The movie year 2011 was an extraordinary year in many respects—not least for notable religious themes on the big screen. Most memorably, the fact-based drama Of Gods and Men gave the world an indelible portrait of Christian community at its most compelling and attractive, while Terrence Malick’s magnum opus The Tree of Life painted questions of life, death, grief, and faith in both scientific and mystical lights on a canvas at once intimate and cosmic. Among many other offerings on US screens that year was a little film that has inspired any number of people over the last dozen years to travel to the north of Spain and spend weeks or months hiking an ancient network of pilgrimage ways to Santiago de Compostela near the northwestern Spanish coast.
The film is The Way, a family passion project starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and the pilgrimage route is called the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. The story follows a lapsed Catholic named Tom (Sheen) whose estranged son (briefly played by Estevez) unexpectedly dies on the eve of setting out to walk the Camino. As a father-son collaboration between Sheen the Catholic revert and Estevez the agnostic, The Way can be seen as a kind of dialogue between faith and agnosticism. While it’s not about religious belief or conversion — Tom still seems pretty lapsed in the end, and, notably, none of the supporting characters have changed much either — one thing The Way is about, to my mind, is what the structures of religion can offer us when the chips are down. In my review I wrote:
The catch-phrase “spiritual but not religious” is among the most glib and insipid pieties of our times. The Way, with its centuries of tradition, its ritual gestures and formalities, its institutions and symbols, its physically demanding regimen, and its cultural, Christian and Catholic particularity, is a gratifying reminder of how religion grounds and enriches us in ways that “spirituality” can’t. “Spirituality” has no traditions or rituals, makes no demands, gives us nothing to do in times of crisis. Spirituality itself points beyond spirituality to religion — a point The Way makes with unforced persuasiveness.
When I first heard that Estevez was noodling concepts for a sequel to The Way, I was frankly skeptical, but the idea is growing on me. In an era of increasingly crushing superhero franchise exhaustion, the idea of revisiting the world of a small film that came out the year before the Avengers ever came together onscreen has a certain undeniable appeal — and the theme of world travel has a new attraction in the post-Covid pandemic era. Anyway, that’s probably what Fathom Events organizers were thinking when they tapped popular travel guru Rick Steves for a featurette about The Way and the Camino to play after the film, in theaters on Tuesday, May 16.
I spoke recently via telephone with writer–director Estevez about making The Way, the film’s impact, and what the film’s Catholic fans can expect from the sequel.
SDG: So a dozen years on, The Way has touched a lot of viewers. And I’m sure over the years, it’s been gratifying to you to hear from people who were moved by it. I’m curious whether any one story, any one response to the film, stands out to you?
Estevez: Well, people have written long emails, they’ve reached out to our Facebook page, and talked about how the film changed their life. My dad [Sheen] gets snail mail because he’s not a computer guy — he doesn’t have an email address. So he’ll receive letters weekly from people who talk about how they saw the film and were inspired to go off and do the Camino, and now they’re on their third, fourth, fifth Camino. Sometimes, you know, it’ll just be something as simple as, “I don’t know if Emilio will get this note, but I just want him to know that this film changed my life. Thank you and God bless.” I never fail to get choked up by it. All that to say, this movie has been kind of running this quiet marathon for the past 12 years. That’s not anything we ever imagined would happen.
SDG: You’ve been on a project over the last couple of years to regain rights to the film…
Estevez: That’s right.
SDG: Was that for the sake of making a sequel? Or was there another reason?
Estevez: You know, it’s really twofold. First of all, we were getting a lot of feedback saying, “Why can’t we find the movie? Why is it out of public [availability], and why can’t we buy a new copy of the DVD online anymore?” At one point there was a copy for sale for like $150, based on the scarcity. There were copies on Amazon that had missing scenes, for whatever reason! People edited the film and then re-boxed it and put it out there. So it was my desire to get the movie back out there.
And, yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out a sequel of sorts for years. It wasn’t until the last year that I finally cracked the code and figured out the continuing story of Tom. That’s all coming together really nicely. We’re off to Spain to start to do research and development on locations. Right now we’re calling it The Way: Chapter 2, and many of our characters will come back, which is great.
SDG: To that point, 12 years ago I called The Way an exploration of your family’s Galician roots, but also a dialogue of sorts between your father’s revived Catholic faith and your more secular outlook. Would you agree with that?
Estevez: I think that’s very accurate. It continues to be a dialogue — and, to your point, it continues to be an exploration on so many levels. I now have a granddaughter who’s approaching her fourth birthday and is bilingual, and is also looking to travel to Spain and connect to her Spanish relatives. So, yes, it is very much a continuation on so many levels.
