Kerry Condon's favorite movie is Dogfight. "I don't know if a lot of people have seen Dogfight, but it had a massive impact on me," the Oscar-nominated actress told A.frame. The period coming-of-age drama was not a box office hit upon its release 1991, grossing just shy of $395,000; however, over the years, audiences have rediscovered the film and come to appreciate director Nancy Savoca's bold and bittersweet vision for the triumph that it is. As Condon says, "It's so romantic. It's so beautiful. It makes me want to cry."

Written by Bob Comfort, who was inspired by his own experiences as a marine, and produced by Savoca's husband Richard Guay, Dogfight is set in San Francisco during the 1960s. River Phoenix stars as Eddie Birdlace, an 18-year-old Marine who is about to be deployed to Vietnam. The night before Eddie and his military buddies ship off, they compete in a "dogfight": Whoever brings the most unattractive date to their party wins a cash prize. When Eddie invites aspiring folk singer Rose Fenny (Lili Taylor), it sets off a night that neither one of them could have predicted. Dogfight was a landmark movie for Phoenix, who finally received the grown-up role he had been hoping for.

"He wanted to challenge himself with an adult role, and he was eager to jump in," recalls director Savoca. Phoenix, who had been Oscar-nominated for his supporting performance in 1988's Running on Empty, was already attached to the film when Savoca came on board. "I don't know what it was in the conversation with me that convinced him I was the right person to direct this; maybe he understood that I would be there to support him, because I loved what he wanted to do."

"I think I also got hired because, at the end of the conversation, he said, 'This has been great, and by the way, I really enjoyed talking to you. You sound just like my mother, and she's from the Bronx, too,'" the filmmaker adds with a laugh. "My accent may have had something to do with it. I don't know!"

More than 30 years after its release, Dogfight is enjoying a new restoration from Criterion, available for those who have long loved the film and a new generation who will discover a film that was ahead of its time, a thoughtful examination of toxic masculinity before that phrase had widely entered the American lexicon. Not for nothing, the film also boasts a soundtrack featuring music by legends like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.

In conversation with A.frame, Savoca and Guay reflect on the making of the movie and the newfound appreciation that Dogfight has garnered: "The comment that has stuck with me the most over the last 30 years was from an older gentleman who came up to me after the screening. He was a vet and told me, 'This is like my life,' and that has always stayed with me."  

Director Nancy Savoca behind the scenes of 'Dogfight.'

A.Frame: There is an appreciation and influence that Dogfight has seen grow over the last three decades. Did you always hope it would have that sort of second life?

Nancy Savoca: The easy answer is no. What attracted me to it was the challenging aspect of the subject matter, and when it was over, I was left wondering if we had accomplished anything. We went through this incredibly intense process with Dogfight, and our ending with the movie was as open-ended as the film itself. We did not know where it was going to go or what was going to happen.

Richard Guay: We had a lot of struggles getting the movie finished. When we talk about it now, so many people say, "Oh, I saw it in the theater," and I'm like, "If I added all that up, it can't be," because it did not get a lot of support when it was released! I'm just really grateful for word of mouth, VHS and DVDs, because throughout the years and from different corners of the world, when people hear Nancy's name, they bring up Dogfight, and I'm always shocked and thrilled that it resonates the way it does.

Kerry Condon told us that Dogfight is the film that had the biggest impact on her and made her want to become an actor. She singled out the scene where Eddie is watching Rose play the piano, which is a really beautiful scene and shows so much vulnerability. When you think back on filming that scene, did you know you were capturing something so memorable?

Savoca: I can't be that far outside when I'm shooting. I'm very much inside the story, so everything is happening on the inside, and to the best of my directing ability, I'm inside the characters. It's never as much as the actors are, but I'm inside the point of view of each character when I'm working with the actor. In terms of serving the story, the shot list, working with our cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, working with Lester Cohen in the production design, and working with Eugenie Bafaloukos on what Rose was wearing, it was all from that perspective. It's like crawling around in the muck and trying to make sure it's striking the right note. That's where I was at that moment. That was a moment of Rose being so vulnerable and showing her dream to this guy she is starting to trust, and she's not sure why. He certainly is a tough character to have trust in. It was all about trying to ensure that Rose got her moment to show the dream and that Eddie got his moment to receive it.

River Phoenix and Lili Taylor complement each other perfectly. Both of their characters and both of the actors' performances strike this exceptional balance of simplicity and complexity. It's one of those lightning-in-a-bottle pairings. What do you remember about casting them opposite one another?

