Andrew Anastasios and Dr Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, authors, with Kylie Carman-Brown, National Museum of Australia, 11 June 2015
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: Hello everyone. Thank you very much for coming along today to the National Museum of Australia and thank you for giving up the warmest part of your day to spend some time with us this afternoon. My name is Kylie Carman-Brown. I’m a curator here at the Museum. I work in the Australian Society and History curatorial team. It is my very great pleasure to welcome you here this afternoon to our discussion with our special guests Andrew and Meaghan and to enjoy the film that is coming along afterwards.
This is the second in our public events to do with The Home Front exhibition which opened at Easter-time this year. Our first was behind the scenes talk by curators that worked on that exhibition, Jo Bach and Jono Lineen, who are both enjoying some very well-earned leave at the moment.
Today we are delighted to welcome Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, both of whom were involved in the creation of The Water Diviner. Andrew and Meaghan are co-authors of the book The Water Diviner on which the film starring Russell Crowe was based. Andrew is a script researcher, writer for film and television, and co-wrote the film script for The Water Diviner with Andrew Knight. Meaghan teaches, researches and writes for film and television. They are both graduates of the University of Melbourne with degrees in archaeology and they met while travelling to Turkey to work on an archaeological dig. Since then, they have made many return trips to Turkey, and this long-term love affair with that country has obviously helped shaped the development of this project.
The Water Diviner was the highest grossing Australian film for 2014. It’s the latest of a lineage of films about Gallipoli as a defining moment in Australia’s history. While the individual soldiers who participated in the Gallipoli campaign did have cameras, there was actually no footage or images of the landing. When the news first came out the Australian public were desperate to have some visual representation of what happened. So actually the first films about Gallipoli were reconstructions that were filmed in Australia that could then be shown on newsreels.
The Home Front exhibition gives a taste of life in Australia before the action of The Water Diviner opens in 1919 and it plays to our strengths as a social history museum. Obviously we are not a military history museum so we couldn’t tell the kind of story that our colleagues over the lake are so ably able to do. In an alternative conceptualisation, The Home Front moves away from details of battles and campaigns and focuses instead through the lense of emotions about what was happening at home. As such, that’s a really perfect way for me to link the character of the film Joshua [Connor] to the content of The Home Front exhibition. For those of you who haven’t seen the film I should warn you there might be a couple of spoilers but I have done my absolute best to make sure I have kept them to a minimum.
When you walk into The Home Front exhibition, the first panel that you see is called pride. It reflects on how so many Australians were deeply proud of their young men for signing up and how anxious the nation was that they would do them proud by fighting well, by showing them courage and through contributing to the overall war effort.
Joshua would certainly have followed with great earnestness the reports of the war correspondents that are displayed in the module, such as Phillip Schuler, hoping to get a sense of what was happening to his boys and no doubt also to the many other young men that he would have known from his community that would have signed up. Joshua speaks words of concern in his last scene with his sons and his face is very pensive, not necessarily for the pride. It’s really his sons that display that kind of high-spirited emotion that I think the pride module in our exhibition tries to convey.
Joshua comes across as a largely apolitical figure, so it’s a little hard to guess whether he would have had a point of view about some of the political and the sectarian struggles that the exhibition addresses in the passion module. Certainly we don’t have a great sense of where his politics might have lain in the strikes that the exhibition discusses. In the short scene where he negotiates for his wife to be buried in consecrated ground, it’s clear that his faith had lapsed, no doubt as a result of the very terrible losses that he’d suffered. Given the way that the priest treats him, belittling his loss and berating him for his lack of faith, he could well have had quite good reason for having lost his faith as well.
The next module is the wonder module, and similarly again I think Joshua’s character is a little hard to read. The module attempts to show that, even in the midst of war, Australians were still interested in things that were new and innovative. In the exhibition those things are mainly to do with science and technology. Given that Joshua is a water diviner, I’m not entirely sure how much affinity he would have had for flying machines, and the interior scenes of the family farm don’t reveal a radio, although it’s quite possible he could’ve had one. So he would have had to rely on traditional print media to find out what was happening for his news of the outside world. But similarly we don’t really see Joshua reading except for his son’s diary and the book Arabian Nights, which plays an important motif in the film. The one element of the film where Joshua stops in genuine wonderment is when he walks into the blue mosque.
