INTERVIEW: Emilio Estevez, writer/director of The Way

I walked into the Elgin Theatre a year and a half ago for the Toronto International Film Festival’s screening of Emilio Estevez‘s The Way without knowing exactly what I was in for. I loved his Bobby a few years earlier, but after reading the glossy sheet of information pertaining to the film handed out to all in attendance I knew this was going to be a completely different beast.

Spiritual, personal, and a testament between father and son, this new work is an inspirational journey of finding oneself at a time you wouldn’t think possible. In the face of tragedy, one man breaks from the bubble he has spent decades building in order to say goodbye. In the process, however, he discovers the memories of and fervor for life his son possessed was in fact welcoming him home in a foreign land of second chances and absolute clarity.

It’s been a long journey since then, but in a couple weeks The Way will finally hit VOD and DVD to share its message of hope, forgiveness, and life to those who were unable to catch it during its limited national run. I was recently lucky enough to spend some time with writer/director Estevez over the phone in anticipation of the release. The interview follows.

The Film Stage: I guess to start it off—maybe a little insight into how The Way became your next project after Bobby received Golden Globe nominations with such a huge tapestry of characters. You decided to tell such a personal story with a very strong lead here—was that a conscious effort on your part?

Emilio Estevez: Well, no. I actually originally had planned a triptych of films, the first being Bobby, which is a multi-character L.A. story. The criteria for the triptych was that they were all going to be L.A. stories, they were all going to be big ensemble casts, and they had to take place in one location […] over a very short period of time. There was 24 or 48 hours.

And so Bobby was the first, obviously, and the second was a project I wrote called The Public, which takes place at the L.A. Public Library downtown on what ends up being the coldest couple days in the history of L.A. As we all know—if you’ve spent time in any public library lately—it becomes more or less a homeless shelter. So, that was the second panel and the third was something that I had started to muse on but hadn’t yet committed to paper.

The Public fell apart and after that I began to get some encouragement from my father [Martin Sheen] about going to Spain to make a film because my son lived there, first of all, and, second, it looked like that was the only way I would be able to spend any significant amount of time with him—if I went over there and made a film.

So I began a series of conversations with my pop and we came up with a story about a father who loses his son, because in many ways I had experienced the same thing—of course, not tragically. So I sat down and by January of 2009 had a first draft, went off to Spain, and began to see what it would take to put the film together.

And did you have your son as a tour guide—had he done the Camino [de Santiago] at all?

Yes, very much so.

And what’s interesting too—if you look at the contrast between Bobby and The WayBobby … obviously every time you opened a door there was another well known actor on the other side of it and [it] was almost an entirely interior piece. The Way is relatively—with the exception of Martin—it’s relatively unknowns and almost entirely exterior.

And were you integral to the casting? Deborah Unger is very underused [in Hollywood], James Nesbitt is great in everything, and Yorick van Wageningen is heating up now, but where had you seen them?

There aren’t many directors that aren’t integral to the casting—nobody ends up in my movie if I don’t want them to be.

Yorick was a guy that came to us—actually was found by David Alexanian, our producer, on the internet. Basically he said that there are five Dutch actors who could potentially play this role, choose one. Because we were about eight days out from shooting and that character of Joost worked, I think Day Two of the schedule. So we were in a bind. And Yorick came to us literally in the eleventh hour and did a wonderful job—and then of course was cast in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We’re hopeful that good things are going to happen for him.

And of course Jimmy Nesbitt, you’re going to see him coming up in The Hobbit—he’s got a significant role. And Deborah, I met her while I was writing the screenplay and she got me in a dialogue. The character [of Sarah] was originally written as an American and I made [her] Canadian to suit Deb.

Now, in that vein, a lot of the supporting characters, eccentrics like El Ramon and the emotional part with the gypsies, were they written beforehand or did you base them off people you saw going through Spain?

No, those were all scripted and then we hired a Spanish casting director and searched for the right actors for those roles.

And had any of the main actors heard of the Camino or were you their introduction to the path?

The Camino de Santiago is a national treasure in Spain and while a lot of Spaniards may not have walked it, they certainly are aware of it. The fact that this was an international cast—Jim being from Ireland, the Irish are a huge contingency out there on the Camino so he knew of it. And also the Dutch, so Yorick was also familiar with it. So it was not something that was foreign to our international cast.

Now you have the Video on Demand release coming and DVD soon [February 21], and you also did a bus tour—you’ve really kind of humanized this release, which goes perfectly with the subject matter. Have you embraced this social media—I know you’re on Twitter [@emiliotheway]? Do you see this working on bigger films too?

