An Interview With Michael Mehas, Author, Film Maker, And Lawyer, About Stolen Boy
Author: Simon Barrett
Stolen Boy is a work of fiction, but based on the Jessie James Hollywood case … what author Michael Mehas says may make the difference between Hollywood's life and death.
Stolen Boy is powerful stuff. How did you get interested in it?
One day in April of 2003, while I was tending to my dying dog, Sadie, I got a call from an old buddy, Nick Cassavetes, who said he wanted to make a film about Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest man ever on the FBI's Most Wanted List. Since I lived so close to Santa Barbara, where the crime took place, I had read all these articles about this amazing crime involving all these young kids. Kids accused of committing crimes against kids. It was an unbelievable story. One I wanted to know more about.
For anyone who doesn't know what it's like to work on a Cassavetes film, it's one of those rare opportunities in life that you just don't want to turn down. Making a Cassavetes movie is not so much about fame or fortune as it is about experiencing a piece of life. And that was one piece of life that I just didn't want to miss. So about a week later, after Sadie had moved on, I asked Nick where I could sign up. He set up a meeting with the Santa Barbara District Attorney, and the rest is just sort of history, as they say. The whole thing took on this life of its own — taking all these unbelievably crazy turns before becoming the movie (Alpha Dog), my book, and then the craziness of my legal involvement with the death penalty case.
It certainly is unusual for a 'casual' outside observer to become part of a trial, yet you have been subpoenaed twice to appear in court. What are your thoughts?
Actually, I've been subpoenaed three times in Jesse Hollywood's case. So far, I've testified twice and suffered the misfortune of having the court order me to turn over all the notes and tapes from my interviews. Early on in the process, I twice faced the very real prospect of going to jail for not complying with the subpoenas, which at first I had seriously considered doing.
In the beginning, after Hollywood got captured in Brazil — after one of the greatest global manhunts in history — my life got turned totally upside down. I met with Hollywood's famed trial attorney, James Blatt, several times, and he asked me to testify in the case. He wanted me to help him save his client's life.
While Hollywood had been on the lam, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney, and other law enforcement agencies, had totally demonized him through the media. They had basically tried and convicted him in absentia. As a result, the public sentiment was seriously against Hollywood. People wanted to see him die a violent death for a crime he hadn't even yet appeared in court for. The prosecutor wanted to put him to death. The victim's family sought a ten-eyes-for-two kind of justice. I truly believed Mr. Blatt's client stood very little chance of getting a fair trial. I think, at the time, any jury would have handed down a swift conviction followed by an even swifter justice — that being the death sentence.
I'm a criminal defense attorney by heart and by trade. I'm also a humanist. And I sincerely believe that all living things have this inherent right to life. It's not our job to make the ultimate decision about each other. I'm not a fan of government-sanctioned murder. So I wanted to do whatever I could to help save Mr. Blatt's client.
Besides, I knew Jesse Hollywood's family. Jesse had a little brother that he was very protective of. He had parents who loved their son. They didn't want him to die. And neither did I. But the problem with Mr. Blatt's request was that if I ended up testifying, my testimony could be used as the cornerstone for criminal prosecution against Ron Zonen, the prosecutor on the case — and also his office — for potential illegal misconduct in their dealings with me. I got a lot of information from the prosecutor. A lot of it — he probably shouldn't have given to me. It wasn't until the California Attorney General decided not to prosecute him or his office that I finally agreed to testify. And then when I did, the court ordered me to turn over my notes. If I didn't comply, I'd go to jail. So, ultimately, I complied. I wasn't really that interested in staying at the Gray Bar Hotel. I had a life to live. I had a book to finish. So I turned the notes and tapes over. But I wasn't really happy about the way the situation had materialized at all.
Maybe I have it wrong, but when I compare your writings about the fictional Mickey with those of Jesse James Hollywood I see a divergence. Mickey is the devil incarnate, yet I get a real sense that your feelings for Jesse are something else. Am I right?
The real Jesse James Hollywood is far from the devil incarnate. He's actually a very smart kid. When you think about it, he was very successful at what he did. But Jesse wasn't evil. He was an arrogant hothead, maybe. And he was scared, definitely. He was living in some pretty rough company at the time. But through all this, Jesse James Hollywood—in spite of the reputation his name assumes — is a human being. And at the time he did whatever it was that he really did do, he was just a kid. He was a twenty-year-old kid trying to play the big man's game, and it got away from him. But he, just like his co-defendants, doesn't deserve to die as a result of it. If he does get the death penalty, and if we, as the state of California, agree to put him to death, what does that make us? People who kill to avenge a killing? Is that really what being a member of the human race is all about? Taking justice into our own hands? I know that's not what I'm about. I believe in life, and I try not to put my energies toward creating death. So I will do whatever I can to help someone who's in serious trouble. To help raise the consciousness of anyone who cares. To try to change the world around us by dedicating our collective-consciousness to life-enhancing measures, not death.
