Martin Sheen plays Tom, a man who, following the death of his son (played by Estevez), decides to walk the El camino de Santiago, a famous route for pilgrims from France to Northern Spain.
We were lucky enough to sit down with both Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen and also the film’s producer David Alexanian and you can read their thoughts on the film below. There will also be a bonus post later today which will feature more from Martin Sheen, including some very nice audio.
What Martin Sheen feels The Way is about.
Martin Sheen: It’s really about a guy [Tom] who’s lived a really isolated, conservative existence. He belongs to a country club, he has a private practice. He’s a doctor but he’s not into third world doctors. He’s not giving anything to anybody. He’s a widower who lives by himself. He has a son [Daniel] who is very near his PhD who disappears. Daniel’s an anthropologist who has gone out into the world and disappointed his father by not getting his PhD from Berkeley. So they become somewhat estranged and suddenly he doesn’t have a son any more. He goes overseas to collect the lad and bring him home for burial and he learns that the boy was on this journey. What’s this journey all about? And he decides he will take him on the journey, that he will try to make up his life for him. In the process his son leads him across the Camino and the man becomes himself. He’s freed and becomes a citizen of the world.
The Way’s location.
David Alexanian: It’s a storied pilgrimage. People have been walking for centuries and you want to hope that some of that original idea is preserved. And obviously as an American, unfortunately we have made tourist attractions out of wonderful places in our own country. You couldn’t help but be a little frightened when we got there that maybe that there was some way of commercialising it and somehow it’s just maintained its original character. Spain sometimes struggles to market itself abroad but you feel the benefit of that when you’re there because it feels very private, very natural, very organic and that helped in the making of the film.
Emilio Estevez: We were such a small crew, 55 with the four principals. We shot super 16, very guerilla filmmaking style. We had a tremendous lens package. Many of the vistas that you enjoy in the film were the result of being in the right place at the right time with the proper lens. It was hard to point a camera anywhere in Spain and not come up with something magnificent.
The people local to the Camino.
Emilio Estevez: They were intrigued by us. They were also entrusting one of their natural treasures to us. So when we first started scouting locations it was me, David and my son, who lives in Burgos and is married to a girl he met on the Camino, driving around from town to town doing the grip and grin saying we’re going to come back and make this movie. They looked at us and we were bearded and long haired and I don’t know if they took us seriously until we kept coming back. And our group would grow and finally there would be a van load of us and we’d say we’d like to shoot here in your establishment and then they they finally took us seriously.
Emilio Estevez’ experience working with his father on The Way and how the project came into being.
Emilio Estevez: This really came out of some gentle nudging initially from Martin saying lets go to Spain, hey your son lives there, lets make this documentary [the idea quickly moved from a documentary to a fiction film]. Finally I got a bruised rib and I said okay I’ll pay attention to something you’re obviously passionate about. Let me see if I can get my head around what I think the dramatic narrative could be. He was off on this sentimental story and none of this appeals to me. What I think the story is ultimately is a father son story. And he said, okay I like that. He said, how about on the journey the bag goes in the river and I said okay that’s a good idea. I would try and incorporate a lot of his ideas organically into the screenplay. His idea of the gypsies stealing the bag and I was forced with the task of now having to write that. He is collaborative but also he’s kind of out there with his ideas and it was up to us to try to make these ideas reality on film and budget and schedule for them. The idea of going into the river now involves twelve safety guys and a stunt guy. Which we ended up not using. Martin insisted on going in himself. Our stunt guy chickened out.
I had to get Martin to play Tom not Martin. Martin has a tendency to want to play himself. In between takes he was jumping into the crowds, signing autographs and speaking Spanish. He is a citizen of the word and Tom isn’t. I had to break him of a lot of his habits. I wanted him to feel more isolated, I wanted him to be more conservative. There was a time when in the film I organically wanted that wall to break down and that was my choosing and I didn’t want him to give us glimpse of that before it happened.
Martin Sheen’s experience working with his son Emilio.
Martin Sheen: I adore him. This is the best. It’s funny, someone asked me how I got this part. The truth of it is that if we’d been a Hollywood company there’s not a chance in hell I would have got that part. Can you imagine how many guys would have loved to play that part, and rightly so… I never would have gotten this part if it hadn’t been written for me and he hadn’t directed it. There’s no way!
The religious/spiritual aspects of the film.
Emilio Estevez: I think the most difficult thing Martin found about the film was playing a lapse Catholic. He would say ‘ a Catholic would do this, a Catholic would do that’. I would say you’re not a Catholic, you are a lapse Catholic, you’re not a practising Catholic. Your faith is re-ignited on this Camino, you have to forget what you know.
It’s more of a spiritual film than it is about religion. I think it’s about self discovery more than about a specific religion because religion has a tendency to divide us. What we experienced on the Camino, that the film accurately portrays, is that most of the pilgrims that we met were non-believers, or struggling with their faith or from all walks of life and different parts of the world. For me I thought it was important to see someone, the Dutch man, out there who is out there trying to get physically in shape and Jimmy who is a Protestant who is saying he has problems with the church and won’t even go in one. She’s [Sarah – Deborah Kara Unger] out there for forgiveness and redemption. Tom doesn’t know why the hell he’s out there.
It’s very difficult to go anywhere in Spain, point a camera and not see a church. They’re everywhere. I felt that the iconography would represent the historical aspect of the role Catholicism has played in Spain throughout the centuries and that would be enough. I felt that would drive the point without us having to bang the audience’s head over with it.
The place of pilgrimage in the modern world.
Martin Sheen: Long before I came to the Camino the idea of pilgrimage, because of my Catholic background, had been something I’d been familiar with since I’d been a child but it seems to me that it seems to be an effort to touch the scared. By doing it in a public demonstration you’re given a safe place to explore the journey. It seems to me that all pilgrimages are a metaphor for our lives. I believe our whole lives are an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh and that’s how we’re made whole. I didn’t make the rules, it just seems… normal. Everyone’s seeking a transcendent experience. I think for our health we need to explore our inner life and we ask those questions, who am I, why am I here and that’s why we go on pilgrimage. And as we do we find other people who are equally interested in the journey and are equally broken and in need of all things that are human. We all need food, clothing and to be housed. But there are deeper meanings that are even more necessary. We need to know that we are loved.
… Christians and many other religions believe that God became human. Wow, what a concept. The genius of God to choose to dwell where we’re least likely to look find him, in ourselves. This is the first step towards embracing ourselves and we begin to understand that through no fault of our own we’re loved and we’re broken. We’re put on this earth to engage with this journey.