The movie year 2011 was an extraordinary year in many respects, not least for notable religious themes on the big screen. Most memorably, the fact-based drama Of Gods and Men gave the world an indelible portrait of Christian community at its most compelling and attractive, while Terrence Malick’s magnum opus The Tree of Life painted questions of life, death, grief, and faith in both scientific and mystical lights on a canvas at once intimate and cosmic. Among many other offerings on US screens that year was a little film that has inspired any number of people over the last dozen years to travel to the north of Spain and spend weeks or months hiking an ancient network of pilgrimage ways to Santiago de Compostela near the northwestern Spanish coast.
The film is The Way, a family passion project starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and the pilgrimage route is called the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. The story follows a lapsed Catholic named Tom (Sheen) whose estranged son (briefly played by Estevez) unexpectedly dies on the eve of setting out to walk the Camino. As a father-son collaboration between Sheen the Catholic revert and Estevez the agnostic, The Way can be seen as a kind of dialogue between faith and agnosticism. While it’s not about religious belief or conversion—Tom still seems pretty lapsed in the end, and, notably, none of the supporting characters have changed much either—one thing The Way is about, to my mind, is what the structures of religion can offer us when the chips are down. In my review I wrote:
The catch-phrase “spiritual but not religious” is among the most glib and insipid pieties of our times. The Way, with its centuries of tradition, its ritual gestures and formalities, its institutions and symbols, its physically demanding regimen, and its cultural, Christian and Catholic particularity, is a gratifying reminder of how religion grounds and enriches us in ways that “spirituality” can’t. “Spirituality” has no traditions or rituals, makes no demands, gives us nothing to do in times of crisis. Spirituality itself points beyond itself to religion—a point The Way makes with unforced persuasiveness.
When I first heard that Estevez was noodling concepts for a sequel to The Way, I was frankly skeptical, but the idea is growing on me. In an era of increasingly crushing superhero franchise exhaustion, the idea of revisiting the world of a small film that came out the year before the Avengers ever came together onscreen has a certain undeniable appeal—and the theme of world travel has a new attraction in the post-Covid pandemic era. Anyway, that’s probably what Fathom Events organizers were thinking when they tapped popular travel guru Rick Steves for a featurette about The Way and the Camino to play after the film, in theaters on Tuesday, May 16.
I spoke recently via telephone with writer–director Estevez about making The Way, the film’s impact, and what the film’s Catholic fans can expect from the sequel.
Get tickets to The Way for Tuesday, May 16.
So a dozen years on, The Way has touched a lot of viewers. And I’m sure over the years, it’s been gratifying to you to hear from people who were moved by it. I’m curious whether any one story, any one response to the film, stands out to you?
Emilio Estevez: Well, people have written long emails, they’ve reached out to our Facebook page, and talked about how the film changed their life. My dad [Sheen] gets snail mail because he’s not a computer guy—he doesn’t have an email address. So he’ll receive letters weekly from people who talk about how they saw the film and were inspired to go off and do the Camino, and now they’re on their third, fourth, fifth Camino. Sometimes, you know, it’ll just be something as simple as, “I don’t know if Emilio will get this note, but I just want him to know that this film changed my life. Thank you and God bless.” I never fail to get choked up by it. All that to say, this movie has been kind of running this quiet marathon for the past 12 years. That’s not anything we ever imagined would happen.
You’ve been on a project over the last couple of years to regain rights to the film…
Emilio Estevez: That’s right.
Was that for the sake of making a sequel? Or was there another reason?
Emilio Estevez: You know, it’s really twofold. First of all, we were getting a lot of feedback saying, “Why can’t we find the movie? Why is it out of public [availability], and why can’t we buy a new copy of the DVD online anymore?” At one point there was a copy for sale for like $150, based on the scarcity. There were copies on Amazon that had missing scenes, for whatever reason! People edited the film and then re-boxed it and put it out there. So it was my desire to get the movie back out there.
