Whether they go by the name Sheen or Estevez, they’re part of a Hollywood dynasty. Father Martin Sheen has appeared in legendary films (Badlands, Apocalypse Now) and Emmy-winning television shows (“The West Wing”) and is a well-known liberal activist. Son Emilio Estevez is a popular actor (The Breakfast Club, Repo Man, Young Guns), a journeyman director (Bobby) and a former member of the notorious ’80s Brat Pack.
The father-and-son duo have worked together a number of times over the years, but the two recently crisscrossed the country promoting their most personal project to date, a writing-directing-acting collaboration titled The Way. The intimate indie drama follows an emotionally myopic opthamologist named Tom Avery (Sheen) to Spain, where he goes to claim the body of his estranged son Daniel (Estevez). Free-spirited Daniel perished during a freak thunderstorm in the Pyrenees while undertaking an ancient Christian pilgrimage across Western Europe. Motivated by the opportunity to understand his offspring, Tom steps into his son’s shoes (literally) and attempts the finish the trek to Santiago di Compostela along the historic Camino de Santiago.
The Alibi was lucky enough to chat with Sheen and Estevez as they passed through Santa Fe last month, previewing the film for receptive audiences.
This is a difficult film to approach. It’s clearly a very spiritual film, but not necessarily a religious one. Is that how you approached it?
Sheen: You got it.
Sheen: That’s what unites us. Sometimes, unfortunately, religion—because of dogma—divides us. But the spirituality is what unites us.
Estevez: What’s interesting about the two of us is that he is devout Catholic ...
Sheen: Practicing Catholic. I keep practicing and hoping to get it right one day.
Estevez: But I’m more of what my mother calls a work in progress, in terms of my spirituality. I have yet to declare myself. I think it made for an interesting working relationship on this, because there we are on this very holy pilgrimage and you can’t point your camera in any direction without seeing a church.
We had initially talked about what this movie would be. And throughout these conversations, he wanted to make a movie where his character fell to his knees at every church and wept openly and was very sentimental. I thought, Man, that’s not a movie I want to make; here’s a camera, go help yourself. So I thought, How can we structure this in a way that makes it a palatable movie, that makes it independently spirited? We have Spain, we have all these extraordinary locations. We have probably a hundred, two hundred million dollars in locations and production value. We can make a smaller movie look enormous with the natural light and these locations. So let’s come up with a story that makes sense, that feels more universal.
We tapped into The Wizard of Oz, because I thought Santiago was our Emerald City. That Tom would be our Dorothy. That we would meet the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow along the way, and it would be a four-hander. In fact, the Camino itself is marked in yellow arrows. So you don’t have to look far to see the analogy.
How did this project come to both of you in the first place?
Sheen: The germ of it was really a miracle. In 2003, [Estevez’] son Taylor, my grandson, was working for me as an assistant on “The West Wing.” He was 19. We went to Ireland for a family reunion, and I invited everyone to Spain to walk the Camino. There were two takers: [Taylor] and Matt Clark, the guy that plays the rabbi/priest with the rosary [in the film]. He’s an old and dear friend. He and I and Taylor went to Spain.
I had this romantic image of being on the Camino. I didn’t have a backpack. I didn’t know about clothes. I was just mesmerized by the idea. And I only had two weeks to do it, which is ludicrous. You can do it with a bicycle. We didn’t have enough time. You can do it on a horse. No. So we rented a car, and we drove the Camino. I thought, we’ll suss it out and have a look for future reference. At the first stop in Burgos, we stopped at a refugio called El Molino—which means “The Mill.” They had pilgrim suppers at all these places. We’re sitting there—pilgrims from all over and the owners of the refugio, named Maximillian and Milagros. Their daughter, who was serving supper, was Julia. Julia took one look at [Estevez’] son. [Estevez’] son took one look at Julia. They’ve been together ever since. They’re married. They live in Burgos. So, when that [first] went down and we were flying back, [Taylor] says, “You know I’m going back, I’m in love with that girl. My heart is breaking.” He said, “What do you think I should do?” I said, “I know very well: You’re going back.” He told his dad. His dad said, “Wait a minute!” Now he’s got to go to Spain to visit him.
Estevez: So I started going to visit and getting familiar with the pilgrimage and meeting pilgrims as they came through her parents’ albergue. Martin started suggesting we go and make a movie there. And through these conversations, I got to a place where I said, OK, let’s make this story about something I know about. I know about losing a son on the Camino. Not tragically, of course, but I know about losing a son. That’s the hook. What’s the device I use to get you there? Because you can’t just wake up one day and decide you’re going to go. Something forces you to go. That’ll be the death of a family member. So, that’s how this movie opens.