What we see on-screen in the way, a film collaboration of father-son duo Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, is in some ways symbolic of their off-screen relationship over the years.
Called a “road movie” by Estevez, who serves as screenwriter, director, producer and also stars alongside his father, The Way releases wide in theaters this Friday, October 21, 2011 and follows the journey of a father trying to reconnect with his adult son by way of the camino de santiago—a 500-mile pilgrimage that for over a thousand years has been made by millions around the world for religious, historical, cultural and even health reasons.
Originally, it is said that most who traveled the Camino de Santiago did it for religious penance for their sins or to seek heavenly answers. But then it seems the way broadened, as evidenced in a poem posted in a thirteenth-century monastery along the historic path: “The door is open to all, to sick and healthy, not only to Catholics but also to pagans, Jews, heretics and vagabonds.”
To promote The Way earlier this fall, Estevez and Sheen embarked on their own pilgrimage during a two-month bus tour across America, travelling from San Francisco to Phoenix to D.C. and beyond.
“The whole journey has really been a confirmation of what we started out to create nearly four years ago,” shares Sheen, a devout Catholic. “And the journey is continuing and the miracles are continuing, and I tell you I’ve never done a project I’m more proud of.”
The Way to The Way
Ironically, Sheen arrived at the genesis for The Way during his vacation one summer in Europe. At the time, while on hiatus from his work on TV’s The West Wing and having just attended a family reunion in Ireland, Sheen realized he had another week left in his schedule that he could spend in Europe. So he found himself investigating something which had long inspired him: the Camino de Santiago.
Beginning at the French border and weaving through the Basque Country of Spain and all the way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, the Camino de Santiago translates to “The Way of St. James,” since legend has it that the sacred relics of Matthew 4:16 are buried at the trek’s official end-point cathedral.
Walking the Camino de Santiago can take six to eight weeks to complete, and since Sheen was short on time he chose to drive portions of the route “just like an American tourist,” he admits. But even so, his time during the journey inspired him, and when he came back to the States he told Estevez all about it and insisted that “this is something waiting for us to do!”
As Estevez researched in order to write a scenario, he was inspired by stories he read in Jack Hitt’s irreverent account, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain. Seeing it as a contemporary Canterbury Tales of sorts, Estevez used the stories as a launching pad and created the story of Tom (Sheen), a self-reliant, accidental pilgrim from California who must travel to Europe to collect the ashes of his son Daniel (Estevez) who has died during a freak storm in the Pyrenees Mountains.
In the film, flashback scenes inform moviegoers that the father and son had been at odds with one another. Daniel had left his doctoral studies to make the pilgrimage while the buttoned-up Tom didn’t understand or accept his son’s impractical decision.
“You don’t choose a life, Dad,” Daniel tells him in a tense exchange before traveling overseas. “You live one.”
In explaining this dialogue, Estevez, who is still widely known for his 1985 high-school jock role in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, says that “we’ve stopped being tourists in the world.
“I think what Daniel is saying to his father in that scene is you’ve got to wake up. You’ve got to get outside of yourself,” he continues. “We so often get stuck in our routines and it oftentimes looks hopeless to be able to break the chains of those routines. But you step outside of yourself and be a tourist in the world again and live in wonder again and look up.”
After receiving the devastating news regarding Daniel, the heartbroken father learns quite quickly what it means to be outside of the carefully controlled world he’s created for himself when he arrives in St. Pied de Port, France to collect his son’s ashes and discovers what the Camino de Santiago is really all about.
“’The Way’ is a very personal journey,” advises a kind police detective who meets with Tom upon arrival. “You walk the way only for yourself.”
As Tom begins to understand what his son was doing, instead of returning home to the States as expected, he does something completely out of character: he decides on impulse to extend his European stay and finish the Camino de Santiago while carrying Daniel’s ashes in tribute.
But in the end, it is Tom who will receive an unforeseen gift from Daniel along the way as he learns that he doesn’t have to walk this life alone.
“Emilio tells people that it’s more about me than anything I’ve played for quite some time,” admits Sheen of his role as the stubborn, patriarchal skeptic who doesn’t think he needs others. “And I would have to agree with that.”
Progress with the Pilgrims
Once Tom gets on his way, it’s no surprise when he bumps into other peregrinos (Spanish for “pilgrims”) who are also making the 500-mile expedition. Annoyed at first, Tom doesn’t want anyone breaking his stride—including the friendly, yet hedonistic, “fat Dutchman” named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen, the new world) who says he’s just trying to lose weight as his reason for walking the trek.
Next, a bitter, chain-smoking Canadian divorcee named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger, 88 minutes) joins their "merry" band. Her raison d’être is supposedly extinguishing her cigarette habit once and for all—but perhaps not until she reaches the cathedral, as she’s still got a good supply of smokes left to go. Besides, “this isn’t a race,” she reminds Tom as she observes his efforts to finish the trek as quickly and with as little interaction with the other pilgrims as possible.
Later on, the real reason she’s hiking the Camino de Santiago will be revealed to Tom in a most heartbreaking scene.
“We give voice to the unborn through the character of Sarah, who has made this terrible choice that has left an enormous hole in her heart,” Estevez says of the pilgrim when she reveals she has terminated a pregnancy. “And in that moment that she shares with Tom that she’s hearing the voice of her unborn daughter, it doesn’t sound too crazy to him, because he’s seeing the vision of his deceased son. And in that moment they share a bond.”
