When actor/director Emilio Estevez wrote the screenplay for “The Way,” there was never any question that his father, Martin Sheen, would play the starring role and Estevez himself would play his son. It’s a movie about a father and son played by a father and son.
Sheen plays a California ophthalmologist, Tom Avery, whose free-spirited son Daniel (Estevez) dies in a storm just as he begins his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela –a centuries-old pilgrims’ trek from France to Northern Spain.
Grief-stricken at the death of his only son, Tom impulsively leaves his well-ordered life to finish his son’s journey for him. Tom becomes part of an unlikely foursome as others on the pilgrimage keep pace with him. Touching moments of inspiration alternate between humorous scenes his idiosyncratic companions inflict upon him.
Open to Anything
“The Way” is a road movie on foot, with breathtaking but sometimes treacherous landscape. Filming took place on location in the Pyrenees Mountains. In an interview with the famous father-and-son duo, Estevez explained that to a large degree, the movie was a matter of “what you see is what you get,” or rather, “whatever happened that day is what happened in the movie.”
Unpredictability fit with the movie’s theme. “It was a challenging shoot all the way from the Pyrenees to the ocean,” he said. “When I was a younger director, I don’t think I would have looked at the gifts along the way.” He said his approach was to be open to anything that happened during the filming.
“If it rained that day, then it rained in the movie that day,” he said. “And if Martin pulled his Achilles on the trail, then he would have been limping the next day.”
The process of being open permeates the movie. “Really living a life means being open to the possibility of everything,” Estevez said. “So often it seems hopeless to break the chains of our routines, to be a tourist again and look up. Often, we’re looking down and have stopped being tourists in the world. Daniel is telling his father to wake up and get out of himself.”
For Sheen, a practicing Catholic from a family of ten children, the father-son connection in the movie went both ways. His own father grew up near Compostela, Spain, and Sheen always had the goal of walking the Camino. The 500-mile trail goes through Pamplona–famous for the running of the bulls–all the way to the city of Santiago in Galicia, where Sheen’s father was born and where, according to legend, the relics of St. James the Apostle are buried.
“I drove part of the highway after a family reunion,” Sheen explained. “I came back and started telling Emilio all these stories and I told him, ‘You’ve really got to write a scenario – this is something waiting for us to do!’”
The Essence of Self
Estevez started reading up on the Camino and it became the inspiration for this father-and-son journey. The trek is considered more than just a test of endurance across dramatic terrain; it’s a transformative experience. Doing without technology and modern luxuries, enduring the physical and mental challenge, are part of the process of revealing the essence of our imperfect selves.
“The theme is that we are all imperfect and God loves our imperfections,” said Sheen. “Our culture says, ‘Go take this pill, or go to this plastic surgeon, and you will be happier,’ but none of that makes us happier. The film celebrates our wonderful imperfections.”
For him, the experience was life-changing. “It continues to change us, we’re on a pilgrimage,” he said. “It’s confirmation of what we started out to create four years ago. I’ve never done a project I’m more proud of.”
Estevez began to write the script in 2008, but said he believes the timing is right for today. “We’ve gotten to a place where people are having to live with a lot less,” he said. “Things are being stripped away and people are reconnecting to their faith and their community.”
Sheen’s describes his own faith as reflecting the pro-life reality he tries to live. “My only regret having four children is that we did not have four more. You come to know yourself through your children.” He explained that not all his seven grandchildren were planned, but each is seen as a gift. Sheen also stated that his pro-life stance is a seamless garment in which he believes that all life is precious. He explained that he is not only against abortion, but also against the death penalty.
A pro-life message comes across in the movie when one of Tom’s traveling companions, Sarah, hears the voice of her unborn child. “Tom doesn’t think she’s crazy when she tells him this because he’s been hearing the voice of his dead son.”
“I hope people will embrace the idea of healing and community,” Sheen said. “No one can carry our baggage or walk in our shoes, but we cannot really do it without community. Tom finds out that it’s not about proving how good you are but how open you are to the surrender of others.”
Sheen says he wants people to know that this is an adventurous road movie that will entertain, and lessons just come with it. For him, the movie is something even more. “I have never been offered this good a part in the last thirty years,” he said. “It was a gift from my son.”
“The Way” opens nationwide October 21.