"It would change our politics": Emilio Estevez on why we should all take a pilgrimage

The actor-director talks re-release of "The Way," starring dad Martin Sheen, about a transformative Camino journey

Published May 11, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Emilio Estevez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Emilio Estevez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Why is Emilio Estevez re-releasing a film he directed his dad Martin Sheen in over 12 years ago? The actor-director stopped by Salon's studio to share the story behind the second release of his 2011 film, "The Way," which takes place in Spain along the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route where hundreds of thousands make the journey each year – a tradition since the 9th century.

The film enjoyed some small success in its original showing, but has since garnered attention and letters from tens of thousands of fans from around the world who were inspired to walk the Camino after seeing the movie. "I may never make a film like this that actually has that kind of an impact on so many people that got up out of their chair, got up their couch and said, 'I'm going to do that,'" Estevez said on "Salon Talks."

"The Way" tells the tale of a dad, played by Sheen, whose son, played by Estevez, dies while hiking the Camino. Sheen's character decides to complete the journey for his son, learning about himself along the way. The result is an introspective and emotional journey with the wry humor you only get from an Estevez-Sheen creative talent. Ultimately, "The Way," Estevez shared, is about finding community and oneself and that's why it resonates.

Estevez explained why "The Way" sat on the shelf for years, ended up in a motion to abandon rights court in Delaware and why he wanted to rescue it. While the film is about an ancient epic journey, for many reasons, it feels more relevant than ever. "I think we've got to hit the reset button," Estevez said. "I think we're having to figure out what's important, what isn't. I think we've been sort of living within our tribes and I think we're self-isolating before the mandatory isolation. Now it's like we're having to look at each other as we depend on each other in ways that I think that we had forgotten." 

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Estevez here to hear more about the making of the film, his relationship with his father, and how you can see "The Way" in theaters for one day only on May 16 through Fathom Events (and later, on streaming).

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to re-release "The Way"?

The film had been sort of languishing in nowheresville for a while. When it came out, it had a sort of a cult following. We were out on about 300 screens total. We had done a national tour on a bus. I loaded my dad and my son and a couple other folks onto a bus. We shrink-wrapped the poster around this bus. We went to 35 cities over 50 days. We slept on the bus, we ate on the bus and we drove around and we screened the movie twice a night – and did Q&As and after every screening – one secular, one none. And the feedback was amazing, but we didn't really have the money. We didn't have the backing that we needed, the support to get it out there and keep it out there. 

"I'll make more movies, I know that, but I may never make a film like this that actually has that kind of an impact on so many people."

The film did well for the limited release that it had, but then the company fell into bankruptcy. And then the movie found itself in a motion to abandon rights court in Delaware. And I got a call from a small independent distribution company, said, "Hey, your movie's sitting in this courtroom. Do you need help rescuing it?" And I said, "Sure." So I set about trying to get the rights back to it. I did. That was a couple of years ago, so here we are. And that was during COVID. Now the movie feels, coming out of the pandemic, it feels like it's more relevant now with this audience where the planet is now than when we originally released it.

Why do you say that?

I think we're all having to hit the reset button. I think we're having to figure out what's important, what isn't. I think we've been sort of living within our tribes and I think we're self-isolating before the mandatory isolation. Now it's like we're having to look at each other as we depend on each other in ways that I think that we had forgotten. And I think with this film, it's about finding community, it's about finding yourself, but it is really about not being able to find yourself if you don't have community. 

Martin's character discovers that during the course of the film. He's doing the Camino to honor his son, but he finds himself in the process. He doesn't want these other pilgrims to go along and travel with him, but they do. He finds community and through that ultimately finds himself.

Your dad in the film is a successful ophthalmologist and he has friends, he's got golf carts . . .

Country club guys.

In a sense, he's still very isolated because in the film, you and your dad, he and his son, do not have a close relationship. During the pandemic, there were a lot of people who found something in this film. 

That's absolutely right. The feedback that we were given, when people started going back out again, we would get emails, we would get posts on social. My dad's not on the computer, so he's all snail mail, and he would call me, he says, "I just got this amazing letter," week after week after week. Basically the underlying sentiment was, "Thank you for making this movie. It changed my life."

I'll make more movies, I know that, but I may never make a film like this that actually has that kind of an impact on so many people that got up out of their chair, got up their couch and said, "I'm going to do that."

That's amazing. Do you have any sense of how many people?

Tens of thousands have reached out to us. And those are the ones that actually did reach out.

To say they've gone and done the Camino?


All right, so let's back up. This is amazing, first of all, because it's hard enough to get people out of their chair for anything.

Even go to the movies for that matter, right?

Let's go back seriously and talk about the Camino. For people who don't know about this pilgrimage, can you describe what it is and why it's significant?

