The Way, currently in theaters, is Emilio Estevez's fourth film as writer/director and marks the third collaboration with his actor/father, Martin Sheen. The film is a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends, and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world.
"Wait!" Stop! Cut!" I order. The camera stops running. The crew, cast and background artists return to their starting marks. "Stop being Martin," I say to him in front of everyone to hear. No longer taking him aside for the quiet actor/director notes that is afforded most actors working in Hollywood. This, of course, I did for the first few weeks of shooting, when I had more energy, more patience and as daunting as our schedule looked, more optimism.
"You want me to stop being me?" Sheen asks. "You're speaking Spanish in the scene," I tell him. Sheen pushes back, "So?" "Martin may speak some Spanish, but 'Tom' the character doesn't," I say, closing the book on the discussion. Sheen shrugs. "Yeah, okay. I'm just having some fun, that's all," he says as he walks away from me. Clearly his body language is telling me to "Piss off."
This is one of the benefits, as well as one of the difficulties of directing a member of your family. You know where the buttons are. You can push them if you want. After all, you helped build the machine. The "Machine" or "Ma-Sheen" in this case, is my father, a Hollywood icon who has paid his dues and then some after 50 years as a working professional actor. He's appeared in memorable classics like "Apocalypse Now and "Badlands", played the U.S. President we all wished we had for seven seasons of "The West Wing" and, as most of my entirely Spanish crew are quick to point out, is an "Awesome Legend." "Yes it's cool to be working with you too, Emilio," they would politely tag on, so as not to offend.
I nod, politely, every time it's mentioned, which is about twice daily. Today has been the most difficult day of the shoot, and I have been pulling my beard out - one hair at a time. With respects to my father, "Awesome" is not the "A" word I am thinking about right now. Even "Aardvark" is higher on the list.
We're shooting a scene in Burgos, Spain. From Madrid, as the crow flies, it's two hours north, towards Bilbao and the Basque country. Burgos is also 300 kilometers into the 800 km journey along The Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James, Spain's thousand year old pilgrimage and one of it's national treasures. The Camino Frances begins in the French Pyrenees in a town called St. Jean Pied de Port and ends at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Burgos also happens to be where my adult son, Taylor has settled, married and lived for the past six years. His apartment is a mere 300 meters from where we are shooting today - literally on The Camino itself. Taylor has also been working with us since the start of pre-production, two months ago, acting as interpreter and part-time "fixer." He would later be accorded an "Associate Producer" credit - having actually earned it, unlike most other instances of Hollywood nepotism.
Earlier this day, as we prepared our first shot of the morning outside the walls of the famous Cathedral of Burgos, Martin spotted a Catholic priest, who along with two other travelers, were wearing the typical pilgrims outfit - backpack, scallop shell, walking stick.
Martin waved the priest down, who turned out to be from Mexico and had seen us filming on The Camino two days earlier. My father then asked the Priest to give us a blessing to begin our day of filming. "It would be my honor," the Padre said.
The crew and cast fell silent, the Pilgrim Priest offering prayers and intentions for us all. He then shook our hands, and walked on to continue his pilgrimage with his companions. Shockingly, it was the one and only time we would encounter a Holy Man during our production, who would offer a blessing for our endeavors. Unfortunately, his blessing may have ended up being a curse.
As the cameras are preparing to roll again on the streets of Burgos and the actors take their places, there is suddenly a loud commotion nearby. A large group of 40 striking union workers, marching in unison descend onto the film set. The strikers are armed with a bullhorn, bright, colorful banners and a list of grievances against their employers, the government, whomever - it's never really clear to me. Our nervous 1st assistant director Manu quickly rushes towards the workers to quell this minor rebellion.
He is dismissed and quickly shouted down by the strikers and their "Workers of the World Unite" mantra. It seems they thought they would gain more attention for their cause if they showed up and protested on our film set. Turns out it's a good strategy for them as the only previous production being Charlton Heston's "El Cid" filmed in this city in 1960. Local news crews also begin to pop up and shoot B-roll - now getting a "two-fer." I begin pulling out more beard hairs at an alarming rate.
My son Taylor now confronts this agitated mob. Using his pitch perfect Spanish infused with his calming, apologetic nature, he too, is immediately drowned out by the incessant chants demanding "fairness," "higher wages" and "respect."
Suddenly, and completely to my horror, "Martin Sheen, Man Of The People" breaks ranks, takes off his backpack, leaves the scene and jumps into the protest alongside the workers. He begins shaking hands, kissing babies and either I imagined this, dreamt it or he actually DID take their bullhorn and speak of behalf of the strikers! He's not even wearing a cape, yet the bulbs flash, video rolls and production halted while Sheen saves the day.
I turn to my producer David Alexanian. For the first time - I cannot find words. David can't either. We stand beside each other and look on as Martin takes photos with each striking worker and then with the entire group as they wave their banners and flags. He smiles for nearly every person with a mobile phone camera pointed in their direction. He even allows them "seconds" to make sure they "Got it." "How about another group shot?" Martin asks. "Con todos," he can speak Spanish now. Whatever, Dad. I'm not directing this scene. A loud cheer from the striking workers and my shoulders visibly sag.
