaters April 24th.