While the rest of the Australian public might have been seeking out moments of joy to take their minds away from their anxieties about their families who were overseas fighting, Joshua lived in what looks like a very isolated part of northern Victoria so he’s not going to have had that opportunity to find some respite, nor perhaps would the delicate mental condition of his wife have permitted that anyway. So inevitably it’s toward the module on sorrow that I think has the greatest resonance with Joshua’s character. As its backdrop, it has what I think is one of the most powerful images of the cemetery at Queensland Point in 1915 to frame the stories that are presented in the front. The four that I think are the most relevant are Les Darcy, Daryl Lindsay, Muriel McPhee and Vincent Burns.
The Les Darcy story speaks to conscription and the referendums on the question of conscription are also one of the moments in the Defining moments in Australian history project. The film is enigmatic about Joshua’s position would have been on conscription but towards the end of the film he does say that he feels that he failed his sons by letting them enlist, which may perhaps indicate that once he had supported the war but had changed his position following the events of what had happened to him.
In discovering one of his son’s bodies, Joshua comes fairly close to the territory of Daryl Lindsay. He was an artist who recorded the impact of experimental plastic surgeries on soldiers when he was in Kent. Personally I found those pieces of art to be perhaps the most confronting part of The Home Front exhibition. When I think about the film and think about if his son had only been perhaps a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right he might have survived but he might have been one of Daryl Lindsay’s subjects instead.
Like Joshua’s boys, Vincent Burns did not return home from the war and his family received a package of his belongings in lieu of his body. In particular what was part of that package was a photograph which shows his grave, and it also told his family the nearest train station, indicating the likelihood that families would want to go and see where their sons were buried. Joshua, too, receives a package, a blood-stained diary which he uses to help guide his search. We can also imagine that those three very exuberant boys would have sent postcards and possibly gifts home to their mother. There is a very brief second of footage where, as Joshua looks through the diary in the beginning, there is one of the silk embroidered postcards tucked into its leaves, very similar to the ones which are currently on display.
So finally we come to Muriel McPhee. I feel that it’s her that has the most emotional symmetry with Joshua’s character. The collection that the Museum has of Muriel’s is one that speaks about hopes destroyed. Muriel’s hand-crafted wedding trousseau speaks of her expectation of the man who never came home to marry her, and her loss fundamentally changed the course of her life. Unlike Joshua’s wife Lizzy, Muriel survived her grief experience. The unknown man who inspired the story of the water diviner who travelled all the way to Gallipoli in 1919 to find his son’s grave also understood the power of grief. For me, my personal interpretation of this film is that it’s fundamentally about the unstoppable force of grief and sorrow in a person’s life.
I would like to turn to our guests now and start with you, Andrew, as the script writer. I would like to ask you about whether any personal experiences of sorrow or grief helped to shape your story about Joshua.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Yes. My brother passed away about eight years ago. I guess I was very aware of the sorts of emotional steps that Joshua would potentially go through. It didn’t inform me all the way through, because my brother died in different circumstances. It was I guess trying to capture how that sorrow translates into everything that goes on around you and then also trying to make some sense of the event that I think taps into what Joshua is feeling in the film. That would probably be the only real kind of direct link to my own personal grief.
But really the story starts with a line that we found when we were researching on another project. I was doing some research on a doco and found this line about a father. It was a line in a letter from Cyril Hughes, who was working on the War Graves Commission in Gallipoli after the war. There had been this enormous upsurge of public sentiment after the war. Prior to the First World War single graves were not usually marked, certainly not for the rank and file soldiers, so quite often soldiers were just dumped into mass graves along with the horses, the donkeys, the dogs and whatever else was in the camp and then just covered over and then marked with a general memorial or something like that.
After the First World War, the extent of the carnage and also the sense of sorrow, grief and everything at home prompted people to start demanding that the soldiers were properly memorialised. So the Australian government sent Cyril Hughes over there to make some sort of sense of the bodies that had been left on the peninsula. When the Anzac soldiers retreated from Gallipoli, there were some graves that were marked and others that were not. Then there were plenty of bodies that were just left out in the middle of no-man’s land or in places that were inaccessible. So when Hughes came back, it was a field of eroded graves, missing crosses and disarticulated skeletons lying everywhere. He was given the task of trying to create some sort of order out of that.
Hughes wrote to Charles Bean and said, ‘An old man turned up today from Australia and we didn’t really know how to help him but we did what we could,’ or words to that effect. That character or that man sort of jumped out on the page. It was just a footnote in a book that was really about the aftermath of the Gallipoli campaign. That character or that person - we didn’t know his name, who he was or anything like that - kind of jumped off the page.
