The Reeler

Features

January 8, 2007

Alpha Male

Alpha Dog director Nick Cassavetes on voice, versatility and making Sharon Stone suffer

(L-R) Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake and Olivia Wilde star in Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog (Photo: Universal Pictures)

While his latest film Alpha Dog announces itself as an in-your-face shotgun marriage of the worst instincts of Larry Clark and the best of the late Robert Altman, New York-bred actor-director Nick Cassavetes remains tough to categorize by his feature films. One constant comes from an inevitable comparison to his late father, John; whether you’re drenched in the bathos of undying love of The Notebook or steeped in the runamok testosterone and pathos of his new film, Nick’s not afraid of searching for emotional extremity.

Alpha Dog (opening Friday in New York) refashions a true-life San Gabriel Valley teen murder case into 72 hours in the life of Johnny Truelove (a dense Emile Hirsch), a hard-partying drug dealer who constantly humiliates Jake Mazursky (an eye-popping Ben Foster) a hopped-up member of his posse. Getting revenge for a violent outburst, Truelove's other cohorts (including a better-than-honorable turn by Justin Timberlake), take Mazursky's 15-year-old brother, Zack (quietly charismatic Anton Yelchin) hostage. It's fun and games with "hostage boy" for a while -- all the cool girls think he's cute as can be -- but we know from the start the kid is doomed, despite all the sex, drugs, kickboxing and drugs that flow freely. (The large, emphatic case includes Bruce Willis as Truelove pere and, in a staggeringly unfastened performance as the Mazursky mom, Sharon Stone.)

When we spoke in late 2006, the affable, 6'5" Cassavetes, father of three kids, including a 19- and a 21-year-old, touched the brim of his Chicago Cubs cap as he slouched onto a nearby couch.

THE REELER: As the doomed kid, Anton Yelchin is such a puppy-dog, but charismatic, too.

NICK CASSAVETES: Yeah, he's the real deal. He'd been a working actor, but I didn't know any 15-year-olds for the movie. I really believe that talent like Anton's comes along like every decade or so. He's a man among boys.

TR: You look at someone like Ryan Gosling, you think, every note's there, the director's there to capture it, but still... the same thing here.

NC: Ryan's awesome. He's an awesome actor. But Anton -- he's the heart and soul of the movie. He's there. What a great kid.

TR: Is some of what you're curious about, fascinated by, in this story, out of having been around teenagers recently, having teenagers?

NC: Yeah. Sure. I mean, you're reminded of. But my dumb ass always thinks that I'm the teenager, and truly, when I heard about the story, I was reminded of my own childhood and how difficult that period of adjustment from youth to adult, adulthood is, and some of the stupid situations I got myself in. I mean, there but for the grace of God, you know? It's funny, because people look at my movie sometime and they'll be like, 'Well, it's very similar to other movies." And you think, "Yeah, you know, they still haven't gotten that pesky problem of those teenagers in trouble, they haven't really cured that one yet." So yeah, it just keeps coming up. [And] the fact that my daughter went to school with the victim. She was younger than he was, a couple of years, but it was a big story, you know, amongst those kids. It was a pretty big local story, but it was, of course, compounded by the fact that may daughter, the kids, were all talking about it.

TR: I love that the real name, the Hollywood name --

NC: Jesse Hollywood, yeah --

TR: -- becomes Truelove. And people are calling out his name, "Truelove!" "Truelove!" like it's around the corner. It's a great comparable crazy name for "Hollywood."

NC: Truelove was a guy. Where I got the name was, my brother was in the service and there was a kid named "Truelove." And I always thought, "Wow, what a great name! Truelove!" I wanted to be named Truelove! He had a great name in real life but we couldn't use it because of the legality of it.

TR: I'd think some reviewers' heads explode at the idea you made The Notebook and Alpha Dog. "And he's a Cassavetes; we gotta compare him to his dad."

