The Emilio Estevez-written and -directed film THE WAY, starring his father Martin Sheen, is a film whose making-of story is probably a touch more interesting than the story being told in the movie. This happens a lot, actually, which is unfortunate, but it's the reason that I'll sometimes say Yes to an interview connected with a film I'm luke warm on. THE WAY has some truly beautiful-looking moments, and Sheen's performance is easily the best thing about it.
I'll have more to say about the movie in my review later in the week, but my point is that it was a no-brainer for me on agreeing to interview the father and son responsible for this story about a Tom (Sheen), a dentist who must go to Europe to retrieve the body of his son (Estevez), who died early on the "El camino de Santiago" pilgrimage from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Tom decides to have his son cremated and walk the path himself, scattering the ashes at different inspirational points along the way. This is a film about the journey and the small band of travelers that join up with Tom along the road.
Sheen has been in some of my absolute favorite movies, including BADLANDS, APOCALYPSE NOW, CATCH-22, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVED DOWN THE LANE, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, THE DEAD ZONE, WALL STREET, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, and SPAWN. And of course, he played the President of the United States for seven season on "The West Wing." And if you haven't seen him in THE FINAL COUNTDOWN, you haven't truly lived. I ran out of time before getting to ask him about play Ben Parker in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, but what we talked about was far more interesting. He's an incredibly personable man, and one gets a sense that he finds it hard not to get along with just about everyone he comes into contact with.
Estevez is very much his father's son, also being incredibly easy to talk to. I grew up watching his movies like THE BREAKFAST CLUB, THE OUTSIDERS, ST. ELMO'S FIRE, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, REPO MAN, the two YOUNG GUNS movies, FREEJACK, the two STAKEOUT movies, and however many MIGHTY DUCKS films he did. Beginning with 1987's WISDOM, Estevez began his life on the other side of the camera, directed such films as MEN AT WORK (in which he acted opposite brother Charlie Sheen), THE WAR AT HOME (opposite his dad), and the great Showtime movie RATED X (also with Charlie), and BOBBY (with his dad).
Talking to this pair was truly one of the joys of my year, and I could have kept going for many hours more. Please enjoy my talk with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. I should add that occassionally joining in on the conversation is one of the film's producers, David Alexanien, who was also filming a documentary on the pair's press tour.
[Just as I turn my recorder on, Martin Sheen calls a red-headed female member of the film's entourage “Red” and asks her if that’s okay, after realizing that he's known her for years but never called her that before.]
Emilio Estevez: That’s what he called Sissy Spacek in BADLANDS.
Martin Sheen: [putting on Kit's deep-voiced drawl] “Anyone ever called you Red?”
EE: “Yeah, but I don’t like it.”
Capone: Is that what she says?
Capone: Oh, man.
MS: There are only like two-dozen lines in that whole movie. You know people don’t say they “heard a good movie.” Boy, Terrence Malick proved that. It's just an amazing movie. Emilio's in it, and Ramon [Estevez, Emilio's brother].
EE: That’s right.
MS: Yeah, it was your first movie. Did you see BADLANDS?
Capone: Of course.
MS: Remember the scene after I shot the old man, and Sissy is wandering around the house smoking a cigarette? She looks out the window and sees these two kids playing in the street.
MS: That’s his debut.
Capone: There you go, and here we are. I guess this journey that your character takes in the film, that you both take in the film, had you taken it on your own before or just hear about it?
EE: I heard about it through him. He had been there. He'd gone in 2003 to check it out. He had always wanted to do Camino. My son was working for him at the time as his assistant, and so off they went to Spain, but they only had two weeks, because it was during the hiatus for "West Wing," and to do the Camino properly you need about six weeks, so two really is not going to cut it.
MS: You also need some equipment, which I hadn’t thought about. [laughs]
EE: They were woefully unprepared.
Capone: You can't just get off the plane and walk?
MS: No, we came in from Ireland.
EE: So as the crow flies, they went straight up north from Madrid about to hours to a town called Burgos, which is on the Camino, and they went to a casa rural, which is a place that takes in pilgrims, and sat down for the pilgrims' supper, and this beautiful girl walked in. She was the innkeeper’s daughter. My son took a look at her, and literally it was love at first sight. He’s been living there for the last eight and a half years.
MS: They're married.
EE: They're married, yeah.
MS: Her name is Julia.
EE: So that was sort of the beginning of it. I figured if I wanted to see my son, I should figure a way to work in Spain, and that was a dream of his to go over there and do something. So what began was a series of conversations about what we would do and how we would get his character organically to Spain. “How do you do it?” And we created this emotional tornado that picks him up from California and carries him over to Spain and deposits him. So he is in fact our Dorothy.
Capone: By using the tornado reference, yeah this is Dorothy's trip to Oz. There are four of them, and they sort of lift each one up at a different spots on the journey.
