January 18, 2007
Release of ‘Alpha Dog ’ reopens Markowitz family wounds
The film, "Alpha Dog," based on the 2000 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old West Hills resident Nick Markowitz, has received mixed reviews but growing notoriety. The fictionalized Universal release has become increasingly tied to the very case it portrays -- the manhunt for Jesse James Hollywood, whom prosecutors allege ordered the hit on Nick Markowitz, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave outside of Santa Barbara.
The film and the controversy surrounding it have reopened wounds for the Markowitz family, who have yet to see alleged ringleader Hollywood stand trial. And now one of the real-life figures who served as a consultant on "Alpha Dog" has had his role used against him in a case that horrified the L.A. Jewish community almost seven years ago.
According to published reports confirmed by Jeff Markowitz, the victim's father, Santa Barbara County D.A. Ron Zonen, in an attempt to "do whatever he could to circle the globe" to catch Hollywood, provided "Alpha Dog" writer-director Nick Cassavetes and co-writer Michael Mehas with access to his notes and other court material. A state appellate court recently removed Zonen from the case after Jesse James Hollywood's attorney, James Blatt, argued that the district attorney had compromised himself.
Markowitz, who runs a family-owned aerospace company in the San Fernando Valley, counters the notion that Zonen did anything wrong.
"It is so offensive to take a wonderful human being and turn what he did into a negative.... Ron Zonen is my son Nicholas' champion," he said.
Adding to the controversy surrounding the film was the presence on the film set of Jack Hollywood, the convicted drug dealer father of Jesse James Hollywood. Of the senior Hollywood, who allegedly supplied marijuana to his son and helped him escape to Brazil, Jeff Markowitz says, "He was the cancer in our neighborhood.... I don't think he's ever taken responsibility."
"Alpha Dog" is an ironic title about Johnny Truelove, based on Jesse James Hollywood, a meekly built young man whose so-called alpha standing is based entirely on nepotism. His "leadership" derives solely from the plentiful drugs and free room and board provided by his father. Assisted by his gang, Truelove ends up kidnapping the younger brother of a man who owes him drug money. The younger brother, Zack, is the character based on Nick Markowitz.
The filmmakers changed the names of the participants and the locale. They moved the home base from the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel Valley and the destination from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs.
The film was first shown in 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, but its release was delayed a year after legal problems following the capture of Jesse James Hollywood, who was extradited in 2005 from Brazil. Defense attorney Blatt tried to block the film's release last year, claiming it would taint the jury pool of Hollywood's upcoming trial.
Jeff Markowitz, who attended the "Alpha Dog" premiere earlier this month, says that the name change was "very frustrating" and that during the movie "all I wanted to do was scream out my son's name." He called the film "poor," "not entertaining" and "depressing," although he thought that the portrayal of his son by Anton Yelchin was fairly accurate. "Nick wasn't as naive or as soft-spoken" as the character in the film, he said, adding that Nick's "mannerism was probably more forceful." But Jeff Markowitz said that Yelchin likely captured Nick's "emotional state."
The film itself only touches briefly on Jewish themes. There is home movie footage at the opening, which shows Zack having a bar mitzvah. (Nick Markowitz did, in fact, have a bar mitzvah.) The older half-brother, Jake, based on Ben Markowitz, is shown with Hebrew letters tattooed on his chest. Finally, Truelove uses the term "kike" on more than one occasion.
Despite the use of the epithet, Jeff Markowitz does not think that there was any ethnic or religious animus motivating Jesse James Hollywood and his gang against their son.
Jeff Markowitz, a one-time practicing Jew, no longer belongs to a synagogue, although he says, "I still believe Judaism is the answer."
His daughter Leah, Nick's half-sister, approached Jeff a few years ago, asking if he wanted his grandchildren raised Jewish. Jeff Markowitz says that at the time he didn't "feel strong enough" to support that decision but he is glad that they are being raised Catholic. "The fact is that the kids are in a good organized religion."
While Jeff Markowitz does not like the film, he says that his wife, Susan, was deeply moved by Yelchin's depiction of their late son. Susan Markowitz has been suicidal at times over the past six and a half years, but her husband says that she is doing better now.
There may never be closure for the Markowitzes even though the defendants have all so far been brought to justice. Jesse James Hollywood, whose trial will reportedly take place later this year, may face the death penalty. The triggerman in the case, Ryan Hoyt, is on death row, and the three other conspirators are all serving either life in prison, although one, a minor at the time of the crime, received a reduced sentence.
None of those convictions may fully change how the Markowitzes feel about their loss. As Jeff Markowitz says, "You feel guilty for not having the same depth of pain" as Nick, "you feel guilty for not going to the cemetery."
"Alpha Dog" is in theaters now.
The Jewish Journal also talked with the Markowitz family in 2003.