I had been looking for a way into a Gallipoli story but felt that, as an Australian public, we are very aware of the more traditional telling of the story. When you think that Peter Weir did such a fantastic job of telling the story from the point of view of a group of young soldiers going and telling the story of what happened in the trenches and on the battlefield, it is very hard to say, ‘I am going to do something the same,’ and trump that. We felt that we needed a new way into the Gallipoli narrative. I think also there was a sense there is a kind of growing sophistivication -
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: It’s a family joke - sophistivication. Unfortunately we say it too often. It’s like playing the devil’s avocado so you can’t say devil’s advocate. And sophistimicated is another family joke.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Too much Simpsons. A kind of more nuanced understanding of that campaign and also perhaps a growing desire to know what happened on the other side. To draw back to [The Home Front] exhibition that we have seen this morning - I wish I had seen it before we wrote the script - we were very mindful of what was happening on the Turkish home front as well as the Australian home front. We felt there was an opportunity to talk about a myriad experience in Turkey to here.
When I mentioned this guy to Andrew Knight, the script writer that I co-wrote this with, he said, ‘Fantastic. This guy is insane. What on earth would you be doing travelling halfway across the world to a country that you know is hostile, that is falling apart as you speak, to go and find the body of a son amongst thousands and thousands of skeletons lying there? We really have to find out more about this guy and tell his story.’ I should say at this point that the film is not a bio pick; it’s not a documentary; it’s based on some true characters.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: But it is made-up, it’s pretend.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: But it is pretend, yes.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: Although you did mention when we were talking earlier in the café that, as a result of your making this film, there have been research efforts from other historians to try to track down who he was and that there may actually be a few leads now?
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Yes, there have been a couple of people. With the joys of social media and modern new technology - is it three people who have been in touch with you through your blog, Andrew?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Yes.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: There are three people who have contacted Andrew nominating their relative as possibly the person who was the original Joshua Connor. In two instances, the timing didn’t quite work out and in one of those the gentleman actually went to France rather than to Çanakkale. But there is a third candidate that I think a Monash University researcher has located, and this is just a recent thing we have been informed about. He actually looks like he might have been the original crazy man who went half way around the world to a country where he didn’t speak the language, wouldn’t have known the food, wouldn’t have known anything about Turkey. But he’s jumped on a ship and gone to try to track down his son’s bones, which is an extraordinary adventure. It is almost impossible to appreciate how difficult that would have been 100 years ago, given the ease with which we travel internationally now - get on Expedia and check which hotel to stay in, read reviews and book online. With the hindrances and difficulties for travel back then, it was an extraordinary feat.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: And also going to a country where you know your sons have been killed. I guess the potential for all of the biases, desire for revenge or desire for some sort of retribution would all well up in a man, I am sure, thrown into those circumstances. You do see - again without spoiling it - there are times where Connor feels very passive and there are times where he just cannot contain himself.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: He is quite explosive.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: And the targets for that are quite often misplaced but understandable, we hope.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: Given the lack of knowledge and understanding what he would have had about what was going on there because, as you say -
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: He was a man of his time.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: he was in a sense blind going into somewhere completely new.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I should also say that the script was written before the book so the book. It’s a bit of a backwards way of doing it. Usually it’s the other way around.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: So what the differences then between the script and the book?
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: I was actually just thinking about what you were talking about with the conflict. Joshua’s trajectory in the book is a much more gradual one. He starts out a lot more antagonistic towards Turkey and Turkish culture, and his progression into acceptance is a much slower journey; whereas in the film by virtue of the fact that you have get it all on screen in two hours, certain scenes are lost and become truncated. What motivated me to push - I had to do a lot of hassling - for us to adapt the script into a book was because we wanted to keep the quality of the original script alive and the detail in the original script alive in a novelised form, because we knew that the nature of filmmaking is such that you lose a lot along the way. We were so much in love with the story and the characters that we really wanted to keep them alive as they existed in our head and keep the story alive.