EE: It's THE WIZARD OF OZ.
MS: Did you pick that up, may I ask, while you were watching the film?
Capone: I did actually, yeah, by the end. When I saw the cathedral…
EE: That’s our Emerald City.
Capone: That’s it, exactly.
EE: And you know Jack [James Nesbitt], we introduce him in a haystack, right? [Deborah Kara Unger] is the Tin Man who suffers from this broken heart or is without a heart because of this horrible choice she made, but she’s got the gadgets you know. She’s got the iPod.
Capone: She’s wired.
EE: She’s wired, and then of course [Yorick van Wageningen] is our cowardly lion, and maybe I’m Toto. Daniel is kind of in the box, and the box keeps getting away. “Come back Toto!”
Capone: A lot of people who take these sort of pilgrimages, they're not all doing it for purely religious reasons. Although, a lot of them are doing it for spiritual reasons.
EE: Exercise. A lot of guys out there just want to get away from something.
Capone: That’s what I’m saying: they want to have a definitive moment to point to and say, “That’s where my life made a shift,” or “That's event is the closing or opening of a chapter of my life.”
MS: For a lot of people, it iss a new beginning, and there are an awful lot of people who are suffering great loss and are in a lot of need of healing, and that’s very typical along the Camino and also our story, which has the accidental death of a lad in the Pyrenees, happened three times in the period.
EE: That year.
MS: Yeah, three different guys died in the Pyrenees, and their parents came and did the Camino on their behalf.
Capone: So that’s not unheard of.
MS: No, it’s something very very typical. And people come from all over the world. Americans and the Canadians are the least number of pilgrims from the West. The second-largest number outside of the Spanish are the Irish. The film incidentally is a huge hit in Ireland, and this past summer we got a personally hand-written note from Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, saying, “As I write this, my daughter is preparing to leave for the Camino. Thank you.” She had just seen the movie, so that’s the kind of reaction that just takes our breath away and makes it all worthwhile. It inspires people to go and to seek a transcended experience or a natural one, whatever.
Capone: And I love at the very end where when they get to the cathedral and the guy who's having them sign the books asks, “Why did you do this?”
EE: Well that’s the question they actually ask you.
Capone: I would assume so, and you're forced to boil it down to one sentence, and they all have a lot of trouble doing that.
MS: That’s true, isn't it? Because no one has the same answer that they started out with.
EE: And besides the actor, we used the real officials there in Santiago, and they were telling us stories that people will come in, and the line will be out the door.
Capone: I thought it would be longer, yeah.
MS: And that’s the official office. That’s where you get your compostela.
EE: And people will start to confess, and they'll say, “You know what? I can’t hear this right now, come back,” and they will. They'll come back and they continue to tell them.
David Alexanien: Well you can imagine--and this is pretty typical too, because in our film we have four people who were chatting through most of this journey--most people are doing this on their own, and now all of a sudden, they have an opportunity to communicate. So there’s a flooding of information, because they really haven’t spoken much during much of this journey, but I would say more than half of the people are there not because of the religious or spiritual journey initially. I think one of the things Martin says, which I very much agree with, is by the end their interest in why they've done it has changed and they found something, regardless of whether you had an initial intention that was X. It’s Y when you arrive.
EE: But also too, there's so much chatter. There's so much noise now and when do we get a moment to… You know, the very things that were supposed to make our lives easier are in fact exhausting us, because you no longer come home now to just a quiet evening at home with your family; it’s you come home to 50 emails and voice messages, and so now I think a lot of people are just completely overwhelmed by this technology. And why is it that we have all of these things that were supposed to keep us more connected and better connected than ever before, and yet we are so disconnected? I think a lot of that has to do with the noise, with the chatter, with the overloud. So why not get out on the road and get the hell away from all of that? Capone: And it’s interesting, one of the things you find in addition to getting closer to your son’s memory is that you can’t live alone. You can’t live life alone. Not to belittle the people that are taking this journey as a solo act, but you can’t help but form communities even as you are trying to do this very personal thing.
EE: That’s the whole point.
MS: You've got it. Everyone has to walk their own pilgrimage and carry all of their belongings--physical and material belongings, spiritual baggage, whatever the baggage you are carrying, you have to walk. As you begin the walk, your feet begin to reach a rhythm, and your heartbeat and your breath and then the voice starts, and you begin to discover who you really are if you listen, and that’s the transcendent thing. All of us, whether we are out there on pilgrimage or in our daily lives, we're all seeking an honest life. It’s an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. I think that’s how we are balanced, and the Camino and all pilgrimages help that to happen, get away from our comfort zones, and we have very few distractions while we are out there and we just start listening to the inner voice, and that’s where we begin to change, to become ourselves.
Capone: You mentioned that you used some of the people that worked in the cathedral, but I’m imagining that you were constantly running into pilgrims.