Emilio Estevez: And, yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out a sequel of sorts for years. It wasn’t until the last year that I finally cracked the code and figured out the continuing story of Tom. That’s all coming together really nicely. We’re off to Spain to start to do research and development on locations. Right now we’re calling it The Way: Chapter 2, and many of our characters will come back, which is great.
To that point, 12 years ago I called The Way an exploration of your family’s Galician roots, but also a dialogue of sorts between your father’s revived Catholic faith and your more secular outlook. Would you agree with that?
Emilio Estevez: I think that’s very accurate. It continues to be a dialogue—and, to your point, it continues to be an exploration on so many levels. I now have a granddaughter who’s approaching her fourth birthday and is bilingual, and is also looking to travel to Spain and connect to her Spanish relatives. So, yes, it is very much a continuation on so many levels.
In an interview at the time, you described your own religious outlook as a “work in progress”…
Emilio Estevez: [laughter]
Can I ask you if that dialogue has “progressed” at all? And, if so, how?
Emilio Estevez: Well, you know, I feel things deeply. I am still undeclared, in terms of my faith, but I feel I am still a work in progress, as so many of us are. In the last three years, we’ve all had our world rocked—especially when you think about the lives lost. What we’ve gone through has forced us all to look at ourselves, our lives, what’s important, more deeply. I think a lot of people have turned to their faith, discovering faith in a way that they perhaps never thought of before.
Continuing that thought a moment…You made The Way, I believe, at age 47; your father, Martin Sheen, was 69. You are now significantly closer to Tom’s age in the film…
Emilio Estevez: [laughter]
…than that of the Emilio who wrote and directed the film. Does this change the way that the film plays for you at all? Does anything about it loom larger for you than it did 12 years ago?
Emilio Estevez: Well, almost in a macabre way, I was able to create and write my own obituary, and watch how my father would grieve it in the event of my loss. I know it’s only a movie, but it’s still very, very personal. And maybe that’s just the ego, because our obituary is the very thing that we will never read; never be able to attend our own funeral. So, in many ways, as the creator and writer of this piece, in many ways, I was able to do that, and in a weird and twisted kind of way.
And yet the movie is about the death of a son, but that has a way of confronting a father with his own mortality.
Emilio Estevez: That’s right. And he’s able to be a father to these three other individuals in a way that he was never able to be with his own son. There’s been a lot of criticism about how at the end nobody changed. So often we’ll have these meetings at studios and they’ll say, “Well, you know, over the course of two hours, the character has needed to have these big character arcs and big changes.” Does that ever really happen in life? People have epiphanies and people have moments of clarity, certainly, but there are people that I’ve known since the second grade who are exactly the same as they were when we were seven!
This is actually something that that I preached about! I’m a Catholic deacon, and in my homily at the beginning of this past Lent I talked about how we want Lent to be a transformative journey; we want to arrive at Easter with Lent having made a difference. And yet, six weeks later, whatever we give up, whatever journey we’ve made, we often tend to arrive very much the same as we were when we started!
Emilio Estevez: So true! But that’s being human.
In my review of The Way I critiqued the catchphrase “spiritual but not religious.” I pointed out how in your film the Camino offers to pilgrims—regardless of their beliefs—a specific path to walk defined by centuries of tradition, by rituals, institutions, and symbols that I argued can ground and enrich us in ways that “spirituality” by itself can’t. I wonder if you have any thoughts about any of that.
Emilio Estevez: Well, sure. You know that Rick Steves, the travel icon, has joined us on this new adventure?
Emilio Estevez: So during the conversation with Rick that will follow the movie [in Fathom screenings], Rick specifically talks about the road as church. It’s not just spirituality, it’s tradition. It’s all of the things that, at the end of the day, we’re looking for in our journey through life. That was something I hadn’t considered when we made the movie. I think what has happened for me over the last 12 years, and certainly was illustrated and underscored by this conversation with Rick, is, to your point, exactly [coming to see] that it is the road as church. What the Camino offers, I believe, is time to reflect in a higher power in the idea that we are not alone.
Can you can you talk about revisiting this character and this vibe 15 years later, and in particular, give any insight into what The Way’s Catholic fans will find in the sequel?