It started out as a predominantly Christian pilgrimage. The remains of St. James, the Apostle of Christ, are said to be interned in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which is in the north of Spain. And as the crow flies, you have Madrid. Above that, you have Virgos. And then it's a straight line to Galicia, to the sea really is where Santiago de Compostela is. Pilgrims have been doing this journey for a thousand years, and Popes and saints and kings and queens, and basically when you walk the Camino, you're walking with all of those spirits. You are inspired not just by your own journey, but you're inspired by those who came before you and who did this walk. It's impossible to not walk in that history when you're on this ancient trail. 

People have been doing this, like I said, for a thousand years, and it has morphed into something a little touristy. People go out now to find adventure or to find a partner or to find something. They're looking for something. It's not always a spiritual journey, but one thing is certain, however you start your Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you do not finish this for the same reasons, nor do you finish it the same person. I mean, we will watch pilgrims arrive in Santiago de Compostela and drop to their knees and just weeping. Not just because they completed it, but because they discovered something about themselves over those 40 days or longer that it took to get there.

How far is it?

"However you start your Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you do not finish this for the same reasons, nor do you finish it the same person."

It's 500 miles – 800 kilometers. You can keep going. This is not a spoiler alert, but my character dies his first day out on the Camino. He's a world traveler. He left Berkeley, he left the world of academia, and he wanted to follow sort of the Margaret Mead-style cultural anthropology effort. He's traveled the world, but he gets out on the trail to Santiago, and he dies. First day out, he gets caught in a storm. He's ambitious, he's a little arrogant, and he dies. Martin's character goes to collect his remains instead of bringing the remains home, has him cremated and does the Camino. It is a transformational, obviously very transformational for my character, but certainly for his.

What is your family's personal connection to the Camino, and why did you want to make the film?

For a couple of reasons. First, my grandfather is Francisco Estevez, who I dedicate the movie to at the end. Francisco never saw his name on the screen. He never saw my father's name on the screen because my father had changed his name to Martin Sheen in 1958. When Francisco came finally to New York to see my father on stage in "The Subject Was Roses" in '67, he looked up the marquee and there was, "Martin Sheen." My dad saw that, and he thought, "Oh my God, what have I done? I shamed my father." Anyway, so when I started acting, and when I started thinking about it as a profession, he said, "Don't change your name. Don't make the same mistake I did." 

That's a little backstory to why Spain and why the story. My grandfather was born in a little town called Vigo, which is about 50 miles from Santiago de Compostela, so my dad had always heard of the Camino, had always wanted to do it, but never took the time. In the summer of 2003 during the hiatus, during "West Wing," my son was working for him as an assistant. He was 19 at the time. My dad had planned a trip to Europe. He said, "Look, we don't have the time. We don't have the six weeks to do the full Camino." He says, "I'm going to go drive it. I'm just going to go check it out." 

My son goes along. Then they're traveling to Camino and they're seeing the site in that site, and they stop in this town called Burgos for the night, it was like a casa rural where they take in pilgrims and they feed them and they house them while they're on their travel, and the innkeeper's daughter walks into the room, my son takes one look at her, falls in love. They have been together ever since. They have a child now. My granddaughter, who's now, who just turned four. That was the first miracle on the Camino that happened. 

When my dad came home from the experience, and my son came home briefly because he says, "I'm going back to Spain for university." My dad began to say, "Well, how about doing a film in Spain?" He started just knocked around these scenarios. Then it occurred to me that when my son finally moved to Burgos, I thought, "Well, I kind of lost the son on the Camino. Maybe that's what the story is about. Maybe it's about a father who loses his son." And then essentially, I wrote my own obituary.

Do you think we as Americans need to take a pilgrimage amidst our busy lives and why? Where would you go? 

"He said, 'Don't change your name. Don't make the same mistake I did.'"

I do. I think it would change our politics. I think it would change our media. I think if people actually took the time to go and travel to their interior and take the time to do that, I believe there would be massive change. The question is, when you go, can you keep it from being an Instagramable moment? Because that seems what it's all about now. It's like, "Here I am. Boom." You didn't enjoy the journey. You didn't enjoy the moment. You had to take that photo for who? Who cares? We've gone so far away from doing things to improve ourselves. We're now doing things to impress others to the point where we're just sort of lost the plot, in my opinion.

When this film first came out, you talked about how movies usually create an overall dysmorphia for viewers based on this idea of human perfection. How we have to look a certain way, to eat to look a certain way, not to be healthy, to photograph ourselves a certain way, filters and so on and so forth. Why is your film different? What is that message? 

