Not many movies coming out of Hollywood these days are ones you can take your elderly parents and high school kids to see. That's what's so unique about The Way, a new movie about grief, family, and faith set on the Camino de Santiago, and starring Martin Sheen, from director/writer/producer Emilio Estevez. The father and son team have been touring the country by bus lately sharing their project with anyone willing to listen. And the responses are encouraging.
The Way is a very personal project, born out of an impromptu driving trip Martin Sheen took with his grandson Taylor on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand year old walking trail in the north of Spain. There, Taylor (Emilio's son) met the girl of his dreams, his now wife.
Inspired by the trail, The West Wing star enlisted the writing talent of his son to make a movie with the Camino as the backdrop. Estevez initially resisted the idea, but was later convinced a moving story could be told. He started with his main character - Tom, a backslidden Catholic who treks the Camino after his son accidentally dies walking the trail during a violent storm.
"No room at the inn, they said," recalls Estevez with a smile.
"They only allow documentaries, and occasional newsreel footage, but never let anyone in there with a script. They didn't know whether we were going to denigrate it or uphold the sacredness of it," says Sheen.
"It was right on their part to think that we were just yet another bunch of cynical Americanos who were going to disrespect the church," Estevez says. "It didn't matter about [Dad's] faith. It didn't matter what the movie was about. They said, 'No entrance. We can't have this'. And they also didn't want to set a precedent."
With the church leadership against allowing the shoot, Estevez took a leap of faith and asked his Hollywood seasoned cast and crew to do something a little unconventional.
"He made the demand as the director to all of the crew to begin praying, lighting candles to lift the embargo against us," Sheen recalls. "And it worked, [just] 48 hours before we got there."
Producer David Alexanian also noticed how even the weather cooperated with their filming schedule despite reports that they should expect to fight with rain every day of their 40-day shoot on the trail. To the cast and crews amazement, only two days were wash outs and both were days scheduled for indoor filming.
"Regardless of your religion, you had to believe that there was something working in our favor," Alexanian says.
"These are gifts. Accept them and accept the cup as offered...," Estevez says chiming in as he remembered the miracles that happened on set. "Every day was in our favor. It was Providence."
Faith is realized in dramatic way on screen as well, through each character's reaction as they enter the grand cathedral.
"What's interesting is that Tom's a lapsed Catholic, and the other three are really non-believers. But over the course of the journey, there is conversion for all of them," Estevez explains. "Jack [the novelist] says churches are temples of tears; and he's referring to the conflicts in Northern Ireland. The church has a lot to answer for. And, in fact, he gets to Santiago, and "temples of tears"; takes on a whole new meaning. It brings him to his knees."
"Joost [the fat Dutchman] is literally brought to his knees and humbled before God," he recalls. That was "one of those moments when we were shooting it, we thought, 'Oh, we don't know if this will work'. But it ends up being one of the more powerful moments in the whole film."
The pilgrimage each trekker makes is one that leads to deep realizations and for some a spiritual awakening. This has been the history of this trail, which coincidentally ends in Sheen's father's hometown of Galicia, Spain.
"In the old days, those cathedrals were built so that they could be seen from many, many miles away. The pilgrims would see them, and it would inspire them to keep going because it was like an image of Heaven," Sheen says. "They would stay for long periods once they got there. So it's not just a passing thing; it was life-changing."
"Each step is a prayer when you're out there. You generally start out with a lot of stuff because you want to be prepared for whatever happens. As you go, you begin to have confidence and you begin to realize you over packed, and you begin to disperse all the stuff," Sheen says. "The real pilgrimage begins on the inside, and you begin to let go of all the things you've been holding on to in the dungeon of your heart. You begin to let that one go that you couldn't forgive. You begin to stop being judgmental, and envious, and angry, and selfish, and resentful, and all the dark parts of our spirit begin to be released."
Destinations keep us determined to persevere, but it's what we learn on the journey that matters. The Way speaks volumes to this and the effect reflection about life, community, and God can have on a life.
Sheen sees a great takeaway in the film for American families, especially during this difficult economic time.
"People are beginning to focus on, well, what is really important," he says. "Families are starting to come together, starting to eat together. They're not on the run all the time. There's nowhere to run now. They're forced to relate to one another; and they're finding value in things that they'd overlooked because of this mass media and the hustle and bustle and anxiety of modern life. It's taken its toll. And maybe there's something going on, spiritually, that we had not anticipated. God works in very, very mysterious ways. Maybe something's going on that is going to cause a rising in people that is going to be grace-filled for all of us."