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Russell Crowe couldn't help but think of his two sons while shooting The Water Diviner.

Not only does the film (in theaters on April 24) mark the Oscar winner's feature film directorial debut, he also stars in the movie as an Australian farmer who goes searching for the remains of his three sons after they were killed fighting in the Battle of Gallipoli at the end of World War I.

Crowe and his ex, Danielle Spencer, are parents to Charles, 11, and Tennyson, 8.

"You know, once you're a parent, everything that you do in life happens from the prism of being a parent," the actor-turned-director told me while promoting the movie at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. "So obviously there was a deep connection for me when I read that particular story."

Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner

Mark/Rogers/Warner Bros. Pictures

Flashbacks throughout the movie show the three young men fatally wounded in battle. "Shooting those scenes was very difficult to take emotionally," Crowe said.

But necessary.

"I'd set my cast up a number of months before," Crowe said. "I had conversations with them and told the young actors what I was expecting from them. I put them through quite a rigorous physical boot camp…You've got to remember, I've taken a group of urban surfer boys off the streets of Sydney and taken them back a hundred years…What you get when you prepare like that is a depth behind the eyes and those young actors knew exactly where they were, time and place and who their characters were."

Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner

Mark/Rogers/Warner Bros. Pictures

At one point, one of the sons (James Fraser) is moaning a horrific and unforgettable sound as he lay dying. "I talked to him about that three months before we shot it," Crowe said. "When I ended up showing him the scene, he asked me if I put in any effects or something to make it sound that way. I said, 'No man, that's what was coming out of you.'

Crowe admits he was supposed to direct his first film about a decade ago.

"I realized part way through it that a lot of people connected to it were not there because they felt that I had an individual or fresh voice as a director," he said. "There were connected to it because I was at that time a pretty famous bastard. It didn't feel right…If I had known that it would take me that long to get back in the same situation again, I simply would have shut up and got on with it."

Just four days after its release in December in Australia, The Water Diviner became the highest-grossing Australian film of 2014.