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Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez find ‘The Way’ on the road

Filmmaker David Alexanian (left) was along for MartSheen Emilio Estevez’s Chicago stop their nationwide bus tour. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Filmmaker David Alexanian (left) was along for Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez’s Chicago stop on their nationwide bus tour. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:46AM



Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez walk into a Cracker Barrel off of I-94 in Madison, Wis. They are on the road in a tripped-out 2011 tour bus previously used by rockers U2 and Stevie Nicks. They are promoting a movie about opening your heart in a quest for answers.

The Cracker Barrel staff gives the actors goodie bags with cheese, toys and pyramid puzzles.

No way.

Estevez wrote and directed “The Way,” opening Friday and featuring Sheen in the starring role. It was filmed along the pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. People have walked this way for a thousand years. True believers say the camino lies directly under the Milky Way and reflects the energy from the star systems above it.

Sheen plays an uptight Los Angeles doctor who has grown apart from his son (played by Estevez). The son dies in a storm during his first day of the 500-mile walk, which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The father flies to France to claim the ashes and decides to embark on the walk in his son’s memory. He meets characters along the way, written by Estevez into a “Wizard of Oz” motif.

The road trip for “The Way” began on Aug. 28 in San Jose, Calif. Two weeks and some change later, Estevez and Sheen are rolling through Chicago. While crawling along rush-hour traffic on Interstate 55, Sheen gets up from a sofa in a makeshift office at the rear of the 45-foot bus. He walks to a closet. He fetches a handful of Cracker Barrel goodie bags and brings them to a visitor.

Sheen, 71, is a kid again.

“Neither of us could solve the puzzle,” he says while opening several full bags. “Isn’t that amazing?”

Just like the movie, the road trip is an amazingly reflective family affair.

Besides Sheen and Estevez, other road warriors are Estevez’s son Taylor, unit production manager Lucy Trujillo, filmmaker David Alexanian (who has directed Ewan McGregor’s motorcycle trips in the series “Long Way Round” and “Long Way Down”) and New Orleans-based bus driver Dave Walters.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Sheen says. “We have three generations, my son and grandson . . .”

Estevez slyly interrupts, “The son you never wanted. The brother I’ve already got.”

He’s actually referring to Alexanian, not someone else you might think. Sheen continues, “This is what it’s like. Great fun on the journey.”

Sheen has another son, of course: Charlie, who clowned with his brother and father on the red carpet at a Los Angeles screening of “The Way” on Sept. 23.

“He said it is the best movie he has seen in 10 years,” Martin Sheen says. “He’s very proud of it. We’re very much a family. We don’t separate what we do for a living, who we are, where we come from and what we’ve been through. We’re supportive of each other on multiple levels that no one knows about. That belongs to us.”

Janet Templeton, Sheen’s wife of 50 years, is an executive producer for “The Way.” Estevez recalls, “Halfway through shooting the film she said, ‘Your father has so much anxiety. I have not seen him study his lines or be as prepared as he is since he was a young actor starting out in New York.’ ”

Says Sheen, “This was a deeply personal project. At my age — well, at any 71-year-old actor’s age — you’re not going to get many leading parts. It’s the best thing I’ve done in, frankly, I can’t remember how long.”

Sheen drove the camino with Taylor and a friend for two weeks in 2003 between shooting the fourth and fifth season of his hit television series “The West Wing.”

“I had this romantic image of doing the camino for a long time,” Sheen says. “But I didn’t have any practical plan.”

Estevez adds, “My son was his assistant, and they ended up at a bed and breakfast in Burgos that takes in pilgrims. They are having the pilgrim’s supper, and this gorgeous Spanish girl walks in. She took one look at my son, and they’ve been in love ever since.”

Sheen continues, “That was the first miracle. What are the chances he meets his future wife the first day out? The camino became something powerful and mysterious, and it could change your life.

“If you show up, anything could happen. We just let it happen to us.”

Estevez began interviewing pilgrims and exploring Camino de Santiago de Compostela himself. He wrote scenarios. He bounced ideas off his father, whom he calls Martin.

They liked the “Wizard of Oz” metaphor. On his journey, the doctor (much like Dorothy) meets a bon vivant stoner Dutchman (the Cowardly Lion), a short-tempered Canadian with a broken heart (the Tin Man) and an Irish travel writer with writer’s block (if the Scarecrow only had a brain).

“And the death of the son was the emotional tornado,” Estevez says. “Off to the Emerald City they go, in this case, it is Santiago [the journey’s end, punctuated by the majestic Cathedral de Santiago, where it is said the bones of St. James have been buried].”

Estevez, 49, followed his own path in writing the script. “Once we figured out the dramatic hook, I didn’t want to read Paulo Coelho’s [The Pilgrimage] or Shirley MacLaine’s book The Camino (A Journey of the Spirit),” he says. “I wasn’t interested in anybody’s experience on the Camino. de Santiago. All I wanted were guidebooks. Just the facts.”

And just like the travel writer in “The Way,” Estevez encountered writer’s block.

His fiancee had purchased the 1994 Jack Hitt travelogue Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain for herself.

“This book was caustic, cynical,” Estevez says. “And very funny. I imagined what it would be like for him to have writer’s block and encountering these knuckleheads who became part of his journey. I got in touch with Jack and said, ‘I like some of the stories in your book. I don’t have a lot of money to pay you.’ He said, ‘That’s OK, Disney paid me a fortune on a movie called ‘Hackers’ that didn’t do very good.’ He trusted me and he liked my work.”

As they rolled across America during their 55-day journey, Estevez and Sheen realized that the mood is right for their movie. “People are responding to the bus tour as a novel idea when in fact, it’s not novel at all,” Estevez says. “The old studio system used to encourage whistlestop [publicity] tours on trains. This seemed like a natural extension of the film itself.”

The road trip included Sheen throwing out a game ball at Wrigley Field and the crew catching Notre Dame’s first football win of the season.

“This movie is going to play in the heartland,” Estevez says. “We knew that because last summer we took a longer version of the film out. David and I got in the car and had the movie on an HD SR deck, which is a piece of machinery the size of the couch you are sitting on. The numbers were off the charts. We thought, ‘Maybe we don’t have this independent movie, we think we have something that has crossover appeal that can go mainstream.’ ”

Although “The Way” was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival, major studios pegged the film as direct-to-DVD.

“We thought, ‘To hell with that,’ ” Estevez says. “Let’s distribute it ourselves. Let’s do this bus tour. We fell in with this compay called Arc [Entertainment].” They connected with Producers Distribution Agency, which broke through with the Banksy street-art documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

“Our partners are AMC Theaters, Wal-Mart, Comcast and Home Run Inn Pizza [in Chicago],” Estevez says.

The controversial Wal-Mart working with two of Hollywood’s most famous liberals?

No way.

“We’re in business,” Estevez says bluntly. “For us to not be in business with the biggest retailer in the world, we would have to have our heads examined. Bring it on. We’ve made a couple Wal-Mart appearances.”

Estevez has done the camper trip across America with his kids — which included the traditional stint of parking overnight in a Wal-Mart lot. “I’ll go in for supplies, and people will say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” he says with a chuckle. “I’m doing my thing.”

His own way.



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