John Wojtowicz was turned into something of an iconic figure when Al Pacino played him in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” In that film, Wojtowicz took a bank hostage in the hopes of raising money for his transsexual lover’s sex change operation, hardly exaggerated the actual 1972 event, but only captured one piece of a much larger story. That’s why its so great we have “The Dog,” Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s documentary about Wojtowicz in the years leading up to his death from cancer in 2006. /bent talked to the duo behind the film over e-mail ahead of the film’s release this weekend…
Do you remember when you first heard of John Wojtowicz?
In a way, we knew John’s story before we met
him, through “Dog Day Afternoon.” Or more
accurately: a part of his story. But of course, that was just hearing about it
through a fictional character. Once we
had the idea for the film, we did some research on who the real people that
were portrayed in Sidney Lumet’s film
were. We didn’t know whether John
Wojtowicz or Liz Eden were even alive, and as it turned out, we knew very
little about the real story and the many other people it involved.
What inspired you to decide to make a film about him?
The idea for our film initially came from
watching Dog Day Afternoon, a film that we were both fans of already. Since it was based on real events, we started
to wonder what had become of the real bank robber. We thought he was still in prison but
wondered what kind of person he was, or how he would reflect on the events now.
When we found John and first met with him,
things immediately went to the next level.
He was loud, charismatic, hysterically funny, alarming, an extremely
sexual person… there were a lot of things going on at once, so he became more
fascinating to us than the story itself.
He also described things such as how he had
married his lover Ernest Aron/Liz Eden in a ceremony held in Greenwhich
Village, in 1971, prior to the robbery.
And many, many other things that were just extraordinary.
We realized that there was so much more to this
than the story of an unusual bank robbery – there were a ton of things before
and after that event, which had never been covered, such as John’s
participation in the early Gay Rights movement and Liz Eden’s journey to
getting gender reassignment surgery.
When you approached him to participate in 2002, was there any hesitation? How
did you sell the project to him?
There was no hesitation – if anything, John
came into our lives like a tornado and we stayed in this (highly interesting)
tornado for a few years. The Dog (which
the name John went by) loved telling his story.
He loved that we were there to listen and that we were interested in
him. But in order to get beyond his
standard “I’m the guy from ‘Dog Day Afternoon’” monologue, you had to get to know
him a lot better, and that took some time.
A year or two. So the fact that
our project took a very long time to complete actually made it possible to go
much deeper into the Dog’s world, his personality, his relationships and
beliefs. We could have made a film in a
month, but it would have been a very different film.
From our end, there were probably some
hesitation or rather, some times when we came to a halt. But the Dog and his mother were so
interesting that we kept going. We also
didn’t live that far from each other, so it never really went away.
The making of this film was essentially a 10 year journey. Can you talk a bit
about that process?
We self-financed “The Dog,” so because we never
really had any money, it went very slowly.
We both worked full-time in film and television during the 10 years or
so that it took to make the film.
We would have loved to do it in a year. That’s what we thought we were getting
into. Nobody would ever start something
like this if they actually knew what they were in for. But that’s not to say it wasn’t an incredible
The biggest pay-off in a way, was that we ended
up with a much broader arc to the story, and it gave the film a lot of
perspective. It was also really hard to
find all the archival footage and images that we needed. So in that sense, not having money bought us
Showing this film in festivals over the past year or so.. What was an
experience or moment that really stands out for you?
We had a fantastic festival run with “The Dog” –
Toronto, the New York Film Festival, Berlin, SXSW, San Francisco and the list
goes on. So for any independent
filmmaker, that’s something to enjoy because it doesn’t happen all the time.
Toronto was our premiere and it was truly a
great feeling. Getting into the New
York Festival blew our minds and for this film, it really felt like home. Showing the film at the International in East
Berlin was a definite highlight. There
were many others… One particular night, we screened the film at the Boston LGBT
festival and we only had a small audience.
It turned out that Cher was playing that night, which might have been
hard to compete with. But we ended up
having one of the best Q&A’s and had dinner with about 15 people from the
audience and the festival afterwards, and it was really a fantastic moment.
As “The Dog” heads into theaters, what do you hope people take from
“The Dog” is a film with a lot of layers, so we
think there’s a lot of things people can take away from it.
We wanted to put this very personal, unique
story in it’s broader social and historical context, so that it could be looked
at with a few decades of perspective.
It’s a story about complex and flawed
characters, but whom we feel are very authentic and should be remembered. The idea is that nothing is simply black or
white, good or bad… None of us are.
After this experience with “The Dog,” what advice might you have for
filmmakers about to take on their own project?
We could write a lot about that because there
are a lot of different ways to tackle the question.
But first and foremost, to take on a project that
you personally really believe in, or most importantly that you are going to
actually enjoy while you are doing it.
Because making films takes forever and it will always be difficult and
challenging. If you can find something
that truly captivates you, you will find a way to keep going.
A good story, great characters
and great footage doesn’t hurt either.
“The Dog” opens in theaters in LA and New York this weekend, and expands soon after.