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The Dog Q&A: the story behind Dog Day Afternoon

Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren talk about the 10-year process of making The Dog, their film about John Wojtowicz, the man who inspired Dog Day Afternoon. The directors explain how they got to know the eccentric Wojtowicz and why the decade-long production helped create a better film.

Transcript

Allison Berg

... so basically all of this happened because of bad math. Frank and I somehow added ten years to that and thought he was getting out of prison in a few months' time or a year's time and we thought that would be a great film. Finding out who this real life person is and as he's getting out of prison... It took about five minutes to find out he had been out since the late 70s, but his last name is very unusual, so it was very easy to find his mother in the phone book. We found her. We called her that night and said we were doing some research and said we wanted to talk to her son, John. About two or three in the morning the phone rang and it was this deep rough voice on the phone. "What's the password?"

We had no idea what the password was, but it was "The Dog" because that's what he had now called himself since prison. He said, "My mother said you guys sounded sexy so I'm calling you back." I guess that's all it took. We were on the phone for hours. We met him a few weeks later at a diner where he grabbed Frank inappropriately. He, I thought went to shake my hand, sucked on my finger and there began eight hours straight of a lot of food and a lot of stories and a lot of photographs and it just never really stopped.

Interviewer

Fantastic. One of the questions I was going to ask you was, working with this absolutely remarkable character, there must have been moments where people in the streets, people reacting to him... You had some reaction shots from your interviews, but what were some of the more challenging moments?

Frank Keraudren

I think challenging... Well perhaps the first day we met him, actually, was a good training session, because it was in a public place and that's where it would get really cringe-worthy. You never knew which guy was going to show up. His personality was very unique and very interesting. I think that's what kept us there in the beginning. To go back to your first question a little bit, Dog Day Afternoon was the bait. We knew it was a good story.

It's just that when we met him, as a person he was just so out of control, but in a very engaging way. At times it was also kind of scary, maybe, in the beginning. You just never knew who he was going to grab or who he was going to start a conversation with that might go on for two hours, or antagonise somebody. He just literally... I think that's one of the defining things about him, is he had no sense of consequences. That makes for a great film. We all like to watch movies where we can fantasise about living our lives without consequences, but on a day-to-day basis it was just very challenging at times. Trying to break people out of the hospital and things like that.

Allison Berg

Yeah. Our first day of filming him... Being with the camera and being with The Dog was actually the sit-down interview that you see throughout most of the film. That was an eight-hour shoot day. We were all coming back the next day to film with him, some of the moments you see of him giving the tour of the village. We had a perfectly traumatised crew member who really came back the second day and was like, "I don't know if I can do this again. He kept trying to make out with me. I don't know."

He was testing you. Because, well, I think he has a very good memory. He wants to see who has a sense of humour, who is going to react a certain way and I think the fact that Frank and I were laughing at a lot of his jokes, rather than being horrified... We just wanted to hear more because, I think we're both... I'm a born and bred New Yorker and Frank's been there for a long time now, so he is one now. Well you were born there too, I guess. Yeah. So for the two of us, we've seen a lot of certain kind of character disappear from New York. For us, this was our opportunity to tell a great New York character story.

Interviewer

A slice of history.

Allison Berg

Yeah.

Interviewer

I'd love to know, was he that sort of on-screen persona at all times? He really is characterised in the film in such a way. He's definitely got this idea of how he's going to present himself and referring to himself as "The Dog". Constantly introducing himself and giving the idea of why he's there and why we're seeing him. Is that something that he'd do to people in the street?

Frank Keraudren

Yeah.

Allison Berg

He always did it.

Frank Keraudren

I think again, it's like a matter of... It's the difference between the initial thing where he would do this and tell you, "I'm The Dog. Dog Day Afternoon. I'm the guy." He loved that. That got him the attention which is what he was really after emotionally. Then we knew that we had to spend some time with him and a lot of time with no cameras and just... He was also different in real life, to some extent, because he's always performing on camera, but I would say he was never off. There was no off button. In a way, him being such a storyteller was indeed who he was. We let him reveal himself on camera even if he's telling grossly exaggerated versions of his own memories or whatever. That was his personality, I would say.

Allison Berg

Yeah. He was always living his own version of his movie in his head. There's a couple of times that I felt he was different than what you see on camera. One is just, we couldn't turn the camera on when he was eating really. He wanted everyone to sit down and eat. Like, "just shut up and eat and don't film."

The other thing was, he changed around his mother on camera, which is why we did film a bit of his mother and him together. That was something we were most excited about because the dynamic between them was amazing. He really elevated that bossiness when the camera was on to really assert that over his mother, which wasn't really the dynamic. It didn't feel true to life, so we didn't, really, use much of it. In fact, all you see is his finger with her. That's the closest you get, but we hope you get the sense of that relationship in other ways.

Interviewer

One of the things I have to say... I really enjoy about the film is those asides with Terry where she's telling it straight and giving her version of the real story. Some of the language is just fantastic. You really get to see where he's come from.

I was wondering, how much of the film did you decide in the research stages, about how much of the direction did you decide on? Did it come from your first interview with The Dog or did you know what kind of people you wanted to interview? How much of that came throughout the process?

Allison Berg

It changed a lot. When we first started we mostly thought we were going to make a vérité film. We weren't really expecting to have this amount of archival. We also didn't know the treasure of archival out there. We thought it would be a bit more of him at home, filming him for a year. Then as he started telling us his story and we got to know it more and once we did start researching the archival, it was like a treasure to us. We had a long list. We had Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino. People that were involved with the film. As we met more and more of the people in his life and heard more of his story, that sort of fell away, because the real life story we were so intrigued by.

