Although he'd probably hate me saying it this way, Frank Pierson is a living legend among screenwriters, and hearing him interviewed by fellow screenwriter Larry Karaszewski the other night after a screening of the seminal film "Dog Day Afternoon" for which Frank won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, was just one more affirmation of his stature, and why we're so grateful he is still around, and still giving so much back to the industry.
Of the many tales he told the other night, the one that really stayed with me was a story about the fate of one of his real-life characters, and how it made him reflect on the question of the moral responsibility of the artist.
Tackling true stories can be devilishly tricky business, especially if the people involved are still alive, and if the events depicted are controversial or involve criminal proceedings.
I remember a few years ago when Sidney Kimmel financed a movie called Alpha Dog based on a true crime story, and the leading character was a fugitive from justice living outside the United States. When he was apprehended and brought here to stand trial on kidnapping and murder charges, suddenly the movie itself became entangled in the legal proceedings against him, and almost could not be released.
In Frank's case, his leading character "Sonny" Wortzik was based on the real life John Wojtowicz, the bisexual man who was arrested and convicted and imprisoned for the bank robbery gone awry to finance his lover's sex change operation, as depicted in the movie. A more complex, original and unconventional movie protagonist would be hard to find, and Frank as a dramatist was faced with the age-old problem of figuring out what made this guy tick, and how to get that essential truth across to an audience.
While hewing closely to the facts of what happened that day and talking to as many people involved as he could, he did find the need to invent one crucial scene in the film for dramatic purpose, an invention that itself had dramatic repercussions later on outside of the film.
The scene is a conversation between the erstwhile bank robber "Sonny" as played by Al Pacino, and the FBI agent Sheldon, as played by James Broderick, who is working alongside Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti, as played by Charles Durning. The cops appear to be acting on a strategy to sow division and doubt between Sonny and his more lethal accomplice Sal, played so unforgettably by the great John Cazale.
Here is the scene as Frank wrote it in the screenplay:
EXT. BANK - NIGHT
as they (Sheldon and Sonny) exit and stand in the doorway
out of earshot of the others. Sheldon is matter-of-fact,
but insinuating and conspiratorial.
Sonny, you handled yourself real
well. A lot of men would have
choked, and we'd have a lot of
chaos and panic and maybe a death
or a multiple death on our hands,
but you handled it. I respect that.
Don't you try to take Sal. We'll
handle him. You just sit tight and
you won't get hurt.
He starts to go. Sonny grabs him.
Wait a minute! What the fuck you
tryin' to tell me?
What I said. You just sit quiet
and we'll handle Sal.
And he turns and starts to walk away, leaving Sonny staring
INT. BARBER SHOP - NIGHT
as Sheldon steps into the door. The place is jammed,
Moretti stands inside the door where Sonny could not have
possibly seen him. Sheldon quietly turns and stands beside
him, both men looking back across the street.
The little bastard miss me?
Sheldon smiles the supercilious Ehrlichman smile of his.
INT. BANK - NIGHT
as Sonny re-enters. He's restless, hyperactive, constantly
moving during this scene; a man with a potentially guilty
conscience. Sal moves toward him and both men walk to area
in front of the Tellers' cages.
What'd he say?
He was talkin' about arrangements
... we were talkin' about the TV.
Why couldn't he talk about that here?
He was showin' me how the airport
bus is comin' in, like that, Sal.
start to faint)
What's wrong with him?
It's a great scene in a great movie. It shows the first time that Sonny lies in the film. It sets up the ending, in which Sonny survives but Sal is killed by the police as they foil their getaway with the hostages at the airport.
But it never happened.
Cut to a few years later and Frank runs into somebody who has been to see the real John Wojtowicz, then serving a 20 year sentence at the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisberg. Wojtowicz related the problems he had in prison as a result of that one scene, which implied that he knew what was going to happen to Sal, and had somehow betrayed his partner. And we all know from the movies what happens to rats in prison.
Despite the fact that he was a convicted felon that Pierson never knew, Frank was deeply troubled by how with a stroke of his pen or the keys of his typewriter, he had inadvertently almost gotten this man killed.
It lead him to speak about our contemporary culture of truthiness, in which the lines between fact and fiction have been blurred if not totally erased, and how he was troubled by the skillful manipulation of the film medium by practitioners like Oliver Stone in his making of "JFK", and how generally absent from the discussion today seemed to be any conversation about the moral responsibility of the artist to the truth.
Of course it's been often said that "fiction is a lie that tells the truth". It was fascinating to watch Frank struggle with this paradox even today, some 35 years later.
If there was a moral to his story, it might have been in the delicious coda to the making of "Dog Day Afternoon". Even though Sonny/John's actual ill-conceived bank heist failed miserably in its intent to grab some quick funds to pay for his lover's sex-change operation, Warner Bros. succeeded where he had not.
The money that the studio paid him for his life rights fittingly went to turn Mr. Ernest Aron into Ms. Elizabeth Eden.
Now how's that for "moral responsibility"?!?!