Finally, I find my voice, which has all the strength of a leaky helium balloon, "It's like he's running for President. Of Spain." I say.
Alexanian puts an arm around my shoulder, trying to calm me. "He could probably win," he says half-joking. "But look at this way, man," David continues, "Would you prefer it the other way? People love him. And he loves them right back. He's in his element, man. The people are truly charmed by this man. Let him enjoy this."
"Sure, but we'll see how much we're enjoying it when we're into ten hours of overtime and we haven't completed today's work," I snapped. "Let's see how charming this is at midnight. You're watching tomorrow's call time get pushed with every handshake, every photo op. Later and later. Charmed, I'm sure." I walk away from the scene, find my script, my notes and my shot list for the day and I begin looking at what I can live without shooting.
As it turns out, not much.
And whether of not it was self fulfilled prophecy, ten hours later we would still be shooting. Ten hours later, I would have experienced my worst night on any film I had directed to date. I would see myself fire and re-hire one of my lead actors (not Martin, but close). David and I would end the evening unable to speak to one another without screaming (all me). So. Thanks for the blessing, Padre.
Ten hours later I had completely alienated myself and pushed everyone away. Well, almost everyone. And it would somehow, seem only fitting, I would end this God-awful, horrible day, nursing a bottle of Rioja wine and sitting next to my 25 year-old son, Taylor back at our hotel.
Fitting because, after all, he was the reason we were in Spain in the first place.
In 2003, Martin organized a trip to Ireland. It was a reunion of sorts. A visit to the village of my Irish grandmother Mary Phelan from County Tipperary on the day of what would have been her 100th birthday. Growing up in a family of 10 children, now both his parents gone and many of his brothers getting on in age, my father invited all the living uncles to join him as well as my son Taylor, then 18 and working as his assistant on the TV series "The West Wing."
The hiatus was six weeks long before filming would resume again in the summer, so off to Ireland they went. The second part of my father's "plan" was to leave Ireland and head to Spain, having paid homage to his Irish roots, he would now give a nod to his father, Francisco, born in the north of Spain, in Celtic influenced Galicia. He invited all present to join him, however there were few takers. And so he set off for the Iberian Peninsula with a desire to experience something he had heard stories about since he was an alter boy in the 40's: The Camino de Santiago. So, along with my son and his oldest, dearest friend and fellow actor Matt Clark in tow, off they went.
However, to walk the 800 kilometer journey, it would require more time than the two remaining weeks of his hiatus to complete. So, instead of walking, they rented a car.
Leaving Madrid, they headed due north, and bee lined for the nearest major stop along the St. James route, the city of Burgos.
It was on the outskirts of this town where they stopped for the night in what Martin likes to refer to as an "Albergue," but it is in fact, a "Casa Rural." An "albergue" or "refugio" would be on par with a hostal, while Casa Rural is a rural house that also takes in pilgrims on The Camino.
Regardless, at this Casa Rural called "El Molino" or The Mill, is where Taylor would be introduced to a beautiful young woman named Julia. Julia, the daughter of the innkeepers who own and operate El Molino, spoke no English and likewise, Taylor spoke a few words of Spanish. But somehow they managed to communicate enough to discover they had similar values, a shared sense of humor and both being single - were happily attracted to each other.
What began as a chance meeting, resulted in Taylor coming back to America, only to announce that he had fallen in love and was returning to Spain in the Fall to attend "classes" at the University in Burgos. He has lived there ever since and married Julia in the summer of 2006.
During Taylor's time in Spain, I began to get a gentle nudge from Martin to create a film project. For him to star, of course. And this film would/could potentially shoot in Spain. "You write something for me, " he would demand. "A documentary," he'd continue. "I don't do docs, Pop," I would push back. When have I ever expressed an interest in directing a documentary? How 'bout never?"
He would press on, "Okay then. How about a story where two old guys go to Spain with a young guy." "And so what happens then?" I would ask. "That's for you to figure out and write, I'm busy on West Wing. You write this for me. It'll be fun. You and me! In Spain! We'll hire Taylor to help us. Write this for me."
I sat with this 'story' for a bit: 'two old guys and young guy walking the Camino de Santiago,' and then, and...and....zzzzzzzzzzzz. It felt like a warm, eternal valium drip planted firmly into my left arm. I couldn't get my head around this story and I told him so.
But since the beginning of time, every child on the planet has endeavored to please their parents. From the painted noodle cigar box the child brings home from the first grade to their SAT scores to gain college entrance, there is the moment where the child comes through the front door, fights to get their parents attention and finally says, "Look at this. Look at me. Aren't you proud of me?" I still have the art projects my kids made for me 20 years ago. I cherish them, crude and silly as some of them may be.
