It all started in 2003 when actor Martin Sheen visited part of The Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, also known as The Way of St. James — a trip many make for spiritual or religious reasons. As a devout Catholic, Sheen came back full of stories from the trip and told his son, who is actor, director and screenwriter Emilio Estevez, that he wanted to do a movie about it — and he wanted him to write it.
Joining Sheen on the trip was Estevez’ son Taylor, who met a girl while in Spain and fell in love. He got married and moved there, and that is where the idea for the movie “The Way,” which opens in theaters throughout the United States and Canada this October, was born.
“In many ways, I lost my son on The Camino,” Estevez tells Elevated Existence. “It was something I knew about. When I started as a young writer and fledgling director, I made movies about topics that I really knew nothing about. I realized over time that the old saying ‘Write what you know’ came into play for me with this movie.”
In the movie, Estevez plays the character Daniel, who dies on his first day of The Camino, and Martin Sheen plays his father, Tom. After receiving a telephone call about his son’s death, Tom travels to St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to collect Daniel’s remains. However, his desire to better understand his son and what he was searching for leads him to embark on The Camino himself, carrying Daniel’s ashes, backpack and belongings with him as he takes the 750-kilometer trek on foot. Ultimately, he not only discovers who his son was, but he also discovers himself.
“When I began to bounce around ideas with Martin about what the story would be, I said, ‘I really think this movie is first about losing a son, so let’s use that as a device to get your character to Spain and to The Camino, but secondly, I think this movie is really about community, faith and family, and it’s about creating a family in the absence of having one,’” Estevez explains.
Tom meets three fellow pilgrims while on The Camino, all walking for their own reasons and on their own search. Estevez explains he modeled the structure after “The Wizard of Oz,” with Tom’s character representing Dorothy. Tom meets a woman named Sarah, played by Deborah Unger, whose character fits that of the Tin Man; a Dutchman named Joost, who is played by Yorick Van Wageningen and is reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion; and a writer who is suffering from writer’s block named Jack, played by James Nesbitt, who represents the Scarecrow.
Aside from doing his own research about The Camino and reading books written about it, Estevez also had first-hand knowledge because his son’s apartment is on The Camino. “My son has been living there for the last eight years, and his wife’s family actually takes in pilgrims,” he says.
“They have what is called a Casa Rurales, which is a bigger, more formal version of a Refugio. They have been adding rooms, but they can take in anywhere from 15 to 20 pilgrims a night. So, I would be exposed to pilgrims staying there, and I would see them walking past their apartment in the city of Burgos.”
Estevez started writing the screenplay in the late summer of 2008, had a first draft by January
2009, and wanted to start filming that September. In August 2009, Sheen, Estevez and his son, Taylor, attended a meeting set up in Spain for funding and approval with “what I like to affectionately call ‘The Brothers Fernandez,’ who are Spain’s equivalent of the Weinstein brothers in the United States,” Estevez says. “We marched in there with a script, a commitment from Martin and a very tight timeline in which to do it.”
While initially they were met with a few eye rolls, Estevez got his first gift from The Camino when his son Taylor began to tell his story. This changed everything. “What’s interesting is how this whole thing came full circle in a magical way,” he says. “We brought my son Taylor into the meeting with these executives, and it was a very formal lunch meeting right up until the point where my son began to tell the story of how he came to Spain and how he fell in love. These two brothers were laughing, and they were really beside themselves. That is when the cigars came out, and the after lunch drinks came out, and we basically made the deal in the room. It was pretty outrageous.”
GIFTS FROM THE CAMINO
While filming the movie, the cast and crew actually walked much of The Camino, logging around 300 to 350 kilometers of the journey, according to Estevez. And because of the limited budget, many of the pilgrims seen in the film are actual pilgrims who were walking The Camino.
“A train would stop off camera and begin to unload and I would say, ‘Hey, do you guys want to be in a movie?’ and we had release forms on hand in many different languages, whether it was French, Japanese or German, so people could sign and give us permission to use their images,” Estevez recalls, explaining he viewed moments like this as a blessing.
“My first assistant director would be pulling his hair out, losing his mind because he would look at it as if they had blown the show, and I said, ‘No man, on the contrary. It is a gift,’” Estevez explains. “We are very grateful for them.”
Another gift for Estevez was uncovering how his roots play a role in his life, and the spiritual connection between himself and how his grandfather lived. At home in California, he has an organic vegetable garden, raises chickens for eggs, has a vineyard and raises worms for soil amendment — what he now sees as a very European lifestyle.
“A lot of these things have just sort of come to me without any real skill set or formal training. I don’t have a degree in agriculture, and I’ve never really planted anything in my life before seven years ago,” he says. “But I have a real connection to the land, and I’ve had a real connection to growing things and being self sufficient. While I was in Spain, and in Galicia where my grandfather is from, I began to notice how every backyard had a vineyard, a garden and chickens. Every person in that region seemed to be incredibly self-sufficient, and I really began to examine the spiritual connection between myself and the way my grandfather lives, and my spiritual connection to Spain in general.”
Estevez explains science is backing up the spiritual aspects of this with what is known as Epigenetics, where we can have a certain skill set or are drawn to something culturally and may not know why. “I think it’s an interesting science as science goes, but I think there is something deeper than that. I think there is more of a spiritual connection there than just science,” he notes. “I’m glad science is there to support it because I think it gives it more weight, but I think it exists on a much deeper and much more spiritual level.”
In writing, directing and starring in the movie, Estevez sees the film as a celebration of the need for community, family and faith, and for taking the time to appreciate the small things in life. “It’s the little moments that add up to what this life is all about,” he says. “I think in this fast-paced life we are all currently living in — with its 24-hour news cycle, faster computers, 4G networks and e-mail — it’s all supposed to improve the quality of our lives, but I don’t know if it is. I don’t know if our communication has become any better. It’s certainly faster, but I don’t know if it’s any better. It’s also the way people consume food and why so many western cultures are unhealthy — it’s all so fast.”
He hopes people find the deeper meaning in the picture, which represents what is lacking in so many lives. “If you don’t take the time to digest what just happened before moving onto the next thing, you are never going to find satisfaction. It’s never going to be fast enough or new enough. We all get caught up — and I get caught up. All of the sudden it will be the end of the day and I haven’t taken the time, literally, to smell the flowers. It’s about slowing down, and taking the time to appreciate where you’ve been and where you are going.”
At the beginning of the movie, Daniel and Tom are in a car, and Daniel says to his father, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.” In essence, he is talking about being fearless when it comes to the unknown.
“We all get caught up in things that we busy our day with, but sometimes we need to ask, is it by choice or is it by rote?” Estevez notes. “What Daniel is saying to his father, without judgment, is ‘Your choices have crippled you from seeing what else is out there, and what other possibilities there are,’” he explains.
Many who walk The Camino do so for spiritual or religious reasons, as the end destination is St. James Cathedral, or the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where tradition says the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. But many embark on the journey and find their spirituality on the way.
“The Camino is really a metaphor for life,” says Estevez. “Are you walking your life with integrity and are you walking with dignity? Are you walking an honest life? I think that is what we are all after, or what I’d like to believe anyway, is that we are all searching and striving toward walking and living an honest life.”
To watch a trailer of the movie and for more information, visit www.theway-themovie.com.