I was thinking, when you were discussing Daryl Lindsay’s pictures of the reconstructive surgery that the soldiers had, there are two scenes in particular - and again I am very mindful of not doing spoiler alerts but this isn’t a spoiler alert because they are two scenes that actually didn’t make the film. There was one scene in the graveyard with a severely wounded Australian soldier. There is discussion between Joshua and another character about ‘If my sons had come back, they may have ended up - at least they died heroes, they didn’t come back and have to live like this.’ Then there’s another scene in a bathhouse in Istanbul, which again is quite a quick scene in the film, but in the book and in the original script there’s a Turkish father bathing his wounded son. So it’s about drawing parallels between the Australian and the Turkish experience and about grief, loss and pain - it’s the flotsam jetsam after war where you have people dealing with -
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: You have to try to make a life again.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Yes, build a life.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Exactly. There is a lot more of that in the book just by virtue of the fact that it’s a book and you can fit a lot more in; whereas in films you have distributors and exhibitors dictating how long films can be. If you want to make a commercial film rather than an art film which can run for five hours - Andy Warhol, how long were his films? 17 hours or something. But if you are making a commercial film, you have to consider those things.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: You talked initially about the seed of the story, that one line, and then the process to develop it into a script. What happens then? So you’re a script writer, you have a script, how does it happen?
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: The producer pixies come down and make it happen. It’s magic.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Someone sends you a big envelope of money.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: No, a wheel barrow - back up the truck.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I have to say ours was probably a fairly easy run. Part of that was that Andrew Knight is such a well-known and well-loved script writer and part of that was that people really engaged with the story very quickly. It’s a story that you can tell in a sentence and people immediately have an emotional response to it.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: It’s-called the elevator pitch.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: It certainly seemed to work on Russell Crowe.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: It’s when you get in an elevator with someone and you can say in one sentence what something is and you to catch them before they get out of the elevator.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Andrew and I, after we had that initial discussion, we had been mates for about 20 years and he said, ‘I don’t think want to work with you because I value our friendship and we’ll end up fighting.’ I said, ‘No, no, this is a great idea. We should do this. I think there’s a story in this.’ He said, ‘Yes, I agree. Okay, come to my office and pitch it to me like a TV pitch or a film pitch.’ So I went in and had all my research that we’d been working on and digging through. I had photocopies, pictures and all the rest of it plastered all over his wall. I talked at him for an hour and at the end of it he said, ‘All right, two weeks. We’ll work together for two weeks and, at the end of that two weeks, if what we look at is complete garbage or we can’t stand the sight of each other, we will just put it aside and we’ll never talk about ever again.’
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Pretend it never happened.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: But we had a fantastic time, and the story really came alive very quickly. We got a treatment and sort of half a first draft together very quickly.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: In two weeks?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: No. We had a good idea of what we were doing in two weeks but, no, it did come together fairly quickly. I think probably within three months we were halfway through a script and had a treatment ready to go to Film Victoria. We went to Film Victoria and they immediately said, ‘Yes, we would love to help you develop this,’ and gave us money for a first draft - and then a second draft.
But after first draft we showed it to Hopscotch. I think Andrew went to a meeting and sat down with them. They were trying to pitch some other film to him and get him to work on something else, and he said, ‘I have this thing that I brought with me.’ Their response was immediate too. They really loved the basis of the story and what we had already done initially. So they took an option on the film and then started trying to sell it.
We had always had Russell in mind as a lead, because the story is big - like the budget for it is big. Again without giving up too much, you’ve probably seen some of the promos and stuff for it. We blow up trains, we go to Istanbul. It’s not a small budget film, so it would require an A-list Australian lead. We always joked that, if Russell couldn’t do it, we would rewrite Connor’s part as a woman and we’d ask Kate Blanchett.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Or Hugh Jackman would have been okay.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Or Hugh Jackman. But fortunately they managed to get it in front of Russell through a variety of very funny circumstances, because he’d been working on a whole other heap of projects and hadn’t been able to get to it. They were talking to the guys that had just produced Les Mis in London. They read a version of the script and said, ‘Why don’t you give this to Russell?’ It was like: ‘We would love him to read it.’
