Interview: Bill Bennett on the emotional exhaustion of making The Way, My Way; “It was important that I view myself as a certain character.”

The Way, My Way is the charming and captivating true story of a stubborn, self-centered Australian man who decides to walk the famed 800-kilometre-long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain.
He doesn’t know why he’s doing it… but one step at a time, it changes him and his outlook on life forever.

Based on his own best-selling book, The Way, My Way is author/director Bill Bennett‘s love letter to his own emotional experience along the religiously-rooted pilgrimage that has become a spiritual experience for the many that have made such a journey.

Following a series of Q&A sessions across the country, Bill spoke with our own Peter Gray ahead of the film’s national release to talk about why he made such a film, the importance of authenticity, and how he had to remove himself from proceedings to truly view his own character.

Before I get to The Way, My Way, I just wanted to quickly say, as a horror fan, you being involved in Cut is so awesome.  I saw that film at, like, 16-years-old, and absolutely loved it.  So, thank you.

Oh, that’s very kind of you to say.  There’s a bit of a story to that.  The film was in trouble and the production brought my wife and myself into it.  I flew to Malaysia and spent two weeks totally rewriting the script.  I didn’t take credit for it (though).  We brought in Kylie Minogue and Molly Ringwald.

With this film, when you were on the walk itself, was it ever in the back of your mind that it was something you were going to write about? Or make a film about?

No, no, it never was.  I was running a blog each day, but I had no intention of writing.  But what happened was I got to the end of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, (and) after 800 kilometres of pretty bad pain I was expecting an epiphany (laughs).  I was wondering why I put myself through all this.  And it never came.  I came back to Australia and I thought, “Well, maybe if I write a book it will start to make sense.”

When I wrote the book I self-published, because I didn’t think any publishers would be interested.  Really, the reasons for writing the book weren’t to find an audience.  It was more for me.  More internally working out (how I felt).  But it quickly became very popular.  And now I’m selling 12 years on, like 500 copies of the book a month.

It must be nice to realise though that something that mattered to you does matter to so many other people too.

I think I did two things (with) the book that were a little bit different.  One is that I approached it with a tone of self-deprecating humour.  I’m very much in the Bill Bryson-style of writing.  I didn’t chart my geographical journey, but my internal journey.  I’d read some comedy books prior to walking as part of my research, and they all seemed to be very self-referential.  They took themselves too seriously.

I mean, it’s crazy walking the Camino in a country where you don’t understand the language, and I’m not a religious person, (so) why the hell am I doing it?  That, in itself, is funny.  But coming back to your original question, having written the book I had no intention of doing a film.  (But) what happened was a veteran distributor friend of mine, Richard Becker, (he) called me and told me how the book had a deep, profound effect on him.  He said I should make a movie out of this.  I said “I can’t make a movie about myself.”  I didn’t think there was enough substance in it.  He told me I was wrong, and that if I wasn’t going to do it that he’d bring in three separate writers for treatments.  He’ll send them to me and then I tell him which one I like the most.

These treatments were dreadful!  These were people that have never walked the Camino.  They didn’t have a bloody clue!  I knew Richard wasn’t going to give up on it, so I took a swing at it.  The only was I was going to be able to (write the film) was that I would look at myself as a character.  I had to remain separate from that person.  I was so self-absorbed, and I didn’t realise that, which is so messed up and, in fact, quite hysterically funny.

One of the little moments in the film that really made me laugh was when “you” continually ask for the perfect photo to be taken.  For there to be “no head room.” It’s always the case that the photos you take of other people are always better than what they take of you.

That’s right.  At a screening in Brisbane the other day there was someone in the audience who was actually one of the people sitting at the table where that exchange happened.  He swears that I asked the waiter nine times to get the photo.  In the movie I only asked three times.  We kept it at three because no one would believe that someone is that anal to want the picture taken nine times…but that’s what I was like (laughs).

As you said that you had to separate yourself from the story and view yourself as a character, how difficult was it to take that step back?  And not just for yourself, but everyone in the film that was based on someone real.  Do you only see yourself as a character and everyone else rings true?  Or were there embellishments across the board?

You’re right in the sense that it was important that I view myself as a certain character, but everyone else was absolutely truthful.  Having said that, in the depiction of my character everything is truthful, but I was able to stand outside myself for that.  But the pilgrims that I walked with 10 years earlier I brought back to play themselves.  I just felt that it was important to bring them for reasons of authenticity.

I’ve heard you say how the pilgrims really set the standard for everyone on set.  Was there ever any hesitation for you in directing “non professional” actors?

It’s one of the hardest things to do.  You think it’s easy to direct good performances from non professional actors, but it’s not.  It’s because non professional people feel an obligation to “act”.  And in that obligation an artifice immediately steps in.  You can see the wheels turning, you know? It was a very difficult process, and a complicated process, but I can say that both Jennifer (Cluff, producer/actress) and I went through to get to a point where we could elicit those performances from those people that were absolutely and totally real and truthful.

The film is an interesting blend of being a documentary and a traditional narrative.  Was there ever the decision to look at telling this story in one medium or the other?

I didn’t want to make it a documentary, because that probably would have involved having me play myself.  And I didn’t want to do that because I’m not an actor.  And I didn’t want to make it a full-blown movie because I wanted to capture the true Camino spirit, which meant shooting along the entirety of the Camino.  The full 800 kilometres.  But also having a crew that was so small that our footprint on the Camino itself was tiny.  We didn’t impede the ebb and flow of the Camino.  We were able to work within the energy flow, if you like, at the command line.

When making the film was there one particular aspect of the walk or particular interaction you were most excited about revisiting?

Well, probably the toughest scene in the film was when I caught up with my wife towards the end of the movie and I apologised for being such a horrible person.  We did that scene exactly where I made that phone call 10 years earlier.  And, by the way, we started filming almost 10 years to the day that I began the Camino.

Wow.  Was that just pure coincidence?

(Laughs) No, no, no.  It was all orchestrated.  Nothing is pure coincidence.  I wanted the light to be the same.  I wanted the foliage coming into spring off May and into June.  I wanted it to all be the same.  Everything was carefully planned, yeah.

But coming back to your previous question, (the phone call) was a tough process for me to direct Jennifer’s response on the phone.  I think she played it absolutely beautifully.  One of the biggest themes in the film is forgiveness, and so that call touches on that notion.  Bill has gotten to that point at the end of the Camino where he’s utterly exhausted and he can actually make that call.  It’s quite devastating.

I haven’t done anything as serious as the Camino, but I have walked 100ks, straight through with no sleep, and I completely understand that feeling of exhaustion and elation, and almost having your walls down to where you can finally address certain things because you feel like there’s nothing left to lose.  I really do have to commend you on the film and making something that goes against the grain.

Thank you.  Yeah, it was a risk.  A big risk.  And I had no government money in this film, and no pressure on me.  I had raised money through a group of small private investors.  One big one.  But there was no pressure.  I was allowed to make the film that I wanted to make.  So, I just went for it.

And was there anything prior to your walk that you wish you knew? Anything you’d want to inform other people about?

Just practical things.  Making sure you’re wearing your boots before the walk.  Making sure you train with your backpacks.  Things like that.  But you can’t read (about it).  Every person walks the Camino to have their own unique experience.  And as much as you try and forewarn them, it’s always going to be different.

The Way, My Way is screening in Australian theatres from May 16th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.