Making “The Way” His Way

An interview with Emilio Estevez

The film, “The Way”, written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, is an inspirational story about family, friends, faith and the challenges faced navigating a complicated world. Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who comes to France to collect the remains of his adult son (played by Estevez), killed in a storm in the Pyrenees while walking the famous Camino de Santiago, “The Way of St. James.” Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey, unprepared for the profound impact the journey will have on him. He meets other pilgrims from around the world with their own issues and looking for greater meaning in their lives. From the unexpected, moving and amusing experiences along “The Way,” and especially when he reaches the pilgrim’s destination, the beautiful Shrine of St. James the Apostle, Tom learns what it means to be fully human again.

Catholic World Report recently spoke by phone with Estevez about the making of “The Way”, the themes explored in the film, and his thirty-year career as an actor and writer.

CWR: What was the original inspiration for the script for “The Way”?

Estevez: It really was inspired initially by my father. He had traveled to Spain to walk a part of the Camino de Santiago in 2003.  And he went with my son, who was working at the time; he was nineteen.  And so off they went; and one of the first nights they stayed in a bed and breakfast that took in pilgrims.  My son met the innkeeper’s daughter and fell in love and he’s been living there almost nine years now.  They were married in 2009—and that was the true inspiration.  I figured that if I was going spend some time with my son, I better figure out how to make a film in Spain, and we did.  So that was sort of the origin of it.  And then we began to talk about actually doing a project there and what it would look like. Through a series of conversations we developed what would ultimately be a dramatic journey wherein a father loses his son on the Camino—because that’s kind of what happened to me, although not tragically. And the end developed from that, once we had that hook, and we built on that.

CWR: An article in The New York Times reported that you spent a lot of time in your vineyard when writing the script, and you touched on a connection of sorts between growing the fruit and creating wine, and writing and developing the film.  How does that work?

Estevez: Well, I think we all need an outlet and as a writer you’ll be sitting there and staring at the computer screen—or your typewriter—and you’re thinking, “Okay, this is just a blank page!” You have bouts of writers block, and you are thinking, “I need some inspiration, I need to get outside of my self and look to other means to be inspired.”  And I’ve certainly found that, not only in the vineyard, but in the garden. We’ve created somewhat of a micro farm here where I live; we raise bees and chickens and worms for the soil and we have a hot house for tomatoes and peppers in the wintertime, although it’s California and we can get everything out here.  (Regardless, there are times of the year when tomatoes and peppers grow better.)  And then there’s an 800-vine vineyard, and we don’t have a staff, so it’s basically just my gal and I taking care of all of it.  And while it is overwhelming at times it really does provide a sense of another place, an outlet, and an endless amount of inspiration for getting back to the computer or getting back to the typewriter and creating something.

CWR: Does it provide a sense of balance and perspective in the hectic world that is Hollywood?

Estevez: Yes, and that’s what I’ve been doing a bit lately, since the release of the film, the theatrical release anyway, is over.  I’ve taken to leaving the phone inside, keeping the computer off. I don’t have a smart phone, I still have a flip phone, and I won’t take that out in the vineyard or the yard and I’m just really programmed to not multi-task because I think when you do, ultimately, all of the things that take your time to accomplish get short shrift, so I’m really concentrating on each day, one task at a time and doing it well.

CWR: When did you first become interested in writing and in directing? You have written and directed a number of projects in recent years, but when did that become something you thought seriously about doing?

Estevez: I’ve always been a writer.  I excelled in creative writing class at school, I wrote a play when I was eleven to celebrate George Washington’s birthday.  I wrote a play and played the narrator of the play; then I wrote another play when I was a senior in high school.  I did my first adaptation, when I was nineteen, of the S. E. Hinton book, The Outsiders, and then worked on the project, That Was Then…This Is Now. So I’ve always have been interested in storytelling, from a very early age.  So this, for me, has been somewhat of a natural progression.  The last fifteen years for me I’ve been concentrating, really, on directing, and acting as well, but less so.  And I think I’m going to switch it up again and get back in front of the camera.  I miss it and if I learned anything on our sixty day road tour was that people are interested and excited to see me back in front of the camera, so that’s the overall plan, anyway.

