An ancient Spanish pilgrimage to the burial site of St. James the Apostle might seem an unusual plot for a major motion picture with big-time movie stars.
Yet for Emilio Estevez, director of “The Way,” and his father, Martin Sheen, who stars, this film about El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, “The Way of St. James,” is both personal and natural.
Estevez, who starred in “The Breakfast Club,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Young Guns,” and “The Mighty Ducks,” has also directed several films, including “Bobby” and “Men at Work.” Sheen, known for his role in television’s “The West Wing,” also appeared in such films as “Apocalypse Now” and “Da.”
“The Way” started, Estevez said in a recent telephone interview, when his father followed a long, heartfelt desire to go to Spain and follow the route that pilgrims have taken for centuries to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. According to tradition, the remains of St. James the Great are buried in the cathedral.
One diocesan priest, Father Bob Smith of St. James Church, Setauket, made the pilgrimage earlier this year (See The Long Island Catholic 4/20/2011).
“My father had a very romantic notion of making the Camino,” Estevez said. Sheen’s father was from that region of Spain. In 2003, Sheen, while still starring in “The West Wing” television series, took his grandson, Taylor Estevez (Emilio’s son), with him to Spain. “He was working for my dad, so he didn’t have a choice,” Estevez said with a chuckle.While they were there, Taylor fell in love with a Spanish woman he met along the way; he married her and the couple now live in Spain. “I figured if I wanted to spend some time with my son, I had to go over and make a movie,” Estevez explained.
So Estevez, who has written several screenplays, “wrote this story for my father,” casting him as Tom, a prosperous California ophthalmologist and widower who is estranged from his son, Daniel, played by Estevez.
Comparing “The Way” to “The Wizard of Oz,” Estevez said that “I needed to create a device, an emotional tornado, to carry Tom to Spain.” The tornado takes the form of the death of Daniel, who was making the pilgrimage, which draws thousands annually to walk hundreds of miles.
Tom goes to recover his son’s body but decides to make the pilgrimage in honor of his son.
He soon acquires three traveling companions: a talkative Irish writer struggling with writer’s block; a Canadian divorcee attempting to quit smoking, and a merry Dutchman trying to lose weight.
“It is a spiritual film that takes them on a journey,” Estevez said. “Every one of us, from the moment he takes his first step, is on a pilgrimage. The question is how we do it.” The story, Estevez said, is one of broken people who find healing and love. “These are four people who are not seeking God but along the way God finds them.”
Estevez said that his father is a serious Catholic, upfront about his faith. As for his own religious outlook, “my mother describes me as a work in progress.”
The film comes out following months of controversy involving Estevez’s brother, Charlie Sheen, who at various times has been in rehab for substance abuse. A bitter divorce, custody battle, and a public feud with the producers of “Two and a Half Men,” the television series in which Charlie Sheen had starred, have drawn more attention.
Asked if the story of a father estranged from his son who finds reconciliation has any particular emotional resonance for him or his father, Estevez replied: “My parents and I are very close.” He lives near his parents.
“We’re a close family,” he added. “We don’t leave anybody behind.”