Interview: Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, 'The Dog'

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The Dog posterBy now you have had the chance to see The Dog, one of Drafthouse Films' most intriguing acquisitions this year. If not, you can watch it online via Amazon or Vimeo. Released in theaters last month, the documentary covers the remarkable character John Wojtowicz, aka "The Dog," inspiration for the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon about a man who robbed a bank pay for his male lover's gender reassignment surgery. I saw the movie during SXSW earlier this year.

Stunned after watching the intimate portrait from Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, I made my way to meet them during SXSW, at the end of a hotel hallway across from another room where (ironically) Snoop Dogg was also meeting the press. Here's the transcript of our two-on-one interview.

Slackerwood: John Wojtowicz died in 2006. What work or shooting on the film have you done since then?

Frank Keraudren: The first four years we shot John exclusively, maybe a little bit of his mother. After that, we had this blueprint of the film, which was a long monologue with a lot of empty spots on the screen. We had already looked up other people that we wanted to find. It took a long time to track down people, but after John passed away we interviewed all the other people who appear in the film. He knew we were going to talk to them. He was perfectly fine with it, but I think while he was alive a lot of them had been antagonized by him to the point that they didn't really want to deal with him. So that dictated the sequence of events, and it allowed us to flesh out the film and explore scenes like the prison sequence we couldn't really build without finding George, who was the third wife that he married in prison, and stuff like that.

How did Drafthouse Films pick up the film?

Allison Berg: We premiered at Toronto, and they saw the film at Toronto, and that's basically what happened.

John's children are mentioned, and they'd be in their forties today, but we never see them in the film. Was that at his request?

Berg: We've met his daughter. We've never met his son, but they didn't have this supportive involved father. So, because he wasn't in their life all that much. This film was originally two hours longer than this. At some point, we didn't have to get every single person that was in his life, and because they didn't grow up with him, we felt like there wasn't that much story there. So we made a decision that you know, not to do it.

Did you try to talk to Pacino?

Berg: We meant to, I mean we'd love for him to see it.

Keraudren: Now that it's done, we really want him to see it. Because I think I've heard him speak about Dog Day Afternoon and even now recently say it's sort of like a highlight for him of his career, and so I'm sure he'd get a kick out of this, because he never met John at the time of the movie.

I'd wondered if they ever met.

Keraudren: No. Frank Pierson the screenwriter made several attempts to interview John, and it's hard to tell. I think part of it is because the prison wouldn't let him speak too much to the press, because he was saying a lot of crazy stuff basically and getting too much attention. But I do know they interviewed everybody else, so I think they got Liz and probably John's wife.

His mother in the film seemed a lot like his real mother...

Keraudren: You know, I don't know. That's one of the only characters I'm not convinced totally in the film. Knowing Terry (To Allison) I don't know if you remember the mother and the father...

Berg: Right, there was something about her that I remember John specifically said. I'm blanking on what it is. The person in the film as far as character goes that John DID comment on a lot was the character of his first wife in the film -- of Carmen, his female wife, because he said they just made her seem fat and stupid, and "I always felt she was beautiful," and he means that. As much as he moved on to this other area of his life, he still loved having sex with his wife Carmen. That was real to him, that he was with that woman and found her attractive.

It seemed like he loved having sex with everybody.

Berg: Yes!

Keraudren: Quite.

You said in the Q&A that you had to borrow cameras. Was this the first film you've done?

Berg: No, actually, we world-premiered a film at SXSW ten years ago that we worked on together [Witches in Exile]. It was the first one we worked on together. We had already started The Dog at the time, but we haven't quite got to the point where we make a movie and have tons of money left over from making that movie. So when we started this film, we couldn't pass it up. When he let us into his life we had to go for it, but we were not financially prepared to go for it. So there were a lot of people who were excited about what we were doing, and they lent us their gear.

It took 11 years to complete?

Berg: Just about. The numbers start getting fuzzy after 10 years.

Keraudren: This was a very on-and-off thing. Part of it was because John himself was so difficult. He would disappear for a month or "I'm not talking to you for a couple of months," and it was almost helpful to us, because he was so intense, and so difficult. I don't think we could have spent 10 years on the thing without a breather. And also, he got sick ...

Berg: It went from us seeing him sporadically to seeing him all the time. But when we saw him all the time, it wasn't just about making our movie. I mean, it was being made, but we jumped down that rabbit hole of being with The Dog, being with his mother, dealing with what they were going through, and dealing with what we were going through being around it.

If somebody sat us down 11 years ago and said, "So look, do you wanna make this film where it's gonna take over your life and every job you do for the next 11 years, all the money just goes to making your film?" I don't think anybody would sign up for it if they knew what they were getting themselves into. You sort of need that original idea to hook you, and you just want to do it.

It hooked me. Before it was over, I wanted to meet him.

Berg: Oh, you have no idea how crazy it would have been here. Oh, he would have loved it. We filmed him at a film festival. It was actually the first time he met the screenwriter Frank Pierson, but I think he took over.

The film gives a warm sense of John as a likeable, real person, while making no bones about the seriousness of his actions. How do you personally feel about him?

Berg: In the film we were trying to show him as complicated as he is. I think our feelings are complicated too, because sometimes he drove us crazy. He could be so demanding or he'd lie and say he'd gone off to Long Island. He could do these things that would drive you nuts, but he was hilarious. I have to say, every time we had a planned shoot, he was there. Once he opened up to us it's like, we developed this bond. On the other hand, he was also dying of cancer, and with anybody who's sick, it's like they can become impossible, so we have a lot of mixed feelings when we talk about John, but we were also really close with his mother, and it was like this wild, charismatic twosome that we just, for better or worse, we really wanted to be around and capture.

