Writer-director Nick Cassavetes made an auspicious feature debut in 1996 with Unhook the Stars, starring his mother Gena Rowlands. A year later came She's So Lovely, which Cassavetes adapted from a screenplay by his legendary writer-director father, John Cassavetes; John Q and The Notebook followed. At San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, Cassavetes told me about his controversial new film Alpha Dog, a true-crime movie with the names changed.
Groucho: Well, first I'd like to ask how you first came to this case or were exposed to it and how the script was developed.
Nick Cassavetes: Okay, um. It was a pretty big local story where I lived in Los Angeles, but on top of that my daughters went to the same school system. They're younger than the victim, but they attended the same school, so it was kind of in my own backyard. So I had known about this story for a while, and I was finishing a film, and a friend of mine came and said, "I have an opportunity to direct a movie. What d'you got?" I had written a short film for him, and he expected me to write him a film immediately.
NC: And I said, all right, I have this, I have this, I have this, I have this. And one of the things I told him about was this. He said, "Great, that's what I want to do." I said, "Great." I wrote the script. You know, interviewed all the people, did all the research and stuff, and by the time I had finished he had landed a regular role on a big cable television show, Entourage. And he was unable to direct. Because he was committed. So I had a script and had to look around for directors, and I found one very close to home.
G: Yeah, right.
G: And no arguments with this director, right?
NC: I trust him completely—It is weird that when you're considering directing something that you wrote after you didn't think you were going to do it in the first place. It's hard, though, because every time you write something you fall in love with it. You just—you spend so much time learning how to tell your story that the thought of it not being told at all is frustrating.
G: Yeah, to say the least. Did all of that research that was bequeathed upon the production by the lawyer, by Ron—
G: Zonen, right. Did that come to you prior to writing the script or during the process of writing the script? Did that affect the development of the script?
NC: Yeah, during the process—it didn't affect it. It was—what happens is—I knew that I was in trouble 'cause the amount of research material I had was voluminous. And before I even talked to Ron, I had the trial transcripts from four trials, which was more reading than I could do. So I had a researcher who was a very dear friend of mine, named Mick Mias, and he was a lawyer, and I knew that he'd help me navigate the waters of the trials and all the documentation and the D.A.! So I took Mick with me to meet Ron. We had an initial conversation. And while I went off and read the trial transcripts and interviewed the players in this story, Mick did all the—Mick did a lot of the research. So many of the materials that come into play and come into question and are the reason that Ron got recused from the case, I never really saw. I was told about and I'm sure I could see them if I wanted to, but they don't really have anything to do with me. I mean, some of the stuff is sensitive, like photographs and confession tapes. I have the confessions from the trial transcripts anyway, so—but the court said they were improper, that they were given improperly, and I trust them. Nobody wanted to do anything—we were all very, you know, excited about our jobs and wanted to do the best job we can, but nobody wants to break the law.
G: Right—one of the things that I noted while watching the film is that for a lot of those young actors—I noted Shawn Hatosy and Chris Marquette and Anton Yelchin and Emile Hirsch—for all of those guys, their work in this film struck me as unique in their body of work thus far.
G: And I wonder if you attribute that to anything in particular about the process. Was it that build up to shooting or something about the day-to-day filming?
NC: Well I can take them one at a time. Emile does the tortured kind of loner guy. He does that. That's usually—you know what, it's weird. We must remember that we do this—we're not hobbyists. We do this for a living. We make money. And kind of the financial side of that is that people always want to be first to be second. If they've seen you do it once, they want to do it again and make money off of it.
G: Right, right, right.
NC: So actors keep getting offered the same type of parts that they've been offered before. And you become a certain type in that respect. Emile has never played anybody that has been physically a huge presence, or somebody that's been a tough guy. Anton is a miraculous actor. He can do anything. Chris Marquette, I feel the same way. He's just awesome. And Shawn Hatosy might be the most accomplished of all the actors, right there. He's very dear friend of mine, and even though this was a different type of part for him, Shawn has—he's a director's dream. You say, "What's the hardest part in this movie? Let's give it to Shawn. He'll figure it out. And I adore his work...
