Capone chats up Alison Eastwood about her directorial debut: RAILS & TIES!!!!
Published at: Nov. 6, 2007, 8:05 a.m. CST by quint
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Alison Eastwood made quite the impression on me 10 years ago in her father Clint's adaptation of MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. I thought she was quite striking and gave a performance that showed a great deal of promise as an actor. She's been working steadily as an actor since then, mostly in smaller films like BLACK AND WHITE, POOLHALL JUNKIES, and FRIENDS & LOVERS. Now she has turned her hand to directing with the anti-melodrama RAILS & TIES, using actors who have worked with her father before (Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Margo Martindale), but relying entirely on herself to make a solid movie about responsibility, loss, and death. Her brother Kyle did a lot of the score as well.
Usually first-time directors don't attempt something quite this emotionally heavy, but Eastwood apparently didn't feel like coming out of the gate wearing kid gloves. The film played to a packed house at the Chicago International Film Festival last month, and I had a chance to talk to her the following morning. She is still absolutely stunning (almost to the point of distraction), but she's very clear on her vision for the film and who she turned to for guidance on how to run a movie set (I'll give you three guesses). Here's Alison Eastwood…
Capone: I was at the screening last night and stuck around for the Q&A. And I don't remember how it came up exactly, but having Kevin Bacon in this film and given your age and given his age, it must have been some sort of “Wow” factor on your part. You would have been going to his movies in your formative years. Did that ever come up?
Alison Eastwood: Oh yeah, I went to a lot of his films. We joked about it. There's a flashback scene with Kevin and Marsha, and I asked Kevin if we could pull out his FOOTLOOSE mullet and try and get that going for the flashbacks. Yeah, he didn't think that was very funny. He was kind of like, “Grrrrr.” I think he's probably gotten so much crap for FOOTLOOSE because it's one of those movies that is so defining of the '80s. It's right up there with DIRTY DANCING, but it definitely had a bit of the cheese factor.
C: But those are the films that stick with us through the ages.
AE: Oh, I know, but it's also just because it's so dated; it's so of that era, and the way they dressed and thee hair and the music and the dancing. It's great for the nostalgia, but it's also slightly embarrassing. “Oh my God, I grew up in that era.” [laughs]. You have all the gorgeous actors from the '30s and '40s, and there are people who grew up as kids watching Humphrey Bogart, this macho guy. Yeah, I grew up watching FOOTLOOSE and John Hughes films, SIXTEEN CANDLES. But they are a part of my youth.
C: Why was the right time in your career to try directing? Was it because you had this great script, or had you been heading that way for a while?
AE: No, actually I had not been heading that way. It was one of those things where I found this script, I had it for a while, I optioned it, and didn't really have any intention on directing it at first; it was more that I worked on it with the writer. The story inspired me; I felt a connection to it. I'm not sure why, except that I think there's something tremendously unique about the fact that even through tragedy, illness, sadness, and adversity that people can still find their way and come together. And I just thought that was very unique and truthful. That's the way life is.
C: That's what some people said last night. There's a realism to the film that people seem to respond to. The emotions don't feel artificial or false. Even the music, there's great music but it's not the type of music we're using to hearing in films like this.
AE: Right, where they lay the violin on really thick.
C: Right. It's more delicate than that. There's a minimalist quality to the whole film that people seem to respond to.
AE: I think, look if you're not going to make GONE WITH THE WIND, where it's going to be this epic, sweeping saga where everyone is very dramatic. I really wanted to make a simple, intimate film. Otherwise, I felt it would be too melodramatic. If you're going for that type of thing, that's fine. I was going to try and not lay it on. The story already has enough going on that I didn't need to lay it on any thicker than it was.
C: You say it's simple but there are some really weighty issues being dealt with here: suicide, terminal illness, the kid's troubles in general. It's not like you made it easy on yourself.
AE: No, I didn't. But on the other hand, I thought if I tried to be as straight forward as I could and really let the actors be very simple and real, and keep everything, like you said, somewhat minimal as far as the way I shot it, that it wouldn't be overkill. It would be enough to carry you through the film without it being too much.
