INT: Nick Cassavetes
Aside from being a versatile and talented director, writer and actor, Nick Cassavetes is likewise charming, handsome and surprisingly sexy in person! Sporting a street-chic look and cool tattoos, he's quite entertaining as he talks about going from one extremity of directing his last romantic film THE NOTEBOOK, to his latest controversial drama, ALPHA DOG.
In addition to penning and directing his new film, Cassavetes demonstrates creativity by using a unique form of storytelling and foreshadowing by numbering and labeling everyone in the film as a witness or suspect as the story unfolds and reveals the unfortunate and allegedly true tragedy that took place in his own backyard. The film accentuates the life of today's privileged youth living in an invincible fantasy world. When a small drug deal "situation" between a hothead junkie played by Ben Foster and popular drug dealer played by Emile Hirsch goes wrong, the chain reaction quickly escalates to an impulsive kidnapping and subsequent point of no return. Ignoring all other alternatives, the fine line between reality and fantasy become all too clear when the magnitude and course of the gang's impetuous actions grow incontrollable.
With an impressive cast consisting of Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake, Emile Hirsch among others, ALPHA DOG highlights how today's ignorant youth, living in a self-created glam-thug universe can make rash decisions with disregard to the consequences of their actions. Check out what Cassavetes had to say at his recent press conference about his upcoming film...
*** WATCH OUT FOR SPOILERS AHEAD!! ***
seem to be a lot of different popular culture influences in the
film. It started out with The Wizard of Oz musical theme along with
a hint of Bonnie and
Well I dont have any original ideas [laughs]. Got to get it someplace. No, I wasnt aware of all the different references. If it was like Bonnie and Clyde, Id be thrilled because I loved the film. You know as a filmmaker, Im not that smart you know. Basically you face a lot of problems making a movie and you come up with an idea and youre like, "I want to say this" and all of a sudden people say "You cant do that because of this and that!" So basically it sets you off in a spiral of solving micro problems. So in the beginning of the movie, just to address The Wizard of Oz thing, I didnt have any opening for the movie. I didn't know what I wanted to do.
So I got an idea, and I said, "ooh! Maybe I can get some home footage of the actors in the movie and we can pretend like theyve all grown up together." There is a certain element of the story that kids don't start off to be monsters. They don't start out to be idiots. They start out pure. I have children of my own and I wanted to at least tip my hat to that. Eva Cassidy is one of my favorite singers and I love that version of the song and I thought, "Oh my God, is this way too corny? Yes, but I'll do it anyway!" And that's the simple part of my thought process.
Were there any scenes you contemplated leaving out of the story since the movie is based upon true events?
It's a good question. When you deal with a story that's a true-life story and certainly one where people's emotions are enflamed like this story, there are a lot of people who want you to tell their story their way. You just kind of search out the truth but to answer your question more directly, no. If there was something that I found interesting or pertinent to the story, I would never be afraid to put it in. I don't care what kind of complications it would give me. That's kind of the point. You're trying to tell a story. There's no reason to really do it, unless you do it right.
Can you discuss your decision to identify the witnesses and suspects by numbering them and including testimonials in the movie?
I think it's two separate things. The first part about it is the witnesses. The reason I [labeled] the witnesses is because it's a filmmaker's responsibility to tell their audience that this is going to happen. And then at the same time, make them hope that it doesn't [happen]. Part of the reason I was interested in the story, is kind of what I like to call a "perfect storm of circumstance of what happened." There's no good reason why this kid got killed. None. No good reason.
And any idiot that has seen a Boston Public or CSI knows that you don't parade a kid around a bunch of people and decide to kill him and think that you're going to get away with it. But, it happened. And, I really didn't want them to have some kind of scene where somebody said, "You know, there were thirty-eight witnesses who saw this kid." So, I just decided to put it in there and if it got in the way of the story then it would be that. The other part of the thing I think you were talking about is the mockumentary style of it
The testimonials are very powerful, especially the characters of Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone. Were these fictionalized or are these testimonials based on true commentary or your interpretation of what would have happened?
No. They're dead on. For the Bruce Willis testimony, I sat down and had a conversation with the father. For the mother's [Sharon Stone] testimony, I didn't acquire the mother's rights, so we can be sure that I would never use anything that the mother ever told me or anything like that. But, I think it's pretty close to the truth as well. The reason I used that stuff was because it was my experience. Nobody wanted to talk to me about this story when it first happened. I had to go through court records to find out even whom the players were that were involved. And some people said, "why did you put it in there? And stylistically that was weird." Yes, its weird, but whatever. I spent a lot more time interviewing people than I did making the movie, and for me to leave it out, I think would be remiss.
This movie seems to be the dead opposite of your movie, "The Notebook." It was an anti-romantic film. Did you want to make a movie that was as complete opposite of that work? You also play around with time, which you have done in both films. Can you talk about these aspects of your films?
