The West Wing star and longtime prominent actor Martin Sheen raised a show-business family. His children Charlie Sheen (who kept Martin’s adopted stage name) and Emilio, Renée, and Ramon Estevez (who kept the original family name) have all been film and TV actors, with Emilio Estevez going on to write, produce, and direct films, starting with 1987’s Wisdom. Estevez has repeatedly acted alongside his father, playing a family member, or occasionally—including on The West Wing—playing a younger version of Martin Sheen’s character of the moment. Estevez has periodically cast his father in his own directorial projects, as well: in 1996’s The War At Home, in 2006’s Bobby, and now in the indie feature The Way, which Estevez wrote and directed.
In The Way, Sheen gets a chance to play out his longtime real-life dream of walking El Camino de Santiago, a traditional 900-kilometer pilgrimage route through Spain that draws tens of thousands of travelers every year. He plays a grimly repressed California ophthalmologist whose adventurous, estranged adult son (Estevez, in flashbacks) dies at the beginning of the Camino route; in tribute, Sheen decides to take the pilgrimage himself, leaving his son’s ashes along the way. During the multi-week walk, he meets a series of new companions and gradually opens up during a journey that is in part spiritual, though rarely overtly religious. In the middle of a cross-country bus tour to support the self-distributed The Way, Sheen and Estevez sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the film’s Wizard Of Oz parallels, making a movie without CGI or aliens, and why you have to give things up to make art real. (Note: Producer David Alexanian was present to film the interview for a possible documentary about the bus tour, and occasionally entered the conversation as well.)
The A.V. Club: It seems a little sadistic for a son to write and direct a film starring his father as a man dealing with the death of his son. Did that ever seem strange?
Emilio Estevez: We needed a device to get him to Spain, because of this whole notion of the stranger in a strange land. He had some ideas about—as we were talking about making the film, as we were talking about what the dramatic narrative would be, “How do we get him there?” So it really was going to take something calamitous, something like an emotional tornado to get our Dorothy from California to Spain, and deposit him there, where he meets the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow.
AVC: The Wizard Of Oz parallels, where the protagonist is a Dorothy who steps out of his mundane life and onto a path where he encounters companions looking for their heart, brain, and courage, isn’t necessarily clear just watching the film, but it’s unmissable once you think about it. Are you okay with viewers walking into the film expecting that metaphor and looking for it?
EE: Absolutely. Yeah, hook into it, if that’s what helps. Because Spain… Why is it that we know so much about Italian culture and Italian food, and French culture and French food, and Spain has sort of been this island, to a certain extent? So it’s a bit of an unknown. I believe that if The Wizard Of Oz helps people connect to what this story is, then all the better. And you know, the whole Camino is marked in yellow. So it’s no accident.
AVC: Did you know about the yellow road markings going into writing the film?
EE: Discovered it while I was writing. And it’s not something I even shared with the crew. At some point, the production designer [Victor Molero] said, “Let me just ask you something: Are we telling a tale?” I said, “Yeah, man.”
AVC: So you didn’t tell the actors?
EE: No. Well, I mean you [to Martin] kind of knew. You kind of knew.
Martin Sheen: I was the oldest Dorothy in the history of cinema.
EE: [Laughs.] [Co-star] Deborah [Kara Unger] knew. Because on the back of her iPod, her father had an engraving done for her that said, “To my lovely Tin Man.” So she knew.
AVC: Martin, I’ve read that you didn’t really want the role yourself, and that you suggested Michael Douglas or Mel Gibson for the role. Is that true?
MS: Well, yes and no. When we presented it to possible investors or studios or agents, there was a pretty flat reception, because they couldn’t…
EE: They couldn’t fathom it.
MS: They couldn’t fathom it!
EE: “No CGI?”
MS: They couldn’t envision a profitable film about a pilgrimage. “Four people walking across Spain. Well, could there be some aliens along the way? No? Okay.” That sort of thing. So I just realized—I mean, I loved the script, and I loved the character, and I was deeply grateful to [Emilio] for having written it for me. However, if my doing it was going to prevent it getting done, I said, “Look, I pass. You can get Michael or Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson.” Any one of those guys would be delighted to play this, and the studios would’ve jumped on it immediately.
