Talking with Director Alison Eastwood


One can only imagine that it’s tough for the siblings and children of great filmmakers to get behind the camera themselves, and in Alison Eastwood’s case, her name could be seen as a double-edged sword. Her father is so well known and respected in Hollywood that it could potentially help her get things done, but having the same name also makes it tougher for her to establish her own filmmaking identity. Her directorial debut Rails & Ties is a complex character drama starring Kevin Bacon as a train conductor whose wife (Marcia Gay Harden) is suffering from breast cancer, and their troubled relationship only gets tougher when he’s involved in a tragic accident.

Although the two actors appeared in her father’s Mystic River and it’s distributed by the same studio, this is clearly a very different movie, a personal project of Eastwood’s that she spent years developing, and when talked with Alison, we decided to wait as long as humanly possible before asking about her famous father. You started on this by producing Micky Levy’s script. Can you talk about how you first met Micky and how you first got involved before you were directing it?
Alison Eastwood: I was introduced to one of the producers of the movie. His name is Barrett Stuart. I was introduced to him actually through our high school friend and he had a couple of projects and was kind of a budding producer. He gave me the script and I read it and I liked it quite a bit, and we decided that we would team-up and see if we could try to get it made. Then I met Micky the writer and we started working on the script. We felt it needed a little work and there were a few things that needed to be streamlined or trimmed-out. We gave it out to different people and got some feedback and notes and then we started the process of working on the script and developing the project and getting it out there.

CS: This is being distributed through Warner Brothers, but were you making the film independently at that point?
Eastwood: Originally it was actually financed through Warner Independent, and then because of the fact that I really pushed for the film to come out this year and they are a fairly small group, I was lucky enough that big Warners felt the same way. They have a much bigger capacity for marketing and publicity and distribution. So they kind of took it over and I was lucky enough that they were willing to do that because otherwise it would have had to wait until next year.

CS: But you had already made the movie by then?
Eastwood: Yeah that happened afterwards. Basically I showed it to the head people there at the studio and they liked it and they thought it was a touching film and intimate and probably a good film to come out in this time I guess. Usually everyone puts their sad, small, kind of depressing films out during the nominations for awards.

CS: That seems to always be the case whenever it becomes October.
Eastwood: They’ve kind of created different times of year now when things come out. Summer is for the big blockbusters and fall and early winter are for the movies that have a little more soul and depth to them as far as the characters and the stories. A little bit more reality probably.

CS: You were already involved in the development, but at what point did you decide you were going to direct and how did you approach Micky and the other producers with that idea?
Eastwood: We had the project maybe for about two years, and I had been working as an actress in between and had other things going on, so it was kind of a work in progress. Basically, the more I worked on the script and the more that I read it and had ideas I literally just started having visions. I’d be driving down the road and I’d just be like, “God this would be great and this and that” and I just started seeing the film. And then I was like dreaming about it. I got to the point where it became kind of obsessive and that’s when I said to Barrett and to Micky and another producer who had come on at the time, I said, “What do you think about me directing this film?” I couldn’t believe I said it. It was one of those things where I knew I always wanted to be involved in films either from a production standpoint or as an actor, but I hadn’t literally said, “Oh, this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a director.” It wasn’t just this natural progression. It was more that the script and the story inspired me and I felt that it was something I wanted to tell and that I had a vision for it.

CS: Do you have an affinity for trains? Before I saw this movie, it never dawned on me that there were trains in California, because I assumed everyone drove everywhere.
Eastwood: Well there are trains. I mean it’s obviously not as much as it is back east where you ride subways and trains, but yeah, there is and people still ride them, but no I didn’t have one. Obviously now I have a much greater appreciation for trains. I’ve been on them and know a lot more about them. In California, I’ve probably ridden a train maybe once or twice in my whole life. Most of my train riding was in cities.

CS: Oddly, right before I came here, I heard on the news of a woman whose car stalled in front of the train and they got her out just in time before the train hit her car.
Eastwood: That happened right before we started shooting, about maybe six months. There was this guy that parked on the tracks in Glendale, California which is right outside of L.A. in front of the Metrolink. The train ended up hitting it and he jumped out. Three people ended up dying because the train hit the car and derailed.

CS: Was that sequence, the one with the train hitting the car, the hardest sequence to shoot? What was involved as far as getting access to the trains?
Eastwood: Originally, we had a deal with Amtrak and they seemed very excited to let us use their trains and they seemed like they were interested in the project, and then after months of getting involved they called us up and said they could no longer be involved. I guess somebody must have read the script. I think originally the first person who must have read it thought, “This will be a great opportunity for us to get some press.” You know, it’s not the engineer, or the train company’s fault, but I guess then probably somebody higher up said, “We can’t be associated with a movie or involved in a film where someone is parking on the tracks and committing suicide.” So we found a train line north of L.A., a private train line, and repainted all the trains and made our own train line.

CS: How did you get Kevin and Marcia involved? Were they attached when you were producing it but didn’t have a director or did they came on later?
Eastwood: They came on when we got the green light and the financing came in and we were going to make the film. You get the script out there to the agencies and to all the people and to different things in Hollywood, and I guess somehow they had both read it on their own and liked the script and liked the characters. They let it be known through their representation that they liked the material and of course I was like, “Well, that’s great.” I had never met them before kind of contrary to somebody maybe thinking, “Oh, they worked with my dad, so I must have known them.” But no, I had never met them, but obviously they came highly recommended, and I started talking to them just as we started to cast. That worked out. It was like the stars aligned on that one.

CS: I’m amazed by the fact that Kevin had this career as a teen idol, but that he’s grown into this really great dramatic actor. He doesn’t get as much recognition as he deserves.
Eastwood: Yeah, I think unfortunately he’s a very underrated actor and I think he always does a good job and he’s always very solid. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast for my first film.