You've talked to enough directors and producers and filmmakers and actors, and I'm sure they will tell you the horror stories. When they sit in a studio's executive's office, and they're talking about a specific plot or story, they want to talk about the character arc. Over a two-hour or three-hour [film], that character has to change. How many friends do you have that you've known for 20 years?


How many of them really changed over the course of that 20 years? I mean, really changed. How many of them totally surprised you with their transformation or they've made a full character arc per the studio?


None. The movie is about how we are and should be OK with being exactly who we are. We know at the end of the movie, this is not [a] spoiler alert, but the Dutchman says, "I needed a new suit anyway." And Sarah, the Canadian, played by the lovely Deborah Kara Unger, she's not stopping smoking, no intention of stopping smoking. She's going to be exactly who she is no matter what. So the Camino has transformed people. The journey has transformed them, but not in the ways that are obvious. They may start out as being somewhat stereotypical characters, but where they finally arrive is not so far from being stereotypical because there is not the character arc that the studios all want to see. These people are exactly the same.

You went very low-tech for this film. 

We shot Super 16. All natural light.

There's something about that rich, grainy texture. When I watched the film, I could hear myself think because it's not just shoved-in dialogue. There's a lot of quietness because your dad is on a journey and he has to reconcile his own thoughts and emotions, and I assume that's something you put some thought into.

Oh yeah. It's about the steps you take. Talk about a 12-step program. This is a million-step program to get to the self, to get your truth. This was intentional. You've seen the movie. It's swimming in grain. It's swimming in grain, the whole movie.

The DP is a Spanish DP, Juanmi Azpiroz, who moved from Spain to Brooklyn, met his wife, his now wife, on the Camino during the film. She was actually running footage, exposed film, to Madrid. She was a production assistant and running the film every night to Madrid and coming back to wherever we were on the Camino. They met. They fell in love. They had two children. They moved to Brooklyn. He comes to Cincinnati to scout locations for "The Public," decides, "I love Cincinnati. It's much more affordable than New York. I'm moving my family to Cincinnati." He says to me, Juan says, "Emilio, every time I work with you, my life changes." He's another miracle on the Camino. He's a guy who's now in his 50s and has this amazing life in Cincinnati. 

My first AD met the costume director, a costumer on the film, they married, have two children now, in addition to my son and his wife. So there were all of these amazing miracles, all of these moments of genuine love that were born out of this film that you just can't ignore it. The movie had a magical impact on so many people and continues to.

And now it will have a whole new audience.

Indeed. And we've added this, Rick Steves' footage, which is, he's a mad genius. My girlfriend Jackie came up with this crazy idea. She said, "Let's call Rick. Let's email him. Let's just reach out to him." I said, "Do you have his number?" She says, "No." I said, "Well, surely he'll respond to you." And I said, "OK." I wrote the email, send, let's have another beer. He calls the next night and he says, "I'd love to be a part of it. Let's keep talking." I took my parents, we got on a train, took the Amtrak on our own pilgrimage to see Rick Steves to Edmonds.

We went to Edmonds, Washington, and we shot this added footage, and I was kind of the moderator, and I sat between Rick and Martin and asked them questions. And it was a great dialogue about faith and about family, about pilgrimage and Rick's mission, which is A, why we travel and B, the road is church and how pilgrimage is really the first church.

You guys are scrappy. I'll say that. None of that Hollywood stuff. Shrink wrap a bus and drive.

Fifty days, 35 cities.

Never let it be said that the Sheens and the Estevezs are not method folks. It's all method.

We talk the talk and walk the walk.

And now you're doing a special event for "The Way." 

"If people actually took the time to go and travel to their interior ... I believe there would be massive change."

It is a one-day event on Tuesday, May 16 with Fathom Events. Then there'll be a month where they run it on a streaming platform for one month. Then after the streaming platform, we'll be back on all the usual suspects with Amazon and Apple and all of those.

So you will be able to find this imminently.

And you haven't been able to, by the way, which makes this whole experience unique. We took it down from Apple, we took it down from Amazon. We sort of stripped it away from view, essentially to be able to do this re-release and reboot.

And I'll be back to talk to you for the sequel.

A sequel?

Yeah, headed off to Spain to start doing R&D. We rediscovered Tom. I'll give you just a brief little spoiler. He's become fully evolved. He's become the real citizen of the world. He's now working with Doctors Without Borders, Médecins Sans Frontières. He is in Nigeria, and he is performing cataract surgeries in a remote village. A C130 plane comes in with supplies for the village, surgery supplies and mail, and in the drop is The Irishman's book. In the book are some absolutely horrifying revelations, and Tom has to leave the village to go find him for the next journey.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli Joseph

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Camino De Santiago Emilio Estevez Martin Sheen Movies Pilgrimage Salon Talks The Way