CWR: Speaking of your time in Europe filming “The Way”, were there any surprises, or twists and turns and adjustments to the script on the fly, or does you follow the script closely?

Estevez: You know, when I was a young filmmaker I insisted that we follow the script and there was very little room for improvisation.  The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned to sort of let go and be open to the possibility of surprise and wonderful mistakes and flaws because you just never know what is born out of that. And I think this film greatly benefited from my lack of wanting to control every aspect of it. Because in truth, what do we really know? Pretty much nothing! So I think it was a great lesson. We didn’t have a lot of money, and we certainly couldn’t control the elements. We shot 90% of it outdoors and so we were at the whim of the elements and forces greater than ourselves, and I had to just be open to accepting all of them. 

CWR: That echoes a theme of the movie as well, of letting go…

Estevez: Yeah. It was a very charmed and blessed set. We were really worried about shooting in northern Spain, because the locals said that it doesn’t rain every day, but twice a day! They said we were crazy to wanting to shoot it that year, telling us that we should come back the next year in the summer. But we said, “We have to shoot this year.” It did end up raining twice—and on both of those days we were shooting interiors.

CWR: Providential, perhaps?

Estevez: There were things happening on set that I stopped calling coincidences. There were signs all around that we were traveling a pretty righteous path. 

CWR: What do you hope that viewers will come away with from the movie; what is the impact you hope the movie will have?

Estevez: I think the theme of the film is that we live in a culture telling us we aren’t good enough the way we are. We are told, “You need to take this pill” or “Go on this diet”, or “Have your teeth whitened and you’ll be prettier”, and on and on. It’s like the media and these big businesses are in cahoots, telling us that we are all imperfect and that we should change. How about the theme that we are just fine being the way we are? We are all fine and we are all beautifully fine, and that’s what make us all human. I really believe that is ultimately the message of the film, because when you get to the end of the picture, he hasn’t stopped smoking, he hasn’t lost any weight. The character of the writer realizes there are things bigger than himself. He realizes he is never going to have the last word on anything. And Tom heads to a place where he probably realizes that he is going to be a citizen of the world, maybe for the first time.

But they are all beautifully flawed, but they accept themselves and they accept they are okay living in their own skin. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more of that portrayed in the mainstream media? But there’s no money in it. If you could figure out how to monetize that message, we would hear it all the time, but there is no money in it. Because you have to create a culture of fear to make people think are missing out on something. 

CWR: What has been the reception of the movie by viewers? 

Estevez: We’re starting to receive a lot of fan mail from all over the world about the film. And what fans are saying about it has been incredibly gratifying; many are saying, “Thank you for making this picture!” It’s really gratifying when I read an e-mail from someone saying, “This film changed my life”. It’s not just one or two instances of it; it’s continuous. I can think of no better gift as a filmmaker than to have touched people on that level when you get an opportunity to do so.

CWR: Is there anything about the film or making of the film that you’d like to highlight?

Estevez: It’s not a downer film; there’s a ton of humor in it and it’s very uplifting. It’s not a foreign film and it’s not some small, independent movie, but it’s independently spirited. I think the overall themes of the film are enormous and are as big as any studio picture that would try to contain the same ideas. It’s a film you can see and hear with your parents. When was the last time you could do something that—to take your parents to a film you aren’t embarrassed about? 

• “The Way” is available from Ignatius Press as a DVD and as a Blu-ray Disc, as is the film’s soundtrack.

• Also see CWR’s November 2011 interview with Martin Sheen, “Following ‘The Way'”, by Matthew Rarey.

Watch a trailer for “The Way” on YouTube.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.