Savoca: River was already attached to the project, and so he interviewed me for my job. He was 19 but had been in several films and was very well-respected, and we had a long conversation. We ended up hitting it off mainly because we agreed that we were not here to do a movie about how bad it is to be in a dogfight, but more about the curiosity of how we got here. How do we bring everybody along in this experience, instead of from a judgy outsider position? That would have been the easiest way to do it, but that's not what we wanted. He was very much into doing that.

Guay: Lili came through the legendary casting director Marion Dougherty. She brought every great young actor in town out for the movie.

Savoca: I had the great fortune of sitting with Marion Dougherty for several weeks casting this, and I always say that I went to grad school with her teaching me about casting, because she was incredible. They even made a documentary about her called Casting By. That kind of tells you everything. She could spot talent like nobody's business, and all of her first choices for Dogfight ended up being all of my first choices for Dogfight. That's how right on she was. It was amazing. 


Dogfight takes place over one night, and when Eddie and Rose are out on the town, it feels like they're the only ones in the city. Where did that idea come from? 

Savoca: The wise ass in me says budget. It gets expensive to put extras there and dress them all in period dress and have period cars and whatever. I'd like to say I did this on purpose, but it had more to do with the budget. But it captures the feeling of being in love and the bubble of only seeing the person in front of you. Because of that, the rest of everything else is in soft focus, so it feels very much like they owned San Francisco that night.

Guay: Rose and Eddie are just dialed into each other. Because when we go off with the guys, there's a lot of activity. When they get in a fight with Brendan Fraser, which was his first-ever line as an actor and first on-screen punch, there's a lot going on.

Savoca: When the boys are together, they're always fighting for space and turf and moving around the screen, trying to push everybody else out. It's very crowded. With Eddie and Rose, we wanted to give them space to be themselves in a way that is very odd for them to be, because they're so different. You just met this person, so what is happening here? It is very unusual that this is happening the way it is.

You had your editor, John Tintori, on set during the shoot. That is quite unusual in itself, but he also appears in the movie as the pervert in the adult movie theater.

Savoca: That was his starring role! He wasn't on set all the time, but he definitely came to visit. He saw what was going on and how quickly we were discarding excess dialogue, and the stuff was flying fast. We were moving very quickly, and it was our great strength that John Tintori was in the cutting room. He was able to tell us, "When you cut this, you need to do that." Sometimes there were little holes that we were leaving behind, because we were having to work so quickly. Besides editing it beautifully, his significant contribution was also being the keeper of the story, so that we didn't tear it down too much and ensured that we were always building up as well.

Guay: He was cutting right behind us when he was on set.

Savoca: I sat next to him every day, so we went through this together. I realize now it seems like a luxury. People are saying that they edit long-distance and I want to cry. Don't do that!

Is it true that you didn't show the studio any rough cuts?

Savoca: Well, when we were supposed to show a cut, we showed a cut. There was enthusiasm for the film, because they recognized really good performances. Things started to turn when it was audience testing. That's really when the problem started. There was a Pasadena audience that I'll never forget. We all walked in, the studio folks were very excited to see how this would play with the intended audience, and there was a very young group of guys up front near the screen, front row, and they were waiting for the film to start and chanting, "Dogfight! Dogfight! Dogfight!" I sat in the back and I could feel tears welling up, because I knew it was not going to go well. One of the executives said to me, "Don't worry. This will be great. They'll really love it." Sure enough, the people who wanted to see a more funny, raucous movie were disappointed. Somebody said, "We thought this was going to be like Porky's." That was the problem. From then on, the question was, how do we correct this? Our concern was that I didn't know how you corrected something that was baked into the screenplay.


You mentioned Dogfight's ambiguous ending. Did you have to fight to keep that, and did you have a Plan B?

Guay: That ending was there from the very beginning. Scripts change when you're shooting, but not a word was changed. That ending is exactly what Bob Comfort wrote. It was part of why we wanted to do the film.

Savoca: To me, that ending fits the rest of the story. There's this honesty; I don't know what other word to describe it. Every movement happens because of what happened just before it. Every emotion happens because there was something that evoked another emotion before. By the time you get to the end, you can't look back and say, "Oh, it could have been this way or that way." At least, that's the way I felt. When there seemed to be a problem with the test screenings, it became, "Let's find a solution," and the solution was always looking at that very last scene. It became the scene that needed to be changed. We were approached to change it, but I couldn't figure out another way to do it. I tried. But at that point, I was like, "This is the story. Did anybody read the script?" Still, right now, I have a picture in my brain of what that hug looked like and how Lili has to go on tiptoes, because he's a little taller than her when he hugs her.

Did you film the ending last? I know it's not always possible, but sometimes when it works out, that can be magical.