Nick Cassavetes at the premiere of The Notebook in 2004 (Photo: WireImage)

NC: Yeah. It's hard. It's hard for those guys, I guess, but you know, they left me off my meds and I did this film! As a creative person, you just get interested in something, and it's really a lot more simple than people give it credit for. You're telling a story, yeah. Really, you're a telling at two-hour joke. It's like a two-hour story you're telling them --

TR: "Nick Cassavetes walks into a bar --"

NC: -- "Nick Cassavetes walks into a bar, starts to make a movie, right?" No, it's… I'm not gonna tell this movie the way I tell The Notebook. Two different stories, you know? I believe in everlasting love -- I really do. I love the movie. I knew what it was, I knew what it wasn't. I apologized to all my male friends for making that movie, but I also like this. I'm also really interested in the excess of youth and how people that were basically bad people could get themselves into such a monstrous situation, you know? Some people are going to say whatever they're going to say, because ... Actually, I like when people don't like my movies. I think it's great.

TR: Does that illustrate something for you about your work, or you like that you put a bee in their bonnet?

NC: I think about my movies. I'm pretty clear on what they are and what they're not when I release them. And the fact that it polarizes people, people take some kind of offense to it -- that's great. People should talk about movies that way.

TR: Neil LaBute said the worst thing anyone could ever say about your movie is, "Whaddya want to eat?"

NR: "Well, that was good." Yeah, you know, I think I interrupted a question. I'm happy. Every single movie I've ever done, they've annihilated me and then some people have liked it. It's great.

TR: When you come to the climax we're all rooting against, you shoot it on a high hill, it's dreamy-bold after they've driven past through the angels-wing pinwheeling of the windmills, to have these cold stars look down on you, and they don't have anything to say. This is the past, this is the beauty of the night you're in, and you're still fucked up. This is fate and destiny above you, and you fucked it up.

NC: Yeah. No turning back now.

TR: It's bold and good, after naturalism, to have moments that crunchy -- that forthright. The universe is not judging, the universe is not paying attention.

NC: It don't give a shit! [Laughs] That's an adage that is almost universally true: [Whispers] Nobody cares. Nobody cares.

TR: What's your instinct, your rules, for letting a character go on and on? Where do you stop? Particularly Sharon Stone at the end; it's like, "I'm watching it, I'm hurting here, stop! I'm hurting. You're hurting yourself." I'm looking for the fat suit. Then her character starts to laugh at herself and you go, "Keep going." When is too much? I don't think you go too far --

NC: I hope I do go too far! I think I shove it right up their behinds! And that's what... Ben Foster, he's a power-car actor, you wind him up and let him go. We had a few things with him that helped him, but you know, a guy like that, who's a slight guy, is not usually cast as somebody that you fear. So he shaved his head, we used those glaucoma drops to make his eyes big like this, and so they just got black, his eyes, plus the guy's a miraculous actor. But he looks kind of like a gay hustler in the movie. You know what I mean? That's the kind of guy that I worry about. And for me, when you're a young filmmaker, you're trying to do this quiet little film that nothing is wrong with it, there's no... It's perfect. You want to make a perfect little encapsulated movie where everybody gets it -- maybe a little arrogant. As you get older, you've made that movie. I don't give a shit about if I go too far! I'm interested in exploring how far I can go. People don't like it, tough shit! I don't mean to sound like I'm an idiot, but I've made five movies, I know what movie the audience probably wants to see.

When it comes to conflict with what I want to do or those pesky details like the truth, the audience has to look at a different type of film. And it's good. You know, I'm quite aware of it. I have a sex scene after a murder. Usually that doesn't work, but that's the point: The things that were working for him -- all that stuff that you really might have enjoyed seeing early -- it doesn't work anymore. Man, the kid's dead. He's dead.

TR: You're rooting for him: Please get laid, please survive.

NC: Yeah, but it's wrong. It's wrong to hold the camera on Sharon so long and let her go for so long. Right. That's the point. She's suffering. You think that a three-minute scene is wrong? Check out her life. It's five years later. Check in with her. She's still like that. She's a very, very interesting woman. I talked to Susan a couple of days ago. She calls me all the time. She says, "I want to see the movie." And then cancels at the last minute. A number of times. I'm pleased with the film. My buddy Dave Thornton says to me, "Nick, you don't watch this movie, you endure it." And I think he's right.

Ray Pride is the editor of Movie City Indie.





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