Director and actor Emilio Estevez and his actor father, Martin Sheen, are two and a half weeks into their bus-tour screening and promotion of their new film The Way, which opens in theaters on Oct. 7. The film tells a father-son story about Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), the famed 497-mile pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Both Emilio and Martin recently spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake at the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis.
What inspired the film?
Emilio: Martin was on a hiatus from The West Wing and had about two weeks, so he decided to go check out the Camino by car. He went with my son, Taylor, and a friend, Matt Clark, who plays one of the priests in the movie. Their first stop was in Burgos, where they had dinner. While there, the innkeeper’s daughter walked into the room, and when she and my son met, it was love at first sight. They ended up getting married. That’s the first miracle of the Camino. Afterwards, Martin kept giving me the nudge that we should make a movie about the Camino. He was thinking of a documentary, but I was thinking of something else.
In the movie, Martin’s character needs a tornado in his life. He’s “Dorothy,” and along the Camino, he meets the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. The road is marked in yellow, and our Emerald City is Compostela.
Martin: And it only took five years.
Emilio, your last film was Bobby, about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. How is this film different or similar to that one?
Emilio: This is the antithesis of Bobby. Whereas Bobby followed many characters and was all interior, this film follows four characters and is all exterior. Both films share in common that they’re about our humanity, and we know how both end. We knew where we were going. We knew that The Way would end at Compostela, and with Bobby it ended in the kitchen. Because we knew the ending, I had the luxury of being able to work backwards.
How did you prepare for your roles as Tom and as a director?
Martin: I didn’t practice for the journey on foot, because the character of Tom hadn’t. The bag was heavy, and I wanted to carry it the way Tom would have. In so many father-son stories, the son becomes the father, but in this one, the father becomes the son. It’s a transcendent journey.
Emilio: I wanted to create a character that was unlike who Martin is — someone he wouldn’t be friends with, a curmudgeon. My old man wants to know who every one is. He’s very interested in people. I had to keep him from playing himself. I structured the character so that he slowly reveals himself. It ultimately happens in the hotel room, when each of the characters abandons the creature comforts they think they want and realize what they really want is to just be together. That’s the moment Tom becomes himself and is the father to the others that he wasn’t to his son.
What was it like portraying a character who has lost his son?
Martin: For any parent, the hardest thing is the death — even the imagined death — of a child. All of us have milestones that leave marks, and we store those. For an artist, this is like a wellspring. When the time comes, the artist extracts a memento from that spring.
In the movie, when we shot the scene of me in the morgue, the film showed Emilio in the body bag, but that’s not what I saw from my point of view. Emilio was directing, and when he unzipped the bag, it was his own son, Taylor, in the body bag. My character is stoic. He rarely lets his emotions show. Emilio did that to pull emotion from me. The character goes through a long period of healing and community over his entire journey on the Camino. Every time I see the ending, it hits me in an emotional place. If this was the last film I ever did, I’d be happy.
Was it difficult to do a movie that looks favorably on God?
Emilio: It wasn’t, for me. For others, it was. When we pitched it to studio representatives, you could see their eyes glaze over. They’d say, “It’s about spirituality.” So we decided to shoot it digitally and independently. I believe this movie plays between Glenwood and Newark. Beverly Hills and New York can take a walk. Hollywood makes a lot of garbage. We know because we’ve been in some of it. There are less and less movies to go to — films without overt sexuality and language that won’t make me blush. We’re all tired of what’s coming out of Hollywood. Word of mouth will help this film make it.
Do you consider yourself a practicing Catholic? Can you tell me the impact that working on this film had on your own faith?
Emilio: I grew up in a house where my mother was a strict Southern Baptist, and my father was a devout Catholic. I grew up as a kid hearing many arguments about religion. There was always a question about how we would be raised. We were baptized, and as often happens in these types of situations, the father loses the fight. Because of the turmoil, going to Mass was not part of our routine. When Martin returned to the Church in 1981, he came back to a different Church.
For me, I’m a work in progress, and I really feel that I’m on a journey. I have yet to declare myself. I’m on a spiritual journey and am very much in touch with that. There was a point in the production process where I stopped calling what happened along the way coincidences and began calling them miracles. Things like that happened daily — things that were just supposed to be.
What was the genesis of your reversion to the Catholic faith, Martin?
Martin: It began after my illness in the Philippines while filming Apocalypse Now. I began going to church because I was afraid of dying. Then I stopped going for a long time. My eyes were first reopened when I was in India filming Gandhi. Then, in 1981, while in Paris, I read the book The Brothers Karamazov. I had been given the book by director Terrence Malick. The book kept me up. After reading it, I went to see a priest and told him I wanted to come home. He looked at me with eyes that said, “This is what I do.” He told me to return the next day at 4pm, as he had a wedding at 4:30pm. He told me not to be late. I went to confession with him and wept. I came back to a Church that was very different. I left a Church of fear and returned to a Church of love.
What was it like working as father and son?
Martin: Emilio had his hands full. I love the work, Spain, the opportunity to work with my sister and my wife. This has been a great joy of my life. My father grew up here. I’m a much different guy than the man I portray, who lives in a bubble.
Emilio: What was difficult is that Martin isn’t anything like this character. I would have to tell him, “You’re Tom, not Martin.” Martin is gregarious. He wants to meet everyone and ask for a blessing from every priest he meets. I needed him to behave. My biggest challenge was getting him to not be himself.
What do you see as the film’s key message?
Emilio: We live in a culture that’s dominated by a media which tells us we need to be richer, thinner and prettier. What I love about this film is that these characters reach land’s end, and they are fine being who they are. They are imperfect and broken, but God loves them exactly as they are.
Martin: The genius of God is to dwell in the deepest recesses of our being. When we realize that we are loved and belong to this community and understand that we are truly loved exactly as we are, then we’ll discover fire the second time — only we’ll own the fire.
You talk of the many miracles — you call them milagros — that took place during the filming. Can you relate a few of them?
Emilio: We had two crew members who met and fell in love on the way. We were warned it would rain every day. It only rained two days, and on those days, we filmed our interior shots. There were many milagros. We were charmed and blessed and paid attention to them.
Martin: The Church in Spain was really concerned with what we were doing. They had never allowed a film company to film in the cathedral. They were worried we might take a cynical approach.
Emilio: We had the whole crew praying, even the atheists. Twenty-four hours before we filmed, we got approval, and they allowed us to go into the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The world premiere took place in Spain on Oct. 11, 2010. When the movie ended, the archbishop stood up, gave Martin a hug and said, “This film is a gift.” They were relieved that we hadn’t denigrated the Camino.
Why, at the end of the film, does only one of the characters approach the statue of St. James on his knees?
Emilio: It was scripted that all four would fall to their knees, and all four would cast their stones at the Cruz de Ferro. When we shot it and looked at everything, we had a four-hour film. It was redundant. We asked who was the least likely person to fall to his knees and kept that person to represent the rest — and all of us.
One concern some Catholics will have is that the character of Tom leaves his son’s ashes scattered along the Camino. The Church says we shouldn’t do this, as it doesn’t respect the deceased. How do you respond to that concern?
Emilio: We had a screening with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, and that was one of their concerns. The character of Tom is a lapsed Catholic. He wouldn’t be formed in canon law. Furthermore, it’s said that St. James’ remains in Compostela are below the head. His head may very well be elsewhere. His body is not intact. So, we thought that if there’s ever a movie that might get a pass, this would be it.
When was the last time you saw a mainstream movie with this much Catholic iconography and that treats the Church respectfully? We hope the Church takes a look at that. It provides good PR for the Church when the Church needs it.
Register senior writer Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.