Guay: The coffee shop was a storefront in Seattle, and we built the cafe. We shot the meeting scene at the beginning of the schedule, locked the door, went off and shot all the other Seattle stuff. We made the financial choice of spending a little extra money, holding the set, and the last thing we shot in Seattle was that last scene, and then we had to go to San Francisco.

Savoca: That was 19-year-old River teaching us how to shoot an ending, because we made the mistake of shooting the last scene of the boys on the bus on the first day of filming. River told me, "I don't know what happens in that scene, because I haven't lived this experience," and I felt like an idiot. I'm like, "Oh my God, this is so true." We learned that lesson very quickly, and that's when I was like, "Rich, we can't shoot the last scene of the movie until we shoot everything that happens between them."

When you think back, do you have a favorite memory from making Dogfight?

Savoca: I know what mine is. It's the "Run, River, run" moment. We were in San Francisco, and we had limited time there to do interstitial shots that would make the audience think we shot the whole thing there. It was the very last day of shooting, and we were at City Lights Bookstore. We had wrapped. I said, "Cut," and everyone started crying and hugging. We had a great cast and crew, and everyone was very tight. So, people began putting away equipment and then our dolly grip, Victor Korte, came running back to us and said, "Guys! The sun is rising on the Bay Bridge!" All of our heads swiveled down the block, and there was the sun rising. Bobby Bukowski looked at me and said, "I want to get this shot," so I said, "Great. Everyone start setting up!" They all look at me and asked, "What's the shot, Nancy?"

You know when they say that you see your whole life flash before your eyes before you die? I saw the entire movie in my brain, and I was like, "River, please just walk down the street." River starts walking towards the bridge, but I knew then that when he was walking that he was going back to be with his buddies, so in the middle of his walking, I said, "Oh, wait a minute. He's late." So, I started screaming, "Run, River, run!," which sounded so poetic that everybody just burst out laughing. River had no idea what was happening, but he just started running, which is the shot you see in the movie. It was a gift from one of our crew members.

Guay: When I am teaching, that is a scene I always use to get my students to engage with everybody on the crew.

Nancy Savoca on the set of 'Dogfight.'

Does watching the film mean something different to you now than back in 1991? Do you see it through slightly different eyes?

Savoca: The last time I watched it was during the restoration. I don't watch my movies with audiences because it would make me nervous, but I am very grateful that these movies are still here and that people are enjoying them with these restorations. It's interesting... I'm learning that a film is about the relationship between the movie and the spectator, and everybody brings their own thing to this film — just like I bring my own thing to the movies that I love. But I can watch it more now without being so judgmental. I watch it and I say, "Well, here was something that I did years ago." It's not that I'm a different person, but I'm certainly different in some ways, and I can appreciate it more. Back in the day, I was like, "Oh God, I messed it up!"

Why did you feel like you'd messed it up?

Savoca: Because when we finished the movie, I really didn't know what the movie was. I didn't know what we had, and then when it got one very bad review, those things affect you. I felt like the fact that the movie was not being seen was a sign that I didn't do something right. Because I never doubted these beautiful performances. I've never doubted the talent that everybody else brought to it, but I wondered if I put everything together the right way to serve that story. Now, I feel a little kinder. I had my relationship with the movie when I watched it during the restoration, and then watching all these other people having their relationship with the movie again makes you feel good.

As filmmakers, what does it mean to have this restoration of Dogfight release as part of The Criterion Collection? Have you wanted to restore Dogfight for a while?

Savoca: If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would've said, "Yes, I wish all my movies were restored!," but it sounded like a dream beyond what we had access to. It came as a surprise to me. First of all, what a beautiful package they made. The production is exquisite. I so appreciate the research that went into it, and now it's out there for people to own. They can have it, they can hold it, they can learn about its background, and they can geek out over the details like I do. For me, it's an honor.

Guay: Selfishly, I feel like Nancy belongs in that group of filmmakers, so it's very satisfying. And the experience of working with those guys was really wonderful.

Savoca: Every filmmaker wants to have our films' physical material restored and preserved so that another generation can know that we were here. Another important thing in terms of film preservation is that if you don't preserve certain movies, I think certain folks will get left out — especially the marginal stories and filmmakers. So, the history becomes less rich. As a filmmaker and a film student, I want to know who came before me and to be influenced and inspired by them, and that's what we build on. I want the next generation to have all of these stories — not just my stories — to build on, because that's their job.

Between Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho, 1991 was a pivotal year for River. He died two years later. Dogfight is a brilliant showcase for what he could do and what we lost when we lost him.

Savoca: Not only as an actor, but he also wanted to be a filmmaker. Imagine if we would've had that from him.


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