Dallas Buyers Club: Making the AIDS Drama

Dallas_Buyers_Club_7In September 1992, Ron Woodroof succumbed to complications from AIDS. Seven years earlier, he had been given 30 days to live. The month before Woodroof’s death, screenwriter Craig Borten drove from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas to meet him and begin work on telling Ron’s story for a movie that would ultimately take 20 years to get made, Dallas Buyers Club.

Borten was drawn to Ron’s story, and that of the Dallas Buyers Club, after being pointed towards it by a friend. Ron had been diagnosed with H.I.V. in 1985, at the flashpoint of America’s growing awareness of AIDS. The syndrome had already been ravaging the nation’s gay community for over four years; this womanizing, macho electrician was one of millions who saw AIDS only as “that gay disease.”

At age 35, the proud son of Texas found himself shunned and ostracized by his friends and co-workers. He was dying and nearly broke. Yet he was determined to survive and, against all odds, he not only survived but thrived and helped save lives.

In the seven years since his diagnosis, Ron had become a walking encyclopedia of anti-viral meds, pharmaceutical trials and patents, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations, and court decisions. He was fighting for patients’ rights, including for access to alternative medicines and treatments.

After writing letters that went unanswered, Borten phoned the Dallas Buyers Club offices. Ron got on the phone and told the writer to come and visit the very next day.

Borten felt that the story of a homophobic cowboy who suddenly, incredibly found himself on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic was profound and unique. The screenwriter reflects, “The more I found out, the more compelling it was. What interested me was having this man who goes from being extremely bigoted to having his closest friends throw that right back at him – and then he evolves to learn what real friendship is and what it means. Those who accept him and support him are H.I.V. and AIDS patients, nearly all of whom are gay.

“Here’s someone who gets a death sentence and turns it around, and makes these discoveries. In the process, he is changed and he helps other people. Anyone who defeats the odds is inspiring to me and that’s what Ron did. And he was a better person for it.”

Borten spent several days with Ron, recording with a Dictaphone more than 20 hours of interviews with him at the Dallas Buyers Club.

After Ron passed away, the telling of his story – one of self-preservation and self-interest that flowered into benefitting so many others – began its own unexpected journey. Borten continued doing further research, and kept writing. Once confident that he had told Ron’s story well in feature script form, he gave the screenplay to a close friend, producer Robbie Brenner, to read.

“I fell in love with it instantly,” says Brenner. “What an incredible journey Ron lived. The story is very human on all levels. Because of who Ron was, how he was raised and where he came from, he had the will to question and to fight through adversity and tragedy. When he got AIDS, he was able to see his life through a different lens; he changed the course of it, affecting other people and helping them. Yet he didn’t set out to do those things. He was just trying to survive.

“The script reminded me of movies I love that mattered. I told Craig I wanted to produce this movie.”

Dallas_Buyers_Club_6That was in 1997, when Brenner was a production executive at a studio where the project went into development but didn’t get made. Borten got the rights back, shopped it around, got it optioned, and rewrote it, adding in new material based on further research.

In 2000, Borten teamed with screenwriter Melisa Wallack to rework the script. Together they streamlined the scope of the story, stepping back from the volumes of information and opinions to take a closer look at one man’s odyssey. Borten remembers, “We broke it down into different people representing different points of view.”

Wallack remarks, “Ron’s evolution was pretty amazing, and it was his discoveries and insights into himself as well as into AIDS research and medications that pointed the script in the direction it ultimately went.”

In 1985, AZT (Azidothymidine) was the only anti-viral medication to show promise in treating H.I.V. and AIDS. Yet it was largely unavailable – limited to patients in clinical trials, or sold underground on the rapidly developing black market. Then, in 1987 it was brought to market as the most expensive approved drug ever sold, costing more than $10,000 for a year’s supply.

