On Nov. 5, Catholics in Media Associates (CIMA) of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in collaboration with Mt. St. Mary's College Chalon Campus, hosted a screening and panel discussion of Emilio Estevez's new film "The Way."
The main attraction, besides the film, was the participation of the film's star, Martin Sheen, his eldest son writer/director, Emilio Estevez, and producer David Alexanian. The panel was moderated by communications professor Dr. Craig Detweiller of Pepperdine University. Other panelists were Jesuit Fr. Eddie Siebert, president of Loyola Productions and chaplain to CIMA, the Rev. Scott Young, executive director of the University Religious Conference at UCLA, and me.
I had the honor of interviewing Sheen about the film for NCR, so being part of this event was an added grace. I can't think of another way to put it.
"The Way" is the story of California widowed father and ophthalmologist, Tom, who goes to France to bring home the body of his son, who died in an accident just as he was to embark on the famous Camino to the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He finds three companions along the way, a pilgrimage that changed him from choosing a life to living it, opened up his view of the world from his small little golf course to countries and people he never thought about, that healed a father-son relationship, even in death, and celebrates the divine hope of reconciliation, even in a church that can be, as the character Jack says, a "temple of tears."
The screening started a little late, which is the norm in L.A. But if you've ever been to this campus, you know it's at the top of a very steep hill, the same one where the Getty Museum watches over Los Angeles, so it's either steep stairs from the parking garage or a shuttle to get to the 350-seat theater.
One woman wrote on Facebook that "Given how there was a sign pointing 'The Way' at every turn on our walk from the parking lot to the theater and that there was a long, creaky wooden staircase as part of the journey, we felt we had made the pilgrimage ourselves by the time we had gotten to the theater!"
Almost every seat was filled and most people stayed for the informative, entertaining and inspiring panel afterwards. Most of the panelists had questions for Sheen, Estevez and Alexanian, and they graciously, and often humorously, explained aspects of the production challenges, the story and script and characters that were modeled on those of "The Wizard of Oz."
There's something special about seeing a film with 350 people who get the jokes, appreciate the human pathos and identify with the challenges and heartbreak of life and loneliness vs. aloneness of the spiritual quest. By the time the film ended, people were feeling the joy; the applause went on and on. When the film's three leaders walked on stage, out poured the love. You could feel it in the air.
Several audience members had actually made the Camino. Tom Stang, brother to Sr. Dorothy Stang, who was murdered by Brazilian landowners in 2005, was present for the screening. Fellow Daytonian Martin Sheen narrated the 2008 documentary "They Killed Sister Dorothy" and greeted Tom and his family warmly.
Other actors and filmmakers were also present, such as Ralph Winter ("X-Men"), Emmy-winning actor Peter McNichol, John Kelly and Marianne Muellerleile, John Shepherd and Shalini Trehan from MPower (Steve McEveety's production company), Laurie Nelson from "The Hatchery" (The Haunting Hour series), Peggy Miley, Sunta Izzicuppo (former head of movie/min-series for CBS) and Beth Miller (ABC Family). It was obvious to all that Martin Sheen is beloved in the entertainment industry and that he reciprocates with deep generosity.
One of our sisters who studied screenwriting at UCLA used to say that Los Angeles audiences are the most generous in the world. They appreciate what goes into making a film, even if it's not perfect. Audiences in Boston hardly ever clap; in L.A., they almost always do. Last night, this generosity overflowed and covered any critique of the film, for it has its flaws. But for the audience, it was about the story, it was about Martin Sheen, it was about what the film about four seekers on a long, difficult pilgrimage, meant to them personally.
Panelist Scott Young opened his comments by sharing that the day before, he had been at a restaurant in Seal Beach near a beauty salon where in October, a gunman opened fire, killing eight people. Young began chatting with some ladies who were dining at the next table and found that they were close friends of the stylists who were killed. They told Young that shortly after this tragedy, they decided to go to the movies, to just do something, but there was nothing playing that appealed to them -- except "The Way."
"It was healing for us, just what we needed to deal with the loss of their friends," they said.
Sheen was visibly moved by this story, and said that throughout the cross-country bus tour they did when the film was released, they heard many stories of how the film touched people's lives, and this was the greatest gift they could receive as actors and producers.
During the Q&A, one white-haired man from the back said, "I am a child of the '60s. I bought into the 1969 journey film "Easy Rider" and its message of bad choices and death. Now as I near the end of my life, I see this film, and it is resurrection and life for me. I cannot thank you enough."
Sheen was visibly moved at hearing these comments as well as when he recounted others he had heard along the way. Sheen, Estevez and Alexanian were animated, engaged and ultimately generous with their time and insights. Most of us who live in L.A. and attend these kinds of events, sponsored by the guilds or religious groups, know the good ones by one trait: their generosity with fans and people who care enough to come to hear what filmmakers and actors have to say.
We laughed so much. On the way home, the other two sisters and I agreed that Martin Sheen is a man of joy.
Sheen, Estevez and Alexanian talked about the difficulty of getting a film like "The Way" made in Hollywood.
"They tell you people don't want to watch this kind of film. But the reception of the film shows that this is not true, and if we want more films like 'The Way,' spread the word, or we are going to get something like, 'Transformers 9' or something."
This got a groan and a laugh from the audience. Sheen reinforced this by adding, "We hope the film will stay in theaters; this is what's important to making films like this one."
Alexanian told the story about Sheen doing his own stunts, which brought laughter from Sheen and Estevez. They had hired a stuntman to do the scene where Sheen runs from a bridge and down into the river to retrieve his backpack, but one trip into the water, and the stuntman refused to continue. So Martin said he would do it, and he did.
"But the water was low when Martin agreed to the scene, and the next day we asked the authorities who controlled the dam to release more water to create more peril," the producer also said. "Martin didn't expect that but did it anyway."
I think people were moved when Estevez and Sheen talked about working together as father and son; I know I was.
Brian Oppenheimer, a screenwriter who organized the event with Barbara Gangi and John Kelly for CIMA, said they thought the closing of the evening was the best of all. After the panel, audience members came up on stage for photos and autographs with Sheen, Estevez and Alexanian. The theater was to have closed at 10:30 p.m.. so at 11 p.m., the security guards arrived to send everyone home and lock up. But they had second thoughts and got in line for autographs and photos, too.
This week's Entertainment Weekly has "The Way" in the top 20 films currently at the box office -- actually in the 20th spot. Not a bad place to be for a little film about a long walk.
It's never too late.