EE: Oh we were, and they're all in the movie. As a director, I think I’ve gotten to a place where I am now sort of open to the gifts that are presented to you.
Capone: I was going to ask if you could be spontaneous with moments like that?
EE: It was very spontaneous. People would walk through the frame and the AD would be like “No!” I’m like, “No, this is great. This is a gift, man. These are 20 background artists that we could never have afforded, so now we’ve got them; let’s use them. If they want to be in the film and we're not impeding them or having a negative effect on their pilgrimage and they want to be in this, great.” And what’s interesting, on our Facebook and Twitter and also on our website, we're getting a lot of feedback from people who were out there in 2009 when we were shooting saying, “I saw myself” or “I’m an American and I was over there when you were shooting. I can’t wait for the film to come out, because I was there in Pamplona, I was there in Santiago."
MS: And one guy came the other day in Kansas City.
EE: Right, some guy started in Kansas City. I met him the day he was starting his pilgrimage.
MS: We were filming in Sant Jaume.
EE: He was just starting, and we just saw him last week, and he put together an entire book of his experience starting that morning.
Capone: You said this a road film, and most road films are about driving or motorcycles. What are some of the unique challenges of a walking road movie?
MS: Up hill.
MS: There’s a lot in our film. The weather, we were very lucky.
EE: We were very lucky with the weather. We were warned as Dave and I were scouting locations and putting this thing together in the couple of months leading up to our September start date, the Spanish said, “It’s going to rain every day. Bring your ponchos, it’s going to slow you down, and you’re never going to make your 40-day schedule. Good luck.” We got out there, it rained twice. Both of those days, we were shooting interiors.
MS: El Ramon and the cathedral.
EE: So we really lucked out. We waited on the sun. [Laughs] Actually, we waited on the sun more than anything.
DA: I think one of those things having spent as much time as we had looking for locations, we were spoiled which the richness of the diversity of the regions, because if you see this film, you know that the Pyrenees are quite different than the lowlands and the prairies of Leon and Castilla, and then of course Galicia actually looks much more like Ireland than it does the rest of Spain. So as you are going through location scouts, you can’t help but sort of say, “Wow, I would like to include this too and this too,” and in the past when there had been films about the Camino, they said, “Oh, we’ll just be in this one region, because logistically it makes more sense.” But we were greedy about it and we wanted to show all of it, because I think seeing that transition and the diversity, these guys when they are going to Cruz De Ferro, the weather was very different.
MS: That’s where we threw the rocks.
DA: Yeah. That was a bitterly cold morning and very, very different from the start, and showing that transition in the seasons I think was something we really wanted to tribute.
MS: Until we were 48 hours outside of Santiago, we were denied permission to enter the cathedral to film. They'd never allowed a film crew in there, only documentaries and news reel footage and very limited at that, because they didn’t know whether they would be denigrated. The church is going through a difficult time as it is now with the scandals, and they were very reluctant to let us in there. They'd read the script. They asked Emilio, “Would you make a few changes?” He said, “Absolutely, no problem.” But we still did not get permission until we were like on the doorstep. He'd written a new ending.
EE: I was like, “Okay, there’s no room at the inn, and they don’t get in.” I was so depressed. I was so angry, I thought, “Wow, here we are and we believe that this is really good PR for the Catholic Church, and at a time when they need it the most.”
DA: And very subtle, very subtle.
EE: Yeah, so “How are they not going to let us in the church? How are they not going to let us film here? This is insane.” And you guys are a film-centric website, so you'll appreciate this, we shot Super 16. We shot in 40 days. We were running and gunning. We had a sound guy that had just won some huge award for sound at Cannes, named Aitor Berenguer, one of those mad sound geniuses. He had everything in his backpack, so his entire rig was in a backpack, so he could sort of run around. I’d say 90 percent of the movie was shot on a steady cam, but we had this amazing rig that this guy had, and he was a mountain of a man as well, but he earned his keep
MS: Raul, the operator yeah. He was a muscle builder.
Capone: And I imagine you had to have shot this in sequence. It doesn’t even logically make sense to do it any other way.
MS: We had to.
EE: And so much of that informed how the characters revealed themselves, not only to the audience, but to each other, and that’s a great luxury when you can do it, because sometimes when you don’t shoot in sequence, you shoot the end of the movie first and you go, “Man, if I had known now, I would have made different choices.” The choices that all of the characters made along the way were in fact informed by what had happened on the Camino.
MS: Obviously, they did allow us to shoot in the cathedral. We only realized later when we brought the film back a year later in Santiago the holy father had just come on the ninth as a pilgrim to Santiago, and he left the next day for Barcelona to dedicate the cathedral. And we opened the film just two blocks from that cathedral at that theater for the world premiere, and we sat next to the archbishop who gave us permission and the president of Galicia and all of the officials and our partners, our Gallego partners, and the reaction was a thunderous reception, and they stood up and gave us such a beautiful tribute.
