In their dual memoir, "Along the Way," film legend Martin Sheen and accomplished actor Emilio Estevez recount their lives as father and son. In this excerpt, Emilio shares the story of directing his father in the film "The Way," and how it brought three generations of Estevez men together and closer to their history.
First Day of Filming
September 19, 2009
The fog in the French Pyrenees is so thick it’s like driving straight into a cloud. A half hour ago, as we left the French Basque town of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we saw hundreds of ivory sheep grazing the steep green slopes by the roadside. Then the fog rolled in. Now the sheep are concealed by the mist, but we can still hear their bells, faintly ringing out from somewhere beyond our reach.
My father and I are here on a Saturday morning to scout locations for our new movie, The Way. We’ve got the camera equipment, six magazines of Super 16 mm film, and a small crew in two pickup trucks we borrowed this morning. Our schedule says filming officially starts on Monday, but, if an opportunity presents itself today, we’ll take it. With a tight budget and only forty days to shoot the film, we need all the cooperation and good luck that comes our way.
I’m sitting in the open bed of the first truck, wearing the orange windbreaker and brown hiking boots of my character, Daniel Avery. I’m playing a small role as a world traveler who dies on his first day out hiking the Camino de Santiago. My father, in a role I wrote specifically for him, is playing Daniel’s father, Tom, a privileged country-club golfer and lapsed Catholic who decides to walk his son’s ashes 500 miles to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Along the way he becomes part of a small community of fellow travelers from all over the world, each of whom has a burden to carry.
With me in the truck today are my twenty-five-year-old son, Taylor, my assistant and associate producer on the film; Juanmi, our Spanish cinematographer; Tanya, who’s in charge of props; and Anna, the wardrobe mistress. My father is up front in the cab with Jean-Jacques, the Basque inn owner who lent us his Toyota pickup this morning and then offered his services as a driver.
“I’ll take you a back way here!” Jean-Jacques had shouted enthusiastically as he steered us out of St.-Jean. He knows the roads like the lifelong resident he is, and he’s taking this one fast. Really fast. We’re driving over rocks the size of a couch, hanging on to the edges of the truck bed as if our lives depend on it. Which, come to think of it, they might.
My father doesn’t like rough roads or dangerous driving and this definitely qualifies as both. I knock on the glass between us.
“How you doing up there, Ramon?” I shout.
Ramon is my father’s given name. Ramon Antonio Gerard Estevez. He took the stage name Martin Sheen in 1959 when he moved to New York City from Dayton, Ohio. On location I call him either Ramon or Martin to keep from looking too familiar with him in front of the crew. It’s also a way to remind them to treat him as one of the actors instead of as the director’s father or as the Hollywood icon that he is. Other directors may look at him and think, “That’s Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now!” or “That’s President Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing!” but when we’re on set together, I’m thinking, “That’s Dad.” This is my third time directing him, and it’s always a balancing act between being his boss and being his son.
Inside the cab, my father waves back in an “I’m okay” motion. He’s wearing a royal blue parka and the same hiking boots I am. Actually, they are my boots. We wear the same size and I bought a two-for-one in Madrid six weeks ago. This morning at the hotel in St.-Jean we traded boots when I realized he hadn’t broken in his pair. I can’t say I’d take the shoes off my feet for any actor, but that kind of thing happens when your leading man is also your dad.
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In the course of six feature films I’ve directed dozens of actors, including screen legends like Sir Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte; friends like Laurence Fishburne and Demi Moore; up‑and-coming actors like Lindsay Lohan and Shia LaBeouf; and family members like my brother Charlie and my sister Renée. Even so, my father is my favorite actor to work with. He’s incredibly talented and committed to his art. Also, as his son I don’t give a damn that he’s an icon. I know what he’s capable of as an artist and I don’t let him fall back on his regular bag of tricks, which I’ve come to know well over the years. I know exactly when and how to push him to get his best performance, and also when to back off.
The first time I directed him in a film was in 1995, for the Vietnam War–era drama The War at Home, based on a stage play by James Duff. It was the story of a young veteran, played by me, who returns from overseas to his family in Texas, where his domineering father — played by “Ramon” — can’t and doesn’t want to acknowledge the horrors the son has experienced.
