Before OJ Simpson, waving a gun in the backseat of a white SUV racing up the 405 freeway, drew audience attention and trailblazed a new front on the 24-hour news cycle, one Brooklynite captivated onlookers and TV networks with a bizarre bank robbery. Even more sensational was the reason why he went over the edge to get the money.
The son of Polish immigrants, John Wojtowicz was a Vietnam vet who married after returning from war and had two children. From there, the story gets a bit more salacious. He met Ernest Aron (later known as Elizabeth Debbie Eden) and had a wedding ceremony in 1971 in Greenwich Village. The non-legally sanctioned nuptials began a tumultuous relationship that became a media sensation courtesy of the outlandishly botched bank robbery that only gained more notoriety courtesy of Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet, who, in 1975, turned the incident into the big-screen success Dog Day Afternoon.
In August 1972, Wojtowicz, along with two friends, attempted to hold up the the Chase Manhattan Bank on East Third Street and Avenue P in Gravesend. Crowds and eventually television news crews headed to the Brooklyn neighborhood to witness the standoff with police. Word spread about Wojtowicz's intentions—he needed cash to pay for his lover's sex-change operation. Wojtowicz had been a bank teller and used that background to help in planning the heist, but he also found inspiration from The Godfather, which he watched prior to the robbery attempt. One of his accomplices ran away and another was killed by FBI agents in the final moments of the incident for which both his mother and lover showed up on the scene.
Later sentenced to 20 years in prison, John "The Dog" Wojtowicz served six years. He made $7,500 selling the movie rights to the story plus 1 percent of the profits, which paid for Aron's sex-change surgery. "I beat the fucking system!" Wojtowicz boasted.
The Dog, which had its U.S. premiere at last year's New York Film Festival, opens this weekend at the Film Society. Directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, The Dog goes beyond the '70s and discovers John Wojtowicz as the unapologetic, steadfastly honest, promiscuous, self-centered, and unfiltered, brother, son, father, ex-con, and activist who became a firestorm of controversy and, for some, an endearing antihero. The Dog looks at the fallout after Wojtowicz's robbery and discovers a man whose zest for life still bordered on the bizarre for the rest of his life—and he was quite fine with that…
FilmLinc Daily spoke with Berg and Keraudren before the film's NYFF debut last fall about their decade-plus relationship with Wojtowicz, which began with a late-night phone call.
FilmLinc Daily: How did you first come across John aka "The Dog"?
Allison Berg: We were watching Dog Day Afternoon one day and we loved the film. For some reason we thought he was getting out of prison in a year. There was this curiosity and we thought there would be a real-life [re-emergence] happening. But we were wrong. He had already gotten out in 1978. We Googled it—it didn't take long for us to figure out. But we read articles about his post-prison life and we thought that it all still [seemed] interesting.
We then actually looked up his mother in the phone book. She's a very sweet lady and still lives in [the same neighborhood]. We called her up and said we were doing some research and wanted to speak to John and she said she'd pass on the message. And at about 2:00am that next morning we got a phone call. There was this really gruff voice and he said, "My mother said you sounded sexy, so I'm calling. Do you have the password?" And we didn't know what "the password" was. I think we were on the phone for a couple of hours, we kept passing the phone back and forth and trying to stay awake. Already he was a larger-than-life personality, so we set up a meeting. That was around 2002.
Frank Keraudren: The day we met him physically, I think, was the real starting point. The phone calls were intriguing and maybe a little creepy. The meeting at a diner in the West Village was surreal. This guy from the first minute had no boundaries or filters. He treated us like he'd known us for 20 years. He brought all kinds of photos and letters and we went to three different restaurants…
AB: By the time we got to the [NYC's Chelsea neighborhood restaurant] The Half King, he was reenacting things and the waitress kept looking over…
FL: So at this point were you still in the "intrigued" stage or were you set to take on a feature-length documentary?
AB: That was the hope, but it was much more an idea to make a vérité film about him, but we didn't know about the treasure trove of material he had. So I think we had a little bit of a different idea about the kind of film we were going to make… There were stories that he'd repeat to us, but then we started learning more. He started opening up more and we learned about his brother and that he had health issues. All of this started getting deeper and it took a turn from a superficial entertaining story to something much more about his whole life.
FL: He certainly set the tone at the very beginning of the movie when he says flat out: "I'm a pervert…"
AB: He shook my hand when we met and then sucked my finger. And then he turned and groped [Frank], so yeah…
FK: The abrupt feeling in the beginning of the film was edited in a way that's choppy and loud. And that's kind of how it all felt when we met him.
AB: Yeah, we were trying to do something that allowed the audience to feel the way we felt. You're sort of taken aback, but you're sort of laughing at the same time. You want to go on the ride.
FL: You were both with him for quite a long period of time, but were you nevertheless taken aback by his crazy, brash, in-your-face behavior?
FK: I think many people just wouldn't go there. I think many would just turn around and run. But with him, it was always the mixture of things. The same way his personality is layered, he draws you in and is engaging. At the same time, you also want to take two steps back. So it was a long, slow thing. I think if we had not been from New York, there would have been no way we would have made this film. We would have given up and gone home, but we couldn't get rid of him.
