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'Providence' at hand during movie filming
Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez collaborate in ‘The Way,’ the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
By MARK PATTISON | Catholic News Service
Bob Roller | CNS
Emilio Estevez, writer-director-producer of "The Way," gestures as his father, actor Martin Sheen, who stars in the movie, looks on prior to a screening at Georgetown University in Washington Feb. 18.

WASHINGTON — "I've stopped using the word coincidence" to describe how the upcoming film "The Way" got made, said its writer-director-producer, Emilio Estevez. "It was providence. ... It was the divine."

"The Way," which stars Estevez's father, Martin Sheen, tells the story of four Westerners walking the 500-mile pilgrimage route from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Sheen, who joked during a recent interview with Catholic News Service that "I did my own walking" in the movie without a stunt double's help, recalled the first time he tried to make the pilgrimage himself.

"It was in 2003, and we were between seasons filming 'The West Wing,'" Sheen recalled. "I really wanted to make 'the way,' but we really didn't have enough time. So I did what every good American did: I rented a Mercedes and drove the route," he laughed.

But it was in Burgos, Spain, on that vehicular trek that Estevez's son, Taylor, met the woman who would become his wife. "That was the first miracle," Sheen said, adding he urged his own son to write a documentary or drama about the pilgrimage.

Estevez, sitting next to his father, recounted other occurrences he attributed to divine providence.

For one thing, he was able to conduct his filming in 2010 — not in 2011, as Spanish officials had expected.

When Spaniards saw his tight, 40-day shooting schedule — "40 days — the normal time it would take a pilgrim to walk from St.-Jean (France) to Santiago," Estevez said — they told him, "It rains every day. Your 40 days will become 60."

Instead, "it rained two days," Estevez said. "And both days we were scheduled to shoot interiors."

Estevez also received permission from officials to film inside the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. "We didn't get it until 48 hours before we arrived" at the city that concludes the pilgrimage, he said, adding that his was the first dramatic film to have received permission.

In the film, Sheen plays a doctor estranged from his son (Estevez). When he learns that his son has perished in a storm in the Pyrenees on the first day of his pilgrimage, Sheen makes the impulsive decision to cremate his son's remains and go on the pilgrimage himself, carrying his son's remains with him.

Along the way, the doctor meets a carefree Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen) who says he's making the pilgrimage to lose a few pounds, but gorges himself at nearly every opportunity; a bitter Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) who says she'll quit smoking once she's completed the journey; and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt) with writer's block.

After a Feb. 18 screening of "The Way" at Georgetown University, Sheen told the audience during a question-and-answer session that the story structure is similar to that of "The Wizard of Oz," with Sheen's character as Dorothy, Dutchman Joost as the Cowardly Lion, Canadian Sarah as the Tin Man and Irishman Jack as the Scarecrow.

And therein lay another miracle during the film shoot. While looking for sites in the Spanish countryside to introduce the Jack character, Estevez found a field with baled hay — a perfect tie between Jack and the Scarecrow.

"The Way" is more than just a movie to Estevez and Sheen. It was a chance for them to work together. Estevez called his father's acting in the film "the performance of a lifetime."

For his part, Sheen said the expected father-son roles were reversed in filming. "That's what the film is about," he added, "how the father is led by the son, because of the journey of the boy."

The movie is also an homage to Sheen's father and Estevez's grandfather, Francisco Estevez, to whom the film is dedicated. The elder Estevez was born in the Galicia region of Spain. Sheen said that when growing up in Dayton, Ohio, he heard his father speak often of the pilgrimage route, commonly known to Spanish speakers as "El Camino," which fueled his desire to make the pilgrimage himself.

Estevez said four preview screenings of "The Way" on behalf of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students brought such a great response "we may have to change our marketing strategies."

The early strategy, Estevez added, was to market merely to "humans," not to any specific demographic.

But Estevez said that in advance of the movie's Sept. 30 U.S. opening, he and Sheen will conduct a 30-day, 30-city cross-country promotion bus trip from Los Angeles to New York. "The Way" opens April 15 in England, Ireland and Malta.

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