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Yes, please.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: ‘I’ll give it to him at the weekend.’ It was one of those very funny stories where it seemed like it would take forever and it took a weekend. He contacted the producers at Hopscotch and said, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it.’ We were all over the moon and he said, ‘But only if I can direct it,’ so that’s how that unfolded.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: In the process of doing that work, because often when you are in this kind of forum it sometimes comes across as it just unfolded naturally and beautifully and it all flowed but surely it doesn’t always feel like that for you guys.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: That particular project did actually go extremely well. It’s usually a very stop start process. You do a pitch document. You get a bit of money to develop it a bit further. The network or the producers lose interest. Then six months later they get interested again, but you have to rewrite it because instead of a 45-year-old man it has to be a 33-year-old Italian woman because the Italians might invest. Okay, we’ll rewrite it for a 33-year-old Italian woman.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: And now Hollywood wants to do it so it’s a 35-year-old woman.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: But no a man now. Often you have to shift to respond - you follow the money, unfortunately, in a lot of instances. But in that case it moved beautifully.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: It always had - it was good and bad - a clock on it because it is a Gallipoli story and the best time for a Gallipoli story is right now. We were aware of that when we started working on it as well. We started working on it five and a half years ago with the view to trying to get a film up for the centenary. Films quite often will take ten years to get there, but because this had that end point -
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: The drop dead date, so to speak.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: The use-by date.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: And Russell had a window where he’d finished Noah and was promoting it, and then he had a window where he was keen to spend some time in Australia with his kids. Then he was going to have to start doing the merrygoround again. It had to fit into a certain time-frame allotted to it, and so in that sense it was a more accelerated process than it would otherwise have been.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: Than perhaps what it might have been.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Yes.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: It’s time now to start fielding questions from the audience instead of from me.
QUESTION: I just wondered how the experience of - obviously you have a lot more experience than this - writing this and researching this, where that left you with some kind of idea about there being a just war?
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: That’s a good question.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Just war - it’s in the eye of the beholder to an extent, isn’t it? The idea behind this that was driving it was to break down some of our traditional notions of war and combatants. We’re so used to seeing the perspective from one trench. Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, as marvellous a film as it is, it’s all from one trench and you see these cyphers as the bad guys - it’s always the bad guys in the other trench - you never get to know their personalities or what’s actually motivating them.
In terms of the Gallipoli campaign, that was to all intents and purposes an invasion of sovereign soil. Regardless of the reasons for that - whether they were good or bad reasons that the campaign was initiated - at its base level that’s what was motivating that campaign. We have spent so much time in Turkey and we have such a very deep affection for the country and we have lots of friends there - Andrew Knight is married to a Turkish woman - the idea was very much to encompass the Turkish perspective as well so you don’t get that uni-dimensional view of conflict, which I think is what we’re used to when we look at films. That’s my view of it.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: One of the real joys in the research phase of this project was being able to read the diaries of some of the Turkish officers. My overwhelming feeling when I came away from reading those is that the experiences in the Turkish trenches, if you take away some of the day-to-day detail, was not dissimilar to the experiences in the Australian trenches. They felt that they were defending their homeland and that their position in this battle was justifiable, just, and that they had very good reasons to be there. I am absolutely adamant that the Australian combatants felt the same thing. They were there for all the right reasons. It’s just that if you look at it from the other trench, there’s no justice in it. I hope that’s communicated in the film.
Some of the criticism of the film has been that we’ve been maybe a little bit pro-Turkish. I can understand that point of view as well. But we felt there was a need to get inside the other trench and show there’s an ability on both sides as well as the capacity to do horrendous things on both sides.
QUESTION: My question is what was behind the title of the film? Who thought of it and the reason?
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: We had to fight for that early on. You did, didn’t you? They desperately wanted something that referred to Gallipoli, be it Lone Pine or something, and Andrew was adamant all along - and I was behind him going yeah - that it had to be ‘The Water Diviner’.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: The title comes out of a discussion that Andrew and I were having about Joshua Connor. Again, when we were talking about doing a Gallipoli story, we started out with a farmer in WA and then we thought no, maybe he’s northern Victoria because Gallipoli has WA. We were always mindful of what had been before.
Also we looked at him after the first draft and said, ‘He just feels like an Aussie Dad that we’ve seen before in film and is there a dimension or element to him that can make him more interesting or that can take him out of that kind of generic Aussie hero mould?? We were kicking ideas around and I mentioned my grandfather to Andrew, who was a pretty hardened country bloke from New South Wales but he was also a water diviner and spent 50 years looking for water in and around Albury and Wodonga and Holbrook and that area there - and ironically found water on Mel Gibson’s property up there at one stage - and used to tell the story all the time about how he and Mel went out and looked for the water and stuff.