G: One of the things I liked about the film is that, with a lot of films like this about true crime cases or about social issues, there's a kind of cop-out and the filmmaker will say, "Well, it's not for me to decide. I'll just leave it open to the audience." But I think the film does comment on some of the possible causes for how this situation came to be, one of which is expressed by Bruce Willis very early in the film, that the whole thing is about parenting.
G: What do you think the role of parents could or should've been in this situation?
NC: Well, good question. Let me just start out by saying I don't believe that the parents in any respect, shape, way, or form are complicit in the child's death.
NC: Not whatsoever. I truly believe, and this is the thing about the movie and the case, that's so—it remains so interesting. There's no reason, the structure's not—you can tell it a hundred times. I've seen the movie a million times. I've thought about it way more than that. And there's still no good reason that makes sense why this kid should end up dead. Anybody that's seen CSI or Boston Public or Law & Order or any of those shows knows you don't show a kid off around a million places, kill them, and then hope to even have a chance of getting away with it. Don't they know about forensics! Don't they know about—?! I mean, come on. And especially in the shabby way—but to these kids, this seemed like their road had narrowed so much that this was their best idea. So what I really can kind of think was given the number of people that have seen him and the way this went down and the mess-ups with the police—is that it was a perfect storm of circumstances—And the reason that I numbered the witnesses in the film is that it wasn't their responsibility. But any number—any one of these people—they all knew that he was kidnapped! Even the kids at the party. Any one of them could've picked up their phone to their mother. As they left the party, saying, "You know there was a kidnapped kid?" And the parents would have said, "What?!" And come on over. And the parent that had the kid over at the house could've said, "Who's your mom? I haven't talked to her. I'm not letting anybody stay at my house that I don't talk to their parents." And it just. . .
G: The set of circumstances there betrays a moral detachment. And when you say that, it's interesting. When I watched the film, I thought, it's the kids who have the moral detachment, but the witnesses do, too. Is there any accounting for that? How does that happen?
NC: I think that they just—I think that what happens is we live in a—what's the number one thing that is true more today than it has been in the past? It's that we're so busy. We have such busy, active, busy, interesting, busy lives. That we get so busy we don't have enough time to do what we should be doing, which is, if we are only going to check-in with our kids, then we should check-in thoroughly with our children. It's okay to have a life. It's okay to have a life well into our sixties, seventies, and eighties. The world today is not about raising your children and passing the rest of your days out till, you see your grandchildren and then you die. It's okay. But young children need supervision. Young children need to, especially with means, need supervision. And young children in a group with means? That's bad news! And it keeps coming up. People say it's like the River's Edge. Yes. People say this is like other different types of movies—
NC: Sure. This problem is the problem—it's a gift that keeps on giving. It's not going to go away. Young people are supposed to misbehave. They're supposed to make bad decisions. It's part of who they are. Great! But if the movie says anything, it's—I mean, I remember talking to that woman and—that story about the woman being on ecstasy is true. And I said, "You mean you didn't talk to your daughter, and she needed to talk to you that night?" She said, "Yeah, but I was taking ecstasy." I said, "You were taking ecstasy?" She said, "It was my anniversary." And this woman's a lawyer! This woman is a full-fledged, highly professional person. But I got it when she said that was—"Oh, I get it. She has a life. And I think we're all guilty of it. I know I am, and I'm a parent—I think that they all really just kind of hoped that a miracle would happen. That it would stop the whole thing. But none of them had the facilities or the tools to be able to do that—how about, they're walking up the hill, and they get seen by two people on their way to kill this kid!
G: They've got an out.
NC: They've got an out! "Hey look, this is—." Even if you wanted to save face. You say, "There's too many people up here. I thought you said this place was remote." And "I'm not doing this here. This—I'm scrubbing it—let's wash our hands of this. We're not doing this now. We'll do it later."
NC: Just didn't have the tools. And maybe they shouldn't have been expected to? Maybe it was character flaws in them that didn't put this young child's life before their own needs. Um, but mostly? What's really true is there is no good reason. And that's the reason to watch the movie—
G: One of the other lines that I thought was interesting in passing, if I heard it right, is Sean Hatosy's character says, "I think no more music videos, is what I think." Right?
G: Why did you throw that in there? Does that have something to do, again, with that sort of, sense of remove that they had from the situation they were in?
