“Nobody ever did what I did. Nobody would ever rob a bank to cut off a guy's dick to get him a sex-change operation,” proclaims John Wojtowicz in the opening minutes of Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's documentary The Dog. “That's why they made a movie about it.”
You may have heard about a little film called Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino plays a gay bank robber whose failed holdup results in a hostage situation. The widely acclaimed film, which was released in 1975, was based on Wojtowicz's sensational, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn on August 22, 1972. Wojtowicz was trying to acquire the funds needed for his lover, Liz Eden's, gender confirmation surgery.
Berg and Keraudren's documentary begins with the robbery but doesn't end there. As the title suggests, the film is really about “The Dog” and his unbelievable life.
A loud-mouthed, self-professed pervert, Wojtowicz isn't who you'd expect to see participating in important moments in America's history. But he somehow always managed to be in the midst of all the action. As the filmmakers say, he was like a cruder, hornier version of Forrest Gump.
For example, during the Vietnam War, Wojtowicz survived an attack that killed 90 percent of his unit. He also joined the Gay Activist Alliance shortly after the Stonewall Riots, took part in the 1971 New York City Marriage License Bureau protests, and in the same year, married Eden in a formal wedding ceremony officiated by a priest.
We spoke to the filmmakers about tracking down “The Dog,” his unusual demands, and how Pacino changed Wojtowicz's life.
VICE: What drew you to John's story?
Allison Berg: We're both fans of Dog Day Afternoon but we hadn't seen it in a long time. We were watching it one night and at the end there's a card that says that the real life bank robber got 20 years. Somehow we added wrong and thought that he was getting out of prison in about a year's time.
He was such an amazing character in the film that we wanted to see what the real life guy was like. So, we started researching and within five minutes realized he's been out since the late 70s.
It was very easy to find his mom in the phone book because of the last name, Wojtowicz, and we started searching in Brooklyn. Eventually, we just called her. It was almost like doing a book report. We were like, “Hi, we're doing some research and wanted to talk to your son.” He called back in the middle of the night, this deep gruff voice asking for the password, which we had no idea what it was—it was “The Dog.” We were on the phone with him for hours. That's kind of how the whole thing started.
Frank Keruadren: There were always these things that you had to do. I think that's how he filtered people out. He would say, “Well, you know I need a copy of the book Dog Day Afternoon in French,” or this or that.
You would think, “Oh, we'll tell him we couldn't find it,” but he was really, really serious. He was like, “No, you've got to get these things before we meet.”
Later, we understood that he was always like that. He just made it difficult. I think he wanted to gauge you and see whether you would play by his rules. But when we met him, he was just instantly the guy that's in the film. And it takes you by surprise because he would talk about anything you asked him. There was almost nothing that was off limits.
We spent a whole day with him. That's when we knew that it wasn't just a film about
or a film about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, or any of that. We realized that there's so much before the bank robbery and there's so much after and this guy had really never sat down and told his story.
John outside of the Chase Manhattan bank that started it all. All images courtesy of Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren.
John was kind of a repugnant person, but something about him really draws you in.
Berg: Here's the thing, you might not agree with a lot of the things he says, but he has you laughing the whole time. He also makes a lot of good points. He's strangely charismatic. He had the potential to say the most graphic, disgusting thing you've ever heard, while also managing to make it incredibly entertaining and funny. He really is a character. When we tried to describe him to people, we'd say, “He's kind of like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, but gay.”
He was like a cross between a macho, 1950s Roman Catholic, Italian, Brooklyn boy and then the most open, lecherous sexual-awakening kind of guy. It throws you.
Keraudren: Our sound guy, at the end of day one, said, “I need to go home and take a really long shower and go to bed early.” He was a little traumatized. I think the one thing that made [John] interesting and different was his openness.
He was pushing buttons. He would say these really gross things and go way too far just to push you. But there was something really honest about it.
In the documentary, you catch brief glimpses of the man behind the persona. But do you think he could separate his two identities, or was he really just “The Dog”?
Berg: It's a good question. I think there were always signs of a certain type of unusual personality.
