Filmmaker Emilio Estevez is on a media blitz with his father and fellow actor, Martin Sheen, to promote “The Way,” a heart-wrenching, funny and soul-searching film opening in U.S. theaters today.
Estevez wrote, directed and produced this film for his family, especially for his dad, also known as quite the political activist.
During the Washington, D.C., leg of their tour, I was granted an interview with them for WND, along with co-producer David Alexanian of Elixir Films. The filmmakers had a lot to say, one thing led to another and here are some of the highlights.
If you think you know Sheen as star of the NBC series “The West Wing,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” think again.
In “The Way,” Sheen plays Dr. Tom Avery, an uptight California ophthalmologist and widower who has lost faith and dropped his Catholic religion. In real life, however, Sheen said he “loves the faith.”
David Alexanian, Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen (Anita Crane © 2011. All rights reserved)
Estevez plays Tom’s son Daniel, a young man who went to Berkeley, dove into cultural anthropology, and got lost somewhere along the line of pondering his doctorate. According to Estevez, Daniel suddenly decides he’s had enough of learning about the world from books, enough of working as a teacher’s assistant and off he goes to actually see the world for himself.
After five years as a traveling “seeker,” Daniel invites his dad to join him on the Camino de Santiago, otherwise known as the Way of St. James, hence the movie title. It is the 500-mile Christian pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, containing the relics of St. James the Apostle in Spain. And according to the filmmakers, it has become a journey traveled by people of many religions – even people of no religion.
Watch the trailer:
Therefore, Sheen sees “The Way” as his family’s overture to the entire human family.
“‘The Way’ is about healing, transcendence and extended family, which is community. The film was a deeply personal project for me,” he said. “At my age, a part like this does not come along very often. It’s the best role I have had in many, many years, and the fact that I am able to be part of a film that includes my family, my son and my grandson, makes it very special.
“The film is also about family. It takes the death of my character’s only son for him to reconnect with the world and truly see what is important in life. I think this will be a message that many families will connect with.”
Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, and Martin Sheen as fellow pilgrims in “The Way,” a film by Emilio Estevez. (Elixir Films, 2011)
Following in his father’s footsteps, Estevez began his career as an actor, then graduated to filmmaker in hopes of rising above the standard Hollywood fare. His top three favorite accomplishments are “The War at Home,” “Bobby” and now “The Way” – all featuring both him and his father as actors.
Thus, I asked Estevez a series of questions about his experience of working on other people’s films and why he made “The Way.”
“I mean nobody starts out to make a piece of crap,” he said. “But it happens more often than not. And oftentimes you agree to do movies and everyone has great intentions – and I’ve directed some of those movies that had great intentions and were ultimately not good films. I’ve appeared in them. So has he (Sheen).”
Estevez was talking both production and moral quality of films.
He continued, “If you go out – the studios – they don’t know how to do it any other way. But they’ll green-light a $200 million and that in itself, I think, is vulgar. Now when you think about all the stories that could be told for a lot less, without the CGI [computer generated imagery], without the vulgarity, without the gratuitous killing or sex or [foul] language, I just find that there are so few movies that I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of. I’m seeing actors that I admire in crap belittling themselves and it’s embarrassing.”
Considering the studio system, Alexanian said, “Well, it’s hard to make independent films; films that are independently spirited that get a chance to become mainstream. And I think the studios have the burden of decision by committee, which I think is the death of art.”
Nevertheless, Estevez and Alexanian weren’t completely slamming the studio system of decision by committee, but adapted that into the now-popular indie method of multiple screenings and listening to one audience after another until a movie is ready for world release.
Some feedback or criticism involved Tom sprinkling his son’s ashes along the Camino because this isn’t proper Catholic tradition.
But other parts of the film make up for that oversight. Along the way, Tom adopts three faulty but earnest characters including Joost the Dutchman (Yorick Van Wageningen), who is trying to lose weight for his wife, but wining and dining on cheese; Jack the Irish travel writer (James Nesbitt), who suffers writer’s block but no loss for words; and Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), the Canadian chain smoker who’s on a mission to quit.
In one of the most poignant scenes, Sarah finds out that Tom is grieving the death of his only son. Given Tom’s loss, she regrets all her harsh presumptions about him, bursts into tears and confesses the real reason for her pilgrimage.
“I had to give her a device for being out there and being so completely broken,” Estevez said. “And what better way than to have this examined in the form of a terminated pregnancy that has left a hole in her heart? And the level of regret and the seemingly hopeless place that she is in and she’s looking to trust men again. She’s looking for the brothers that she grew up with. She’s looking for – to fill that hole in her heart again – and she’s looking for forgiveness. And ultimately she finds it through these other three gentlemen – who are, in fact, gentlemen – and they’re all chivalrous. They all have grace.”
Indeed. As Estevez so humorously demonstrates, Tom, Joost and Jack are gentlemen.
When nature calls Sarah, they guard her modesty with backs turned.
Nodding towards his father, Estevez said, “And he objected to that moment, but I said, ‘This is a galvanizing moment. Yes, it’s somewhat juvenile but it works in the piece and it basically says these three brothers or the father figure will do anything including stand guard while she must relieve herself.’ Right?
“But also to that point, we also wanted to give voice to the unborn and when she says ‘I’m hearing my unborn daughter,’ [Tom's] saying ‘That’s not so crazy, ’cause I’m seeing my deceased son.’ And so the distance between them all of a sudden shrinks about a thousand percent and they are kindred spirits in their loss.”
So if Emilio Estevez and his father want “The Way” to be a voice for the unborn, and if Martin Sheen loves the faith, does this raise other questions? Yes, it certainly does. I asked those questions and a lot was said. In brief, Sheen promised me another interview in 2012 to discuss his politics.
Meanwhile, I believe a lot of love was poured into “The Way.”
“The film celebrates faith, family and the very best of humanity,” said Sheen. “I hope people will recognize that they don’t have to go to Santiago, Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem to be on pilgrimage. We all are on pilgrimage, whether we realize it or not. I want people to see themselves in this film and to get in touch with the part of them that seeks to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. I think we are all seeking a transcendent experience to come to know ourselves and to lead an honest and free life.”
“The Way” is rated PG-13.