Last month Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen embarked on a nationwide bus tour to promote Estevez’s recent film The Way. During their stop in Minneapolis I had the opportunity to sit down with both of them and three other journalists at a roundtable interview. We spoke for nearly 45 minutes where they discussed filmmaking techniques in remote locations, their religious journeys, and what it was like to work together as father and son.
The Way tells the story of Tom (Martin Sheen) whose son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) is killed while on pilgrimage through the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. The conservative and curmudgeonly Tom travels to Spain to pick up his son’s body and feels spiritually moved to partake in the journey himself. He initially departs on his own, but meets up with several strangers along the way who are each in search of something.
The film opened two weeks ago in New York and Los Angeles, and received a wide release this past weekend. It has been marketed specifically towards religious organizations, with its deeply Catholic message, but the allegorical tale can be enjoyed by almost anybody. This film is a lot more intimate than Estevez’s last film Bobby was, so the first question asked about the writing process.
EMILIO: Dealing with four characters as opposed to 22 like we did on Bobby was a lot easier. It’s almost the antithesis of that film. Where Bobby was completely interior, this was almost 98% exterior with four characters to follow. What both films share in common is that first they’re about our humanity and second we knew how they ended. We knew at the end of this we had to get to Campostella and with Bobby we knew how it ended in the kitchen. I’ve had the luxury to work backwards. If you know how a story is going to end it certainly makes the getting there more enjoyable.
Q: All of your characters have different voices, which a lot of people struggle to capture. How was the character creation process for you [Emilio] and what did you [Martin] do to get into the role?
EMILIO: I wanted to create a character that was unlike who Martin is. I wanted to create this curmudgeon, this guy who he would not be friends with. A guy who plays golf at the country club.
MARTIN: I used to caddy.
EMILIO: A guy who’s cut off from the world. My old man jumps in and wants to shake everybody’s hand and wants to know where you’re from and what your parents do. He’s very interested in people. On the contrary, his character is not so I had to keep him from playing himself throughout. I said “I have structured this guy so that he will reveal himself and he will be awake.” We start to see little pieces fall away; it really happens in the hotel room when he realizes they’ve now created this Casa Royale or farmhouse in this hotel room where the very things they thought they wanted – creature comforts away from each other, room service, get my laundry done – all the things they thought they wanted, they really just wanted to be together. That’s the moment where he becomes himself and he realizes he is a father now to these three younger people.
SHEEN: He’s the father he never was to [Daniel]. It’s because of him that lead me through the journey. At one point he says to me when I was being gregarious and friendly with people he’d say “Man, look, let’s be even and direct here. You’re playing a guy who would never vote for Jed Bartlett.”
SHEEN: So I kept that in mind and I started to get it. He structured the script and the character so that the journey on foot he was so determined. And I didn’t practice for it, because I wanted to see what it would really be like. The bag was heavy man, and I wanted that because it would make a difference the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I breathe. The guy didn’t plan on doing it, so I surrendered to that. The interior journey was the one he had structured so well. Most father-son stories, the son becomes the father, in this case the father becomes the son and eventually becomes himself. So it was the interior journey that was the transcendent journey. The journey inside.
EMILIO: I grew up in a house where my mother was raised Southern Baptist and my father was raised old school Catholic, like before Vatican II. I grew up hearing nothing but arguments about religion. Fights, downright fights. Throwing things!
MARTIN: Oh, now. Not over religion.
EMILIO: It was always about religion! There was always the question about how the children were going to be raised and it was going to be this way or that way, but we were all baptized. Because of that turmoil, church and going to mass was not part of our routine. In all households it’s usually the father that loses the fight. Ours was no exception.
MARTIN: Separation of church and parents.
EMILIO: He came back to the faith in 1981 and he came back to a very different church, but for me, I’m what my mom likes to call “a work in progress.” I’m still on a journey. I have yet to declare myself in terms of my religion, but I don’t think there’s any question I’m on a very spiritual journey as we all are. I’m very much in touch with it in ways that surprise me daily.
Q: So did working on this film impact it?
EMILIO: Oh yeah. We stopped calling miracles that happened along the way coincidences, it was providence. We knew we were doing exactly the work we were supposed to be doing, we were in exactly the place we were supposed to be and we’d talk about that daily.
MARTIN: One night it was sundown and we were filming in a remote area and we were done and Emilio left and went down to the camera truck and we were headed home…
EMILIO: …and I saw a sunset. You know when you see a sunset and it’s like a developing and you go “wow, that’s going to get really interesting in about 20 minutes.”
MARTIN: So he raced back up and said “get your backpacks on!” So we all started scrambling and getting ready and one of the players, not me, shouts out “what’s our motivation?” [Emilio] stopped and looked back as if he’d been hit with a stone and said “to give thanks and praise of course!”
Q: You mentioned before that you shot in sequence and kind of an interesting benefit of seeing the film is it feels like it gets more focused as time goes on. Is that something you felt that things were getting tighter and tighter?
EMILIO: Also, the choices you make earlier in the journey inform how the characters are going to react to one another. You may have had an idea or the script may have said this person does “X,” when in fact you get to that place in the Camino and that person can’t do X anymore, they have to do Y which is informed by what happened earlier. It’s a great luxury to be able to shoot this way. There wasn’t sort of a “I’m going to back to the hotel to think, or to the dressing room…”
MARTIN: What dressing room?
EMILIO: There wasn’t any dressing room. We were moving. A lot of times we would just be in a van and we’d say “that looks good!” We’d pull in and the steadycam guy would get out and we’d say “see you on the other side of town.” We’d drive around and wait for them to come out and say “did we get it?”
Q: Going way back before The Way, [Martin], you have worked with some legendary directors and you, Emilio, were there when he was working with Terence Malick and Francis Ford Coppola. How did being on those sets affect your approach to wanting to be a director?
EMILIO: Well, I grew up on film sets. That was a great luxury to be a young kid being on some of the great film sets of films that are still remembered to this day. I always thought of myself as a storyteller. Even when I was acting I always knew there was something else. That I didn’t want to just say somebody else’s lines and hit a mark. I had some ideas of my own. I was encouraged being on those sets and as I started to take the helm and jump behind the camera it felt very natural. I’m still terrified when I do it. The morning or the night before a shoot, I can’t tell you any director that sleeps through the night because of the anxiety.
EMILIO: I worked with Stephen King in not a good movie called Maximum Overdrive. I wanted to work with him just because he’s…Stephen King. My mother saw the movie and she said “why did you do that movie?” I said “I wanted to work with Stephen King,” and she said “you could have helped him paint a fence!”
EMILIO: Just so you know I’m not speaking out of class he has acknowledged it, he sent me a letter saying “I hope you’ll forgive me for that movie.” To my point, directors being nervous. We’re at our first day of shooting in North Carolina and it’s the first time he’s directed and we’re in the three dimensional world, which is not his comfort zone and he’s nervous and sweating and it’s a night shoot. He says, “rolling” and I could tell he didn’t know what he was supposed to do and the cameras started rolling and he shouts “cut!” It was hysterical. We were like, “no, no, no.” You’re supposed to say “action!”
MARTIN: I’ve never heard a director ever say what Emilio says at the start of a take he says “action, please.” At the end of a take he says “cut, thank you.” Honest to God, every set I’ve ever walked on that’s the way he treats everybody on set. Everybody is loose and cooperative and lending their talents. Everyone is allowed to have a contribution.
The Way is currently open in limited release and it will be expanding throughout the month of October.