Patients died daily. H.I.V. infections and AIDS-related deaths climbed exponentially year after year. All the while, AIDS activists and patients like Ron pushed for affordable and alternative treatments. They urged expedited FDA approvals for the dozens of potentially helpful medications that were not available in the U.S.

“Ron went toe-to-toe with the FDA – and at times the DEA, the FBI, and the IRS,” marvels Wallack. This is a man who fought the government for the right to control what went into his body. He sued the FDA in federal court in San Francisco, asserting that their actions had violated his 9th Amendment ‘right to a healthy mind.’ The more we researched, the more we were struck by the broader constitutional questions about personal freedoms.”

Ron’s Time Comes

Once Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack had a new draft of the screenplay written, Dallas Buyers Club got into active development at a studio, this time for nearly a decade. But it still was not made. When the WGA’s reversion clause brought the rights back to the two screenwriters in 2009, the duo sought out Robbie Brenner anew. Although their script had earned plenty of supporters over the years, none had remained as ardent or dedicated as Brenner.

Dallas_Buyers_Club_5Borten recalls, “Every time the project went into turnaround, Robbie would say, ‘I can get this movie made.’”

Wallack notes, “We felt, now was the time; we gave her permission to shop it around.”

Brenner sent Borten and Wallack’s screenplay to actor Matthew McConaughey to see if the Texas native would be interested in playing another Texas native.

“I asked myself, ‘Who is Ron Woodroof?’ and in my mind, it was Matthew,” says Brenner. “Like Ron, he’s from Dallas, he’s handsome, and he has a twinkle in the eye. Matthew also has intensity and intelligence like Ron did, mixed with that cowboy charisma and fighter’s spirit. He was beyond perfect for the role.”

Borten adds, “Ron was a very charismatic, funny and persuasive, a real salesman. Even if he was making fun of you, you wanted him to continue because he was so charming. Matthew possesses a lot of those same qualities.”

When McConaughey first read the screenplay for Dallas Buyers Club, he found “a great story that bled off the page. It was incredibly human, with no sentimentality. I’d never read a script that tackled the issue from this point of view.

“Ron was an American original. He shook the tree. He made noise. I said, ‘I want to get this made, get Ron’s story told.’”

That was all Brenner needed to hear. Determined to get the film from development to production, she asked another passionate advocate of the project, Rachel Winter, to team with her as producer; Brenner would be continuing work on Dallas Buyers Club even while taking on a new full-time job at a film company.

Brenner didn’t need to ask twice. “I was honored; it was a story I needed to help tell,” says Winter. “It spoke to me personally: my father and I had gone through my uncle’s dying from AIDS.”

She reflects, “What was thrilling is that I love true stories and this was a David-and-Goliath story of one person fighting the good fight. It put me in mind of movies like Erin Brockovich, Milk, and Schindler’s List, all of which showed us the power of the human spirit. You learn facts and history, but the dramatic impact is in the person’s journey. These are films that have stayed with me over the years, and I feel that they have a lot in common with Dallas Buyers Club.

Dallas_Buyers_Club_3“Reading Ron’s story made me wonder what I would do in that situation. What am I made of? Would I lie down and die? Would I become part of a community previously completely unknown to me? These were all elements of a great story.”

The two producers sought a creative thinker who would feel the same way, and Brenner sensed that award-winning Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée was a director worth approaching.

Brenner thought he would bring “something interpretive and poetic that would register on-screen. I had seen his first two movies and thought, ‘Any filmmaker who can make an out-there movie like C.R.A.Z.Y. and then go and make The Young Victoria, which is a classical love story and historical epic – well, this guy’s amazing.’

“Jean-Marc has a strong style of storytelling through imagery, so I felt that he could make our movie both visual and performance-driven.”

Winter adds, “His direction is visceral in the way it enhances the richness of character and emotion.”

Vallée was already at work on another movie, Café de Flore, but was floored to learn of the Woodroof story. “I was wowed,” says the director. “I’m drawn to character-driven material, and this was emotional and inspiring. I loved the script immediately. Despite all of his flaws, I fell for Ron and I think audiences will too.”