Sure I mean once again, I'm not smart enough to really have a master plan for my career. Maybe it's a natural knee jerk reaction if you do something that's kind of a weepy movie that you want to do something that doesn't kind of tread over the same ground. But, usually I'll do a movie that I'm interested in, and if it has enough to hold my interest that really is the only prerequisite. As far as time elements go - I think when I was growing up, films were boxy and waxy. There were certain rules.
You could only cut a certain way if everything matched right and now there are no rules. Everything cuts. Everything timelines. It doesn't matter. So, in that, I don't know if I have so much a fascination for it, but I will acknowledge the fact that you can do whatever the heck you want now because people have seen so much and the older rules have been smashed so much that audiences are cool with it and I like to take advantage of it. Here's the thing: Anybody who tells you making movies is hard is full of crap. It's not.
Really, you're telling a two-hour story and somebody is giving you millions of bucks to tell you a two-hour story. And you can spend whatever you want I mean within reason, right? So really what you do, at least what I try to do is If I want to tell you a story about I picked this thing up and I walked into the other room. You really want to tell a story like, "I picked it up and I walked into the other room." So many people tell a story like, "I looked at it, I touch it, I turned it around I looked at the dials." You think, I'm bored to death before I stop telling it. So, what you do, its long winded but, smashing the perspective of time is only a way to get to tell the story quicker and better and more efficiently without having to put a lot of fat or filler in it. Does that make any sense? I dont even think I understand it.
Do both movies deserve a different type of time treatment?
For the notebook, it was a more kind of structurally sound movie than [Alpha Dog.] It was 1940's and present day and 1940s and then present day.... You were always flashing back from them as older adults to when they were in their youth. So, I don't know any other way to do it. There wouldn't be any other way to do it. This one, you jump around with the time line. The movie is kind of sloppy anyway and it wants to be sloppy so it kind of lent itself to that.
What intrigued you about making this project? Its scary to watch. There are no morals at all.
None huh? Well, it's strange. For me, it kind of happened in my backyard. My kids went to school with these kids, not the same grade. They went to the same school and so I was hearing about it from home and especially when the kid was out on the run and then you'd hear, "I saw him at the 7 Eleven man, I saw him over at the school." And it was all a bunch of bull sh*t. This kid, because he had escaped the law and had become somewhat of an urban legend, and all of the kids were yapping about it.
To be even more honest with you, my kids said, "You should make a movie about this. This would be a great movie." And I said, "Yea, Yea, Yea." But, the more I looked into the story, the more I realized that it just brought up elements of my own upbringing. I realized that the period adjustment from youth to adulthood is filled with potholes and bad decisions and I just kind of started examining what was going on in young White America and it wasn't a pretty picture and it was like a train wreck. When you keep looking at it, you can't stop watching it.
Did your kids go to school with them?
No, no. It wasn't like these kids were in my house or anything like that no, no, no. But, they were in her house (he points to a woman in the room.) The kid who Ben Foster played was in her house. To tell you the truth, these were kind of respectful kids from white affluent families that played Little League. Thats part of the reason - if we made this movie about Hispanics or African Americans or some kind of other underprivileged kids, you'd never make a movie about this. It happens everyday so what! It would be no big fanfare. But, since it happened in a privileged area and more than that, reflects kind of what's going on with young disaffected youth today . I think that's the reason why that you would want to see this movie or why the movie has the resonance it does.
How old are your kids?
I have a 21, 19 and 2 year old. You know what they call that? Great Planning .
What happened to the older brother in the movie [Ben Fosters character]?
That's a really good question. Well, what happens is and I learned this making this movie. You have a scene where he says, "I'm going to kill you mother f*cker. No matter what happens I'm killing you" and he sets down the gauntlet. Any scene you have, that he doesn't kill him takes away from his character, so really things did happen, but I had to lose them. But, you want that guy, when you see that guy; you want him to be who he is, because when you see him, youre like "Wow! I got a problem with this guy."
But, if he comes in and he's sorry about his brother dying or he's troubled, you think, "Oh shut up, you said you were going to kill somebody. How come you didn't kill anybody?" And, it's not the actor's fault. It's certainly my fault. You know, I'm almost fifty years old, but I'm still a young filmmaker. I didn't really realize that. I wrote like nineteen different scenes trying to bring him back because he's one of my favorite characters and none of them worked. It's disappointing, but you know if you had that scene where you say you're going to do something you pretty much better do it.
Did you get a chance to talk to him [Ben's character]?
What happened to him in real life was this: This was a f*cked up kid. He didn't show up for his brother's funeral. He was overcome with guilt, I'm sure. Within a few weeks, he got arrested for robbing his Aunt at gunpoint, I believe and said I'm not leaving the house without the money I just can't leave without the money. He got arrested and did a stretch in prison. Now, he's out of jail. He's turned his life around from what I understand. He's got kids. He's sober. He's working. And I believe that everybody in life deserves a second chance and I wish him well.