FL: You were committed to the project in addition to not being able to get rid of him. So I suppose the film took on a life of its own...
AB: One film that came up for us was Crumb . We had a certain idea, but we were exploring it. We didn't know he lived with his mother until we got there. We didn't know there was a strange dynamic going on in that house.
FL: So there was one unexpected turn...
AB: I think it was more that he'd reveal something, and then we'd be like, "Okay, we didn't know this." A lot of that also came with his brother. But then we also didn't know that his mother would be so much the soul of the film, in a sense. We immediately liked Terry, but we didn't know she'd be so open and such a great storyteller on camera. In person she was, but it turned out she was such a [compelling] figure in her own right.
FL: Yeah, and she obviously loves her son and seems to overlook his flaws. I'd imagine she's disappointed in some respects, though. Did he ever give a sense he regretted that? He was very close with her…
FK: I think that's one of the things. John was one of the most uncompromising persons I've ever met in my life. You can't even imagine it until you've experienced it. It could be something as simple as picking up a half-pound of turkey at the deli and it would cause such a problem. It was funny, but then you realized it's how his entire life played out. He antagonized everyone. In the beginning we thought maybe we could meet some of his friends, but John is a complete loner and he didn't care.
AB: Yeah, John was a complete loner. But he's actually religious. The only people in this world that he said he wouldn't hurt are the pope and his mother. He loved his mother, but I don't think he cared about what she thought of his life and his choices.
FK: I'm not a doctor or psychologist, but it's quite obvious there's a degree of mental illness. But it's very borderline because he's quite aware of everything going on around him. That was never an excuse for anything he did, but he had his own beliefs and there was nothing that could change that. In real life that has dire consequences, but in the film it's exhilarating to watch. In a gangster movie, for instance, there's a thrill watching it, but almost nobody wants to do that in real life. So when you see a guy like John who has no boundaries and you can identify with that, it's like riding the mechanical bull. You don't want to go and do that, but it's intriguing.
FL: Was he into the idea of having cameras follow him from the outset?
AB: I think he never pursued it exactly. He was into getting attention on a day-to-day basis. He'd always have his newspaper clippings [from his bank robbery] and walk around and show them to people. He loved the attention, but it's more like being able to get into a club in the '80s or have everyone listening to him while he's getting his haircut. He loved the idea of telling his story again, but I don't think he was as concerned about how he was perceived.
FK: He didn't crave being the center of attention. He just sort of enjoyed it. Once we started asking him his story, we couldn't shut him up…
AB: We're not the first people to approach him, but to get him to go as far as he did took him more time. I don't think he craved more fame exactly, he just loved what he already had and using it to his advantage.
FL: Of course the bank robbery is at the center of his story and it was interesting because that incident was one of the earliest manifestations of the 24-hour news cycle that's just a given today. When he held up that bank, the news went live on the scene, playing it out like a whacked-out Bonnie and Clyde-style drama, but in Brooklyn. And Clyde getting Bonnie money for a sex-change operation…
AB: A few years ago, we were thinking it was like OJ Simpson going down the freeway. I mean, it wasn't as live as that, but there were portable cameras capturing the whole thing as it was going on. Police changed their crowd control because nobody knew what to do because nothing like this had happened. He was at the center and watching it all go down.
FK: His whole trajectory has to do with the media. If it hadn't been on TV and if there hadn't been a film, he would have been forgotten many, many years ago. I don't know if that makes it important, but it was a blip on the radar.
FL: It's insane how he said he'd go into the bank carrying a gun but he carried it inside a big Wrigley's Spearmint Gum canister and then would just tell people he's carrying around "his pop art." His whole persona is like a moment of pop art, completely claiming his 15 minutes of fame.
FK: He lived in his own world. He lived in his own movie. I guess we all do in a sense, but in John's case he'd expand it to such a degree… I mean, when he talked he'd quote Gone with the Wind or other movies. He'd constantly attach himself to famous people in conversation.
AB: Yeah, we'd call this the fucked-up Forrest Gump. He'd mention something crazy, but then he'd pull out the pictures to prove it.
FL: I would imagine the gay community has had quite a mixed reaction to him.
FK: It's easy to lose yourself in the story. What he did was based completely on flawed logic that's indefensible. I mean, I don't know anybody that would agree with the concept of taking people hostage for two days for any valid reason. It's extremism. To this day, I don't know how much of it was really planned. John would tell a story of heroism, but he's not a hero. He was a guy in his twenties that got caught up in this crazy situation based on his crazy beliefs.
AB: And this is an individual story. He's not supposed to represent a group of people. For some people, the fact that he was so open about how he chose to live his life and the fact he was so romantic and wanted to be with the person he loved whether that was a man or a woman, you think back and say, "Wow, there are very few people in 1972 doing that, much less doing so on camera." So whether you agree with his choices or not—and I think most people would disagree—many would still respect that he lived his life so openly… It might not necessarily be a "good for you" kind of film, but he's a fascinating character.
[FilmLinc's original interview with Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren was originally published before The Dog's premiere at the 51st NYFF. This updated version is timed to this weekend's theatrical opening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center]