Well, I don’t know. The issue I think anyone has in releasing a film is that it really doesn’t matter how much press you do—if people can’t find your movie in the theatre they aren’t going to go or make a great effort to drive an hour or two hours to get to a theatre. So you have to make it available and I think what’s going to happen and what we’re going to see more of—especially in the independent world—is day and date with VOD. It’s something that [Steven] Soderbergh tried with Bubble. And I know he had a tremendous amount of push back, but then you have a movie like Margin Call which nailed it quite frankly and I think you’re going to see that as a new model for how smaller films are able to get a shot to be seen.

There are too many people who have home theatre systems and are just happy to turn it on and stay at home and not have to hire a babysitter and not have to be surrounded by people checking their Smartphones in the middle of a film. And who could blame them?

Right, it’s all about getting it to the public by any means necessary.

Exactly, exactly.

Have you seen a lot of—it’s a very spiritual movie without necessarily going to any one religion. Your father’s role is finding himself through this journey and everyone has his/her secrets, but it is kind of steeped with Catholicism as far as the cathedral [Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela] goes—and you did get to shoot inside. Have you seen a lot of praise from that community?

Sure, the Catholic community embraced the film; the Christian community embraced it. But the secular and the Body Mind Spirit as well have really lauded the film as something that spoke to them.

I’m not a practicing Catholic; I have not declared myself with any one religion. I think the film is a reflection of that. I like to say that the proof is not just in pudding, it’s in the eating of the pudding. If you’ve seen the film, then you’ve eaten the pudding.

So, for my part, I wanted to make a picture that didn’t divide—because so often, I think, religion divides people and doesn’t unite them and this film definitely unites folks. The feedback we’ve gotten—whether it’s from the secular or the religious folks out there who have written us and posted on our Facebook walls—is that this is a movie that has touched them in ways few movies have. And I’m not talking about 2011; I’m talking about ever. People are saying this movie has changed their lives and obviously that’s something we set out to do when we made the film, but I’m thrilled that the movie has spoken to people on that level.

That’s fantastic.

How was working with your father in such a large role? He had a small part in Bobby, but—was he a father or an actor on set?

He was an actor. We really didn’t socialize while we were filming—I had my hands full on a daily basis and there was very little socializing going on for me in general.

There were days where he would be tired and push back and didn’t want to do things, but for the most part it was an actor/director relationship. And I refused to call him Dad on set. I didn’t want the crew to look at him or think of him in any other way then who he is. Sometimes I’d call him Ramón, which is his real name. But we kept it professional.

And how was scouting and shooting in Spain? Do you see yourself trying to do more international work or maybe coming home next?

No, I’m definitely coming home next.

I have Irish citizenship—I have an Irish passport—so I’m able to work in Europe and work under the EU flag, which definitely helped in terms of getting the—Martin does too by the way—definitely helped in getting the Spanish certification and having the film have a Spanish nationality. Which is helpful tax-wise as well for putting the film together.

But I like to say that patriotism begins in the home. And what I mean by that is in keeping the jobs at home—it is vital. And so I’m going to concentrate on not working abroad any time soon and putting people back to work here.

We’re talking about Ohio, which of all the states could really use an economic boost right now. So we’re talking about shooting in Ohio for this next one.

The supporting characters in The Way like El Ramon, were they straight from the research or did you—

Oh, no, El Ramon was from the Jack Hitt book [Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route]. That was the source material from which I was inspired to create the Jack character [Nesbitt] and El Ramon was a character that Jack Hitt bumped into when he was out on a communal in the 90s.

Now did you find yourselves—in the film everyone is staying at a different house every night—did you partake in that? Were those houses all real stops where people will actually rest?

Yeah, they were very much real stops.

The crew was not forced to stay at any of the albergues—the crew had different accommodations and so did the actors. But we did manage to get access to many of the stops along the way that would actually be stayed in.

Now do you see yourself—any yearning to take the six weeks off and do the whole journey?

Well, we walked it with the crew. We started in St. James and we traveled the entire Camino all the way to Galicia. We probably did about 250 to 300 kilometers of the 800 clicks, so I feel like I’ve done it. Would I like to go back and do it at some point? Sure, but not in the immediate future.

Well I had finished my review with the lines—because I kind of put it on my bucket list after watching this film—


—that when they ask at the end who sent you, I’d reply Emilio. Emilio sent me.


I really liked the movie.

Thank you, I appreciate it.

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