EE: But none of them would’ve worked for free.
MS: [Laughs.] That was an advantage, I have to say. Yeah. But he wrote it for me, and it was about something deeply personal. And as an artist, if something is not personal, it’s impersonal. If it’s impersonal, who cares? So it was about something that both of us care very deeply about, and that’s the journey, the inner journey, the transcendence. All of us yearn for freedom, for the knowledge of ourselves, but it’s gotta cost you something. You have to go on that journey, you have to carry all your stuff, and you have to walk alone. But you cannot do it without community. And so while we yearn for our transcendence, and we recognize the effort as one to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh, it’s the easiest thing to see on the Camino; it’s the hardest thing to do in your daily life, when you’re still dealing with family and a job and economics and health, and all the other accoutrements of what it is to be human.
AVC: How did you end up selling the film?
MS: We never sold it.
EE: We got a Spanish partner. We worked as EU citizens, so we got great tax incentives, great tax breaks—I have an Irish passport, and so does [Martin].
MS: The only partner we had was the Gallegos. My father was a Gallego, so we had a connection there. [Gallegos are natives of the Galician region of Spain. —ed.] My dad was from about 80 miles from Santiago, near Vigo, the big port in the north of Spain.
David Alexanian: So in truth, we’re actually self-distributing the film. We have partners, and we decided to do what the studio does, which is take films out, test them, work with them, improve them, and then when Emilio, Martin, and I traveled to Sacramento, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, and showed the film, we realized—
MS: This is before we started our tour. This is last year.
DA: —that this is an opportunity to take a film that’s independently spirited and give it a mainstream release. ’Cause typically, Hollywood has two speeds: independent—three theaters—or 3,000 theaters. And we sort of feel like this is a film that could work in between.
EE: And a lot of the films that were [at the Toronto International Film Festival] with us last year, we’ve seen either go direct to DVD—
MS: Direct to oblivion. And there were some good films.
EE: Good pictures. And we thought, “Wow, that’s unfortunate. This is two years of somebody’s life—a collective of people—and to have it all ultimately relegated to that is a bummer.” And some movies with big stars. So we thought, “We got a shot with this.” We were testing the movie in, David mentioned, places like Dallas and Detroit and Denver, and we’re scoring in the 90s. So if you’re a studio and you start testing your film—I guarantee we’ve tested this more than a studio would—you’re like, “Hands off. We got a hit.” And we’re getting those kinds of numbers, and we’re getting that kind of response. We’ve cut the film down considerably since Toronto. We’re now 13 cities into our tour, and the reaction’s just been off the charts.
MS: It’s been unbelievable. And that’s the greatest satisfaction, ’cause we do a Q&A after every screening, and so we’ll sit in the audience—sometimes I’ll sit in there for half the movie—and I still get overwhelmed, and I still get filled with pride and sentiment and great excitement.
EE: People can’t believe it, like, “How did this movie get made? How did this fall through the cracks?”
MS: “How’d you do it?”
EE: “How’d you do it?” Right.
AVC: How did you do it? How did this story evolve from the beginning, from Martin’s interest in the Camino?
MS: The germ of it, or the seed, or the initial step, happened on the Camino in 2003. His son, my grandson, Taylor [Estevez], was working for me as an assistant while I was doing The West Wing. I had a break between the 2003 and 2004 season in the summer, and I’d had this romantic image of doing the Camino for a long time, and I thought, “Now’s the time.” But I frittered away most of the time. By the time we got to Spain, I had two weeks left. It was not possible to do it. I hadn’t planned, I had no equipment, nothing. So we decided, “Look, let’s just surrender to it. We’ll drive the Camino, and just suss it out for future reference.” And that’s what we did. We rented a car, the three of us: Taylor, myself, and Matt Clark. He’s the guy that was the priest/rabbi that gave me the rosaries [in the film]. He’s an old, dear friend. He’s like a brother.