We didn’t realize until then at the reception afterwards, they said, “We are so relieved that you didn’t denigrate us, that you held up the sacredness of it. They said to Emilio, “You’ve given us a love letter,” because the Camino is a national treasure, and we respected it and revered it, and the film celebrates it, and they didn’t know. We were outsiders other than my connection that my father was a Gallego and we had Gallego partners, thank God, but they didn’t know what we were going to do, and so they were very skeptical, and that’s why they wouldn’t let us in the cathedral until they realized we were sincere. But when they saw it on the screen, they were just brought up short and said, “Oh my, they got it.” It was a revelation to them, and they were so relieved that we kept our bargain.
Capone: I’ve got to say, watching this movie this marked a first for me. I had a few seats down from me in the screening room, a nun watching it with me. I don’t know who invited her.
EE: When did you see it?
Capone: A couple of weeks ago.
EE: With anybody in the audience?
Capone: No, it was just critics. So she was definitely planning on writing something about it. She wasn’t just there casually, I don’t think, because I’ve seen her before, but never that close.
EE: Did it make you nervous? [Laughs]
Capone: No, it didn’t make me nervous. I didn’t go to Catholic school, so I didn’t have those hang-ups.
MS: We're always curious about the critic screenings, because the film is a deeply personal invitation really to people. We sit in the audience sometimes, and I’ve seen it almost a dozen times since we started and edited it over various screenings for feedback and all over the last year. Emilio would go back in and say, “This doesn’t work…” Because of sitting in the audience and watching their reaction, I would say about 90 percent of the reaction is so gratifying, because the people begin to take the journey vicariously with us, and they laugh and they share. It’s just extraordinary. Now with critics, there's so much empty space in that big theater, and we often wonder how you clowns do it.
Capone: The theater is a small theater, and it was fairly crowded.
MS: Oh it was?
Capone: Yeah, it’s only about a 50 seater.
MS: But you must feel under terrible obligation, because somebody is watching you as you are watching the film, and you're wondering, “How is he responding?” just like you wondered about the sister. She was probably worried about you.
Capone: I stopped worrying about that a long time ago.)
MS: Good for you. You’re ready for the Camino. [laughs]
Capone: That’s right. I love the arguments in the film about what it means to be a true pilgrim, and of course there is no such thing. It’s more of a mindset than what you're carrying with you, but what was important about those discussions?
EE: I think it’s because it’s so individual and I think everyone believes they are doing it for the right reason and I think everyone believes they are true pilgrims no matter how they are doing, and the idea that you'd be judged by another pilgrim is kind of astounding.
EE: And you get this arrogant pompous ass telling everybody what their experience should be, when in fact he doesn’t have a clue either. He doesn’t have a clue about a lot of things, and there he is as a writer who is supposed to be open when in fact he’s really shut down.
MS: When we were doing it in the car, you know, we took it about a week with Taylor [Estevez] and I and Matt. Matt played the priest/rabbi who gave me the rosary, that’s Matt Clark, he’s like a brother to me. I’ve known him all of my adult life, and he took the journey with Taylor and I when Taylor met Julia, and the three of us were out there in a red Mercedes driving and we would run into pilgrims and we were such a scandal, because they recognized me and it was like “What are you doing? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” I mean they were great fun.
EE: There was this story, it’s actually very funny, we were at a dinner--not to name drop--with Mira Sorvino and her husband. It was a birthday party for my brother Ramone, and so we are sitting there, and her husband says to me, because we were talking a little bit about the film at the supper ,and he says “You know, is it possible that your dad was out on the Camino in 2003?” I said, “Yeah, he was probably out then.” He goes, “Because my sister was there, and she was standing by the side of the road and she called me and she says, “I swear to God, I just saw Martin Sheen drive past me on the Camino in a red Mercedes.”
EE: And he said, “No that’s nonsense. You’re having an apparition.”
MS: No, it was true.
DA: “The Martin Sheen I know would be walking.”
Capone: Well there’s so much to talk about with this one, but I think I’m getting pulled.
MS: Are they giving you the hook?
Capone: I think so.
MS: Don’t be intimidated by these scoundrels!
EE: I’m just curious, in terms of your readership, I mean it’s like Harry Knowles Inc., and a movie like this sort of doesn’t fit into the paradigm of what you guys do.
Capone: The five or six regular writers can do whatever the hell they want, and if they get passionate about something, they can run with it. That’s what Harry encourages, more than just geek-centric sort of stuff.
EE: That’s so cool. So he’s really opened it up then since the inception.
Capone: I’m not sure it was ever closed to be honest, he just didn’t have the kind of writers that would necessarily follow some of the smaller stuff. Anyway, that’s why I’m here. Thank you very much. It was great to meet you.