Writers and movie buffs, listen up—you gotta see The Way.
If you’ve seen The Way, you’ll know that this is not the way to write a movie.
The Way shows us the way to write a story that just barely works. The Way is so close to being a colossal flop that it’s worth looking at it again.
What saved its sorry ass?
Hint—the final shot. It’s stuck on like the afterthought it might very well have been.
Premise: American ophthalmologist (Martin Sheen) learns that his son has died in Spain while hiking the 800 km pilgrimage known as “El Camino de Santiago”. Dad flies across the Atlantic to pick up the remains, where he decides to complete the trek in his son’s name.
Our protagonist had warned Daniel (Emilio Estevez) that seeing the world is a waste of time. Stay home! Finish your PhD! Career, responsibility, family, security, yada yada yada.
And, so, this sour misanthrope heads out on “The Way”… left, right, left, right, left…
It’s a road story. It’s a religious pilgrimage. Our hero has an iron-clad belief system–perfect! Left, right, left, right… Our hero is going to have a religious experience while walking the “Camino”, correct?
Wrong. This is a road story without an accident. A quest without a Holy Grail. What were they thinking?
I can just see Martin Sheen on the set of the movie. He’s flipping through the script. He takes Emilio aside (Emilio, the film’s writer-director, Martin’s real-life son) and he whispers in Emilio’s ear:
“Where’s the story, son?”
“Listen, son, I understand that the protagonist is carrying the torch for Daniel, that’s his motivation. But shouldn’t something else, like, you know, happen along the way?”
“Excuse me, O wise one, but I don’t see in the script where the protagonist adopts his second goal. I mean, only the most simple-minded action flick ends with the hero achieving nothing more than what caused him to leave home in Act One.”
“Dammit, son, I’m an intransigent asshole at the beginning of this story…I can’t be an asshole at the end.”
I can imagine Martin Sheen taking charge…
“I should be forced to confront myself. That’s what a story IS, isn’t it? The hero’s attitude to life—it should evolve. Unless this is a tragedy, of course. Don’t tell me this is a tragedy. This story should crack me open. I’m supposed to grow up, that’s the whole idea.”
“But, Pops, the premise is a spiritual cliché. I’m downplaying the spiritual crap.”
“Call it what you want, but the protagonist must begin to see his life in a larger context. It’s a deal-breaker, son. We transcend ourselves. It’s the Holy Grail of plot.”
And then, a few weeks later, shooting the final scene, Martin Sheen again collars Emilio:
“Son, we can’t end the picture like this with me dumping Daniel’s ashes into the Atlantic. That’s no accomplishment. That’s exactly what the character set out to do. Boring! I’m still a grumpy, incommunicative, autocratic, scared and self-centred near-sighted narcissist. With blisters on my feet.”
“If we roll the credits after I dump the ashes—and That’s all folks!—viewers are going to leave the theatre shrugging their shoulders. The ending has to prove that the events have begun to free the protagonist from the jail of his own belief system. Why do you think Zorba the Greek had a twinkle in his eye when he said, ‘Life is trouble!’
I can just see Emilio relenting:
“Okay, Pops! all right! all right! We’ll add a shot at the end. You’re in Morocco. You don’t return home. You’re traveling on. You’ve got an open mind, now. All right?”
“I’ve transcended myself.”
“You’re a free spirit, now. Like Daniel, your dead son.”
“That might work, Emilio. Barely. Just make sure I’m smiling, for chrissake. This whole movie I’m an asshole. Okay, son…let’s finish this sucker.”