C: You joked about it a little last night when the guy who introduced the film talking about your thriving acting career, and you made a joke that, “Well, it wasn't that thriving.” You're still working all the time as an actor, though, so I didn't get the sense that you were giving that up. Or are you giving acting up?
AE: I have been working. I haven't since I've been working on this film. I don't know. I kind of feel like I'm at a point in my life where I've done this film, and I really connected with directing. It felt right to me. It felt like I'd gotten to a place where I was doing something that I really wanted to do and it was important to me. I think as an actor, particularly when you're younger, you just want to work, and you want to make money and you take whatever you can get, and you want to be in the thick of it. And I'm not there anymore; things are different. I only want to do things that I can be proud of and I haven't always done that as an actress. There's a lot of stuff I did because I bought a house. You're struggling to survive on a certain level, and I'm not longer there. I'm in a good place, and I don't want to do any more jobs as an actor or a director that I'm doing because I need the work. I want to do it because there's something I'm going to get from it as a person, and there's some kind of integrity or something I can look back on and say, “Okay, I'm proud to be associated with that project.” So that means I may not be working quite as much as I'd hope, [laughs] but I think something shifts. I don't know if it does for everybody. For me, I'm 35, and you can only look back for so long and go, “Ugh, I wish I hadn't done that or been involved in this.” I think from here on out it's going to be about quality and not quantity. I don't know how that's going to look, but…
C: I'll try and make this the only question about your dad, but you told a great story last night about how he didn't really give advice on directing, and that instead he invited you to watch him on the LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA set. Talk about getting thrown in the deep end, that had to be the most intense master class imaginable.
AE: Yeah, I had enough experience watching him from the acting standpoint. And I was always an actor who paid attention too. I wasn't like, I'm going to be in my trailer for eight hours. I always watched comfortable on and wanted to be part of the set. And maybe that's because I grew up like that as a kid. So I'm glad he did offer, because that's the way…he tends to show by example and I think to him talk is kind of cheap and words don't quite convey what you can get when you're really there and seeing it and really going through it on a physical level. I think that was one of the best things he could have done, to set an example and then come out watch me work. And it wasn't like he came to the set and had a couple donuts at craft services. It was more that he came and focused and watched me work and have that be what everyone does. Whether you ask questions or not, you just watch and learn as opposed to, “Okay, I'm just going to come and visit” or “I'm an actor and I'm going to come do a role and then high tail it out of there. So he sets and example that way, and it was extremely helpful.
C: Do you remember from that experience where you gained the most knowledge? What did you talk away from watching him work?
AE: I felt pretty confident from my years as an actor, that I would be able to communicate with actors. Technically, I was going to have some catching up to do, learning your lenses and how you can shoot something and match stuff. But I think what I took away from that particular experience was that the director really sets the tone, not just for the movie, but for the set. And it's really important. He's always been known for running a great set and having it be very efficient but also very calm. Everyone is there and they're very professional. People are still managing to have a good time and enjoy the experience, but they're really there because everyone's driving along trying to make a film.
He's very decisive and he shows up and likes to move quickly and keep this great momentum going, and I think that's important. And it was important to see that, because I think all those things show on a film. Somehow it kind of, through osmosis, comes on to the screen. When you have lot of chaos or you're indecisive or you don't know what you want to shoot, and everything is up in the air, I think your actors feel it and I think it shows in their performance. See how he approaches everything as a consummate professional helped me to go, “Okay that's the kind of set I want to have.” I had several people come and visit the set, and they couldn't believe how peaceful and efficient and great it was. I came in under budget and a day early, which is great. I felt like I got everything, plus there was a lot that we didn't use that we shot. I think that was something I took away from his set that I definitely wanted to have on mine, that kind of efficiency but also getting what you want, what you need, and knowing that too. I think you know, “Okay, we got that. That's in the can, let's move on. Do you want to beat this dead horse?” Unfortunately, a lot of directors want so much that they're willing to drive everyone into the ground to get all that they can get and suck everything out of it. But I think that my dad is one of those people who's like, “Okay, we got it. Let's move on.” None of this, “Hey I've got a great idea; let's shoot this eight different ways.” And then you've given yourself so many options that when you get into the editing room, you don't remember what it is you were doing. And he's just very focused. And he usually picks something and sticks with it and goes with it. And he has a confidence with that. Whereas, a lot of people are throwing everything against the wall and hoping it's going to stick, and I think that ends up burning out the actors and the crew. If people make decisions and stick with it, you get an appreciation from your crew and your actors.