The three of us set out in the car, and we stopped at Burgos. That’s the town where the little boy steals the bag [in the film]. And we stayed at a casa rural, which is like a bed-and-breakfast in the country that takes in pilgrims. They had a communal supper, which they do every night for pilgrims from all over the world. The family that owns it runs it, and they were serving us supper, and their daughter, Julia, this beautiful young girl, comes in serving supper. Taylor looks at her, she looks at Taylor—they’ve been looking at each other ever since. They’re married. They live in Burgos, on the Camino. That was the first miracle. That hit me right in the center of the heart. And I came home and said [to Emilio], “You know what? There’s something really important happening in Spain. If you wanna see your son, you’re gonna have to go there now.” That was the start of it all.
AVC: How did the film develop from there?
EE: We started a series of conversations, as we were trying to figure out what the dramatic narrative would be. [Martin] had an idea: “It’ll be about two old guys…” I said, “No, I don’t like that.” It was just, again, using whatever device we could to get him over there. And I thought, “Well, let’s create this thing. It’s about, ultimately, the death of his son, but it’s not. It’s about the rebirth of the father.”
AVC: How tight or loose of a screenwriter are you? How much of this was on the page before you started shooting?
EE: All of it.
AVC: Did you discover or change anything along the way?
EE: Not really, no.
MS: It’s amazing how you could lay the script against [the film]. It’s pretty remarkable. I mean, there’s the odd word or thing here and there. We had these wonderful, miraculous accidents: Somebody would walk in front of the camera. The assistant director would go crazy, and Emilio would say, “No, no. Have him do it again and sign off [on an appearance release].” So all the pilgrims you see on camera, except the speaking parts, are all real pilgrims.
AVC: You shot on location, so many of these people are going on spiritual or personal journeys. How did you balance respecting that with getting the shots you needed?
MS: It takes priority.
EE: I said, “Look, we’re not gonna get in anybody’s way. We will turn the cameras off and we’ll turn ’em away if we start to impede anybody’s progress.”
DA: We had a very tiny crew by Hollywood standards. We had no big trucks. That was all out of sight. So if you saw Martin walking, you thought he was a pilgrim, if you were a pilgrim, because that’s how we shot.
EE: We shot in secrecy. Our sound guy had everything—one of the best sound guys in the world—in a backpack about the size of that poster. [Points to standard-sized movie poster.] One of the things that we asked, as David and I were putting our crew together in the two months prior to shooting, was, “How fit are you? Because you’re gonna be doing a lot of walking.”
DA: And they lied to us.
MS: [Laughs.] But the interesting thing is, they were all Spanish. And how many of them had been there?
EE: They’d never been on the Camino.
MS: [Laughs.] They didn’t have a clue.
DA: They’d been to Tibet, they’d been to China…
EE: Right. Vietnam, Thailand…
DA: Very well-traveled.
EE: There we are, standing in Pamplona, and I said, “Of course, you know…” And they were just staring at me.
MS: “Oh, is this where the bulls run?” [Laughs.] They didn’t have a clue!
AVC: Did you actually get to walk some of the Camino?
MS: Oh, yeah.
EE: We did about 350 kilometers of it.
MS: We figure we did at least half.
AVC: Has that happened ever before, where either of you wanted to try something, and because of your busy schedules, processed it as art instead?
MS: That’s hard to tell. No, this is the first time for me.
EE: Yeah, for me, too.
AVC: It seems like it would be both an opportunity—because you’re getting to do something that you want, and you’re getting to make a film out of it—but also limiting, because you’re having the experience you wanted, but you’re working the whole time.
MS: Well, art is not an accident. And it has to cost you something. If it doesn’t cost you something, you’re left to question its value. We knew what we had, and we knew it was gonna be costly. But we were willing to make that journey, and to challenge ourselves, to make the transcendent journey within ourselves, to surrender to whatever happened. We didn’t know if was gonna rain every day.
EE: And it rained twice.
MS: It rained twice, and we were shooting interiors when it rained. We allowed for whatever the territory would give us. We started filming after the harvest, which—the light changes extraordinarily. Some of those roads [where] you saw us clearly from afar, you would never have seen us before harvest, because the crops would’ve been so high. And people along the way were just so generous. They were so accommodating to us, because they sensed that what we were doing was sacramental. The Camino is a very sacred national treasure to the Spanish. In the year that we did the pilgrimage, that we shot the film, there were only 5,000 Americans that had done it that year. They keep records of all the nationalities—not individual names, but where you’re from. The Canadians were about 5,200. The Americans were just about 5,000, the least number of the Western countries. The highest number were the Irish. The film was an enormous hit in Ireland.