Did she pass away after him?

Berg: Six months, yes.

Keraudren: She was sort of, kind of living for him, I think. We actually had to think a lot about the bounds between John, the great funny storyteller and then this other side of him that was really dark, and not so much crazy, but he was really kind of like a sociopath in the sense that he could be as cruel as you can imagine people emotionally, I think. We had to leave enough in the film that you could get a sense that he's a great bullshitter, but he's also a little creepy, a little off, and you never know who's going to show up.

Berg: Sometimes the thing that makes somebody amazing on camera can make them impossible in real life. You get to watch it from the safety of your seats. We just always knew from the get-go that he was a one-of-a-kind. You're not going to come across many people who will be that big a character on screen. I don't think someone has to be good in every way to be that. We like that he's flawed, but we really wanted to make sure that even though people are laughing, that you get that darkness.

Did you both meet John and his mother together, or was it separately?

Keraudren: We met John, then soon enough he included his mother. We went to their house, and there was one day he told us "I'm not going to be there, but go to my mother's house and hang out." We really didn't know her then, but we spent 3 or 4 hours talking to her in the kitchen. And, she kept referring to "him" or pointing to the wall or something. We didn't quite understand he was living there at the time, and he was sleeping in the next room. He'd just told us he wasn't going to be there, but he slept all day and he was up all night. We just had this huge meeting with his mother not knowing he was in the next room.

Berg: But for a long time it was the two of us were going there together. I think also there was a good balance, because no matter who you are... I mean, our first shoot he wanted to make out with our PA, he was hitting on our DP, our sound person was traumatized, he kept talking about which one of us he was going to have sex with. It was really good for both of us to deal with him at the same time. But then like halfway through it really didn't matter. We were working while we were doing this, so we couldn't always be there at the same time. It was good to take a break, it's like "Who's going to talk to him for three hours tonight on the phone?" One of us could not have made this film.

As difficult as he was to work with, was John ever threatening or scary?

Keraudren: I would say yes, maybe in the beginning it was more so, I mean he's only scary if you're afraid. So in the beginning, you don't know what you're getting into. Here's this guy with all this prison talk and tough guy stuff, and he had a way of making sure that he controlled the relationship a little bit. Like, for example, he immediately wanted to know where we lived, and then he showed up. Nothing happened, it wasn't bad, it was just more like the first year there was this feeling like "Is this guy like, is something going to happen?"

Then the more we got to know him, as his psychiatrist once said, there's a good list and a bad list of people with him, and if you're on the good list, you're fine. If you're on the bad list, he just doesn't like you, and you won't know how it's going to go, but he was never really violent or anything.

Berg: The thing is he has a very macho tough way of talking and behaving, so a lot of times you might now know how to read it, and we were never really on his bad side. Yeah, he wanted to have all this information, you don't know why, but then it would always turn out to be something actually sweet. My sister was in the hospital, and he wanted to know which hospital, and I'm picturing him going there to break her out of the hospital, but he wanted to send her a card and it was this card with magic markers and all these colors and stamps, so sweet and funny. My sister couldn't stop laughing in her hospital bed.

Things that you think are going to be threatening in some way would always end up not being. We had a lot of instances like that. Like the time he showed up during the blackout at my apartment. Everybody in the neighborhood was like "There's this man looking for you." We're not really sure how he managed to leave the message on my answering machine, like some point the power must have gone on. I don't know, but he left this message "I'm downstairs, let me in, let me up."

Keraudren: Kind of like the big bad wolf.

Berg: Maybe he wanted to have sex, but I think maybe he just wanted to have fun, because we're his friends, we're his buddies. So we never felt scared in his presence.

Keraudren: I'd be in the kitchen with him and his mother, and he's 30 minutes into some prison story, and he grabs a pen, and he's like "Let me show you how you take somebody out by gouging their eye," and he's THIS close. It's not a threat to me, but you never knew if he was just gonna, there's always a little bit of an element of this guy has a short fuse.

Is there anything you'd like to say about John that you couldn't cover in the film?

Keraudren: To me when all is said and done it's just a rollercoaster ride. Characters like John are just classic New York characters. There's fewer and fewer of them. As difficult as it may have been I feel really happy that we had that life experience. The movie is almost a separate thing, just a consequence of the life experience. It's pretty extraordinary. I can't say he was a good person or a bad person, but it's pretty extraordinary knowing him.

Berg: For me, the biggest thing was that I wish we had more of him and his mother together in the film the way that we saw them in real life. It was one of those weird Murphy's law kind of things that every time we filmed them together it wasn't like it was in real life. It wasn't true to what we were seeing, and I feel like the scenes weren't good enough compared to everything else we had to work with.

Like the camera changed the dynamic?

Berg: Yeah. I feel like the camera never changed them when they were alone, but when the camera was on and they were together John would change. Terri wouldn't change, but John would. That's the one thing that I wish we had a fly-on-the-wall camera, because they were hysterical.

Do you have any other projects planned?

Berg: We have a few that we're developing, and we have one that we actually shot after John passed away. We did the other interviews, we started filming other people, but we needed some time away from the footage. Like Frank was saying, the life experience of this was separate and honestly after John and his mom passed away it was dark for us.

So, we were actually filming this bar that's been owned by the same family since 1942 in New York. It's like another great New York story but about all the characters that run the bar and go to the bar for decades, but we still have to edit that one.