If you’re grappling with writing a fact-based film, a good exercise is to pick a classic film that works and return to the source material to see how the writer developed the story for the screen. For our second analysis, we take a look at crime drama Dog Day Afternoon, which was inspired by the real life bank robbery orchestrated by John Wojtowicz…
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Frank Pierson (read the script here)
Based on: “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, Life, 22 September, 1972, Vol. 73(12)
Synopsis: *Spoilers* Brooklyn, New York, 1972. On a hot August afternoon, three gunmen enter a bank around closing time. Ex-con Salvatore Naturale (John Cazale) pulls a gun on the manager, while the other two, Vietnam veteran Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and nervy Stevie (Gary Springer) prepare to make their move. Stevie gets spooked and runs off, leaving Sonny and Sal to carry out the heist.
They take the bank’s employees—the manager, seven female tellers and a security guard (who is later released)—hostage.
However, things quickly go from bad to worse.
First, Sonny discovers the bank only holds $1,100 in cash. Then his attempts to burn the bank’s register alerts a business across the street. Soon the bank is surrounded by cops. Sonny and Sal are trapped inside with only the hostages for collateral. Sonny starts plotting his and Sal’s escape from the bank.
Meanwhile, local interest in the story increases. Spectators and the media gather to watch events unfold. While the quietly intense Sal watches the hostages, a frazzled and frantic Sonny frequently emerges to talk with Detective Moretti (Charles Durning) and warn the uniformed cops away.
Sonny becomes a ‘hero’ to the folks watching, while the relationship between the captives and the captors loosens up.
The police contact Sonny’s estranged wife, Angie (Susan Peretz), as well as Leon (Chris Sarandon), Sonny’s second ‘wife’; a male pre-operative transsexual. It transpires Sonny wanted to rob the bank to pay for Leon’s operation. During a phone call, Leon turns down Sonny’s offer to join him and Sal to wherever they take the plane.
Finally, a limousine arrives to take Sonny, Sal and hostages to the airport. As the car waits on the tarmac for the plane, the FBI agent who’s driving creates a distraction. Sal is shot and killed while Sonny is apprehended.
Which parts are true?
In its report on the real-life story, the New York Times calls this “probably the most unusual bank robbery in history” and the film’s credited source material (the Life magazine article cited above) certainly provides a full and vivid account of how it all transpired. As such, the screen story adheres to the basic facts, including:
- the relationship between the robbers, hostages and the police
- the reaction of the spectators
- Wojtowicz’s motivation for the robbery
- Wojtowicz’s personal life and his relationship with Earnest Aaron (Leon)
- events at JFK airport
Interestingly, the Life magazine article even describes Wojtowicz as a having the “good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman” (Hoffman was briefly considered for the role when Pacino temporarily withdrew). Kluge, author of the article, said the filmmakers “stayed with the surface of a lively journalistic story”.
What changes were made?
While the script and film adhere to the basic facts of the true story, it’s interesting to note that Wojtowicz (who was paid $7,500, plus a percentage of the film’s net profits, for the rights to his story) said “only 30%” of the film was accurate. He cites such elements as the depiction of his (female) wife and a conversation with his mother he claimed never happened. (He did praise the performances of Pacino and Sarandon.)
In addition, the film departs from the facts in a number of other ways, including:
- reducing the amount of money held in the bank—in real life there were tens of thousands of dollars
- Sal’s age—in real life, he was aged 18, but played in the film by 39-year-old Cazale
- in the film, Sonny dictates his will to a bank employee, distributing part of his life insurance policy to Leon for his operation—in real life, Wojtowicz paid the money to Ernest from his fee for the movie rights
Why were the changes made?
The nature of the film is very ‘choppy’ and urgent. This is not some slick bank heist; it is a desperate act led by a man under extreme pressure on several different levels. It is important the audience ‘gets’ this and cares about Sonny. We must root for him or there would be no movie. Throughout, he cares for the hostages and we never really believe he’s going to hurt them (Sal, on the other hand, is another story).
The script strengthens the real story and uses every opportunity to dial up the pressure and conflict. In addition, while the film largely adheres to Pierson’s script, Lumet encouraged the actors to improvise and generate more realistic dialogue.
As a result, the film zips along, with the drama increasing throughout. The story is tight and well-paced. It develops naturally and in interesting ways, such as through the introduction Leon, which happens quite a long time into the film.
The film stays with the action, rarely leaving the scene of the attempted robbery, which, again, focuses the audience on the events at hand. Viewers are fed all the information they need, with superfluous detail omitted.
On first viewing, it’s unclear how Sonny and Sal are going to get out of this mess, but the audience desperately wants to stay on the ride and find out how it’s going to end.
How successful was the adaptation?
Overall, it’s pretty safe to say that the now 40-year-old Dog Day Afternoon is a successful true life adaptation. Among its many awards and nominations, Pierson’s script won the Academy Award. The film and Pacino’s performance have made the cut in many ‘best of’ lists, while his rallying “Attica” chant is oft repeated, even by those who have no idea what it refers to…
In addition, the film cleverly taps into the mood of the country at the time. Strong opposition to the Vietnam War and the recent Watergate scandal generated a mood of suspicion and distrust over those in power. So, in many ways, Wojtowicz and Sonny are heroes for the time.
The lesson? Rich source material is only the beginning of the story. Look at every element and ask yourself: How can I make this stronger in order to generate extra conflict, up the ante for the characters and keep audiences desperate to know what happens next?
Assignment: Read the source material, read the script and (re)watch the film…
Next issue we look at a recent fact-based film that attempted to bring an important event in US history to life.
Issue 3 of RSL is out on 22 June.