The most gratifying part of the whole project is people’s response. We just sit there and say, “My God, they’re getting it.” We’re so used to criticism, we’re so used to having to accept people’s opinions about what we do. Man, this one is like… I’ve never, ever felt, in my life, stronger about a project, including Apocalypse [Now] and Badlands and Wall Street, and all those. I was in some pretty decent projects—the other 200 were not so much to brag about—I’ve never felt more excited, more truly—
EE: You’re connected to this one.
MS: This one is about something deeply personal. And I could brag about it forever. I can see your eyes are starting to glaze over with my talking.
EE: This is a movie that flies in the face of conventional cynicism. And that is sort of who I am. It’s real easy to go to the cynical place, it’s the low-hanging fruit. And I think with this picture, we’re interested in climbing higher and grabbing something sweeter, and having a better view, frankly. And I was criticized heavily on Bobby: “Oh, it’s so Pollyanna.” It’s like, “And? Your problem with that is what?” So my position on it is that someone has to be. And it’s reflected in the film.
AVC: The Way features your first onscreen film role since Bobby in 2006. Do you feel a personal connection to acting? Is it something you’d be happy giving up in order to write and direct?
EE: No, I think that I’ve always been a storyteller, even when I was a young actor starting out. So for me, this just feels an extension of that. And the idea is to keep doing both.
AVC: This is such an adult film. It’s about grown-ups facing grown-up problems, and as you say, it’s about overcoming cynicism. Is it difficult getting people invested in something like this?
MS: It’s why we’re here, frankly.
EE: On the contrary, though, the outreach—David can attest—that we have [received] from the beginning, unsolicited: “Come to Yale. Come to Notre Dame. Come to Fordham.” Virginia Tech now, which has started this enormous outreach online—6,000 people in a week—on their Facebook page saying, “Please come.” Pilgrims and non-pilgrims.
DA: We spend a lot of time in Hollywood—people do, I don’t think we do, because that’s the nature of being independent, sometimes you really have to go against it—
MS: We live in Los Angeles, but we couldn’t ever, ever say that we’re Hollywood.
DA: You spend so much time trying to convince others of something in Hollywood, trying to sell somebody something. This film is not trying to sell anybody anything. Martin’s performance is not a sales pitch. This film isn’t religious or preachy. It’s an authentic film, which is what’s unique about it. It’s a film that’s dedicated to a grandfather, inspired by a great-grandson. You’ve got four generations. And the authenticity of that, I think, people are responding to. One of the reasons that documentaries do well—and this film is far from a documentary—is, we’re tired of the stuff that seems hokey and contrived. And I don’t blame Hollywood for doing that, but they’ve just stopped creating, and they’ve started re-creating, or copying.
EE: There’s no originality.
DA: And nobody said no to us when we were pitching this film, but they surely didn’t say yes. So we had to go out and make it happen. And to your point of how difficult it was, we just stopped trying to convince people who didn’t get it, and we just said yes to the believers. We allowed the believers to get involved. Not believers in the religious sense, but believers in this project.
MS: People take the journey with us vicariously. Where did you see it? I assume you saw it. I understand you have to see a lot of films, sometimes multiple films in a single day, but I would guess—I would be optimistic—if you saw this with a non-critical audience, just people who are coming to see a movie that they don’t really know anything about, the reaction would overwhelm you. People become so vicariously involved and so gratified with where it’s going. Emilio uses the phrase, “This is a film you can take your parents to.” There’s nothing to embarrass you, there’s everything to inspire you. It’s a celebration of your humanity.
DA: Yeah, people are laughing at the film. It’s a heavy topic, but obviously, that’s under the surface.
AVC: It does have moments of comedy. Some of it’s very wry, and some if it’s almost slapsticky. Given how serious the subject is, how did you balance that sort of humor?
EE: Well, what’s the fine line between breaking into tears and breaking into hysterical laughter? That line is sometimes so blurry that they can sound like both. And so that’s how I feel. That’s life. We find some of the funniest moments out of horrible tragedy. It’s just the way it is.