In terms of the other people you see in the film, other than his mother, Carmen, George, Randy, and Bob Kappstatter. All of those people we didn't film until he passed away. So he told us about a lot of the people like Dr Lowencoff, but the thing about The Dog is, once you are in his circle you can't get out of it. You have to break away. It was almost like we became a hostage in his life. We were there all the time. We filled in a lot of the gaps afterwards. All  of the archival footage, other than some of the personal things that he gave us over time, we were finding all of that afterwards.

Interviewer

You were making this film for over a decade. How did that process work? Was it a case of access to interviews or making sure that you weren't taking too much time of his time up at one time? Was it simply a case of logistics? Tell us about the journey.

Frank Keraudren

It was definitely not a matter of taking his time. He could have spoken about himself all day long. He was very available. He didn't really have anything going on in his life. I think for us, we started, as Allison said, that first day we got half of the film in a way and it took nine years to get the rest. In part because we didn't have any money and this is ten or twelve years ago. We didn't have any equipment.

So we always thought "Oh, this is a disaster," but as it turned out, not having any money was the best thing that ever could have happened because we never would have lasted that long. We wouldn't have had this arc of his life. I don't think we would have gotten as deep, also, in terms of getting to know him and also getting rid of all of the lies, basically. There were tremendous amounts of the story that didn't seem to add up, but that is how he was telling it.

Allison Berg

Yeah. That first year was the one year we planned to film. If that had worked out, if someone had given us the financing... Terry had never spoken to anybody about what had gone on in her life. That didn't happen the first year we were filming.

He didn't invite us to meet his brother, Tony, in the first year. He didn't give us his personal photographs that first year. A lot of that happened because of the relationship that was built over time. He didn't know he was sick when we first started filming him so we didn't know either. That happened, I guess, around two years in or so. Then it happened quite dramatically. When you're telling someone's life story... It's not that we wanted to focus on the end, but that certainly becomes part of it. We realised, as you see at the beginning of our end credits, there is a very long list of people that passed away while we were filming or right after we filmed.

We felt like we were getting a story that no one could ever tell again in the way we were telling it. It suddenly became really important to us to do it right. The self-financing was horrible. We never expected to not get support for this film because we figured it was associated with such a famous film. But it's weird how things work out. Because of the fact that we did it on our own means we really made the film that we really wanted to make. It became much more than we ever expected.

Interviewer

There's some amazing documentation of the gay right's movement. Did that all come from his collection or were you able to...?

Frank Keraudren

No. What was interesting about that is that we had some footage from Randy Wicker who is the journalist with the video camera. He actually filmed tons of incredible stuff that is all in his apartment somewhere. He had been an activist since the early 60s. Honestly, well beyond anybody I can think of. Suddenly we realised that Randy is an incredible resource and he had been so involved with the case. He was excited we were doing this and wanted to work with us as much as possible. He gave us this footage of the marriage bureau protest. I think it was about five months after he gave it to us that we realised... We suddenly spotted John in there or heard his name and we were like, "Could this be?" We didn't actually know he had been there.

Things like that, when that happens when you're cutting the film it takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly you have a great scene that becomes much more than a document about the gay right's movement as driven by the personal story. Some of the other stuff was, you know, it's out there. I don't know why no one else has dug it up. It's just there. Some of it is NBC network. It's just living in crates in an archive somewhere on 16 millimetre film.

Allison Berg

Yeah. In this instance we couldn't just look up his last name and the date and find everything we needed. The footage of his mother at the bank and being interviewed. We knew that existed. We had seen that in an old Japanese TV show from years ago and we had been searching the entire time for it and couldn't find it. The month before we premiered at Toronto we had hired an archival researcher and said, "We're convinced this is CBS, but that archive has been bought four times over now and they say they don't have it." She had an old associate there and it was on a compilation tape called "Bank robberies." So we found it the month before we finished. It's like one of those things that really needed to take ten years.

Interviewer

Amazing. I want to ask you, how does the process work with both of you directing? Do each of you have a clear role, or is it sort of a case of, "Okay, I have got a job on. You carry on for now"? Talk to us about that.

Allison Berg

In production, this is one film where it really seemed necessary to have two people, because he really did call us every night in the middle of the night wanting to talk. One of us was always going over to Terry and John's apartment. There was a lot of time involved and he was exhausting. On that level there needed to be two of us. I think we both had very, very close relationships with Terry and The Dog, but different relationships. So I think that there were times when I was there with the camera and I got different things and sometimes he did. There was just a good dynamic there. Also, Frank's a kick-ass editor. He's the editor of the film. In post-production he brought a ton of talent to that. So we worked on it, but he's a really good editor.

Frank Keraudren

I would say, I think the way we did it was we knew we wanted to make a film together. We had done some other things together, but this one was really, I mean, simply we both just did everything. Again, going back to the fact when you shrink it down to two people, it's just there's so much to handle that it's not really one person's on and one person's off.

I think with John, also, he liked to play people against each other. That would drive people crazy and he would do that to drive you crazy. We realised in a way that it was like a happy coincidence that we could use this, not really to our advantage, but it was like every now and again he would punish you and be like, "I'm not talking to you for four weeks." Then he'd talk to her or vice versa. With just one person, I think it would have been a dead end really quick.

Interviewer

Yeah.

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