C: I've talked to some more established actors working with a first-time director, and I always wonder what that first meeting was like. What was it that impressed them enough to have faith to do their first film. When you were first talking to your actors, was there something you talked to them about in order to convince them that you had a clear idea what you wanted this movie to be?
AE: I don't know if there was anything specifically. I know both Kevin and Marsha were drawn to this script originally. I think just talking to them and relating to them as people, I had a real strong sense of the material and who these people were. But I think it's also important to be open and not say, “Okay, this is the way it is.” You're kind of riding the fence where you want to be confident and decisive in what you're doing and who you think these people are and how you want to shoot the film, but you also have to be open enough to say, “Okay, you have ideas, you have a point.” It's still a collaboration, and I think that after meeting with them and talking to them, they felt confident that I had a good foundation in knowing the material and what I wanted to do with it, but that I was also open to working with them and hearing their ideas. Because if it doesn't make sense to an actor and it doesn't feel right, they can't do their job. I think at the end of the day, if you hire good people, you can trust them. That means sometimes you've got to drop a line or add something. Those things happen on the fly. I think they trusted that I would be kind of pliable and work with them but still come through with the goods.
C: One of the toughest things about RAILS & TIES is that Kevin Bacon's character simply isn't very likable for a lot of this film. In this part of his career, he seems to thrive on playing these very damaged men, exceedingly well.
AE: Yeah. I guess you saw THE WOODSMAN.
C: And even since then. THE WOODSMAN to start with and then earlier this year in DEATH SENTENCE. What is it about him that makes him the right choice for this kind of man?
AE: I don't know. I saw THE WOODSMAN, but I didn't see DEATH SENTENCE. I think that there's obviously a point in his life where everyone is drawn to things because there's something they need to deal with or because of whatever is going on with them. I don't know why people are drawn to what they're drawn to. I can't pinpoint exactly why I was drawn to this material, because it isn't specific from me. I didn't have somebody close to me recently pass away from cancer; I haven't dealt with a lot of the issues so much on a personal level. So I'm not sure. I know Kevin's really not like a damaged person. Just getting to know him as a man, he's actually a pretty laid back, normal guy, which is weird, but there's obviously something he wants to work on, or imagine and go through that he hasn't. He does it well. A lot of actors act for different reasons. Sometimes you want to do projects because there's something you want to work out, something cathartic about it. But then I think there are other times, when people want to play a role because it's so not anything like that they're close to. “I want to try and inhabit that character, even though I'm not a pedophile or a train engineer that deals with suicides. My wife isn't really dying of cancer.” There's almost some pleasure of playing people you aren't ever going to be in you're own life.
C: While we're talking about your cast, I was really thrilled to see Margo Martindale in your movie. Honestly, I forced myself to learn her name, after seeing her for years in so many little parts, when I saw her as Hilary Swank's mother in MILLION DOLLAR BABY. She's so evil in that movie. Did your name recognition help or hinder you getting this movie made?
AE: I think it makes it a little easier, but I had already gotten the green light to make the film before I cast it. Obviously, it's somewhat contingent on who you get. The power that be always want to have a certain caliber of actor, particularly with small films because they fell it's going to help the film along. I was fortunate enough to have them say, “We're going to let you make the film” when didn't have a cast set, so I got the pleasure of getting to cast after that. And with Margo, people like that, I've seen them in a lot of things, but she came in and did the best reading. Again, there's somebody who's the sweetest person, but manages to get these roles where she's these unsympathetic evil people. [laughs]
C: The whole train mythology that you capture in your film, there are some great scenes between Kevin and the boy who plays Davey [Miles Heizer] of them looking for that common ground and just so happens to be this massive train set.