SDG: In an interview at the time, you described your own religious outlook as a “work in progress”…
SDG: Can I ask you if that dialogue has “progressed” at all? And, if so, how?
Estevez: Well, you know, I feel things deeply. I am still undeclared, in terms of my faith, but I feel I am still a work in progress, as so many of us are. In the last three years, we’ve all had our world rocked — especially when you think about the lives lost. What we’ve gone through has forced us all to look at ourselves, our lives, what’s important, more deeply. I think a lot of people have turned to their faith, discovering faith in a way that they perhaps never thought of before.
SDG: Continuing that thought a moment…You made The Way, I believe, at age 47; your father, Martin Sheen, was 69. You are now significantly closer to Tom’s age in the film…
SDG: …than that of the Emilio who wrote and directed the film. Does this change the way that the film plays for you at all? Does anything about it loom larger for you than it did 12 years ago?
Estevez: Well, almost in a macabre way, I was able to create and write my own obituary, and watch how my father would grieve it in the event of my loss. I know it’s only a movie, but it’s still very, very personal. And maybe that’s just the ego, because our obituary is the very thing that we will never read; never be able to attend our own funeral. So, in many ways, as the creator and writer of this piece, in many ways, I was able to do that, and in a weird and twisted kind of way.
SDG: And yet the movie is about the death of a son, but that has a way of confronting a father with his own mortality.
Estevez: That’s right. And he’s able to be a father to these three other individuals in a way that he was never able to be with his own son. There’s been a lot of criticism about how at the end nobody changed. So often we’ll have these meetings at studios and they’ll say, “Well, you know, over the course of two hours, the character has needed to have these big character arcs and big changes.” Does that ever really happen in life? People have epiphanies and people have moments of clarity, certainly, but there are people that I’ve known since the second grade who are exactly the same as they were when we were seven!
SDG: This is actually something that I preached about! I’m a Catholic deacon, and in my homily at the beginning of this past Lent I talked about how we want Lent to be a transformative journey; we want to arrive at Easter with Lent having made a difference. And yet, six weeks later, whatever we give up, whatever journey we’ve made, we often tend to arrive very much the same as we were when we started!
Estevez: So true! But that’s being human.
SDG: In my review of The Way I critiqued the catchphrase “spiritual but not religious.” I pointed out how in your film the Camino offers to pilgrims — regardless of their beliefs — a specific path to walk defined by centuries of tradition, by rituals, institutions, and symbols that I argued can ground and enrich us in ways that “spirituality” by itself can’t. I wonder if you have any thoughts about any of that.
Estevez: Well, sure. You know that Rick Steves, the travel icon, has joined us on this new adventure?
Estevez: So during the conversation with Rick that will follow the movie [in Fathom screenings], Rick specifically talks about the road as church. It’s not just spirituality, it’s tradition. It’s all of the things that, at the end of the day, we’re looking for in our journey through life. That was something I hadn’t considered when we made the movie. I think what has happened for me over the last 12 years, and certainly was illustrated and underscored by this conversation with Rick, is, to your point, exactly [coming to see] that it is the road as church. What the Camino offers, I believe, is time to reflect in a higher power in the idea that we are not alone.
SDG: Can you can you talk about revisiting this character and this vibe 15 years later, and in particular, give any insight into what The Way’s Catholic fans will find in the sequel?
Estevez: I think you’ll find an evolved Tom. There’s a new journey and I don’t want to reveal too much about what it is, but he is stronger in his faith than in the first film. And the beginning and certainly at the end, he has evolved in a way that I think has made him more of a complete individual.
SDG: Have you talked to your father over the course of developing this in terms of the dialogue between your worldview and his and how it impacts this film?
Estevez: I live right down the street from him, so there’s a continuing dialogue. The work specifically that I put into the sequel. I think that his position was that he wanted to play a man who had evolved into his faith openly. I thought that was a natural progression for the character. And so that’s just been built in throughout this new screenplay.
SDG: All right. Fantastic, Emilio. This has been a great conversation, and I look forward to seeing the sequel!
Estevez: Hey, thank you so much, man. I really appreciate your time.
Santiago: The Camino Within, a 68-minute documentary narrated by Bishop Donald Hying, is in theaters one day only — Tuesday, March 28 — courtesy of Fathom Events.
Is there grace for such pilgrims as these? Perhaps, but it may not take the form they seem to be seeking. At the end of the road, some viewers might feel let down at what has not changed for the main characters, but perhaps this is to miss the change that matters most. Emilio has said that the film is “pro-people, pro-life.” So it is, in more ways than one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.