Are you still involved with the case? You clearly have formed a bond with Jesse's father.
These are two very different issues. First of all, yes, I am still involved in the case in that I suspect the prosecutor and defense attorney are not finished with my services yet. The new prosecutor on the case has tried to subpoena me. From what I understand, he's a really nice guy. But he wants to get more information from me, and I think that's totally uncool. What could I possibly know or have at this point that he could possibly need? He's trying to kill Jesse Hollywood. And I'm not going to help him do it, even if it does put me at risk of going to jail. It's that simple. That's why I sent my lawyer into court this past June, and the mouthpieces argued about the subpoena. The judge, in his wisdom, told the prosecutor and my attorney that he wouldn't decide the issue of the validity of the subpoena until the case came back down from the California Supreme Court.
The Supremes are set to decide a very important issue in this case. As I understand it, they are dealing with how prosecutors should or should not be able to cozy up to the media while trying high-profile cases. It's similar to the whole debacle with the Duke lacrosse team. The District Attorney on that case basically tried and convicted those poor kids through the media before they ever had a chance to defend themselves. The same thing happened here. The prosecutor wants Jesse James Hollywood on death row. I'm going to do what I can to help make sure that doesn't happen. We have to change things around here. I believe that if we put our energies into life-enhancing measures we will all benefit as a whole. We are all related, you know. We all benefit when the rest of us do well. We need to stop killing our brothers. And it's certainly not the job of our government to do that for us.
As far as Jesse's father, Jack, is concerned. I could totally empathize with the guy. Here's a man who felt terrible about his involvement in raising his son. His son was looking to be put to death, and this guy somehow felt responsible for that. Jack told me a story about the time law enforcement agencies raided his house and served a search warrant on him not long after Jesse disappeared. One of the law officers, a supervisor from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, told Jack that he hoped to be the one to find Jesse, because he wanted to be the one to shoot and kill him. Can you imagine someone telling you that about your kid? Jack was devastated. He didn't want his son to be murdered by a member of the Sheriff's department. At the time, I think all he really wanted was to be able to hold his son in his arms and know that he was going to be all right.
Usually the sequence of events is book first, movie later. In this case you reversed the order. Looking at both works, which is your favorite, and what are your thoughts about this sequence?
I loved the movie. I thought Nick (Cassavetes) did an exceptional job with it. It was raw. Some of the performances were raw. It was a truly unusual blend of pure, hot-looking energy that told a very compelling story, an important story, one that needed to be told. The book tells roughly the same story, but in a completely different way. And I'll tell you why.
Back in October of 2003, Nick had a reading of the project that influenced me tremendously when it came to which version of the story to tell through the book. There was so much to this story. So much information. There were so many people involved. It was difficult to decide exactly which storylines to follow. When we started out on the project, we wanted to tell as truthful a version of the story as we possibly could. That's why Nick hired me. He knew I'd figure out a way to get the information that we needed. So Cassavetes had this reading with many of Hollywood's top young talent. Great young actors and actresses. This was back with the first draft of Nick's screenplay, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey McGuire were set to produce it. Tobey read Hollywood's part while Leo read the part of his chief antagonist, the victim's brother. As the reading progressed deep into the screenplay, you could feel the excitement building. The room filled with tension. And as we neared the climax, you could literally feel the anxiety intensify within the actors. It was like — No way, this isn't going to happen. They're really not going to do this. There's no way these guys are going to hurt this kid. And then, all of a sudden, the room went dead silent. This huge collective gasp escaped. It was like a huge ball had burst. Everybody fell back, totally deflated. They couldn't believe it could happen like that. It was like — There's no way these guys, who had spent all this time partying with this kid, would… And then suddenly they commit the worst act you could possibly imagine. The actors were devastated. And I knew that's how my story had to end.
About the author: Simon Barrett is an adult educator in Calgary, Alberta. With the 11 months a year of winter, he reads a lot of books! He is also a contributing editor for http://www.bloggernews.net and maintains a personal blog at http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com.
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