We next worked together on my 2006 film Bobby, set in Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel on the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated there. My father played a stockbroker and Kennedy supporter married to a much younger woman, played by Helen Hunt. My dad was one of my biggest champions on that film, which took nearly seven years to make. When The West Wing was honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation my father was given a bust of Kennedy as a gift. He put it on my writing desk to give me inspiration as I was shaping the script. It sits here to this day.
By now my father trusts me as a director. He knows I won’t let him look foolish. I’ll showcase his strengths and not his weaknesses. As the oldest of his four kids, I’ve always felt responsible for him, maybe even more responsible than he needs me to be. He was so young when I was born, only twenty-one, that in some ways we grew up together. When we’re on set people say that sometimes it’s easy to forget who’s the father and who’s he son.
That doesn’t mean we always get along. We don’t. We disagree, a lot. He’s a devout and practicing Catholic, whereas I have my own ideas about spirituality and a strong connection to the earth. Where he’s outgoing and impulsive, I’m introspective and cautious. He lives very much in each moment. I’m always living a year ahead. Case in point: He’s in the truck right now mentally preparing for a location scout this morning. Me, I’m already in the theater, watching the film.
Nonetheless, we agree on one thing: that we have more in common than not. We both adore my mother, we love our children fiercely, and we take our art seriously. He’s stubborn, I’m stubborn, and we can get angrier at each other than anyone would ever expect. Even when I got so furious that I took a swing at him in the Philippines and shouted at him in Paris and left him alone on a sidewalk, I always came back. I knew how much he loved us and that our family meant everything to him. Everything. Throughout it all, I understood his frustration and celebrated his triumphs the way a son does. Maybe the way only a son can.
Today he’s not just my father, he’s also one of my closest friends. He and my mother Janet still live in the same house in Malibu where they raised me, my brothers Ramon and Charlie, and my sister Renée. I live 200 yards up the street with my partner Sonja on an acre of land with a vineyard and gardens we planted in our front and back lawns. I know: My father is a famous recovering alcoholic and Sonja and I make wine. Go figure. He helps us harvest our grapes every fall. It’s one of his favorite things to do. Despite our differences, the two of us now share a place of deep mutual acceptance and respect. But it wasn’t always an easy road.
The pickup truck bounces and rattles as we climb the Pyreneees. Just beyond us are enormous, jagged limestone formations and beyond them, the low white farmhouses of Basque country, but we can barely see anything through the fog. Our producer David Alexanian is behind us somewhere, driving the other truck. David is one of my closest friends, but right now he’s probably cursing me for having the brilliant idea to film today and is trying to come up with a plan B.
Me, I know I have to surrender to the moment. Sometimes as a filmmaker that’s all you can do. That, and know when to get out of your own way. When I was in my twenties and first started directing, I wanted to control every aspect of my films. Now I know that’s exactly how you overlook possibilities. You have to learn when to relinquish control. Otherwise, you miss all the gifts.
Fog, I think. Okay. This is an opportunity. How can we make it work? No doubt, I am the only person in the vehicle with that thought in mind.
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The most popular and well-trodden route on the Camino de Santiago is called the Camino Frances. It stretches from St.-Jean in the French Pyrenees to Santiago in the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. In ancient times, many pilgrims began the walk from their front doors. Others chose to assemble at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where pilgrims would worship together before starting their treks. The plan was typically to walk to Santiago de Compostela and then to walk all the way back. Monasteries and hospices for pilgrims offered food and shelter along the way but the journey could be treacherous. If the wild animals didn’t get you, the weather or the bandits often did.
Our plan for the film is to shoot the script in sequence, starting in St.-Jean and moving steadily west along the Camino Frances. We’ll act like real pilgrims ourselves, picking up cast members along the way as Tom encounters them on his walk. As a result, this won’t be the kind of production that cycles back to earlier sites to redo a scene. Once we leave a town we’ll have left it for good, and whatever we didn’t get on film the first time we’ll have to do without. This means that whatever gets in our way, whatever surprises we encounter in terms of weather or townspeople or cast, has to become part of the film. A shoot like this is one part preparation, one part skill, and two parts faith that everything will work out in the end.
