Premiering at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, THE DOG is a feature-length documentary about John Wojtowicz, the real-life bank robber behind the film DOG DAY AFTERNOON. In August 1972, John robbed a bank in Brooklyn to pay for the sex-change operation of his lover, Ernie. Things didn’t go as planned, and as John and his collaborator Sal Naturile tried to leave the bank with the loot, they found themselves surrounded by the New York City Police Department, the FBI, and hundreds of spectators. What was supposed to last only a few minutes became a 14-hour standoff, involving 9 hostages and unfolding live on television. The story would later reach an even broader audience through Al Pacino’s unforgettable performance in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1975 film.
Our documentary, THE DOG, is John Wojtowicz’s own account of what happened that day, of his relationship with his lover, Ernest Aron — and so much more. This is John Wojtowicz, an unforgettable, larger-than-life character, telling his life story in his own words. Through John’s personal photographs and letters, as well as incredible archival footage of the actual bank robbery and the day’s aftermath, the film reveals an outrageous, unapologetic, hilarious and perplexing man who chose to live his life by his own rules, for better or for worse.
Reality and fiction, celebrity and infamy, memoir and myth — the lines get blurred as John Wojtowicz entertains us, offends us, and enthralls us by sharing the tales of his unusual life.
We began making THE DOG in 2002. A year earlier, we were watching DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and at the end, the film stated that the bank robber was sentenced to 20 years in prison. We counted wrong, and so, due to bad math, we mistakenly thought that the real-life bank robber, John Wojtowicz, was still in prison and would be released sometime that year.
We immediately thought that it would be interesting to find out what kind of a person he was, and we wanted to hear his story. A lot of great American films were made in the 1970s, but DOG DAY AFTERNOON was one of our favorites — the story of an anti-hero, an outsider, a brazen New York character, brought to life on screen in an unforgettable performance by Al Pacino… We really wanted to meet the real-life person on whom it was based.
We looked up the name “Wojtowicz” and found John’s mother, Terry, in Brooklyn. We told her we were doing some research and would like to speak with John. She was very sweet and told us she’d pass along the message. At about 2:00 am, the phone rang. This is the Dog calling. My mother told me you sounded sexy, so I’m calling you back. It wasn’t the most professional beginning… But it was certainly memorable. We spent the next several hours on the phone with “The Dog.”
John had been out of prison for years and was living in Brooklyn. We met in person soon after, and he recounted endless and bewildering stories about his life and lovers — for about 8 hours straight. John made an impression immediately — he was charismatic in his own way: hilarious, out of control, somewhat scary… And he seemed to speak his mind at all times.
Over the years, we became very close to “The Dog” and his mother Terry. There were many times that we visited them without a camera in hand, or with a camera but choosing not to shoot. The intimacy that comes across in the film was something that grew out of spending many days and evenings together, over a long period of time.
As outspoken as he was, it took some time for John to really open up and go beyond the immediate story of the bank robbery. And as we grew closer to him and his mother, we learned that there was much more to the story than what we were initially aware of. Had the film been made over the course of a year (which was the original plan), it would never have had the scope or the complexity that it ended up having.
As proud as we are of the film, it was also an important life experience for us. We tried to create a film in which audiences would have the opportunity to experience The Dog as we did — someone who would make you laugh, surprise you, offend you and test you, sometimes all in the sale moment.
John also shared an incredible wealth of archival material that he had kept. This gave us the ability to illustrate his story in a much more personal and unique way; the movie ended up being something like an off-the-wall, Forrest Gump-like ride through his life. It was a challenge to track the whole story down and piece it all together. But it was fascinating. And we were also able to film many of the people who figured so prominently in John’s life, including his mother Terry and first wife Carmen, who added whole other layers to the story.
It’s not often that you find a subject matter that can keep you interested and passionate for over a decade. Making this film hasn’t been a very easy task, and it’s certainly been a financial struggle. But we always came back to THE DOG. We wanted to tell this story, and we wanted audiences to see it.
I guess you could say that at some point, we couldn’t stop making this movie. At some point we knew that we had to finish what we started, and that we were the people who would really tell this story fully — in all of its sex-crazed, unapologetic, shocking, hilarious and historically-significant glory. We hope you enjoy it.
Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren meet the implausible real character behind “Dog Day Afternoon.”
TORONTO — A nonfiction companion to one of the most memorable film portraits of New York City in the ’70s, The Dog introduces viewers to John Wojtowicz, the bank-robber-with-a-backstory portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren have clearly spent years on the subject, interviewing the engagingly big-mouthed character when he was healthy and at different points in his fight with cancer (he died in 2006). The result offers both a fascinating expansion of the feature film’s narrative and a picture of a sad but intriguing character; though it will reach most of its audience on video, a limited theatrical release would likely generate buzz.
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The man who became famous for robbing a bank to pay for the sex-change surgery his male “wife” wanted actually had two wives at the time — the other was a woman — and would later add one to the roster without divorcing those two. “I’m sexually oriented,” he explains, saying that while he doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble, his libido knows no rest. But he believes in love — twice here, he describes encounters as “love at first sight,” and he did jail time as a result of extravagant gestures of devotion to two different partners.
After a quick rundown of his military service and first marriage — heterosexual, but given that it was almost annulled on the wedding night, hardly straight-laced — Wojtowicz offers a portrait of the Greenwich Village gay scene circa Stonewall. The Brooklyn boy joined nascent gay rights groups largely, it seems, to pick up men; more serious members of the Gay Activists Alliance are interviewed here to flesh out the scene.
Wojtowicz met the transsexual Ernie Aron in June 1971 and married him that December. They fought over Ernie’s desire to become a biological woman (Wojtowicz says he wanted a partner “with big tits and a little dick”), but after Ernie attempted suicide and was institutionalized, he decided he had to come up with money for the surgery somehow.
Touring the filmmakers around what’s left of his old haunts, Wojtowicz cheerfully explains how he recruited two men at a gay bar and drove around ineptly looking for easy-target banks. There’s less detail about the robbery itself than one might expect (perhaps because Sidney Lumet did that job already); but we do meet Brooklynites who watched from the sidewalk that day. When they take him to the scene of his crime, the filmmakers even stumble across a man who was in the bank that day. He greets Wojtowicz with a hug.
Wojtowicz went back to the scene of the crime plenty, it turns out. After his release from prison (where he met third “wife” George Heath, interviewed here), Wojtowicz became something of a publicity whore, playing up his new connection to the movies and posing in an “I Robbed This Bank” T-shirt. Stories of how things played out with Ernie, now calling herself Liz Debbie Eden, are sad foreshadowing of the kind of exploitative dirty-laundry culture that would soon explode on daytime talk shows.
Interviews with Wojtowicz’s first wife Carmen aren’t as colorful as time spent with his mother Terry, who appears to have been just fine with having her ex-con son live at home and bring street kids home throughout the crack years. Terry (who has also died since filming) offers no real insight into how he became the sometimes delusional tough-talker we meet here, but she’s a character in her own right. Talking heads aside, the movie gets a big boost from the wealth of news footage and post-standoff reportage the filmmakers cull from archives. (John DeFore, hollywoodreporter.com)