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The True Story Behind the Movie Alpha Dog

By Michelle Strozykowski

  • Why a real-life murder was brought to the screen in 2006

Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes (son of John), Alpha Dog was a movie made back in 2006. It starred a host of big name stars, amongst them Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Sharon Stone, and a scene stealing Justin Timberlake (in an early feature film role). The story concerns the fake plastic world of pampered young Californian drug dealers and junkies, playing at being gangsters like they're in a junior version of Goodfellas. Just like Scorsese's epic, Alpha Dog pulls us into a world where beyond the façade real people exist, even though they might not all be easy to identify with.

Alpha Dog was based on real events, and although aspects of the story (such as names) were changed for the screen, the research behind the script was on point. This enabled Cassavetes to inject a harrowing realism into the picture. The real life District Attorney for Santa Barbara Ronald J Zonen acted as a consultant during the filming, and gave access to all his documents on the real life case. This gave the film-makers an insight into how and why such a truly shocking murder took place in the Californian hills.

The story of Alpha Dog is a sordid affair, centred around drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch). As the son of big time gangster Sonny Truelove (Bruce Wilis), Johnny likes to think of himself as the alpha dog, the main man as it were, within his circle of drug taking/pushing cronies. In a misguided effort to prove himself capable within the criminal underworld, Johnny attempts to collect money he's owed from thuggish customer Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster). This leads to a personal war starting between the two of them. Truelove's next move is an opportune abduction of Jake's younger brother Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), ostensibly to use as leverage. Truelove decides to stash Zack at the palatial Palm Springs home of his friend Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake).

Frankie and Zack quickly form a bond, and Zack begins to revel in his new position just hanging out and partying with the rich kids. He isn't treated like a prisoner/kidnap victim, far from it, more like a new pal to have fun with. Meanwhile, Johnny discovers he could get a life sentence for kidnapping, and bizarrely jumps straight to the most preposterous of plans. He decides to do away with the boy everyone is searching for. In his fucked up mind murder being a better option than the risk of being caught for kidnapping. Johnny turns to Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), a much abused lackey of his, to carry out this horrific crime for him (no need to get his own hands dirty!) in return for writing off his (Schmidt's) own debts to Johnny.

The character of Johnny Truelove is based on the real criminal low-life Jesse James Hollywood, who at the time of shooting the film had not yet been apprehended. This was one of the main reasons Cassavetes wanted to make the film, to draw attention to the crime and the missing perpetrator. It's also the reason the names were fictionalised. There was still a real life manhunt going on.

The murderer Elvis Schmidt was based on Ryan Hoyt, who is currently on death row, San Quentin. Frankie Ballenbacher in real life was Jesse Rugge, who was sentenced to life, but granted parole and released in 2013 after serving 11 years . The victim Zack Mazursky was based on the tragic Nicholas Markowitz, and his older brother (actually a half-brother) Jake was in real life Benjamin Markowitz.

Jesse James Hollywood was featured on America's Most Wanted in 2004, and was finally arrested by Interpol agents in March 2005 in Brazil, where he'd been hiding out for 5 years. He was sentenced to life in 2009 for kidnapping and first degree murder.

The film Alpha Dog put in a lot of hard work to present the truth of what happened to Nick Markowitz in 2000. It showed how the lifestyle choices of the protagonists played a factor in the casual disregard for human life, and how what started as little more than a prank rapidly escalated in a most distressing manner. The facts still stand. An innocent 15 year old boy lost his life because the obscenely rich drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood wanted to collect on a debt and become the neighbourhood alpha dog. And he's still trying now. He fathered a child whilst on the run in Brazil, wrongly thinking he couldn't be extradited if he was the father of a native Brazilian.

Whilst in jail, post release of Cassavetes' film, he also actually had the audacity to begin signing his mail as Alpha Dog. A more fitting name would be the one Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Joshua Lynn ascribed to him during the court case in May 2009: "a ruthless coward." Apparently, Hollywood's arrogance and his murderous past still weren't enough to put some people off though. In 2014 Hollywood got married, whilst in jail, to a woman that had begun writing to him after his sentencing. (An example of a weird phenomenon known as hybristophilia.)

Hollywood remains incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California, where he is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.