G: Or a kind of glamorization of—
NC: Yeah, I think that what happens is:we live in America which prides itself on being capitalist, bottom-line, "might makes right." We come from a—what? The whole state of Georgia or something was made up of criminals, if I know my history the right way. So we pride ourselves as Americans, and I do cause I'm absolutely pro-American, in this kind of "strength makes right," to a certain extent. And we take all of our influences now from this kind of jailhouse mentality. And the images we get off of the media is: you're not supposed to have coping skills to deal with your problems, just have aggression! You know, just be aggressive all the way through, and if anybody gets in your way, then you know what to do. And it comes out—it's so preposterous that it comes out the TV, from people who are musicians, who are maybe are the least of people in the world. And these young, white, affluent kids are eating it up as the blueprint to live your life. Well, when push comes to shove, they don't have the skills to do that. So when he says, "No more music videos" means that we're not doin'—we're not gonna be doing stupid musician, not-tough guy stuff. Now is the time to step up. And really, you know, do the things that tough people do, which is about as stupid a statement as possibly you could ever have made. And it wasn't a real thing, I made it up, but I wanted it to be reflective of how I felt about the situation.
G: Mm-hm. I think I sort of answered my own question when I thought of this during the film because it is, obviously, a tragic case and it's going inevitably towards this horrible ending. But along the way was there concern about how you would portray the potentially more glamorous aspects of the story. That a kid might look at this and say, "Oh this would—", like Anton Yelchin's character does, "This would be fun, to be kind of caught up in this world of sex and drugs and all of that." Since it is basically a true story, there's not really any getting around it, I guess.
NC: I don't think that people get involved with drugs and girls and carrying on if it weren't—if it wasn't fun.
NC: I think that's the attraction of it. The consequence is, in this case, death, but most of the time disenchantment, addiction, poverty, you know, just accidents. There's a lot of pitfalls to that type of lifestyle. I was diligent in trying not to glamorize these kids. I think that they are portrayed as pretenders, which I really believe that they were. But, you know, with money comes beautiful girls and ennui and especially with—and you know, especially if they're living in mommy and daddy's houses. Uh, I hope I didn't glamorize it. I try not to make the villains in my films twist their mustaches and cackle—cackle-laugh or anything like that. But, I'm okay with the way I presented it. I actually think—
G: Well, because the consequences are so clear, I think that really sends the message. That it's a dangerous road.
NC: The only deliberate thing that I did was—I've been directing for a while, I know after a couple of movies I know what the audience wants to see. I know that nobody in their right mind wants to see a sex scene after a murder where the guy can't have an erection. Who gives a shit? But the reason I put that there was because all the things that might have seemed fun and seemed like part of the lifestyle really didn't have anything to do with anything. And I wanted to say that really clearly in the movie. Even if I said it a little too clearly—
G: The opening credit sequence of the film is very striking. I wanted to ask what the source of those home videos is, if those come from members of the crew or the actors, and also why you chose "Over the Rainbow" as the opening song.
NC: Um, the film came from the actors and the participants' home libraries. They were very gracious to give of their own personal stuff.
G: Some of them were from the participants in the case? The real-life case?
NC: No, no, no, no. I'm afraid that the lawyers would have chewed me up if I had done that, although I could have, but I wasn't—I daren't not. And the use of—it's just because I wanted to make sure that we understood that a certain way of thinking about the case is that these kids have a bad stretch of time, a couple of weeks right here and were horrible monsters, which I spend ninety minutes of showing them how depraved and hedonistic and monstrous their activities are. I wanted to make sure that there was a time where we understood that life was wide open to them; the possibilities were endless for them. And I didn't want to do it at the end of the film like, you know, some corny thing of (mock-weeping) "They were all—but they were once really nice people!" It seemed like a good place for it. And the use of "Over the Rainbow" just kind of to further that. And besides I love Eva Cassidy. She's one of my favorite singers in the world. And it wasn't subtle. And so there was some kind of—I had some hesitation that it might not have worked, but when I saw it up against the picture, I thought, "Yeah. I want it. I like it."
G: It also underlines the cost of where the story ends up. You know, that these lives are all lost—not only that they started out so innocent, but also what happens to them.