He had to fill out a form when he was getting drafted and there was some question about whether he ever had a homosexual experience and he wrote something like “No, but I'm open to it.” They thought he was trying to dodge the draft.
That's just who he was. I think later in life, while he was in prison and the film [Dog Day Afternoon] came out, this character of “The Dog” just got more and more cemented into who he was because he had gotten this notoriety and because there was [already] a certain degree of something different about him.
Did you ever have any doubts about John's motive for robbing the bank? You include a scene in the film where Liz Eden says she didn't think John actually robbed the bank to fund her surgery.
Keraudren: When you think about it, anybody in life, anything you do, there's rarely just one reason. It's never that simple. Also, sometimes the more people say something, the more they're trying to convince themselves. I think our final analysis was that he was truly that kind of person. Ultimately, he took whatever he got and he gave it to Liz [Eden] for her surgery. But we also saw him in real life trying to get anybody he knew out of the hospital. (Editor's note: Eden was in the hospital at the time of the robbery and Wojtowicz demanded the police get her out of the hospital and bring her to him.)
I mean, we broke [his mother] out of the hospital a couple of times. He just wouldn't tolerate anybody that he loved being in any form of institution. Now, about the robbery, I think there were probably many other reasons. Maybe he needed money, maybe he was desperate, maybe he was losing Liz and it was a way to buy her back. All these things. It's never that simple.
You made this film over the course of more than a decade.
Berg: I always feel like we should be on a therapist's couch when someone says that.
Well, it's a long time to spend on one person. And John passed away over the course of making the film. How did that affect you and the filmmaking?
Berg: We should just clarify also that Frank and I, we worked in film and television. So the whole time we were working on the film, we had other jobs. This was never our full-time gig and the doc was self-financed.
But when he passed away—we were filming him from 2002 to 2006—so 2007, 2008 weren't the greatest years for us. In a way, not having the money to go and edit full-time was good because I don't know if we could've looked at all that footage, because we knew what it was leading to. There's a lot of footage that we filmed in that last year that is not in the film, just because we were trying to make the film about his life and not about his death. So we were trying to be very careful about that balance. But also, when we were filming him, other than filming his mother and his brother, we couldn't film anybody else. It's almost like he has you hostage. We were there all the time.
Keraudren: We didn't know he was going to get sick, we didn't know he was going to pass. Now that it's done, we can step back. It's this epic life story. When we were making it, I think by the time he died, we were pretty sure that we did not have a film. It felt like everything was just falling apart. It took a long time to figure it out afterward to see that we actually had enough to make it work.
John's 1972 mugshot.
Tell us about John's mom, Terry. She was one of the most interesting characters because her relationship with John was so unexpected. She attended his marriage and seemed accepting of his lifestyle at a time when most weren't. But in some of your interviews, she's a bit contradictory.
Keraudren: Terry was amazing. I think, even the little contradictions you mentioned or that you see on screen, I honestly think that it was just because there was a camera. In real life, she was really accepting. Even because of how she grew up, where she came from, it was kind of hard for her to say it out loud, to say, “Yeah, I'm totally fine with it.” She accepted her son, she never gave up on him ever, no matter how crazy he behaved. She was just a powerhouse. John had some sort of charisma but Terry was just ten times more. I think a lot of times that we were really ready to give up because he was so difficult, we stayed for her.
Berg: I don't know if I fully agree that she was that different on camera, but I think that it's almost if you step back and look at the fact that her oldest son was forcibly taken away from the family, the craziness that her son John put her through, I think he was still always there. She's a tough cookie. When she told us about growing up, she was such a tomboy and she was so mischievous, so I think they were cut from the same cloth and so she understood him to some degree.
I think that when we had the camera on her and he wasn't around, she just wanted to let us know that, “I'm not stupid, I know what he's up to.” And I just loved that about her.
We did film them together, but it's the one time when I felt he changed on camera. He'd get really bossy with her to show her who's boss. I felt that wasn't what their relationship was like. We didn't feel like it accurately portrayed what we really saw, which was the most hilarious relationship. They were great together.
The Dog is playing in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until August 21. To learn more about the film (and when it may be playing near you), click here.