Did you talk to him for the movie?
I didn't talk to him because when I talked to him, quite frankly he said he would talk to me for a certain amount of money and I said, "I don't have that. I have very little." And he said that's too bad, and I said, Well, we'll work around you. I wish I were rich.
This movie seems to be like a Scarface baby.
Better title. Is it too late?
They have the poster in the house and theyre trying to emulate the lifestyle and Tony Montana. What do you think it is that attracts young people to that film that makes them want to emulate it?
You know we live in a really repressed world and we have to go do our jobs and we have to go do our school, and we can never afford the car that we want and the things we want and life kind of closes us in. you kind of feel boxed in by life. Very few times are we able to spread our wings and be able to like say, God damnit, this is exactly the way I want life to be and youre going to do this and youre going to do that. I think that Scarface emulates and reflects the type of lifestyle of non-compromising, Ill take the risk.
Ill take the consequences of my actions but I dont give a sh*t - Im not going to be a guy that life controls. I think its appealing. I watch it. I still scream at the end when hes got his face in the cocaine and shooting it down. Obviously you dont want that reality come onto to you when its your life but for a movie its awesome. I dont really care if my kids are role models or not role models. Im not one of those typical advocates where everything has to be politically correct. As a matter or fact, I hope its not. Obviously Im taking on this subject matter, which is, if you want to take a bat after watching this movie I think theyre not anti heroes.
I think the area is grey. One school of thought said that these kids had a bad couple of weeks a bad couple of weeks. And they're going to spend the rest of their lives either in jail or face the death penalty or they're lives are completely altered. Another school of thought says there's really only one math of this story and we're minus one kid that's fifteen years old that never will a chance to be what he could be or do the things he could do and these kids are monsters. Where's the truth? It's not somewhere in the middle. I think it's both.
Can you tell us about how you built Ben Foster's character? He has Nazi swastikas and Hebrew tattoos?
He's conflicted. I couldn't make this stuff up. It's true. He had Nazi swastikas on him. And I think as most young people who have the expectations of toughness; they use their tattoos as kind of an armor to show people that they better consider them. His character is, for me, is a pretty easy one. One, he's tortured because his family has been broken apart and there's really no place for him. Like a lot of kids that come from broken homes they don't feel comfortable with the mother or the father and so they rebel and they decide that they're going to go out on their own.
Two, in that lack of having a family, he focuses all of his energies and affections and concentrations on the brother. Even though he's jealous of the brother because the brother is living in a functional type of a family situation, he's just a bad a**. The real guy was a national Tae Kwon Do champion, was in a gang from the time he's thirteen, in and out of the joint grand theft auto at fourteen. He was a real tough guy, and hanging around with these other guys who are a bunch of posers, I'm sure he was angling them and they finally ripped him off. I know I'm going to get sued, I know Im going to get sued (joking).
Can you address the part when Sharon Stone cries during her testimony in the movie and then says, Did I do ok? The chilling part in the film is that all the characters are camera ready, speaking in sound bites. Everyone seems to be so interested in the media.
I have a hard time talking to people about the movie especially about Susan [Sharon Stone's character] who the movie is based upon. I havent lost a child. Its a certain element where you have to work the media if you want your sons captor caught. Part of working the media is putting on the face of the grieving mother. Is it an adaptation? Is it 100% true? Im sure its a 100% true but we all know that with things that are true, we also have to present them in the proper manner to the media so that theyre acceptable.
Susan Markowitz is a woman who had to grieve publicly for five years before her sons captor was caught. Ill tell you what I know. I know that she would never rest until he was caught. That she drove around with giant magnets on her car with a picture of Jesse Hollywood on the side of her big mini-van and Im talking five, a six foot have you seen this person? She would cause a scene anytime she could and get on any TV station that she could. Is that traumatic? Maybe. Was that effective? The kids caught. Was she aware that I was doing a movie about her? Uhuh. She couldnt sell me her rights because she sold her rights to another television producer who wouldnt sell them to me so technically I couldnt talk to her. Did she call me up and talk to me off the record? Uhuh. Could I use the things she said? No. The truth is, when you got a camera in your face, nothing is 100% genuine.
This film has a very young cast which I dont think understands that the movies that theyre in are the records that they make and a piece of the larger puzzle. There is a vacuum in todays society and kids get guidance from films and music.
Does it matter if they understand it? I don't know if you've talked to any of these kids, but these kids are smart. They're not stupid. I think you know it's their culture. The reason why kids gravitate towards this movie, which isn't a movie that's satisfying in any way - it's a hard movie to watch in some respects- but I think they bathe in it because it's their culture, and they understand that it's not them. They understand that they know its somebody that is in that kind of culture or reminds them of their society. I think, like it or not like it, that's where we're at.
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