NC: Every one of them, just destroyed.
G: Yeah. Can you tell us about—since production wrapped initially, there was a development in the case that necessitated, or suggested a re-shoot, and what's happened since then as well?
NC: Uh, I finished shooting the movie, or I had finished shooting except for I needed to do a little bit of additional photography, but I had finished shooting the movie. And I was sitting in my house one night and my daughter calls me and said, "They got him. Jesse Hollywood." I said, "They always say they get Jesse Hollywood. They've been saying that for five years." She said, "Turn on the news." So I turn it on, and they got him. Which was complicated because I had imagined the movie being—this is—falls under the categories of: movies tell you what they're gonna be; you don't tell movies what they're gonna be. They're not always gonna tell you until it's too late. I imagined the movie being: "These were the events. These were the people. This is what happened. This was the consequence. He's still out there. No one's ever caught him. Good night everyone, drive home safely.
NC: "Think about that on your way home." What it turned out to be was all of those things, he ran away for five years, then finally they caught him. Which is kind of a different story type of thing, which needed to be addressed. Now, you know as well as I do, when you make a movie, movies don't come cheap, so I have to not only rewrite the ending, reconceive the ending, kind of digest it, then I gotta go out and beg people for more money so I can re-shoot it. And that was the process, but people were very generous with me and kind and we got it done.
G: I know you probably can't talk too much about this, but there is this lawsuit out there where they were trying to block the release of the film, or slow the release of the film, but the release date is set in stone, yes?
NC: Only a federal judge can stop us now.
G: Right. (Chuckles.)
NC: The—what's going on is that Mr. Hollywood's attorney has filed a lawsuit saying that his client can't get a fair trial because of the way his client is depicted in this movie and that he wants the movie to be delayed until after the trial. And what I think about this is a few things. Number one, no movie has ever been enjoined because of something like this and there have been plenty of movies made of true-life figures. Number two, they could probably find twelve people who haven't seen the movie to get himself a fair trial. Number three, I think he's doing a fine job for his client, and I believe in the American justice system. I believe that this kid should get a fair trial, and I think it all makes for great press...They recused Mr. Zonin for giving us materials that they thought, that they deemed inappropriate, but it's still as of this time, even though it's up in the air, in the Santa Barbara district—The father of the defendant was a consultant on my movie, for Christ's sake.
NC: I mean, I. . .
G: I thought that was pretty amazing.
NC: Well, you know—It's true. He'd also be the first one to say it. You know, he's made a lot of mistakes in his life, and he's paid, and a lot of people have paid, a dear price for it. Do I hold him directly responsible for the things that have happened? No. No. It's a very complicated and specific world that we live in, and each one of our actions has a consequence in the world. Like some cheesy, bad movie would say, "Well what if you stopped this? Well you can't change the past because everything would change." But, you know, we're responsible for our actions and I—even though some of his actions are deplorable and certainly some of the actions of his child seem to be deplorable, because we can't say that it happened because the trial hasn't happened yet. He did do some things. He did try to take care of his kid. He did get his child out of the country and keep him out of harm's way for five years, which is infuriating to the family and friends of the victim, but if it were your own child, you might be able to understand doing something like that. It's a strange kind of dynamic, you know? We are responsible for our actions, and we should teach our children right and wrong, but at the same time they are our flesh and blood so it's a case that never stops being interesting because the dynamics are so complicated.
G: I think we're sort of getting the high sign here—is there another of your father's screenplays that you think you might take off the shelf one day?
NC: There is one that my father and I were writing when he—that we were writing when he passed away. And I've batted it around for a long period of time, and I don't think it's right for me to direct because I did She's De-Lovely—they call it She's So Lovely—and you know, I think it's probably correct to separate the two careers at some particular point. But I'd love for someone to direct that at some point, and there's always talk of Brett [Ratner] redoing Chinese Bookie. So—and I think he would be a terrific choice for it. It'd be a totally different movie. But it's a good story. You know, it's weird. No matter how many other movies of his that there were or are or could be made, there was only one him.
NC: And he's not around. People have tried to make movies like him for a long time. And I hope they do one day. I mean I hope—that'd be terrific, but—it's difficult—
G: Thank you.
NC: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of Alpha Dog, click here.]