Interview with director of ‘Alpha Dog’

Maggie Nepomuceno

There is always something alluring for audiences about a movie based on true events. At least, director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook,” “John Q”) seems to think so.

In his latest film, “Alpha Dog,” Cassavetes recounts the true story of a 15-year-old boy kidnapped as a result of his half-brother’s unpaid drug debt.

The film takes place in suburban California, where Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his band of white, suburban, wannabe-gangster friends live a lifestyle of wild parties, sex and drugs. When Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) is unable to pay off a $1,200 drug debt that he owes Truelove, a war breaks out between the two. 

Ultimately, Truelove and a couple of his buddies, including Frankie (Justin Timberlake), kidnap Mazursky’s brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) and hold him as collateral. 

At first Zack is afraid, but as time passes he finds himself bonding with the group and idolizing its lifestyle.

Though Frankie gives him an out at one point, Zack decides to stay in order to help his brother and to escape the confines of his overprotective parents (David Thornton and Sharon Stone).  As Zack and Frankie grow closer, Truelove becomes unsure of what to do with his hostage, especially when he discovers that the penalty for kidnapping in California is life in prison.

“Alpha Dog” is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood and the murder of Nick Markowitz (whose names are changed for the film). Markowitz was shot and killed by Hollywood’s associates in 2000.

At the age of 20, Hollywood became one of the youngest people to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He was apprehended on March 9, 2005 in Brazil and is currently awaiting trial in California.

Hollywood was, however, still at large when production on “Alpha Dog” began in 2004.

During the making of the film, prosecutors granted Cassavetes a controversial level of access to the case file, which a court order eventually halted. Cassavetes was also granted interviews with the convicted criminals and the Markowitz family.

I recently spoke with Cassavetes who, despite Hollywood’s impending trial, does not believe that any legal issues will set back the film’s Jan. 12 release date.

He explained that his intention in creating the movie was never to convict or exonerate anyone, and he does not believe that any bias in his film will affect the trial’s proceedings.

“We live in a society today where our American legal system is a great system, and everybody has a right to a fair trial,” Cassavetes said. “I do believe they’ll be able to find 12 jurors in the country that haven’t seen the film, and I think that the kid will get a fair trial.”

At the time of the interview, the victim’s parents had yet to see the film, but Cassavetes had high hopes.

“I want as good as a film about the murder of their son could possibly be,” he said. “I want to be as respectful as possible. I hope that they think it’s representative of their son’s experience.”

Though the exact occurrence of events cannot be certain, Cassavetes presents the facts fairly accurately. How the events are presented is another story.

Despite Cassavetes’ vast amount of research, something about the film seems unrealistic. Whether it’s the limited capability of a young cast or Cassavetes’ inability to relate to a hip-hop lifestyle, the film at times comes off as preposterous and over-the-top.

The most pleasant surprise in the movie comes from Mr. “Sexy Back” himself, Timberlake. Yes, he can act. For those of you who witnessed his dismal acting attempt in the Disney Channel’s “Model Behavior” during his *NSYNC days, forget about it.

Timberlake proves that he has decent acting chops and turns in quite possibly the best performance in the film.

Cassavetes had no doubts about casting Timberlake, who he had previously met during casting for “The Notebook.”

“He wasn’t right for ‘The Notebook,’ but I liked him,” Cassavetes said. “I was casting [Frankie], and the character’s got to be the handler of the kid that the kid looks up to and idolizes, and I thought Justin would be great for that. Even though he’s not from California, he’s got that easy, laid-back kind of charm to him that I thought would be perfect for it. I’m really pleased with his performance in the film. I’m just surprised that nobody thought that he could do it.”

The film’s other big-name stars are simply unsatisfying in their roles. Bruce Willis’ part as Truelove’s father is minimal and rather bland, while Sharon Stone, who we find in a fat suit by the end of the movie, simply overacts and forces her character down our throats.

Aside from its flawed moments, “Alpha Dog” manages to be disturbing, heart-wrenching and funny. While I wouldn’t suggest you rush out to see it, it is definitely worth a watch.