Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe is a first-time director

Russell Crowe is on both sides of the camera in The Water Diviner (above), where he plays a father looking for the bodies of his three sons who died in the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in World War I. -- PHOTO: SHAW
Russell Crowe is on both sides of the camera in The Water Diviner (above), where he plays a father looking for the bodies of his three sons who died in the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in World War I. -- PHOTO: SHAW

Actor sees directing as giving him creative control as well as autonomy over his time

The Russell Crowe meltdown is a welldocumented natural phenomenon.

Over the years, the combustible star of films such as Gladiator (2000) and A Beautiful Mind (2001) has gone nuclear with everyone from journalists to hotel staff, set off by anything from a less-than-stellar movie review to an inability to figure out a telephone system.

The latter, of course, led to the infamous incident in which he hurled a phone at a concierge's face, resulting in an assault charge and the payment of a reported six-figure sum in compensation.

That was a decade ago, but reporters still approach the actor with a degree of trepidation, which is fuelled by the even more colourful off-the- record stories about Crowe that circulate among the press.

Thankfully, the Antipodean performer seemed to have woken up on the right side of bed the day that Life! and other media met him in Los Angeles, where he was promoting his directorial debut, the World War I movie The Water Diviner, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

The 51-year-old stepped in front of the camera too on this film, playing a grieving father who travels from Australia to Turkey after his sons die there in the Battle of Gallipoli and uses his skills as a water diviner to locate their bodies.

At a press event in Beverly Hills, Crowe greets everyone warmly as he walks in and immediately gives each journalist a cap bearing the logo of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Australian Rugby League team he has co-owned for nine years.

He then launches into an extended, passionate treatise about the club, the sport and its role in Australian society - which no one dares interrupt even though every reporter is silently willing him to stop and talk about the film and his acting career instead.

A far bigger challenge than directing his first movie, he says, was taking his now-championship rugby team from being "perennial losers when I took them over… to being dominant".

"Directing a movie after you've done that is way simpler," he says with a grin.

As an actor, he has worked with many highly regarded directors, including Darren Aronofsky in last year's biblical epic Noah, Ron Howard in A Beautiful Mind, Michael Mann in The Insider (1999) and Ridley Scott in Gladiator, the film that earned Crowe a Best Actor Oscar in 2001.

And he has learnt what to do - and not to do - from each one of them.

"Over time, you cherry-pick and go, 'This is something I will learn from and it's a positive thing and this is something I am learning to never do.'"

Crowe, who has picked up three consecutive Best Actor Oscar nominations for The Insider, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, says it was "simply the right time" for him to become a director.

"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. I've always been a very narrative- based performer, focused on where my character is in the story. And I've also been very technically aware - what lens we're using, what the cameras are going to do.

"If you're that type of actor in the first place, then the step to director is not as large as some people might think."

He believes the sheer number of hours he has clocked on film sets more than qualifies him for the job.

"To have learnt X amount over time, you get to the point where the accumulated on-set experience and knowledge of what it takes to make a feature film are simply vast.

"I started working in front of the camera when I was six years old. I've been doing lead roles in feature films for 25 years, so 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. I was ready for it," says the New Zealand-born star, whose breakout role in Hollywood was in the 1995 Western The Quick And The Dead.

In addition to the creative freedom, directing gives him more practical autonomy, which in turn allows him to spend more time with Charles, 11, and Tennyson, eight, his sons with his former wife Danielle Spencer, an Australian singer and actress.

"I used to think I had the greatest job in the world and then I did this. And at this stage in my life, it suits me to be doing this.

"For 25 years, I've been a gun-for-hire actor. If Ridley Scott's going to shoot in Morocco, we go to Morocco. If Darren Aronofsky wants to shoot in Iceland, we go to Iceland.

"But I've got an eight- year-old and an 11-year-old and I need to be home more, you know? So if I can wrest away creative control, then I benefit in two ways: One, it suits me now at this age to actually run the show and make those creative decisions. And also, it means that for my pre-production and postproduction, the majority of any given year is going to be spent where my kids are."

The only "gamble", he says, is that the film, which has been well-received in Australia and Turkey but underperforming in America, needs to do well commercially.

"If I get a commercial result, I buy my freedom."

The decision to make this particular movie was as much an emotional decision as it was a commercial one, though.

Its release this year coincides with the centenary of Gallipoli, where more than 130,000 people were thought to have died in one of World War I's bloodiest battles.

As part of the Allied forces struggling with the Ottoman army for control of the Dardanelles Strait, more than 8,700 Australians and 2,800 New Zealanders died in the Battle of Gallipoli, which has become "a cultural touchstone in Australia and New Zealand", Crowe explains.

"It's often seen as a moment in time when those young nations were forged. It was the first time they were fighting under their own flag and there was a societal movement to get young men to volunteer to go away.

"It wasn't till reports started coming back from the front, not only about the number of deaths, but also the nature in which soldiers were dying, that people started to think perhaps they shouldn't have been so encouraging."

One of those who regretted letting those young men go to war was Crowe's character, an Australian farmer who loses his three young sons to the conflict.

The story was inspired by a line in a letter written by the army officer in charge of recovering Australian soldiers' bodies in Gallipoli, who wrote that "one old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son's grave".

As a father himself, Crowe could instantly imagine this man's unspeakable grief.

"Once you become a parent, every single thing in your life is seen through the prism of parenthood - that's a given. So 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 essential level."

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Water Diviner opens in Singapore tomorrow.