Melbourne based Andrew Anastasios discussed with FT the intriguing voyage of discovery,
coincidences and surprises that culminated in the film of The Water Diviner and how it
combines aspects of the writers own lives and experiences.
He also explains why the original screenplay has been transformed into a best selling book.
A man who can dowse for water, an action-packed pilgrimage through war-ravaged
Turkey at the beginning of its violent struggle for independence, a search for lost sons,
a portrayal of grieving, hope, romance, The Water Diviner is already being feted as a
poignant and unique tribute to the 2015 centennial of the Gallipoli Campaign.
But where did the scenario come from and how did writers, Andrew Knight and
Andrew Anastasios, visualise a narrative that appealed so much to Russell Crowe,
he not only chose it as his directorial debut, he also cast himself in the leading role?
The writers are clearly passionate about their country of birth, they also have a
long and enduring love for Turkey and both these, without question, influenced their story.
FT: One of the first and most obvious questions is where the original source of inspiration came from.
“The film is historical fiction but inspired by true events.
As with all writers, we inevitably beg borrow and steal from everywhere.
Andrew Knight took ideas from his wife’s family history and the tales
they tell, I have drawn on my own family’s experiences and stories.
So, I think that the narrative feels real because the sources are real,
from real people and real accounts.
Originally, I wanted to find a different way to commemorate the
centennial of the Gallipoli Campaign.
Looking for inspiration, like others before me, I turned to
Gallipoli Mission, by WWI journalist, war correspondent and
historian, Charles Bean.”
“Searching through the chapters I found a brief footnote tucked
away at the bottom of a page, citing a letter to the author by
Australian Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes, who was a member
of the Imperial War Graves unit.
All it said was, ‘One old chap managed to get here from Australia,
looking for his son’s grave. We did what we could for him and
sent him on his way.’
That was the flash point and the beginning of a good year and a half of
research, trying to work out who this Australian father might be,
where he came from, who his son was.
Five years later, we still have no information but Hughes’ story intrigues
me and nothing would make me happier than for someone who sees this
film to contact me and say, ‘that was my great great grandfather’.
Or even, ‘there’s a story in our family about this man’.
The idea of finding the relatives of the person who gave us the creative
momentum for the story is really exciting.”
FT: With so little information how did you create the Joshua Connor character?
“As we were unable to find out anything about the ‘old guy’ in Hughes’
letter, we had to come up with another way to develop our protagonist,
Joshua Connor, played by Russell, into a rounded character.
We imagined he might have been a farmer but we wanted a richer
dimension for him.
I have strong memories of my own grandfather, Keith Liston,
who was a farmer and water diviner in rural New South Wales.
So, after many wonderful conversations with my grandmother about
his strange, almost mystical powers, the character of Joshua Connor
was conceived and water divining became embedded in the story.”
FT: The film is set in 1919, after WWI was over. Why not a war movie?
“A passage from Gallipoli Mission had been the creative stimulus for
Peter Weir’s sensitive 1981 masterpiece, Gallipoli, and we were looking
for another perspective on the war.
For me, the novel Birds Without Wings, by British author
Louis de Bernières in particular, was incredibly influential
and a huge source of inspiration.”
“Incidentally, the same book also inspired Russell and he gave copies
of the book to the actors as essential reading.
The book introduced me to this period of history from a Turkish
standpoint, encouraging me to examine the conflict with a more
sympathetic perspective in terms of the Turkish protagonists and
what happened to them after the war.
This film was always to be about what happened after the war:
to the families, those that returned from the war, the wounded.
An important part of the plot is the common theme of pain,
loss of mourning and hope.
Connor comes to Istanbul and meets Ayshe.
The two of them had a mirrored experience during the war;
a common experience.
We wanted to explore how they coped with the pain and the
cultural differences… a father losing his sons, a wife her husband
and a son his father.
We wanted this film to be about hope. We had in mind a metaphor
of hope that will be familiar to Turks as well as Australians.