MS: People fall in graves. [Laughs.] It’s true. It’s very funny.
EE: But the movie celebrates how broken and how fallible we all are. Every day, we’re bombarded with, “You gotta be this way, you gotta be that way” by the culture, by the media. “You gotta be prettier, you gotta be thinner, you gotta be richer.” And this is a movie that, at the end of the day, it celebrates you being okay in your own skin. And celebrating that and saying, “I’m okay being exactly who I am. Even though I’m a disaster, I’m a beautiful disaster.” So that’s what the movie celebrates.
AVC: Martin, you mentioned that art has to cost something to be real. Looking back on your previous projects, do you feel like you can say that for each of them?
MS: My whole life, yeah. I think that sentiment is the artist’s worst enemy. Mind you, we have to make it look like it’s falling off like water off a duck’s back: “You can do this, too.” The idea is to make it look like anyone can do it. “It’s no big deal.” Until you try it on your own. Just a little story: When I was in New York and doing a play some years ago, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey came to town, and a couple of us shepherded about 30 homeless kids from families who were in shelters to the circus. And that night, one of the actors said, “I hear you went to the circus. How was it?” I said, “Oh, it was magnificent. Halfway through the circus, the high-wire guy was walking up, and he slipped and grabbed the wire, and a hush fell over the crowd. My God, my heart was pounding out of my chest. I thought, ‘He’s already up 50 feet. If he falls, he’s done.’ And then he righted himself and got back up, and the audience was crazy.” And the guy said, “Isn’t that odd? That guy did the same thing last week.” [Laughs.] Point made. We have to make it look like you can do it. We have to make like it belongs to you. There’s nothing that happens to [his character] Tom along that Camino that couldn’t possibly happen to you. And you’d make it. You’d be fine, because of community.
But at the same time, yeah, if it doesn’t cost you something, you’re left to question its value. Every time I go into that vault of my own private store—those things that I own, that baggage I still carry—when I get the license, whether it’s from Emilio saying, “Come play this,” or from somebody else saying, “Come play that,” I go into that store, and I conjure up those deeply personal, private belongings, and I exhibit them. And I’m taking it for the character I’m playing. They belong to me, but they’re only allowed to live publicly through that media. It’s very, very costly. But I’m happy as Larry doing it. There’s nothing I enjoy more in life. I’ve been an actor all my life, and I couldn’t be happier. If I had to do it all over again, I would gladly embrace it. Even if someone said, “You’re not gonna make your living at this, mister, but you can do it.” I’m sorry, but that’s the thing that makes me the happiest. That’s how I became myself. That’s how I came to embrace and understand—and I think all artists—am I in the right?—come to this. You’ll know yourself in deeply personal ways. And when you see an artist—whether it’s a performance, a musician, a singer, a dancer, a novelist—going to that personal place that you respond to, you can live that vicariously, and you own that experience. Now it becomes personal. When you tell someone else about it, you’re not telling about my experience, you’re telling about yours. And that’s why it’s so powerful, ’cause then you own it. We wanna hear that song again, we want to experience that performance again. That’s the most gratifying thing, to sit in an audience, to sit next to some people enjoying this film—and they don’t know we’re sitting right there—and they’re watching our creation. And I’m going, “God, is that…” I break into tears.
EE: You big softie.
MS: I’m a big sissy, I know. But I’m so grateful to him. I’m so deeply in love with this project. And the response that it’s gotten from the audiences, above all, has been the most gratifying thing. Sitting in those audiences, people laughing and weeping and joyfully holding each other’s hands. When the Dutchman falls to his knees, what was your reaction? Me too. I’ve seen it a half a dozen times, I know it’s coming. As soon as he starts doing this, “Is anybody looking?” Boom, I’m gone. It’s in the dark, and I’m allowed to do it again. That moment, you fall to your knees in thanksgiving and praise. You fall to your knees for help, for mercy. You fall to your knees when you finally surrender and say, “I don’t have it. Lord, take my hand. Lead me on.” It’s our own personal hymn. And this film just rings with it. It’s just so deeply personal.