McConaughey says, “We didn’t want to make ‘a message film,’ or a documentary about AIDS. This is a dramatic film about one man’s life.”

Vallée concurs, “It’s not a docudrama, nor a biography.”

By mid- 2012, pre-production was under way. Vallée asked department heads and actors to watch the award-winning documentary feature How to Survive a Plague. He remarks, “It’s a great film, and it was helpful for reference, showing the early years of AIDS advocacy groups. They were essential.” Notable groups included ACT UP; Project Inform; AIDS Action Council; and People With AIDS (PWA) Coalitions.

To play opposite McConaughey, Vallée and the producers sought actors who could hold their own – since their characters would have spirited give-and-take with Ron. “This was going to be a movie where a great script would only be as good as the people you put in it,” said Brenner. “The bar was being set with Matthew transforming himself into Ron.

“For Rayon, I suggested Jared Leto to Jean-Marc. I kept thinking of Jared; I heard his voice as the character’s.”

Brenner’s instinct was correct, as Leto began working first “on Rayon’s voice, for weeks;” throughout film history, actors like Peter Sellers have needed to create and perfect their characters’ speaking voices before the rest of the portrayal could crystallize.

Which it did: Vallée states that he “never met Jared Leto. I met Rayon; I don’t know Leto. Jared never showed me Jared. During our first meeting he was Rayon, and he tried to seduce me. He was so into the character, and had dressed as Rayon.”

Leto had been working as a writer/director and singer/musician for nearly five years, and wasn’t looking to return to acting. But, as he explains, “The convergence of elements – the role, the script, the director, Matthew as Ron – made it impossible to turn this down.

“I was busy doing other things, but, as a friend of mine always says, ‘If you want something done, give it to the busiest person in the room.’”

Brenner states, “We were blessed to have Jared return to acting with our movie.”

Leto “knew the role was going to demand a massive commitment, but that’s also part of what was attractive to me about it. I didn’t want to be far from this character; I wanted to be as close as I could be.

“I got to know people through this wonderfully beautiful character who was a joy to build, to create. It was so rewarding.”

After initially having being told about the project by McConaughey, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award winner Jennifer Garner read the script and signed on to play compassionate immunologist Dr. Eve Saks.

She found the story to be “shining a light on a time in this country that was dark, taking a look back to see how far we’ve come while also taking a look at people who helped us move forward.”

Winter says, “The role of Eve is the most grounded in the film; Jennifer is as well, and that comes through. A large part of Eve’s journey is reacting to what she’s learning from warriors as they’re fighting the fight. Jennifer brings a natural warmth and intelligence to the character.”

“There’s no falseness with Jennifer,” says Brenner. “You look at her, and you believe that Eve wants to do some good.”

McConaughey agrees that Garner’s “inherent qualities and her gracefulness” serve her well in the role. He says, “Eve wants my character to do the right thing. He sees that she’s a good person, the kind of woman that a man should stand up for. Not that she’s weak; it’s more of, ‘Well, I know she’s not wrong, so you must be.’ With Jennifer playing her, you see Eve’s caring nature and her heart.”

Leto remarks, “Jennifer is empathetic and wonderfully connected, so Eve is always tender with Rayon.”

The actress, who was born Texas and raised in West Virginia, saw her character as being caught between different worlds. She notes, “Eve is dealing with this cowboy Ron and with Rayon, who is an old friend of hers. Now she’s in the establishment, but she wants to do the right thing for her patients. When she finds out that there might be other ways to think about and approach the treatment of AIDS, she starts to challenge the system. She’s a doctor who becomes more of a healer.”

With challenges of getting cast and financing in place at last being met, production finally began in November 2012.

Vallée states, “This story is a beautiful and compelling one that had to be told. We are all grateful and privileged to be part of this.

“Dallas Buyers Club is a personal story that is bigger than life. Ron Woodroof’s story touches the heart.”