To be on the set of Russell Crowe's directorial début is to journey back a century to bustling Constantinople, writes the movie's co-creator Andrew Anastasios.
In the film The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe reads a story from the Arabian Nights about a prince and his enchanted carpet. Anyone who sits on this carpet is miraculously transported wherever they most desire. It feels like that has just happened to me.
I have been to Istanbul many times during the past 20 years - as an archaeologist, a tourist, a travel writer, a bridegroom and now as a screenwriter and executive producer. I'm on a magical tour of Turkey to see The Water Diviner being shot, a film I have co-written with Andrew Knight. Standing on set, it's quite surreal to see scenes that for so long have existed only on a page or in my imagination suddenly spring to life before me.
In Istanbul, it never takes much to catapult you into the past. Today it's 1919 in Constantinople. The Great War has ended and the British have occupied the city. I'm watching as Russell runs frantically through a marketplace, chasing a Turkish boy who has his suitcase. It's my first day on location in Balat, a traditional Jewish quarter on the European side of Istanbul renowned for its Ottoman terrace homes.
Chris Kennedy, the film's production designer, and his team have transformed this intersection of narrow streets into a bustling marketplace with a fishmonger, fruit sellers, a metalworker and a café. It's so authentic that an old lady meanders down the hill and tries to buy a watermelon. Balat locals hang out of windows and crane over their precarious balconies to catch a glimpse of Russell and Olga Kurylenko, who plays Ayshe, a Turkish hotel owner.
They are equally excited to spot Cem Yilmaz, who is Turkish cinema royalty, playing belligerent Turkish soldier Jemal. As a gauge of his popularity, Cem has more than seven million Twitter followers.
Cem brings honey-soaked baklava to the set, handing it out with jokes and generous smiles. He confirms the famous Turkish hospitality and goodwill between our countries, despite the fact that a century ago Australians and New Zealanders invaded the coast. When I first met Cem, he told me how excited he was to be working on a film that tells the Turkish side of the Gallipoli story, too. The Turks regard Gallipoli as the birthplace of the modern Turkish state.
The film tells the tale of an Australian farmer, Connor, played by Russell, who travels to Gallipoli after the war looking for the bodies of his sons. A tour of the battlefields a century on is an extremely moving experience. Trenches are still visible and row after forlorn row of graves remind visitors of the scale of the loss for both sides. Our script is, in part, an exploration of the common grief and part love letter to Turkey.
The next day in Istanbul, I stand near the gates of the Blue Mosque and recall the first time Andrew Knight and I met in Turkey 15 years ago. He looked up at the soaring minarets and the magnificent dome and said dryly, "So, is there much to see around here?" I knew immediately we would be friends.
When we were penning The Water Diviner we had a wish-list of locations, some so outlandishly ambitious we knew we'd have to write them out in later drafts. Top of the list was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. No building says Istanbul like it. It dominates the skyline as one of the city's most identifiable and inspiring buildings, completed in 1616 to rival the nearby Christian edifice of Ayasofya. Andrew and I liked the idea of Russell's character coming from a small outback town with a creaky wooden church and being confronted with this magnificent symbol of religious might.
The film is Russell's directing début. Emboldened and undeterred, he goes straight to the top and meets with Turkey's Minister for Culture and Tourism, Ömer Çelik, to ask for permission to film inside the mosque. Again Turkish hospitality is extended and today the Blue Mosque is closed for us for three hours. Russell and Dylan Georgiades, who plays Orhan, a Turkish boy who befriends Connor, are standing before an ocean of lush carpets, marvelling at the ceiling. Director of photography Andrew Lesnie sets the shot under the breathtaking blue dome while crew bustle about, enlivened by the uniqueness of this moment.
In the sizzling summer, the Stamboulis make a beeline for the Aegean coast and the city slows to a Mediterranean amble. When the sun begins to bite, I like to go underground, literally. It is not summer now, but Yerebatan Sarayi, the Sunken Palace, is still one of my favourite places in the city. I enter a prosaic booth at street level and descend a flight of stairs into one of the few remaining Byzantine cisterns that serviced ancient Constantinople. I plunge into a low-lit forest of columns surrounded by water, as spectacular as it is cool. In this tranquil world, rippling water replaces the chorus of beeping taxis and tour-bus air brakes above. One of my enduring film memories of Istanbul is James Bond rowing across this cistern in From Russia with Love. Andrew and I had this tranquil vault front of mind, imagining it in the early 20th century. Part of it was recreated in Sydney's Fox Studios.
Early mornings, the Marmara Pera hotel in Tepeba is abuzz as the cast and crew hover over the breakfast buffet and pass around the papers. The Turkish press have been following Russell and the production around since the beginning of the shoot. From the wedding-cake Haydarpaa Terminal in Kadköy to the gates of Topkapi Palace, not a day has passed without the good-humoured local paparazzi finding some inventive way to sneak a shot or two.
Papers under my arm, I take a walk with my wife Meaghan for coffee at the Buyuk Londra Hotel. Built in the late 19th century, it was the inspiration for the hotel where Connor stays when he arrives. Andrew and I have stayed many times, climbing the same grand staircase Ernest Hemingway once climbed, talking to the swearing parrot and gazing over the Golden Horn. In our script we conjured it as a post-war hotel, its glory years behind it, carpets and curtains fading with the spirits of its owners. The Londra has been recently updated but the warm reception and quirky artefacts in the foyer and salon remain.
Two days later we're in Fethiye on the Aegean coast. Russell's yacht bobs in the harbour where Alexander the Great once moored. Fethiye is a bustling tourist hub in summer but is just coming out of hibernation when the crew arrives. This district is a location scout's dream. Our script calls for a Roman theatre, a hilltop Turkish village, a ruined church and a fortress wall. Miraculously, production found them all within striking distance of Fethiye, in the abandoned village of Kayaköy and ancient ruins of Tlos.
Meaghan and I stay near Kayaköy in a restored stone farmhouse owned by local personality Ali Gürsoy. We discovered his genial place two years ago, on a literary pilgrimage to this abandoned Greek village that inspired Louis de Bernières' novel Birds Without Wings. During the forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the Greeks of Kayaköy, or Livissi as it was known then, were relocated and the town never resettled. Hundreds of forlorn homes slowly crumble into the hillside.
As I approach the location base, I'm transported back 100 years. Costume designer Tess Schofield has meticulously researched the Turkish clothing and uniforms of the early 20th century, adding her own flair, and I'm mesmerised by the rich parade. A band of snarling bearded men in black wheel a cannon towards me. An old man wielding an antique rifle gives me a toothless smile. A troupe of dervishes in unfeasibly tall hats and flared skirts scuttles by. There is a rumble and canned smoke billows from the ruins. There is a battle brewing. Russell and Yilmaz Erdogan, who plays a Turkish officer, charge past on horseback rehearsing for the next scene. For a brief week The Water Diviner breathes life into the ghost town.
I return to Istanbul at the end of the three-week shoot, weary but exhilarated. Having been enchanted by Turkey for so long, it's been exciting to see the threads of our countries' shared history being woven into our film and to revisit the places that are central to the story. If I had that magic carpet I would wish my way to opening night to see the story come alive.
The Water Diviner opens nationally on Boxing Day.