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No Hollywood ending

The true-crime `Alpha Dog' becomes a part of the teen murder case it depicts.

January 07, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

THE elements of the murder case seemed tailor-made for Hollywood's "true-crime" treatment: As the summer of 2000 waned, a band of affluent friends in the San Fernando Valley, bored, unsupervised and stoned, kidnapped a teenager over his half brother's drug debt, partied with him for two days, then shot him to death in cold blood so he couldn't turn them in, leaving him in a shallow grave near a hiking area called Lizards Mouth.

Making the case even harder to ignore, the alleged mastermind of the crime was a 20-year-old named Jesse James Hollywood.

In the events that led to the death of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, filmmaker Nick Cassavetes saw not just a cinematic tragedy, but a cautionary tale of modern parenting, the worst-case scenario that results from an undisciplined adolescence. And there was a personal connection: His daughter attended El Camino Real High School a few years after Hollywood and Markowitz did and the crime resonated with him for years afterward.

With Jesse Hollywood nowhere to be found, and four of his friends already in prison, one on death row, Cassavetes had few qualms about teasing out the details of the story from those young men convicted in the crime, interviewing and befriending the principals, having his actors study interrogation footage and poring over documents from the case. He even brought one of his stars, Justin Timberlake, to prison to meet the man he'd portray in the film.

But his venture into the world of Markowitz and his captors didn't just evoke the case -- it altered its orbit. Hollywood, arrested in Brazil in March 2005, is in solitary confinement in Santa Barbara, charged with kidnapping and murder and facing the death penalty. And Cassavetes' movie "Alpha Dog," a picture opening Friday that's thick with tattoos, rap and bong hits, has become a central plot point in his trial.

It's an odd case study in how the movie world's hunger for "material" can exacerbate the real-world complexities of the people who supply it -- especially when the prosecutor on an open case gets involved with a filmmaker, and the filmmaker befriends the father of a criminal who's on the lam.

Gathering the stories

CASSAVETES and Michael Mehas, his researcher and childhood pal, cut a wide swath in amassing the details that would give texture to the script, which sticks closely to the devastating story. (Cassavetes says the film is "95% accurate" -- though names, dates and locations were changed for legal and insurance purposes.)

They contacted the imprisoned men -- Jesse Taylor Rugge, William Robert Skidmore, William Graham Pressley and Ryan James Hoyt -- as well as witnesses to the crime (there were dozens). Accounts they didn't get firsthand were pulled directly from court records.

The film is stylish and at times hyper-realized, with electric green marijuana bushes and cerulean swimming pools. Documentary-style interviews are interspersed with the film narrative, and every scene is placed in the timeline of the murder, which police believe was set in motion when the victim's half brother didn't repay a drug debt to Jesse Hollywood.

Much of the film takes place in scenes of teenage debauchery -- a raucous pool party, a late-night romantic tryst. And that makes the excruciating murder scene even more difficult to bear.

Cassavetes has shaped the movie, with 19-year-old rising star Emile Hirsch as Jesse Hollywood and Timberlake as his best friend, not just as a chronicle of kids gone wild but as a look at the dark side of suburban affluence. Indeed, the most despicable characters are many of the parents -- pot growers and Ecstasy-users so consumed by self-indulgence that they completely miss the fact that their kids are party to a kidnapping.

"When I started tracking people down, nobody was excited about me talking to them," Cassavetes says. "It was a very tough chapter in all of their lives. Nobody was really excited about the prospect of turning that story over to me [or] having it rehashed in their own minds, maybe because it reacquainted them with some of their culpability and maybe just because it was safer for them to tell their story to themselves without having an objective look at it."

But some weren't so reticent. Jack Hollywood, Jesse's father, became a close advisor to the film. So did Santa Barbara prosecutor Ronald J. Zonen, a 27-year veteran who had recently won convictions of Hollywood's four friends. Those alliances proved tricky.

Zonen gave researcher Mehas invaluable access to everything from witness addresses and autopsy photos to interrogation footage and his trial notebook. But all that goodwill did not go unpunished. Mehas, who is also an anti-death-penalty criminal defense lawyer, came to see prosecutor Zonen's tactics as "misleading" and "ruthless." So a week after Hollywood's capture, he offered Hollywood's attorney James Blatt some helpful tips, including the fact that Zonen let him borrow confidential case files. That detail ultimately got Zonen booted from the case

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