Chasing the Alpha Dog


“When you deal with a story that’s a true-life story and certainly one where people’s emotions are inflamed like this one, there’s a lot of people who want you to tell their story their way, and you just kind of search out the truth.”

That’s writer/director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) just barely scratching the surface of the sordid tale he’s brought to life in his new movie Alpha Dog. The film is a fictionalized account of Jesse James Hollywood, a successful teen drug dealer in Southern California who at age 20 became one of the youngest ever to grace the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. In August of 2000, Hollywood and his accomplices kidnapped 15-year-old Nick Markowitz, the brother of a man who owed them money, and a week later had the boy executed in the mountains of Goleta, California.

Although the names have been changed, with the Hollywood character being called “Johnny Truelove” and so on, most sources indicate that “Dog” is extensively researched. In 2005 when fugitive Hollywood was finally captured in Brazil and extradited to the U.S. for prosecution, Santa Barabra District Attorney Ronald J. Zonen was dismissed from prosecuting him because he had provided extensive documentation on the case to the movie production.

Alpha Dog stars Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) as Truelove, and pop star Justin Timberlake as his right hand man Frankie, who is put in charge of watching out for the young boy Zack (Anton Yelchin) over the week he is kidnapped. What’s shocking about the film is how innocuous the events seem leading up to the murder, with even Frankie unaware of the outcome and simply showing the kid a good time, taking him to wild parties and befriending him. When the word comes down from Truelove that the boy has become a liability, the film takes a dramatic left turn and the characters go from merely misguided to genuinely repulsive.

“I don’t think the point was for the characters to be repulsive,” says Timberlake, “I think the point was just to show the truth of what was happening. There was so much information on the characters, and all of us felt morally responsible for portraying that. I don’t think it’s stretching at all to say this is a tough movie to watch, but this is as close to what happened as we felt we could make it. As far as being repulsed you’ll have to talk to the director about that, ’cause he definitely wanted to push that.”

Cassavetes, who has helmed other serious social dramas as John Q, elaborated on what drew him to these characters. “It kinda happened in my backyard. My kids went to school with these kids, not the same grade. I was hearing about it from home, especially when the kid was on the run, then you’d hear ‘hey, I saw him over at the 7-11 man, I saw him over at the school.’ It was all bullsh*t, but because this kid had escaped the law he had become something of an urban legend. My kids were like ‘you should make a movie about this, it’ll make a great movie.’ I was like ‘yeah yeah yeah,’ but the more I looked into the story the more I realized that the period of adjustment from youth to adulthood is fraught with potholes and bad decisions.

“I just started examining what was going on in young white America and it wasn’t a pretty picture, it was like a trainwreck. You just keep looking at it and you can’t stop watching it. Since it happened in a privileged area, and more than that it reflects what’s going on with disaffected youth today, I think that’s why you’d want to see this movie and why it has the resonance that it does.”

Anton Yelchin (Hearts in Atlantis), whose 15-year-old character is the center of the film, agrees with Cassavetes’ line of thought about what drove the young people in Alpha Dog to go so far over the edge. “I don’t think it’s that difficult to find similar characters ’cause it’s just a relative apathy in general that just pervades society. These guys just took it to another level of carelessness or whatever it was. They’re just apathetic. You find that everywhere. It seems shocking when you watch it, you’re like ‘how did this happen?’ It’s not really when you think about it. Everything is justified in how ridiculous it is. It just happened and no one really cared.”

The main cast spent two months working out together and researching their real-life counterparts in order to accurately project the camaraderie of a real-life posse of drug dealers. “I actually went with Nick, we traveled upstate Cali to go to prison to visit the guy that my character was based off of,” said Timberlake. “When we all signed up for the project we all got a stack of files that was this thick, literally like a novel of files of all the police reports, all the newspaper reports about what had happened. I know that Nick was able to get a lot of information. We all signed up to portray the truth of what happened, and we followed Nick’s lead on that.”

“I never met Jesse James Hollywood, he was kinda on the run at the time,” laughed Hirsch, who sports a scruffy beard and a distinct aura of escalating paranoia throughout the film. “His dad was on the set almost every day and told me a lot of interesting stories. He definitely wanted to get across that he loves his son. You know, it’s complicated talking to a father about his son like that. You don’t want to be like ‘Oh my God, get away from me you monster.’ You have to be understanding and reasonable and kind of deal with it.”

“I obviously didn’t meet my character,” said Yelchin of Markowitz, “but the weird thing is the terrible feeling you get at the end of the film is because you like the characters for the first half of it. When I watched it I was like ‘these are cool guys, I wouldn’t mind spending time with them.’ The more you like them the more you feel guilty or at least uncomfortable with yourself for liking them.”

Shawn Hatosy, whose character Elvis’ blind devotion to Truelove’s leadership ultimately leads him to pull the trigger on Yelchin’s character, got more to the core of who is ultimately responsible. “I think the theme that we’re missing is that there were a lot of parents that were there who were witnesses as well that could have done something. So it’s good for young people to see it, but it’s also good for parents to see it ’cause these kids were really misguided in every sense. Even the love that Jack Hollywood had for his son was misguided.”

Unable to resist a chance to expound on my own feelings towards the material, I queried the director about the effect pop culture has on young people, and the kind of effect he expects Alpha Dog to have. “When I was a very little kid I used to watch this cartoon show called ‘Muppet Babies,’ I asked, “This movie struck me as being like ‘Scarface Babies’.” Cassavetes replied with a laugh “It’s a better title, is it too late?”

“They had the poster of ‘Scarface’ up in their house and they were clearly trying to emulate the lifestyle of Tony Montana. First of all, what do you think it is that attracts young people to that film that makes them want to emulate it, and what did you do to spell out that the characters in your film were not role models?”

Cassavetes answered thoughtfully. “We live in a really repressed world. We have to go to our jobs and we have to go to our school, we can never afford the car we want or the things we want. Life kind of closes us in, we feel boxed in by life. Very few times are we able to spread our wings and say ‘goddammit, this is exactly the way I want life to be and you’re gonna do this and you’re gonna do that.’ I think that ‘Scarface’ reflects a lifestyle of non-compromising. ‘I’ll take the risk, I’ll take the consequences of my actions but I don’t give a sh*t, I’m not gonna be a guy that life controls.’ It’s appealing. I watch it. I still scream at the end when he’s got his face in the cocaine and shootin’ the gun, I’m like ‘go ahead!’ Obviously you don’t want that reality to come on you when it’s real life but for a movie it’s awesome.

“I don’t really care if my kids are role-models. I’m not one of those Tipper Gore advocates that think that everything has to be politically correct. As a matter of fact, I hope it’s not. I’m taking on this subject matter where you wanna take a bath after watching this movie. They’re not anti-heroes. I think the area is grey. One school of thought would say these kids had a bad couple of weeks. They had a bad couple of weeks, you know? They’re gonna spend the rest of their lives either in jail or face the death penalty. Their lives are completely altered. Another school of thought says there’s really only one map of this story, and we’re minus one kid that is 15-years-old that’ll never have the chance to be what he can be or do the things he could do. These kids are monsters. Where’s the truth? It’s not somewhere in the middle, I think it’s both.”

Alpha Dog opens in theaters everywhere Friday.