AE: Fathers and sons going to baseball games, come on. Any sports or hobbies, that's how you have a relationship, particularly with men and a certain generation of men that aren't touchy-feely or “come on over here, let me give you a hug.” It's more like, they're going to bond through something else. Kevin, even though he isn't a very old guy, his character comes from that mindset. Men are kind of men, and you find ways to bond with people that aren't straightforward, and that's how he bonds with this kid. And he tends to get lost in his own little world of this train set; there are a lot of people who do that.
C: I don't know how many times you're seen the film with an audience, but I wanted to talk about the audience's reaction to one scene in particular, when Marcia Gay Harden fakes the severity of her illness to get the social worker out of their house. I don't think people know whether it's okay to laugh at that scene, but I thought it was hilarious. It's not a film loaded with humor, but it has its touches. But that scene, I think people were nervous to laugh at it.
AE: It's a weird scene. The one thing about it is, fortunately, she plays it pretty subtly. She doesn't lay it on too think. That was important because when you see somebody, even in the face of dying, they still want what they want, and they're willing to be somewhat manipulative. She wants to have this kid there; she doesn't want to have the whole thing come undone. I think that even though people are sick, you can still find humor and a way to get what you want, use something to your advantage.
C: You're compile a great soundtrack here--and a score as well--but I wanted to talk about the soundtrack, lots of acoustic number, including a Sade song I've never heard before, old Mazzy Star stuff. Please talk about picking the music and what you were trying to achieve with the tone that it sets.
AE: It's kind of like what you were saying, I wanted it to be a lot of acoustic and a lot of quiet and simple stuff. To me, it's a quiet and simple film, and I have a really wide range of musical tastes.
C: I should mention a couple choice Van Morrison songs as well.
AE: Exactly. I wanted it to be a bit eclectic, and kind of “Oh, I haven't heard that song before.” I like certain things that are a little bit more obscure. It was all my own personal taste. I did this think where I scoured by iPod after doing a rough assembly of the film. My editor was like, “Why don't we put some temp stuff in there?” And I was like, “Well, alright.” And I scoured my iPod to find all the songs I felt would be right in the movie, and I was fortunate enough to get all of them, particularly Van Morrison; he's not easy.
C: Nothing pulls out the perfect emotion like a properly selected Van Morrison song. I also wanted to mention your brother Kyle's score. He's done scoring before…
AE: Yeah, he worked on the IWO JIMA score, and FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. He's good. Both my dad and him work on music. My dad and my brother are both great musicians; I hope he keeps doing it. I know they just did GRACE IS GONE, the John Cusack film. So, it was important to me. I knew that he and his music partner Mike [Stevens] would do a good job. I had specific ideas, again, quiet and simple.
C: Let's talk about the ending. Thank you for leaving it a little open, letting us take it home with us and think about how we would like things to go for these two people, and not…
AE: …not spoon-feeding the happy ending or the tragic ending.
C: Was there ever an ending where the remaining characters' fates were a little more certain?
AE: It was never written like that. The way it was written is the way that I had it. There were a couple, um, studio notes, where they wanted it to end where the kid was with Kevin, and they were playing with trains, and it's all kind of happy and the kid's just there. I fought really hard for the ending, because I didn't want that. I didn't want it to be, “Well okay, the kid just happens to stay, and they're just happy boys playing with trains.” And I had a couple people say, “I wish I would have seen what happened.” But to me that wasn't the story, and I fought hard to keep that ending because it was hopeful but you don't know. You feel these two people are bonded; you feel that he's promised his wife, and he's going to fight for the kid. But you don't know. He's also trying to do the right thing, because he doesn't want to live like fugitives; he's doesn't want to live with that constant fear. I think it's important to leave those things a little bit undone. I don't like happy ending necessarily. I don't mind if they're happy, if they're done in a way where it's not shoved down your throat. And it doesn't have to be happy, but it's happy because that really helps the story and not because somebody at a studio thought “We can't leave them in this state, so we've got to have a happy ending.” And it looks like they tacked one on just to wrap it up. I felt this is more dignified. I won in the end.