But what always struck me about my grandfather was that he was an incredibly pragmatic country bloke. He didn’t feel like there was this spiritual side to what he was doing, it’s just something that he could do. He didn’t even think of it really as a gift. It was just something that he managed to do that other people couldn’t. So we started talking about that as an element. All of a sudden all of these ideas about a slightly more intuitive level to our character started coming alive for us. I won’t spoil it by telling you how those things play out either visually or in the story, but the idea of a water diviner came from personal family history and a desire to create a character that wasn’t necessarily the Aussie farmer that you might have seen before.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: It’s interesting, too, because there has been a bit of push-back, particularly from America, about a disbelief in water divining because there’s a sense that it’s - crystals, alternative therapies and water divining. Andrew’s grandfather was the hardest man I think I have ever met. He would dig the holes himself with a shovel. There was no bulldozer. He was not going out there going, ‘Oh yes, I sense there’s water here.’ If he did that, he had to dig. You have his old logbook of the depths he had to dig to get these wells. There was nothing spiritual and airy fairy about it.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: No, some of them were like 90-100ft deep.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: With a shovel - insane. It’s kind of funny that the reception from some people has been utter disbelief that, and I suppose because we knew that your father did it, it was kind of surprising that people would respond like that. Yes, it’s been interesting.
QUESTION: I was just curious - you kind of skipped over how you felt when Russell Crowe said ‘Yes, I will act in it as long as I can direct it.’ It’s a fairly big job to take on and it was his debut, I think, as a director, was it not?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: It was, yes.
QUESTION: What was your reaction to that initially? Obviously you want him to act and that’s an awfully big deal, isn’t it?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I was incredibly excited. I think having had him in mind all the time as Joshua, it was really exciting that he would want to play that role but also that he felt so passionate about telling that story that he wanted to direct it. I think the worst thing that you could end up with is a director who took the job because it was one that was available and might be good for their career or whatever. For Russell there was an amazing amount of risk in taking on a project of that scale of that profile. He could’ve just gone off and made a smaller budget film with other actors in it, and that might have been a softer entry in, but he decided he wanted to do something with a bang. I think it was very exciting, and I know he was incredibly excited by it.
The first meeting that Andrew and I had with him, I went in to his studio in Sydney. We walked in and looked around the walls and to our dismay there were all these images of Gallipoli and Turkey and stuff on the walls, and we were thinking, ‘Oh no, he’s already in the middle of a project.’ I said, ‘So what are you working on?’ He said, ‘Your film, you idiot.’ Long before we’d even discussed finances or any of that sort of thing, his head was already in the project and he already had been building the story in his mind. So when you have a director that lives in the story like that, I think it’s a really good starting point.
QUESTION: I am curious how, at least from your understanding of it, the film has been received from Turkey. It’s an Australian story going to Turkey. It’s played in Turkey with many Turkish famous actors. And then a side question that you touched on with the title issue, you how do you see it working in the States?
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: It has done extremely well in Turkey. It was called Son Umut, which means ‘last hope’. As you point out, it has Y?lmaz Erdo?an and Cem Y?lmaz, who are probably Turkey’s two most revered actors in it. It was an enormous success in Turkey. Five million people or five million tickets – sorry, I haven’t got the exact figures.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: It was just under two million.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: But it was the most successful international release in Turkey other than the one of the big Marvel ones that came out last year.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I think Lord of the Rings and Marvel.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: That’s right. The Hobbit did better numbers but it did extremely well. Turks universally embraced it. In fact, there was a Turkish review that said, ‘Why is it that it’s taken a foreign film production to actually depict our society and this story well? Why are we having such problems telling this story ourselves?’ Their war films tend to be very jingoistic and uni-dimensional - much like the dimensions we were talking about before. In Turkey it has been received extremely well. And America, when was it released - end of April?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Yes, it’s been in the States for about four weeks. The other thing about the Turkish experience is that, the first time we went to Turkey, all anyone could talk about was the disastrous effect that the film Midnight Express had had.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: They would say to us, ‘You’re not making Midnight Express again, are you?’
