It’s rare to find a character who is simultaneously repulsive and magnetic. Like “Grey Gardens” and “Grizzly Man,” “The Dog” is grounded by a truly fascinating personality. In the case of John Wojtowicz, a.k.a. The Dog, he isn’t only larger than life; he’s also larger than fiction, in that the real-life Dog is far more outrageous (and the true story is more bizarre) than the character portrayed by Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
In his review when it premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn wrote, “‘The Dog’ derives its main strengths from its happily vulgar subject, the central narrator for the story both in flashbacks and in the later stages of his life as he looks back on his exploits. Sporting a daffy smirk and given to jokey asides, Wojtowicz might be an unreliable narrator when analyzing his behavior, but his aggressive stances accurately reflect the convictions he has regarding the justification of his crime.”
Intercutting archival footage with candid interviews with “The Dog,” his lovers, and family members, Berg and Keraudren’s engrossing film took 10 years to make; during that time, most of the main characters, including Wojtowicz, passed away. Drafthouse Films will release “The Dog” in New York on Friday, August 8th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center. It will be available On Demand and on iTunes on August 15th.
Indiewire recently spoke to the directors about how they managed to capture Wojtowicz’s personality and craft a narrative from a unique and complicated life. When did you first get the idea to make the documentary? And what inspired it?
Allison Berg (AB): We were watching “Dog Day Afternoon” one night and we both hadn’t seen it in years, but we were both big fans. At the end, there’s a card that says, ‘The real-life bank robber is getting out in 20 years.’ This was sometime in 2001 when we were watching it, and when we were doing the simple math we thought he was getting out the following year. We just made it 30 years instead of 20 years in our heads, so we thought, “Oh, we have to get this guy! He’s in prison and getting out of prison, but who is he?”
And of course, within five minutes online, we realized he had been out since 1978, but we were still hooked and we found out more about his story online as well. Because he has such an unusual last name, it was very easy to find his mother, Theresa, in Brooklyn, and so we gave her a call and said we were doing some research and if her son John could call us back, not knowing that they lived together, but we just had no other way to leave him a message. And then he called back in the middle of the night, like 2 or 3 in the morning, that gruff voice asking for the password, which we didn’t know what it was but he was asking for “The Dog.” So we were on the phone with him for hours and then we met up with him weeks later at EJ’s Luncheonette on 6th Avenue. Even though he was really kind of outrageous on the phone, we didn’t know exactly what he would be like in person, so meeting up with him at a family diner in the middle of the day may not have been the smartest choice. But the second we got there, he went for Frank’s crotch and sucked on my finger and had a brown plastic bag full of naked pictures of all his lovers.
Frank Keraudren (FK): He’s this huge, huge personality. In the eight hours, we saw a very wide spectrum. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, this is so much fun, we’re going to have a great time!” It was exhilarating, but he comes at you very strong. There were some surprising things. I remember in the diner, he was like, “Well, I don’t want to sit with my back to the door,” and were were like, “Why?” And he would say these very sexually graphic things that were funny in a way, but after eight hours of it you’re like, “Wait, what is going on here?” There was so much good material and he’s such a complicated character. From the beginning, how did you go about shaping the narrative?
FK: (In) that first interview, he spoke for at least 8 hours and covered half of the story in one day, from when he was born to when he was thrown in prison. This wasn’t just be a vérité film with a few soundbites. This is a guy who’s sitting down for the first time and telling his whole story. As much as he loves to tell it, I don’t know why it hadn’t been recorded.
AB: It was almost like we were finding out certain things in terms of him wanting to be in control. We really wanted to show that in the film. We would never say “cut” or “action.” If he would lose his place, he would do this whole clearing of the mechanism and stop. From the production side, he was really traumatizing our crew. He was trying to make out with the PA, and was perpetually hitting on our DP; our sound guy showed up the next day saying he took the longest shower of his life. The night before that first shoot day, (Wojtowicz) told us he was getting a tooth pulled and wasn’t sure if he could show up or speak, and he just wanted to keep us all on our toes for that first shoot day.
FK: Every time you brought in a crew, you had no idea what would happen, if certain people would walk away or if John would take a liking to any of them or not. Every shoot was very unpredictable.
Were you ever concerned that John would just drop out of the project midway?