Emilio Estevez: I think you’ll find an evolved Tom. There’s a new journey and I don’t want to reveal too much about what it is, but he is stronger in his faith than in the first film. And the beginning and certainly at the end, he has evolved in a way that I think has made him more of a complete individual.
Have you talked to your father over the course of developing this in terms of the dialogue between your worldview and his and how it impacts this film?
Emilio Estevez: I live right down the street from him, so there’s a continuing dialogue. The work specifically that I put into the sequel. I think that his position was that he wanted to play a man who had evolved into his faith openly. I thought that was a natural progression for the character. And so that’s just been built in throughout this new screenplay.
All right. Fantastic, Emilio. This has been a great conversation, and I look forward to seeing the sequel!
Emilio Estevez: Hey, thank you so much, man. I really appreciate your time.
Related at CWR:
• “Following ‘The Way’” (Nov 1, 2011): An interview with Martin Sheen, by Matthew A. Rarey
• “Making ‘The Way’ His Way” (Feb 16, 2012): An interview with Emilio Estevez, by Carl E. Olson
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#1. Poor choice in a follow-up film by Rick Steves. Steves does creditable travelogs but his understanding of Catholicism is vapid and as an outsider. In fact, he makes frankly anti-Catholic statements in some of his travelcommentaries. He’s excellent at self-promotion, though.
#2. “post-Covid pandemic era”…I’d call it instead, “”post-Covid-induced panic era.”
#3 I saw the first iteration of The Way and wasn’t particularly impressed. It didn’t inspire me at all, the acting was flat, and the story line was tedious. The Camino either points man to God or it does not. In the case of the film it does not. Instead, all we get is man pointing to himself. Satan is great at promoting that dynamic.
#4. Estevez ought to make a follow-up film if and when he allows God’s grace to work on his heart and he gives up his childish agnosticism. His problem is not with his own earthly father but with his Heavenly Father. If he were to allow God to Father him, he’d have a compelling story to tell and the potential for a great movie.
We used to love watching Rick Steves. Early on it was ‘how to travel Europe when you’re not a a resident of Beverly Hills.’ Eventually, it seemed more and more his itineraries were best suited for those who are residents of Beverly Hills. Plus he was one who inserted himself in the Obama era commentary on the ISIS uprising, assuring us that [Islamic] terrorism was just going to be the new normal and we were going to have to accept that. I tend to lose faith in people who who are not only that wrong, but willing to be ho-hum about human suffering when it appears politically inconvenient.
The Way film was done because: North Spanish authorities wanted to promote the Way in USA and the world, Martin Sheen dad was from a small town near the city of the Apostle James. And they made the deal. Now we have a second part?.
The point is: why? Although his son is not as catholic as him, something God did in his soul. Is the same history of the film, the city or the way. The film is not a good film (in my opinion), the Way and the City are not as catholics they should. Sometimes you feel this is a theme park. But at the end the film, the director, the Way and the City are saying this is in honor of the Apostle James (the Great, but also the Less, both) and the world now it. Meanwhile the Tradition is present, even when many do things wrong, somenone is preseving it.
I’ve been a fan of Emilio Estevez (as well as his dad & brother Martin & Charlie) since I was in 5th grade. I also got the chance to read their memoir & they will never ever forget my country the Philippines.
THE WAY taught me how to life a meaningful & insightful life as we journey on in our lives and how to (re)create our personal ‘Camino’.
Kudos Emilio & Martin on THE WAY & you have blessed many viewers on this film.
Emilio, if you are reading this, pls revisit the Philippines soon & have your movie be shown also. Salamat!
The active presence of Catholics in the film industry is heartening and encouraging. Unfortunately, this form of communication seems to have been sorely neglected by Catholics in the US for many years, which may account for much of the apostacy and re-emergence of paganism in recent years.
I’ve only read and heard good things about Emilio. I do wonder what he now thinks about raising his son in Horrible Hollywood. It’s tragic.