When you visit a place that has been burnt out by a bush (or forest)
fire, everything is charcoal; a layer black powder over everything;
trees are stripped of all their leaves and pitch black.
And you come back a month later, and there are these tiny little
green buds just starting to appear on the trees.
The film, for us, is about those little green buds of hope.”
FT: What was it like to watch Russell bring your story to life?
“Andrew K and I had always imagined Russell playing the role of the father:
we even had a poster of him on the wall of our office!
Imagine how we felt when he chose not only to make the film,
but also to play Joshua.
The Australian locations were fantastic but authentic Turkish locations
were essential for some of the scenes.
I already knew Kayaköy and Tlos and thought the ruined buildings
would be great location.
Fortunately the production team felt the same way and were
particularly happy because, unlike bustling cities and towns, the
setting could be controlled.
In the end several scenes were shot around Fethiye, even though
they actually represent different parts of Turkey.”
FT: How do you see the film bringing together Australia and Turkey during the coming year… the centennial of the campaign?
“This is the first Australian film that is sympathetic to both sides.
We had read stories of prisoners from the Gallipoli Campaign,
following their journeys to see what the conditions were like
and where they ended up.
We also did a lot of research about the combatants on both sides
and also the attitudes and insights each had for the other and how
they shifted over the course of the campaign.
We researched how they saw each other after the war and felt that
there were many universalities and common experiences for
rank and file soldiers.
After the war the human responses were common to everyone.
Also, Atatürk himself very much inspired our writing and we hope
the film reflects his spirit.
Incidentally, I have many close friends in Turkey and some appear
in different guises in the film.
One in particular is Hasan Selamet, whose name I used for the
Major Hasan character, as a tribute to him.
Cem Yılmaz and Yılmaz Erdoğan were really impressive and Yılmaz
has already been nominated for an award in Australia as a supporting actor.
So many people who have watched the film already say,
‘Who are those Turkish guys? They are just incredible.’
I don’t feel that this film has to mend broken bridges because
there aren’t any.
The relationship between the two countries is fantastic.
Turks are very welcoming to Australians visiting war graves.
In part the film explores how that can be.
It’s wonderful that two groups of people that were facing each other
across trenches, shooting at each other a hundred years ago,
can have such respect and warmth for each other.”
FT: What’s your personal involvement with Turkey?
“I’ve loved Turkey since I first visited the country 20 years ago to work
on an archaeological excavation in Erzurum.
I met Meaghan, now my wife, on the journey over.
We married in 1997 at the English Tower in Bodrum and
we’ve returned most years since.
We encourage Aussies to go there and if I ever had an opportunity to
work on a project there… I’d jump at the chance!
I was always confident that the film would be popular in Australia
but was apprehensive about how Turks would feel about the film,
especially having their history written by an outsider with a Greek name.
But Cem and Yılmaz said that Turkey was going to love the portrayal of
the Turkish side, particularly the Turkish officers, and the sensitivity to
Turkish and Ottoman history.
It was wonderful to see people enjoying it at the Istanbul premierand give
Russell, Cem and Yılmaz a standing ovation.”
The book of the screenplay
The book of The Water Diviner, written by Andrew and his wife,
Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, is now on sale in bookshops and on line.
“The motivation for writing the book was to use the really rich back-story for
the characters that a two-hour film doesn’t have the capacity to cover.
We’d done so much research and Meghan had worked as a researcher on
the film, so she and had an enormous background already and knew the
characters inside out, as we’d been discussing them for years.
Having Australian actor John Thompson recording the audio book is
The Water Diviner is on general release in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey from 26th December, and the UK and USA from 24th April 2015.
Please ask at your local cinema for details or search on line.
In Turkish the film is called ‘Son Umut’ (Last Hope).
The book is available on Amazon, Kindle and all good bookshops.
Headline photo Andrew Anastasios in Kayaköy