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: That decimated their tourism industry for decades - or so they say.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: No, apparently it really did, 30 years of destroyed tourism.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: All the way through we were very mindful to not do that again. I think Turks that have responded well to the film have responded because for them it is great to see Turkish characters that aren’t terrorists or peripheral characters in a film or the bad guy. I think there was a great deal of trepidation early on amongst Turkish film people when we talked about making this film that it would end up being a fairly one-sided film and that the Turks would end up looking bad.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: Actually when we were reading the script in its final - the way it manifested towards the end - we were saying that the figure of Hasan, who is the lead Turkish character, we actually thought he was almost a better character - when I say better, he had more depth to him probably than Connor - this is just in the script and not necessarily the way it works in the film. But Hasan was an incredibly complex, endearing and strong character. That was the intention really, wasn’t it?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Yes.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: And Ayshe, the Turkish female character, was a very complex character. In the book and the script Ayshe had more dimensions to her than she unfortunately has in the film.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I think the American experience has been different. I don’t think it’s been an enormous success in the States. There would be a number of reasons for that, and part of that will be it’s not a civil war story. It’s a context that they are not necessarily familiar with, nor do they have any kind of emotional connection to as audiences. Blockbuster movies come and go very quickly here as well as the States but in particular in the States. A film really has to grab an audience and perform in a very short period of time. Sometimes they get pulled after a weekend or a week if they are not pulling the numbers.
We were lucky enough to open in about 350 cinemas with Warner Brothers so we had a really good distributor in the States. I think it will probably be a slower burn than something like the Avengers or whatever. It’s interesting to see how that distribution affects the way audiences can access the film. Something like the Avengers, for instance, would open in over 3,000 cinemas across the country. There’s a massive difference in what they take but there’s a massive difference in where it’s seen. I think in the States this is seen as a kind of niche almost art film as opposed to a blockbuster, despite the cast.
QUESTION: The movie is part gritty realism and part almost fairytale. Was the script always like that or did you decide to give it more of that sort of fairytale feel - I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I am trying to be really careful. Obviously it’s more upbeat perhaps than you could have chosen to go. Was the script always intended to be that way?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: There are certainly fairytale or mystic elements in the script. Again, without giving away too much, we made mention of Arabian Nights as a kind of motif a bit earlier. Those stories are woven through the script and also appear in the film in a way that tends to draw the audience into an imaginative territory and also to give you an idea of what was in the heads of the boys when they were away.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: There’s more in the original script - because it’s a good question. The thing that people often lose track of is that you write a script and then you hand it over to the production team and the film gets made. Russell took the script. He had a picture in his head of the way he saw it and Andrew had something in his head as did the other Andrew – we have my Andrew and the other Andrew –
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: And everyone in between. The art director had an idea.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: And me. Everyone had their own vision. That was the main motivator in doing the book because that preserves a lot of elements. There is a lot more scenes of the boys when they were younger in the original script and flashbacks to their childhood in the book and the original script. You lose a lot of that. The elements that you see on the screen are the elements that Russell chose as being the most important. So the nature of it and the scenes that you see and the way it’s projected is a projection of what he sees of the story, if that makes sense.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Were you referring in particular to the ending - again without giving too much away?
QUESTION: Yes (inaudible).
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: In terms of that being gritty realism whereas the ending was more fairytale?
QUESTION: Yes (inaudible).
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Yes -
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: A conversation without actually having a conversation.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Unless everyone has seen it, in which case we can just talk about it. Not to go on about it too much because it feels like we’re leaving people out, but there was definitely a view when we wrote the script that it would be nice to have two or three different tones that were overlapping. Some of it was mystic and some of it was hard realism. There’s a kind of a humour element as well. It was trying to balance those things all the way through. I guess ultimately the audience is the judge about whether we got the balance right or we didn’t.
QUESTION: As someone who hasn’t seen the movie, thank you for tiptoeing around.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: It’s terrible when people do that.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: The butler did it.
QUESTION: I’m just interested in the process of researching and writing both script and book and in the process of watching your final products and reading your final product for that matter, apart from that seminal moment where you got the idea, that quote you mentioned, what would be the biggest lightbulb moment for you guys in that process that sort of left you more content and satisfied with your work?
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: That’s a really good question because that is actually. the art of writing a story rather than writing a documentary. My area of expertise is art history and cultural economics. That’s what I lecture in at Melbourne university. When I’m writing an academic paper or presenting an academic lecture, it’s facts, figures, quantifiable data. When telling a story, you’re reading something and there’s great big basket of things and then there’s something bright and sparkly, and you want to get that bright and sparkly thing. You follow the interesting paths that you stumble on and bring them together to make an engaging and hopefully interesting story that people will respond to.