Those who have lavished a little bit of non-discriminating praise in these comboxes on Martin Sheen’s Catholicism, etc. should note that he is a card-carrying member of the “personally opposed but I won’t impose my views on others” club when it comes to abortion, plus he supports democrats across the board despite their immoral positions on abortion, euthanasia, “transgender” nonsense, and so on. Voting for, supporting, and endorsing such people who promote abortion on demand and other evils is a form of immoral cooperation with their sins, and solid Catholics simply do not do these things.
This is not to say that Sheen and his sons have not made some good movies, etc., but it should always be kept in mind what some of his immoral ideological principles are that often creep into some of his work. In his role as a democrat President of the US in the TV Series “The West Wing,” Sheen described his character that he fully approved of playing as a combination of JFK, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and of course the program promoted the democrat agenda while also taking cheap shots at conservative principles and conservative people from time-to-time, which, by the way, is also done by Greydanus in various forums.
Good points, and I remember the Series Premiere of The West Wing – they took a number of cheap shots at the religious right. It was my favorite show – it was well written, well acted – everything about it was well done.
That being said – I didn’t take it seriously for more than a few minutes.
From time to time? Say almost every episode. Most often the only way a Republican or conservative was presented in a positive light was when the individual in question realized how lousy Republicans and conservatives are. I used to call it an hour long liberal sermon in dramatic form. With that said, I liked it and watched it regularly until Rob Lowe’s character left, since he was the token ‘liberal Democrats aren’t always 100% prefect’ character that brought some balance to the rest of the cast who spent most of their time walking on water and feeding the multitudes. Of course West Wing was hardly alone, and by the late 90s much of television and entertainment in general was beginning to be propaganda for various leftwing political agendas and viewpoints. Not that it wasn’t before, but it was becoming more and more flagrant and universal.
Thanks for the “correction,” Dave G. I only watched it a few times, because after giving it a chance of a few episodes, it proved to be ultimately unsavory and provided too many occasions for me to sin. As such, I also didn’t need to observe the garbage on a regular basis.
I have to agree with your last point. If Greydanus had his way, the Democratic Party would control the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Dobbs would be overturned, abortion would be legal in all fifty states, and pro-life people would be forced to perform and pay for abortions. But since Greydanus’ main obsessions are “democracy” and “anti-racism,” he lavishes praise on the Democrats and condemns Republicans.
Mr. Fletcher surely you aren’t referring to the author of this article?
I absolutely am.
I’m sorry and rather bewildered to hear that. I imagine Deacon Steven would be also.
He’d be bemused by a lot of things. He lacks the capacity for self-reflection needed to recognize that he’s a leftist tool.
Conversing with a Greydanus defender is almost as pointless as conversing with Greydanus himself. You’ll get nothing but denials and word games.
The movie The Way never purports to be a “Catholic” movie. It is an otherwise secular story that just happens to take place on the Camino de Santiago. Does it represent Catholicism as I would have it? No. But that’s not the point. It is simply a story of 4 flawed souls, each with their own cross, who in all fallen humanness inadvertently burden each other with their cross but who in the end overcome all of that and find love and acceptance.
We read too much into it. The characters are flawed, as are we all. The actors are flawed, as are we all. I choose to see it as a love story.
Obviously I am a fan of the movie and when I retire for the second time (God willing) it is my full intention to walk the Camino. One perhaps final adventure for this Marine. The Camino does not call me to walk it. In the words of Hape Kerkeling in his book “I’m off Then”, I am summoned.
I agree. We tend to overthink things sometimes.
My oldest daughter walked the Camino after she graduated high school. What she remembered most was how welcoming & friendly people were who lived along the way. I’d love to do that walk one day also.
I polished up my Spanglish to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City recently so perhaps that might assist me along the Camino one day too. Who knows?
I hope you find your way to Galicia also.
When I think of Martin Sheen and ‘The West Wing’ I think first of the scene in the last season after Leo’s funeral in in which he stays in the Church, smokes a cigarette which he stomps out on the floor of the Church and calls God a ‘Son of a B…h’ among other things.