We have a forty-day journey ahead of us, but it was an even longer journey to get us here. In 2003, my father, his close friend and fellow actor Matt Clark, and my son, Taylor, saw the Camino for the first time when the three of them took a trip to Spain. My father was on hiatus from The West Wing and didn’t have enough time to walk the Camino’s length, so they drove along it for a few weeks instead. At an inn for pilgrims outside the city of Burgos, Taylor met and fell in love with the Spanish woman who would become his wife. Later that year he moved to Spain to be with her, and they live there to this day.
After that 2003 trip to Spain my father began to give me gentle nudges about making a film about the Camino — ideally, one that would feature him. He was always on the lookout for substantial film roles, and Spain exacted a strong pull on him as his paternal family’s ancestral home.
Living 200 yards away from my father has both its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantage is that he can come knocking on my door at any time. The disadvantage is that he can come knocking on my door at any time. Especially when he has ideas about a film he wants me to write.
“I have a great idea. Write something for me set in Spain. A documentary.” “I don’t do documentaries, Dad.” When had I ever expressed an interest in directing a documentary? Besides, I was out pitching the script for Bobby. I didn’t have time to start something new right then.
But my father didn’t give up. He only regrouped.
“I have another idea. How about a story where two old guys go to Spain with a young guy who speaks the language and shepherds them along the way?” Two old guys and a young guy traveling together in Spain?
Hmm. That sounded familiar. It also sounded like a small European movie with a very limited potential audience.
“What happens next?” I asked.
“That’s for you to figure out. I’m busy with West Wing. Just write a script where I’m the guy. It’ll be fun — you and me, in Spain!”
I sat with his idea for a while. Two old guys and a young guy walking the Camino . . . two old guys and a young guy walking the Camino . . . and then . . . zzzz. I couldn’t find anywhere to go with this story, other than to sleep.
But since the beginning of time, every son in existence has wanted to please his father. From the painted macaroni cigar boxes he brings home in the first grade to the SAT scores in high school, the son is always angling for the father’s attention. “Look at this,” he says. “Look at me. Aren’t you proud?” I was no exception. Even as an adult I still wanted to please my father. So after Bobby had been funded, filmed, and released, I returned to my father’s idea. If I was going to invest a couple years’ worth of time and energy in the project, I wanted it to be special for both of us. But I still didn’t have a hook for the story.
When I started writing scripts in my teens and twenties, my mother would say, “Write what you know.” What she meant was, “Don’t write something so far out there it doesn’t connect for you emotionally. Write movies that are thematically close to wherever you’re coming from at that point in your life.” I still have one of my early scripts for Men at Work, a film I wrote half my life ago, when I was twenty-five. Men at Work is about two garbagemen, played by me and my brother Charlie, who become involved in the murder cover-up of a local politician. What did I know about garbagemen? Not much. Murder cover-ups? Even less. My mother knew that, of course. She wrote a page of notes she attached to the script that said, “I’m reading this script and I don’t know what it’s about. It has nothing to do with who you are. I feel that your life experiences are limited and it’s reflected in this screenplay.”
She probably didn’t know how much life experience I did have, much of it gained when I was fourteen and we spent five months in the Philippines during the shoot for Apocalypse Now. But as usual, she was right. I’d do better work if I wrote about what I understood.
What did I know about being an old guy or a young guy walking in Spain? Nothing. But I knew what it felt like to lose a son to the Camino. That’s what it had felt like after Taylor moved to Spain, and something in that theme felt right. This film needed to be about a father who loses a son.
But how would I get an American to the Camino? What could bring him there that wouldn’t feel manufactured or contrived? Slowly, an idea came to me. I pitched it to my father one day in the car, as we were driving north together on the 101 freeway. Right around the sand hills between Malibu and Ventura I explained, “I think it should be a father-son story. And I think the son is no longer with us. I think he died on the Camino and the father goes to pick up the body and decides he’s not coming home and does the route himself.” My dad didn’t even stop to think about it. “That’s it,” he said.
Excerpted from the book "Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son" by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez with Hope Eldeman. Copyright © 2012
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