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She’s feeling lucky

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Times Staff Writer

Growing up, Alison Eastwood says, she saw her dad mostly on sets. When she was 11, her father, Clint, put her in one of his movies, a substantial part as his daughter in the seedily gripping “Tightrope,” in which Clint was a New Orleans cop and single dad with a taste for working girls who’s on the trail of a serial killer who rapes and murders them.

The cop is both drawn to the sex trade in the French Quarter and a doting father at home. In a tense scene late in the 1984 film, Alison’s character is found by her dad gagged and handcuffed on a bed, her legs bare. It’s a sexualized shot, a slow pan over her prone figure, suggesting the possibility of a rape.

Alison Eastwood says her mother didn’t read the script for “Tightrope” until after the film was made, and when she did she was horrified.

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“She called my dad and said, ‘What kind of movie did you put her in?’ ”

“I said, ‘Well, she wasn’t exposed to anything crazy,’ Clint Eastwood recalled over the phone last week. “And it was a wonderful opportunity for me to be with her a lot.”

Eastwood’s parents divorced when she was 6. Her mother is Maggie Johnson, whom Clint married in 1953, before he was famous, and divorced in 1980, when he was cranking out the vigilante films and had costarred with an orangutan in “Every Which Way but Loose.”

“The one thing about him at that time, you know -- you say the word ‘crap’ -- but I think he was just more about cranking them out,” Alison said last week. “And it was more about the quantity. And now he’s all about the quality. And that’s great.”

Thus it made sense that when Alison was on the verge of directing her first feature, “Rails & Ties,” opening in limited release Friday, she went back to one of her father’s sets.

In this case it was in Barstow, where Eastwood was shooting “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come out and watch your old man work?’ And that was it -- I went out there for three or four days. . . . And instead of being the daughter who comes to visit the dad, or the actress who shows up to do a film, I got to just go out there and watch him work and focus on what he was doing.”

“Rails & Ties” is hardly a light film, nor prosaic; much of its drama lies in the unsaid. It is also, conspicuously, a family affair -- released by Warner Bros., her father’s studio, and produced by Bob Lorenz, who shared an Oscar with Eastwood for “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Moreover, the film’s co-producer, cinematographer, production designer, editor and costume designer all worked on her father’s most acclaimed films, including “Letters,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River.”

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“And that’s bad?” Alison said, with a defensive laugh.

She was sitting on a sofa in the empty, swank lobby bar at Casa del Mar in Santa Monica on a gray Monday afternoon at the beach. Her dog Bean was in the car, adopted from a litter at the ranch outside Los Angeles where Eastwood keeps three horses.

At 35, the daughter has the father’s gait -- lanky and unhurried, self-possessed, the girl she was in “Tightrope” all grown up. Her scrubbed look is East Coast boarding school, though she’s earthier than that, warmer; the boarding schools were in Monterey and Carmel.

Her Wikipedia entry suggests Paris Hilton light; a drunk-driving arrest is made to sound like an accomplishment. She dropped out of Santa Barbara City College and has been a Paris model and a film actress. At age 30 she posed nude for Playboy.

The director title before her name now conjures up a different kind of Hollywood privilege: adult daughter of royalty who’s flamed out on screen and trades up on the Eastwood name to get a kick-start as a director.

“She found her own feet, but I just tried to recommend the people,” Clint said. “She was free to hire whoever she wanted.”

Eastwood, for her part, understands the nepotistic undertones of the project but says: “I’m not ashamed of using whatever resources I have. Because that’s how a lot of people get their foot in the door.”

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Indeed, she is hardly the first, nor the last, offspring of the establishment to use her considerable connections as a wedge. It’s the quality of the films that have ultimately become a gauge of Sofia Coppola, who began to erase the taint of being daddy’s little girl (vilified as Mary Corleone in “Godfather III”) by directing her first feature, “The Virgin Suicides,” on which her father, Francis, was on hand as a producer.

Clint Eastwood’s name does not appear on the credits of “Rails & Ties”; Alison said his only involvement was to help her arrange for the inclusion of people who were drawn to the project anyway.

“Marcia and Kevin didn’t get paid much, not close to their normal fee,” she said, referring to costars Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon. “They believed in me and my vision. . . . They weren’t doing Clint a favor; they were coming on because they thought it was worthwhile and a good project for them.”

IN “Rails & Ties,” which Eastwood says was made on a budget of $7.5 million, Bacon and Harden are a married couple lost in a fog of unspoken pain. Megan (Harden) is a young woman dying of cancer. Husband Tom (Bacon) is closed off, both to his impending loss and to his wife’s paradoxical need to give up on the idea of a long life and start living.

A train engineer, Tom wants to escape into the reliable thrum of the tracks, the peace he feels in the catbird’s seat. When, early in the film, a suicidal mother packs her boy in a car and cuts the engine in front of Tom’s moving train, he is faced with a Draconian choice: Hit the emergency brake and risk derailment or keep going and end two lives.

It is the boy’s subsequent journey into the lives of Tom and Megan that drives the rest of the story. Eastwood says it’s not the kind of movie her father would be inclined to make, but with its archetypal themes and sparse character sketches, it feels like a Clint Eastwood movie -- just as Bacon, in his hardened, stoical refusal to put words into feelings, appears to be channeling Eastwood in the role.

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Alison mentions the films of Hal Ashby as an influence -- “Harold and Maude,” “Coming Home,” “Being There.” She’s been hustling “Rails & Ties” to festivals and is hoping to direct again, regardless of how this first effort is received.

“I always come from a very humble place,” she said. “I was so honored that someone would actually believe in me to direct a film and let me do it. Obviously I want to work again, but there’s also that small part of me that’s like, if I never work again, at least I got to do this.”

Interestingly, her first feature as a director has echoes of her first feature as an actress. The climax of “Tightrope” has the cop in a struggle to the death with the killer, the flawed hero and villain duking it out on the rails as a train bears down on them.

“I think it was about three hours into it, I was sitting on an apple box and watching Marcia and Kevin, and I just had this kind of moment where I was like, ‘God I feel like I’ve been doing this my whole life,’ ” Alison said of directing “Rails & Ties.”

Said Clint: “The only thing I’m responsible for is the siring.”

paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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