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In his first role as director, Russell Crowe says ‘where people are fully engaged, you can get some spectacular things done on a small budget.’

Dave J Hogan

Every April 25, wherever he is, Russell Crowe goes to a dawn Anzac Day service, to commemorate the soldiers from New Zealand (where Crowe was born in 1964) and Australia (where he grew up) who stormed the beach at Gallipoli that day in 1915. The importance of that battle in forging his country's identity was impressed upon Crowe as a kid in the 1970s: His dad was a hotel and pub manager, and his Anzac Day celebrations were full of veterans from both World Wars, "in their finery, with their medals on, telling their stories," Crowe said in a recent phone interview. "There was one guy, Jack Armstrong, who lost a leg at Gallipoli. If he was walking down the stairs and young ladies were walking toward him, he'd undo his wooden leg and let it slide down the stairway." The memory makes Crowe guffaw.

So when he read the script for his new film, The Water Diviner – about an Australian well-digger (Crowe) who travels to Gallipoli in 1919 to recover the bodies of his three sons who died fighting there – it was as if he didn't choose the project, it chose him. To star in it wasn't enough; he made it his feature directorial debut. Last December, when it was released in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, it earned eight AACTA nominations (Australia's Oscars) and won three, including best film. It opens in select North American cities today, on the eve of the battle's 100th anniversary.

Crowe begins our conversation wary, with terse answers and audible skepticism. He's certainly had his highs and lows: three best actor Oscar nominations in a row, in 1999, 2000 and 2001, for The Insider, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (he won for Gladiator). Two sons, aged 11 and 8. His face on two Australian stamps. A parallel career as a singer/songwriter, most recently with Newfoundland's Alan Doyle. But he's also faced threats from al-Qaeda to kidnap him and disgraced himself in four public scuffles, the last of which (he threw a phone at a New York hotel employee in 2005) resulted in an arrest, a perp walk and a reportedly six-figure settlement.

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But the more we talk about his film rather than his bio, the warmer Crowe gets, telling stories, doing voices. My guess is, he'd be a gas to drink beers with, as long as he felt safe.

Much of the reason Crowe wanted to direct The Water Diviner was that he could see, he says, "all the cultural things that are in this story, beyond what was on the page."

He knew the kind of "laconic, old-school Australian" his character is; he filled his frames with details that mattered to him, even if no one noticed. One of the soldiers, for example, wears the uniform of the Newfoundland regiment. "Nobody ever mentions that Newfoundland was at Gallipoli as a sovereign nation," Crowe says. "But I wanted it to be on record."

Crowe also knew he had the stones required to shoot an epic his first time out. "Not to say I didn't feel a massive amount of nervous energy coming into this, questioning myself on a daily basis and a nightly basis," he says. "But what I've learned over the last 25 years of doing lead roles in features, and the last 43 years of being in front of a camera, is that filmmaking is relentless. You have to meet that with your own relentless energy."

If Crowe occasionally has been accused of being too relentless, that doesn't bother him. "For me, there's no time that's too late to write a song, or to get the right shot," he says. "That's what you're here for. There are a lot of people who do my job who don't really care that much about it. But I'm a really passionate filmmaker. I open myself up to having the piss taken out of me pretty easily. But I do it for the people who want to go to the cinema and be taken away. So I can't listen to that criticism. I've just got to blast forward and do it the way I do it."

Two pals gave him "really cool" pieces of advice: Ben Stiller urged him not to stint on shooting his own scenes, which he was grateful to have in mind on long, hard days. "I've always been focused on what the camera is doing, and what I need to do to feed it what it requires," Crowe says. "I don't have that belief that the camera either loves somebody or they don't. So it was a natural transition."

And the director Eli Roth told Crowe that it wasn't his 25 years of lead roles that mattered, it was the fact that he is a father. "Being a dad is the same kind of energy that a director needs," Crowe says. "Everyone around you may have 10,000 questions, but I've got 10,000 answers. No question is too silly, or too many. If you create that energy of enjoyment, where people are fully engaged, you can get some spectacular things done on a small budget."

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Even if the weather doesn't co-operate. While shooting in Quorn, in South Australia, the temperature hit 49.5 C five days in a row. "Every day we'd wake up, and the cheerful man on the news would say, 'And today, Quorn is the hottest place on the planet!'" Crowe recalls, laughing. "We were shooting 12-hour days with a couple hundred extras and a steam train, in the middle of a plain, unprotected by trees. But you have to dominate the weather; just plow through and get it done."

He pauses, then adds, laughing, "You might be able to tell, I really enjoyed doing this. I used to think I had the greatest job in the world, but then I found out there was one better."

Crowe's last thought brings us back to Anzac Day. "The countries that made up the Ottoman Empire are still engaged in armed conflict today," he says. "I wonder what the young men who died on that beach in 1915 would say if you could bring them back to life, only to explain that their sacrifice hasn't added up to what they'd hoped. We keep getting engaged in wars, and living to regret it. Maybe we should stop that now."

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