During the filming of this movie, Director Barry Levinson and stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had an impromptu co-incidental meeting at a Washington, D.C. hotel with President Bill Clinton. Clinton asked De Niro: "So what's this movie about? De Niro looked over to Levinson, hoping that he would answer the question. Levinson, in turn, looked over to Hoffman. Hoffman, realizing there was no one else, to whom to pass the buck, is quoted as saying, "So I just started to tap dance. I can't even remember what I said."
The talk show phone number, 1-800-555-0199, is common to many films and television shows, because this is the only number that has been reserved by the phone company as an allowable fake 1-800 number for media usage.
The scene in which shoes laced together are hanging from telephone and electric wires was shot on East Capitol Street a few blocks behind the U.S. Capitol. The production crew left several pairs of shoes behind and they remained hanging on the wires for years.
The "American Dream" segment, with the choir singing, is a clear spoof of USA for Africa's "We Are the World". Willie Nelson (Johnny Dean) was one of the many artists who appeared singing in the "We Are the World" video.
According to Wikipedia, "the title of the film comes from the idiomatic English-language expression 'the tail wagging the dog'." It is shown at the film's start, and reads "Why does the dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog."
According to urbandictionary.com, the meaning of the phrase "wag the dog", is "when something of secondary importance improperly takes on the role of something of primary importance. The expression pre-dates this movie by the same name and was not coined by said movie."
The political talk show at the end of the film lists its phone number as 1-800-555-0199. This number is also Lester Burnham's office number in American Beauty (1999) as well as Lowell Bergman's fax number in The Insider (1999).
With a twenty-nine day production schedule, and a modest fifteen million dollar budget, the picture relied on an intelligent storytelling and genteel character development to dramatize the ultimate whitewash at the White House (which ended up happening in reality).
Three title cards of note, relating to this film, featured in the movie's related twenty-five minute DVD documentary Wag the Dog: From Washington to Hollywood ...And Back (1998) state: (1) "Just a few weeks after Wag the Dog (1997) was released, President Clinton was accused of having an affair with a White House intern"; (2) "The documentary, The War Room (1993), shows the actual love-hate relationship between politicians and the media that is parodied in Wag the Dog (1997)"; and (3) "So, will the next generation be able to tell the difference between real news, and news that has been faked?"
Initiated as a group project by Producer Jane Rosenthal, Barry Levinson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro, the picture was conceived as a witty, incisive inside look at American politics, pundits, Hollywood, and the media, as a war is waged to divert public attention from a national disgrace, an unthinkable sex scandal in the White House Oval Office.
While the genesis for the picture was originally a novel titled "American Hero" (1993) by Larry Beinhart, which was adapted for the screen by Hilary Henkin, the producers brought Writer David Mamet aboard, because "he is certainly the premiere playwright of his generation," Levinson said. "David's way of looking at the world was a perfect fit. Not a lot of movies are strong dialogue pieces anymore. But this is sharp writing. There's an edgy wit infused into the dialogue."
Despite their hectic schedules, Barry Levinson and David Mamet were able to communicate via phone and fax to put together what they felt was a viable draft script. Once the screenplay was delivered, Jane Rosenthal rallied the troops, and quickly assembled a table reading with Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, and several other talented actors and actresses, many of whom appeared in this movie.
The picture was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1998, Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor, and Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, for Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, but the movie failed to take home an Oscar in either category.
usingenglish.com states that "to 'wag the dog' means to purposely divert attention from what would otherwise be of greater importance, to something else of lesser significance. By doing so, the lesser-significant event is catapulted into the limelight, drowning proper attention to what was originally the more important issue. The expression comes from the saying that 'a dog is smarter than its tail', but if the tail were smarter, then the tail would wag the dog. The expression 'wag the dog' was elaborately used as theme of the movie. 'Wag the Dog', a 1997 film starring Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, produced and directed by Barry Levinson."
Hilary Henkin as the same sounding first name as former U.S. Senator, U.S. Secretary of State, and 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. At the time that this movie was released, Hillary Clinton was the First Lady.
The film was entered into and then selected to screen in competition to compete for the prestigious Golden Bear and Silver Bear awards at the annual 48th Berlin International Film Festival, but lost out on the Golden Bear to Central Station (1998), but won a Special Jury Prize Silver Bear for Barry Levinson.
One of five cinema movie collaborations of Dustin Hoffman and Barry Levinson. The others being Sphere (1998), Sleepers (1996), Rain Man (1988), and Tootsie (1982). Tootsie (1982) was the only one of these five movies that Levinson did not direct, as he was one of the movie's uncredited screenwriters.