CS: How was Miles, the younger actor?
Eastwood: He was great. This was his first feature film.

CS: I believe he’s done some TV work.
Eastwood: Yeah, he’s got some episodic stuff I think, but this is his first major role. He was one of those kids where after looking at like forty kids, I knew from the moment I saw him that he was the kid.

CS: How was it working with the crew, who I assume were mostly male, being a first-time woman director?
Eastwood: That’s where I’m most happy. I’ve always loved being with the boys and I’m a bit of a tomboy myself. We managed it. The material is fairly heavy and there were a lot of moments that were difficult to film and we still managed to have a great time and a lot of laughs and enjoy the experience. And the guys are wonderful. Most of them I’ve known and I’ve been around with for a long time because they’re a lot of the same people my dad works with. When I found out that I’d have the opportunity to work with these people I thought, “What better to surround myself with people that not only that I know and respect, but also that have made great films.”

CS: You brought up your father twice, so I guess it’s fair game to ask about him. Did you spend a lot of time on his sets when you were younger? I know you appeared in a couple of his movies.
Eastwood: My parents got divorced when I was quite young and he worked quite a bit in the ’80s. I kind of say he was in his quantity mode as opposed to his quality mode. He was cranking them out quite a bit in the ’80s, and I think he threw himself into his work. My brother and I spent a lot of time on the sets. That was how we got to visit quite a bit, either that, or on holidays.

CS: When people talk about your dad’s directing they say he’s not the typical director where he yells “Action!”, he’s more like “Okay.” Did you try to learn something from that and use this approach or did you try to do things differently?
Eastwood: Yeah. I mean the one thing that I did learn from him and then after working for him as an actor and then just being around as more of a spectator, I learned that it’s really important to set the tone for the crew and for the whole set. He’s very efficient and no chaos and no ego. You know, we’re all here to collaborate and do the best film we can do and to keep moving, keep momentum going, and not to let things stagnate and drag on. That’s one thing I definitely took away from my experiences being around him. That’s really important for me because I think then the actors and the crew really feel like, “Okay this person,” for lack of a better analogy, “is driving the train and we’re going somewhere.” Yeah, we’re getting things done and we’re going somewhere and there’s someone at the helm that isn’t indecisive or kind of wishy-washy about what you want to do. That can cause some distress amongst the crew and cast.

CS: I liked the Nada Surf song that closed the movie, as I’ve been a fan of the band for many years. Are you a fan of the band?
Eastwood: Yeah, I picked all the songs. They’re from New York. I’ve always liked them and they’re kind of one of those bands that’s kind of obscure.

CS: Was the experience good enough that you want to look for another script and direct another movie right away?
Eastwood: I’m definitely working on it. I’m working on finding more material. It’s a little bit of a different situation than being an actor and looking for a job, but yeah I’ve been looking and reading scripts and meeting with a lot of different people, but taking my time because I want to do something different. I did a kind of small, intimate drama. I’d like to try something that’s possibly a little edgier, a little bit quirkier, maybe a little bit dark, not so much in the sense of the subject matter, but just in the way I interpret the material.

CS: Would you write or develop your own scripts or do you have ideas that you would want to work on with a writer?
Eastwood: I’m not much of a writer. That’s one thing that I think when someone does it really well; the writer’s are so underrated and they don’t get much love. I think I’ll leave it up to them. I’ve tried, but I’m not really too good at it.

CS: Being a writer requires a very different head.
Eastwood: Yeah, I mean it really is. Once somebody has something on paper I can start having really specific visions, but I’m not so good at plot lines and character development. It’s really as a director to come in and see what needs to be changed or to come in and want to mess with somebody else’s work, but it’s hard to just sit down and write that initial story.

CS: I’ve talked to people who’ve done work on dramas where the drama is only going on when the camera is rolling. When it stops, everyone is still able to have fun. Obviously you have to move fast because it’s such a low-budget, but was it difficult to do something like this which is so heavy and dramatic and keep things light?
Eastwood: It’s kind of like what I said earlier. Everyone is professional so they do what they need to do to take care of themselves as far as some people need to have some lighter moments and good times. Usually the actors, particularly if we are doing something that was more serious or on the heavy side, they just would kind of keep to themselves and stay in that mode. But pretty much as the crew, we managed to find times when we did enjoy ourselves, we did have some good laughs. I don’t think that that necessarily serves anybody, to stay in that dark mood. There were a couple of times in those scenes that we shot that everyone was misty eyed and crying, you know? It was heavy. But that fortunately was kind of sparse and spread out, as opposed to it wasn’t like, “Oh my god. Every day we have to deal with this dredging material.”

CS: Considering the film’s heavy topics–there’s cancer, suicide, addiction–what do you hope people will take away from the experience after seeing this?
Eastwood: For me, I like to see films that remind me of my humanity and remind me of the struggles of life. It would be great to have artistic mediums that only portrayed this wonderful, cheery side, but the reality is we have a lot of struggles and everyone deals with loss and grief, but there still can be something hopeful and cathartic that comes out of all of that, and that through the strangest of circumstances, you can still have connections with other people and bond with other people through adversity and through circumstances that wouldn’t typically be the kind of circumstances you would want to connect with people. I wanted people to be touched by it, or evoke some kind of emotion even if they hate the film and then at least something is evoked out of them.

CS: Well, there were film critics crying at the screening I saw, so it must be working.
Eastwood: Yeah definitely. I just hope that it can remind us of the struggles of life and the things we have to deal with.

Rails & Ties opens in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto on Friday, October 26.