Stranger Than Fiction

08.10.14

Making 'The Dog': The Amazing True Story Behind ‘Dog Day Afternoon’

Twelve years in the making, ‘The Dog’ paints a portrait of John Wojtowicz, the bank robber who served as the inspiration behind Al Pacino’s character in ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’

“Oh.  You don’t realize it yet”.

“Realize what?"

It was the fall of 2012, and Hurricane Sandy had just devastated the Tri-State area. As we sat in the aftermath of the disaster, what hadn’t been fully grasped yet was that the very existence of our film, The Dog, might have been compromised by the events. As the hurricane approached, we frantically tried to protect the editing equipment in our office (which sits right on the water in Dumbo next to a power plant) by wrapping it up like a birthday present with half a dozen shower curtains, in case the windows blew out. Better than nothing. But what we hadn’t anticipated was that the flooding on the west side of Manhattan would reach 10th avenue, where our storage unit was located, on the bottom floor. Most of the material from our film, including master tapes, was now sitting in a dark flooded basement.  

A few days later, as we walked through the damp corridors of the facility, amongst members of the clean up crew in their hazmat suits, we thought it was all over. We found that the Sentry safe which contained our footage had indeed been under water. But then, against all odds, it turned out that somehow, it had held its own and remained waterproof. We took it as a sign—a sign that we had to finish this crazy film once and for all, a film that we had begun shooting 10 years earlier.

Unlike Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, making a film over the course of 12 years was not our plan. The original idea was simple enough: back in 2001, watching one of our favorite films, Dog Day Afternoon one night, something clicked when we saw a card at the end of the film stating that the real bank robber got sentenced to 20 years in prison. Quickly miscalculating (somehow 20 years became 30 and we thought he was being released from prison in 2002), we got very excited with the idea of tracking down the real-life bank robber and getting to know him as he was being released from prison and coming back out into the real world. It took about five minutes of research online to find out that he had been out of prison since the late ‘70s but it didn’t matter, we were hooked on the story.

To backtrack for those who aren’t familiar with this unbelievable true-life tale: Dog Day Afternoon is a film from 1975 directed by Sidney Lumet, with an Academy-Award winning screenplay by Frank Pierson and starring Al Pacino. It’s about a man who robs a bank in Brooklyn, New York, with two accomplices. But everything goes wrong right from the start with one accomplice running out the door, unable to go through with it. The remaining two crooks find themselves trapped in the bank, surrounded by the police.

What had started as a simple heist had now become a hostage crisis and for the next 14 hours. The scene became the main attraction of the day as the two bank robbers, 8 hostages, hundreds of police and FBI, a Brooklyn crowd numbering in the thousands and television news crews all became part of the show. Things took another turn as the lead bank robber, John Wojtowicz, demanded that his wife be brought to the bank—he said he was robbing the bank to pay for her sex change operation and that he was gay. What seemed like an unbelievable situation just got even more unusual—and this all took place in 1972.

So back to the present day, or rather, 13 years ago. It’s 2001 and we have this idea and because of the unusual last name “Wojtowicz,” it wasn’t hard for us to find John’s mother in the phone book. We gave her a call and said that we were looking for her son John for some research we were doing. She was very sweet and said she’d pass along the message.

“Ground Control…Ground Control…This is Major Tom calling. This is Major Tom Calling…with great news: The Eagle has landed. The Eagle has landed.”

About 2 a.m. that night, the phone rang. A gruff voice asked “what’s the password?” We had no idea (turns out it was “The Dog”). Then he said “my mother said you sounded sexy so I’m calling you back.” We ended up on the phone with him for hours, he did most of the talking. We met up with The Dog a few weeks later and he immediately started groping us and making inappropriate comments—this was partially his way of testing people and partially just the lecherous perv he could be. Over the course of eight hours, three meals and lots of wide-eyed stares from other diners who had no choice but to eavesdrop on our loud-talking companion, we knew that we had our next film subject: the outrageous, unfiltered, hilarious, foul-mouthed, in your face John Wojtowicz, aka The Dog.

The original idea was to film The Dog for one year—this was going to be a verite film of one of the most interesting New York characters we had ever met. But there were a lot of unexpected turns. We got to know Terry, John’s mother and she had never spoken to anyone about her experiences with John and what happened at the bank. John then introduced us to his brother Tony, and then we found out that John had kept an incredible archive of his life. Suddenly, instead of making the verite film we originally had in mind, we knew that this was going to be a character study. The life story of this man would be largely built on our interviews with him, his mother, and the material we were now collecting.

A lot of the way things turned out had to do with the fact that the film was self-financed, and that we both worked full-time while making it. This made it difficult to move forward quickly, and it even seemed like an impossible task at times. But not having any money might have been the best thing that could have happened.  During the years that we knew The Dog, we became very close with him and his mother. More so than we could have ever been if we’d only known each other for a year or two.

We ended up spending hundreds of days and evenings with them without a camera; 3:00 a.m. phone calls and messages from the Dog became a routine event; the plots and sub-plots of his life story, as he was revealing it, became more and more detailed and intriguing.  Having The Dog in our lives often felt like riding a mechanical bull and emotionally, took us from the most exhilarating moments to the truly creepy “how did we get into this situation” kind of thing. There were many sides to the Dog, and you never really knew what was going to happen.

Taking so much time also allowed us to find archival images that no one had ever seen, and that we could have never located otherwise. The footage of John’s mother Terry, at the scene of the bank robbery, was literally located about a month before we reached our final cut. Randy Wicker, an early activist for gay rights and a filmmaker himself, who had been very involved in The Dog’s legal case after the robbery, unearthed some reels of old video he had shot at the time. In one instance, he had filmed an interview with Liz Eden—it took a few years to find a facility that was able to resurrect the footage.

We have hours (dozens of hours…) of messages that The Dog left on our answering machines. Some of them truly have to be heard to be believed.  One of them begins with the words “Ground Control…Ground Control…This is Major Tom calling. This is Major Tom Calling…with great news:  The Eagle has landed.  The Eagle has landed.”

Although the eagle, in this case, will have to remain a mysterious symbol, sitting here today, the film in theaters, it sometimes feels like perhaps The Dog has landed. It’s not an ending, because the life experience we went through was far more than making a film and will never leave us. But perhaps it’s a landing.