It sounds like a made-up name you'd find on a script, not on the FBI's Most Wanted list. But Jesse James Hollywood is very real — and as the inspiration for writer/director Nick Cassavetes' long-time-coming movie "Alpha Dog," the 26-year-old has gotten a Hollywood ending, just not one made of stardust and dreams. "Alpha Dog" is trial by Tinseltown, and Hollywood (the person) has been trying to fight Hollywood (the system) to keep it from hitting theaters.
"I never wanted that," Cassavetes said of the offscreen controversy surrounding his film. "Real life is way more important than any movie."
Cassavetes estimates that "Alpha Dog" is about "95 percent accurate" in its depiction of the August 2000 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz, a crime that was allegedly ordered by Hollywood and carried out by his gang of friends and fellow drug dealers. Cassavetes has changed names and locations to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent (four defendants have been tried and convicted) — Jesse James Hollywood becomes the just-as-improbably named Johnny Truelove and Nick Markowitz becomes Zack Mazursky. As the story goes, Hollywood had a feud with Markowitz's older half-brother Ben, also a drug dealer, and kidnapped Nick from California's San Fernando Valley to lure Ben into a face-to-face meeting, ultimately taking his young hostage to Santa Barbara as a marker.
Meanwhile, a confused Nick failed to capitalize on countless chances to escape so he could party with his captors, most of whom thought the abduction was just a goof. In a bizarre sequence of events, Hollywood called his lawyer to find out the penalty for kidnapping, and upon learning it could be a life sentence, decided to destroy the evidence, a.k.a. kill the kid. Three of his cohorts — one of whom is played in the film by a very natural Justin Timberlake in his big-screen debut — took Nick up to a hiking trail where they'd already dug a shallow grave, and shot him nine times.
"It scares me to think of how his last moments were," Nick's mother Susan Markowitz said. "And even though this happened six years ago, it feels like six days ago to me. I died with Nick."
Cassavetes is confident his depiction of these graphic events is accurate because he didn't just rip this story from the headlines — he borrowed details from the actual case files provided by the prosecution, including crime-scene photos, police and probation reports, psychological profiles, trial notebooks and transcripts, video and audio tapes, as well as extensive interviews with the characters' real-life counterparts.
"I asked Susan every horrific, tough, real question I needed to ask to play that part," said Sharon Stone, who depicts the victim's mother, "and she held nothing back."
"Nick and I took a trip upstate and I met the guy my character is based on," Timberlake said. "It was nice to get his perspective, get a feel for the guy, to make sense of this nonsensical travesty. But what's he going to say? He's serving a life sentence. He's pretty unhappy."
Emile Hirsch, who plays Hollywood/Truelove, couldn't meet his counterpart, since Hollywood had been a fugitive for the years before and during the making of the film. It was because he had eluded authorities for so long — despite the best efforts of the FBI and "America's Most Wanted" — that prosecutor Ron Zonen agreed to help "Alpha Dog," thinking it would serve as the biggest "Wanted" poster anyone could ever make. But just as the film wrapped and went into post-production, Hollywood was apprehended, captured in Brazil in March 2005.
"It was pretty wild," Hirsch said. "I was talking to a friend, and he said, 'Turn on your TV!' I was like, 'What!?!' All mayhem broke loose. I mean, the film was done."
"It threw me for a pretty big loop," Cassavetes said. "I had to rethink the movie."
"It reminded us of the gravity of what we were doing," added Ben Foster, who plays the murder victim's older brother. "It became less mythological, more real again."
After reshoots to reflect real life's new ending to the story, the director got thrown for an even bigger loop: Now that Hollywood was back in the picture, he wanted to prevent Cassavetes' picture from coming out. Hollywood actually had some legal grounds, thanks to the use of those prosecution case files and the movie's potential to taint the jury pool. "When a prosecutor becomes a motion-picture consultant and gives his entire criminal file with every document, police report and video while that case is pending, I believe there is a legitimate conflict of interest," said Hollywood's attorney, James Blatt.
"It's not like they're calling it 'The Jesse James Hollywood Story,' " said attorney H. Russell Halpern, who defended one of Hollywood's accomplices, William Skidmore, who is currently serving a nine-year sentence. "People have short memories, and without publicity, people won't make the connection. But I don't know what Zonen was thinking, handing over the files. It was stupid."
In December, Hollywood lost his request for an injunction (he's seeking an appeal), but managed to get Zonen to rescue himself from the case (Zonen declined to comment, as he's appealing that decision, as well). This has only delayed Hollywood's trial, of course, which angers the Markowitz family, who wishes the movie wasn't providing its son's accused murderer with such handy legal defenses and possible grounds for appeal — as well as money to mount the defense in the first place, since the family claims Hollywood's father was paid for his "consultant" work during Cassavetes' research phase.
"Where is the justice in that?" Markowitz asked. "It's mind-boggling. In a normal murder trial, you go to trial and it's over. This just goes on and on, and I'm spending my whole life in a courtroom."
"Things are very hard for us, for all the families," said Florinda Skidmore, William's mother. "And they should have showed the movie to the families, because it's worse not knowing how they've portrayed our sons, not knowing how much you're going to have to justify to the world. They give you nothing other than, 'It's coming out.' "
But even that is more than "Alpha Dog" had to offer since its intended debut last year (see "Timberlake, Cassavetes And 'Alpha Dog' Crew Close Out Sundance In Style"), "It seems forever ago that we made this movie," Timberlake said. "A lot of people didn't want us to make it. But I'm just happy that a weight has been lifted. It's a story people should hear."
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