Rounding out the motley crew is Jack (James Nesbitt, match point), a spirited Irish travel writer who says he’s just gathering research for his next writing assignment but also admits that “no one walks this Camino by accident.” Soon, he, too, will wedge his way into Tom’s life space and help the reluctant pilgrim open up a little and begin to trust others.
“I think the tagline says it all . . . life is too short or too big to walk it alone. And that really is the theme of the film is that we’re all connected, and we’re all beautiful, wonderful messes and we’re all imperfect and God loves us in our imperfections,” says Estevez.
Sheen adds, “I hope that people will embrace the idea of healing, no matter the loss. And while each one of us has to endure our journey alone, no one [else] can carry our interior or exterior baggage and no one can walk in our shoes. We must do that alone.
“But we cannot do it without community,” he further explains. “And I think that’s a central theme . . . [Tom] finds out that really it’s not about proving how good you are at something. It’s about how open you are to the surrender of others and how all our imperfections are a reflection of ourselves and that we’re all included in the extended family which is called community. And that’s how we heal.”
As the rough edges of his fellow pilgrims begin rubbing Tom the wrong way, at one point he has a little too much to drink and comes unglued as his bottled-up anger is unleashed. But thankfully his new friends are more road-tested than offended. And once they bail him out of jail after his public-disturbance arrest, they resume their pilgrimage together along the scenic path.
It’s the next important step toward the gift Tom’s son wanted him to know: to live meaningfully we have to open ourselves to others and embrace the joy and wonder of the journey.
Lights, Camera . . . Miracles!
Shot on location in just 40 days in various locations across Europe, The Way gives moviegoers an amazing look at what the Camino de Santiago is really like as pilgrims greet each other with “buen camino” (good road) in passing one another along the trail.
Navigating through rural mountains and country villages, alongside rivers and beautiful parishes, inside pilgrim hostels and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and atop the rocky peninsula of Cape Finisterre, The Way is a visual feast for the travel lover’s eye. Additionally, as the first feature film ever granted permission to shoot inside the official Camino de Santiago endpoint with only one hour allowed for the crew to shoot, The Way captures an exclusive scene from a Mass where the world’s largest botafumerio (swinging incense dispenser) is released into a stunning 65-meter pendulum.
Despite the shooting restrictions and even the naysayers, Estevez says that he still wanted to be flexible with the entire production schedule.
“It was a challenging shoot from the beginning of it . . . in the Pyrenees all the way to the ocean. But it was filled with miracles and it was filled with gifts.”
One such “miracle” is a scene in which Tom accidentally drops his backpack (containing Daniel’s ashes) into a rushing river. At the time, an almost 70-years old Sheen was game to do his own stunts and have his character rescue the precious cargo himself.
“It was his idea to go into the river in the first place,” reveals Estevez. “So we added that to the script.
“My approach to this was to be as free and as open as possible to the possibility of anything happening, because we were shooting in sequence,” Estevez continues. “It informed not only the characters’ evolution, but all of the filmmakers’ evolution. Because if it rained, well then the next scene we’d all be wet. If Martin pulled a hamstring in the river, then he’d be limping in the next scene. So it was a wonderful luxury being able to shoot in sequence like that.”
“Emilio found a way to make Tom’s journey equally a physical adventure and an inner quest,” shares Sheen. “Tom begins to understand that our whole lives are pilgrimages. He begins to understand that even though we all have to walk our own path alone, you still need others. He begins to understand that he is part of a community; that he has a responsibility to it; and that there is a possibility of great joy and satisfaction in our lives. The beauty of the script is that it gets to all that without ever hitting you over the head with anything.”
Travel Gifts & Souvenirs
Not categorized as Christian film or even an overtly evangelical one, The Way still has much to say as it provokes independent thinking and post-movie discussion about what life should be about for earthbound pilgrims who are not home yet.
“I began to write this script in 2008, and it feels like probably it has more resonance today than it did three years ago,” Estevez says.
“I think that we’ve gotten to a place where ‘more’ and ‘greed’ aren’t necessarily good, and a lot of people have had things stripped away from them—whether it’s their homes, their cars, their jobs. And people are having to deal with living with a lot less. And families are moving in together and sharing meals together again and reconnecting to their faith and reconnecting to their communities. And it’s happening out of necessity, and the film is really a reflection of that.”
While not the first film that Estevez and Sheen have made together (The War at Home, 1996), The Way does represent the end of this road they have walked together these past few years. And while working on the project, both indicate The Way has brought them closer in their relationship as father and son.
“You know, I always remember that for every Badlands or Apocalypse Now [my father] did, he also did a lot of other projects just to feed our family,” reveals Estevez. “So getting the chance to work with him is also an opportunity for me to say: ‘I know you made real sacrifices as a father, and this is my way of paying something back.’”
Adds Sheen, “I don’t know if it would have been possible 5, 10, 15 years ago to be where we are today in order to make [The Way]. I think we had to travel a little further, and I think we did that. We did it together. It was a gift from my son. And I cherish it.”
Photos courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency/ARC Entertainment.
Starring Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt and Emilio Estevez and opening in theaters in wide release on October 21, 2011, the way is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, drug use and smoking. For more information about the way, please visit the official Web site here.