AB: There were times when he would disappear for a few weeks, but I was never concerned about him dropping out. Speaking for myself, the times when he would disappear, they were sort of like a much-needed break. He would call us every night wanting to talk for hours in the middle of the night. He wanted us to come over every day. Once you were in, you couldn’t get rid of him unless you did something that pissed him off and made him disappear for three weeks. And even then you were like, “Ugh, finally!”[Laughs] FK: One of the crucial things about this guy’s personality, and he would be the first to say it, is that he was unapologetic. He’d say, It’s my way or the highway.” If you wanted to make a film with him, he was really into it, but it would only be if he was in the mood. We were able to plan somethings, obviously, but then he could call you at 3 am, three hours before the shoot, saying he had a tooth pulled and that he wasn’t coming.
It took you 10 years to make the film. What took you so long? What was the biggest challenge along the way?
AB: We’re like the accidental “Boyhood!” We really did think we would make a film over the course of a year and edit it, Clearly, that is not the film we made. But because we ended up filming him over a much longer period of time, he opened up so much more to us. His mother had never spoken publicly to anyone, and the relationships we formed with them allowed us to get so much more. And yeah, he got sick, he was probably sick the entire time, which none of us knew, so that last year and a half or so took on how important it was that we’re the last ones who were going to be able to tell the story this way.
As you know from the In Memoriam credit, a lot of people passed away over the course of making this film. It was really important to capture it when we were capturing it. After he passed away in 2006, we took a good break, like a year, where we just went through and realized we needed a moment to just collect ourselves again. And then we went and shot a whole other film while we were continuing to film the other people you see in the movie and get all the archival footage. We had a million jobs during that time. Our resumes got really long between 2007-2008.
FK: Because of the time we spent with not just John but also his mother, and without us really realizing, the movie is the story about Theresa and John, a mother and son. She’s in the background, but at the end you realize the importance she had in his life. A lot of what we were living through didn’t make it into the movie. That relationship became central because of all the stuff we lived through with them over all those years.
How much footage did you shoot?
AB: It wasn’t crazy… We probably shot 10%-15% when we were with him. We did not pick up the camera many, many times when we were with him, which is very different than a lot of documentaries we have made or others have made. It really was a separate real-life experience we were going through with John and his mother. When we did pick up the camera, it was more significant to us and we were trying to figure out how to be in their lives when they were going through something intense and how to pick up the camera.
What was the most surprising response you’ve gotten to the film? There are some people who think you glorify him and some who disagree. I certainly feel it was a complex and balanced portrait.
AB: For the most part, it’s been really positive, even more positive than we expected. He is quite likable in the film, people are laughing a lot while watching this film. He’s very charismatic. And they’re also moved at the end. We weren’t trying to glorify him, and we weren’t sure how much we would get that response. It hasn’t been coming up that much, but we do get quite a bit of people who say he’s repulsive.
It’s interesting because you don’t get a lot of people who you can say are simultaneously repulsive and magnetic.
AB: Yeah. And when we had our rough cut screening that Frank mentioned earlier, we thought there’s only so much people are going to take of the Dog. The comments we got were that any time we’re away from him for a minute and a half, we have to go back to him and see him on screen again.
FK: You kind of have to remember that when you’re making a documentary that you’re essentially there to document, not make an editorial piece where your hammering your perspective in voiceover. So it’s not a cop out to just let him be who he wants to be. There’s space in this film [for people] to make up their own minds. This is not a film for little children. You see this guy and he reveals himself on camera, and we’re not making it a mystery, but we achieved a careful balance as best we could of showing who this guy is. Some of the ways we show it, like the tiny detail of him saying “action”and “cut,” some people take that literally and think he controlled the movie, but he didn’t control the movie, we cut the movie, it’s just a way of letting people see this guy as a control freak. There are lines we left in the movie we left in because he was a bullshitter and a big talker, we couldn’t just edit that all out and make him look like an actor who was just telling the truth. We had to leave things in there that give you a sense of him without fully manipulating him.
AB: People have asked us if there was a moral we wanted this story to tell, and I think that’s been interesting. We tried to make a film about this incredible character and his unique story, and those kind of stories deserved to be told as well as those with a clear-cut message. That is not this film. He is a complicated character and wanted that to all be in the film.