So yeah, I wanted to please my dad. And if I was going to invest the time and energy into creating something I would potentially spend the next two years of my life on, I wanted it to be special for both of us. If I was going to build it, it had to be the finest Italian pasta glued onto an empty Cohiba box before I would present it to him, and subsequently, the world. But I still had no hook to the story.
And then it hit me. Or he did. The hook: Taylor. This was about losing a son on The Camino. After all, hadn't I lost mine on The Way? This was something I could relate to, something that was close to me. I pitched it to Martin and without hesitating for a moment , he said one word, "Go."
We worked together on the development of the story and screenplay, mostly in conversation. Well, sort of "conversation." Mostly him talking. Me listening.
I would sit, or drive and politely nod as the suggestions for scenes came fast and hard, "How about I lose the backpack in a river?" He would offer. "Okay...." I would say, but silently wondering how he'll deal with having to jump into a river and swim after a backpack at his age. "With rapids," he would then add. "And I'll jump into the rapids and struggle to catch it."
He says all of this completely and totally oblivious to the logistics of it all. And who was I to say? Surely, "Apocalypse Now" was done before the advent of CGI - "He knows the risks," I would tell myself.
"You write that. Backpack goes in the river with rapids, " he demanded. "You got it, man," was my reply.
There is, of course, a punch line here.
It comes less than one year later, as we are standing on the banks of a raging river, a few miles north of Pamplona, courtesy of the Navarre Water Management District, who agreed to release enough water from the upstream dam to create the level of peril which Martin had suggested when we had talked about it in comfy, cozy California. Give the man what he asked for.
And indeed it was perilous. David Alexanian, world travel veteran and director/producer of "The Long Way 'Round" and "The Long Way Down" documentaries, was certainly no stranger to the dangers that nature can present to a cast and crew. He coordinated a team of swift water rescue experts to be just out of frame. Equiped with rafts, ropes and numerous flotation devices - they came prepared for the worst, which is, I suppose what their job consists of. I thought it was overkill, no pun intended.
Now, here we are on set, Martin in costume, looking at the river and her rapids. The nervous crew watching. Watching Martin. Trying to gauge his nerves. Many of them wondering if I'm getting back at him for something. Some latent, twisted retribution for a severe punishment I received from Pop during my teenage years. Nothing I say in my defense can convince them otherwise. In the eyes of the crew, this is "Martin Sheen - Awesome Legend" now asked to perform for his son like a beleaguered circus chimp who's been abused by his trainer for so many years. I can't win here. I stop trying. I just want to get the scene in the can and move on to drier, less dangerous scenes that were MY ideas.
CUT TO: MARTIN.
He's still staring at the rapids. Calculating how fast he'll need to swim to catch the bag, and where he'll need to enter the river to do just that. Needless to say, he was fairly grim. Finally, he turns to me and in as quiet a voice that he has used in months, asks without a hint of sarcasm, "Whose idea was this, anyway?"
In the end, he went into that river. Twice. No stuntman was used either. Even though we had a Spanish stuntman on standby. The guy looked like Johnny Weismuller, but ended up being a total wimp. He refused to go into the rough water after a test run spooked him.
Afterwards, our cinematographer, Juanmi said Martin has the most "cajones" of anyone he's ever worked with. Martin shrugged it off., "No big deal," he said. He was doing something that he loved. Something that has turned him on since he was boy. Performing. Acting. Creating a memorable, theatrical moment. And we were blessed to be there to put this one on film.
My mother Janet was on hand during production and serves as an executive producer, along with Martin who is finally billed in a motion picture under his real Spanish birth name, Ramon Gerard Estevez. During the shoot, my mother would often confide in me, telling me how badly my father wanted to please me with his performance and work ethic. She said she had not seen him study his lines so diligently and work this hard since he was a struggling, starving actor in New York.
I suppose Martin's strength and dedication continually surprised me, stunned the crew and the inspired the other cast members. Unlike the other actors, my father insisted on wearing a fully weighted backpack throughout the entire shoot. During the first week of shooting, we watched him run across the Pyrenees wearing this backpack and hiking boots. David was both awed and terrified as we gave chase and followed him from the moving camera truck at 4700 ft elevation. "You gotta stop him! I mean, what are we gonna tell Janet?" he asked. "Nothing. Tell her nothing. She'll see the movie and she'll kill us both afterwards, " I said.
In fact, the only day Martin ever really showed any anger, lost his cool, was when I secretly instructed our prop gal, Tanya, to "lighten his pack," and "take some of the weight and bulk from it."
When my father discovered this, he raged at all of us. It didn't come from a Macho Man place or even a Method Acting point of view. He simply stated, "I need to own this bag. I need to feel everything inside it. It affects how I breathe, how I walk, how I move. I just need to own it, Emil."
And he does. All of it. And in "owning it," he gives one of the most profoundly personal and most powerfully nuanced performances of his career."
I stand in the back of the theater at every screening of "The Way" and I weep. Me, now like a proud parent watching his kid in a grade school play. But now the roles have been reversed. What an "art project" this has turned out to be.
Just like the cigar box with the glued on noodles I once gave him?
Yeah. Just like that. And just as special.