Personally I loved the descriptions of Turkey and Istanbul, writing those - they are visual in the film. But actually writing them in the book I found incredibly rewarding because I love Istanbul so much. I felt I was being carried through while I was writing it. To actually look at that and read it, having done research into what Istanbul was like in the early twentieth century and bringing that to life on the page, and then go back and read through that, I found that really rewarding. It’s such a small thing but I found that to be really rewarding for myself.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I guess one of the most rewarding moments for me was actually seeing Hasan on screen. He had lived on the page in a way that we thought was really rich and likeable, noble – again, I won’t ruin the story for you. There was some discussion very early on about whether we would be able to use Turkish actors for the Turkish parts. It’s again a matter of practicality and money coming from Screen Australia and how many Australian actors you have to hire with that money and all those sorts of practical things that are producer business.
But the outcome was that it was possible that some of those Turkish parts would need to be Australian actors playing Turks. The idea of Hasan being played by an Australian for us was going to be really problematic and perhaps disappointing. When Russell managed to secure Y?lmaz’s interest in the film and then to see the way he plays that character was one of those moments for me - I saw him on screen and went ‘Wow. He might even steal the show. He’s just fantastic.’
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: I was thinking about the streets of Balat in Istanbul where they re-created early twentieth century Istanbul in the streets of a little suburb on the Golden Horn called Balat. We arrived on set. It was our first day on set in Istanbul. I actually got tears in my eyes walking through these little laneways with everyone in period costume and stalls with all the appropriate foods and bunnies in baskets. That was a goosebumps and ‘tears to the eye’ experience that one.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: There was a very funny moment there, too, where a lady came out of her house and came down to the set and tried to buy something from the fruit vendor.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: We started playing the game of local or extra, particularly in the little village we went to we were playing local or extra.
KYLIE CARMAN-BROWN: We only have time for one more question.
QUESTION: I enjoyed the film. I also liked the father being so in touch with his children and going to find his children. That was really great. I suppose coming with an inheritance from a Greek background where my grandmother was actually on the Turkish side before they moved over to Greece back in the early 1900s and the stories that I hear from my mother’s stories how they were dragged, I saw the portrayal of Greeks in that, the guerilla fighters, as more the bad guys. I suppose it was a great element for the film because it gave it a bit of extra colour and action. When it came to that sensitive area, how did you feel covering that?
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: Because I have a Greek surname I get asked that question quite a bit. You’re right -
QUESTION: Just to interrupt there because I remember when my grandmother at the age of four saw her brothers killed and dragged by the horses and carriages and being dragged out and the fires lit up. Those cities are still dead like that. It would have been very - just touch but not actually get involved.
QUESTION: I just want to know: for your next script would you be seeing the Germans as noble and likeable? Because to me in another time in another land it would probably be another script, because the Turks were really the enemies. They slaughtered Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks. Do we forgive and forget? I am not sure.
MEAGHAN WILSON-ANASTASIOS: All those issues are enormous. They are big stories. They are incredibly complex stories that undoubtedly have to be told. That was not what this story was about. It was about an Australian man and his journey to find his sons - his sons’ bodies. It is problematic and I think your point is very apt. How do you negotiate these things? But the same thing could be said with: let’s look at the way we treat our own Indigenous population and the way we were treating them 200 or 100 years ago. It’s a very big topic.
ANDREW ANASTASIOS: I would also say that we try not to let anyone off the hook in this film. We didn’t deliberately set out to turn the Greeks into bad guys, the Turks into heroes and demonise anyone in particular. The film is one about our capacity as nations to do wonderful things and to do horrendous things. Also part of this story is about finding some sort of hope after the carnage and after the destruction.
One of the things we always had in mind when we were writing the script was that, after a bushfire, you will go into an area and all the tree trunks are black, the ground is charcoal and you will find just these tiny little green buds. We always looked at those as buds of hope or buds of redemption or buds of forgiveness. I know that there are a lot of things that were done on both sides of the conflict - Gallipoli in particular but then if you look at the later part of the film between Greeks, Turks and other groups within that area. There is a capacity for people to say in all of those conflicts, ‘We were right. You were wrong. You’re horrendous. We didn’t do anything terrible.’ But the truth is that, when people are put in those circumstances, they all had the capacity to do horrendous things.
What we hope this film does is show that, after we have all engaged in that kind of activity - and we still do today - there is a potential for us to stand back from it and say, ‘Well, actually we’re all culpable to a degree. Can we move on? Can we forgive? Can we do something more positive with our time?’ [applause]
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Date published: 01 January 2018