Justin Timberlake's ''Alpha Dog'' delayed by court battle -- Evidence leaked to producers may nix the true-crime story

By Adam B. Vary
Updated September 01, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

When Nick Cassavetes (the director who ushered Rachel McAdams into stardom with The Notebook) debuted his latest film, Alpha Dog, at Sundance in January, it caught some serious buzz. Starring Justin Timberlake and Sharon Stone, Dog retells the true story of the fittingly named Jesse James Hollywood, a suspected drug dealer (played by Emile Hirsch) who fled the country after eluding arrest for an alleged kidnap-murder in 2000. It’s gritty stuff, and Dog‘s original studio, New Line, planned a limited, indie-style release — despite the movie’s high-profile stars. Cassavetes, however, believed his film deserved a much wider spotlight.

Well, Cassavetes is likely to get his wish. Universal, which picked up Dog after the director and New Line parted ways, plans to release the movie nationwide on Jan. 12. But he also got something no filmmaker ever plans on: ginormous legal hurdles that could impact the entire ”ripped from the headlines” genre.

In a California court, Hollywood’s lawyers are arguing that Santa Barbara County senior deputy DA Ron Zonen shared too much evidence with filmmakers. Hoping that a feature film would be a great ”Wanted” poster, the prosecutor gave the Cassavetes team reams of documents, including witness names and addresses. ”Of course I shouldn’t have had access to this stuff,” admits Dog associate producer and researcher Michael Mehas, ”but we needed it to put together a truthful story.” (Cassavetes has no comment.) Ironically, Hollywood was captured in Brazil just as Dog neared the end of filming, but his lawyer still wants Zonen booted off the case. Declares the DA: ”Even if I had spent more time thinking about this, I still would have done it.”

A ruling is expected in the next few weeks, and that’s when the trouble could really start for film and TV producers. Even though Dog followed the lead of most true-crime dramas by altering names and locations — Johnny Truelove for Hollywood, Palm Springs for Santa Barbara — a decision in favor of the defense could establish a precedent limiting any filmmaker’s access to details behind the crime blotter. ”It’d be more difficult preparing movies such as this,” says Laurie Levenson, a criminal-law professor at L.A.’s Loyola Law School. ”Prosecutors will be too gun-shy [to talk].”

And what of Dog‘s wide release? After seeing the film’s indictment of his client — who, if convicted on murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy charges, could get the death penalty — Hollywood’s lawyer may also attempt to block its release. Universal is undeterred. ”[Dog] is relevant to our culture,” says Universal marketing head Adam Fogelson. ”It touches on issues that are compelling, sexy, and dangerous.” And probably much more compelling than all this legalese.

Alpha Dog

  • Movie
  • R
  • 117 minutes
  • Nick Cassavetes