'The Dallas Buyers Club,' the AIDS film no one wanted to make
By By Steven Zeitchik
Aug 16, 2013 at 11:00 AM
METAIRIE, La. — In the summer of 1992, an aspiring filmmaker named Craig Borten drove from Los Angeles to Dallas to see a man named Ron Woodroof. Borten was just a few years out of Syracuse University and didn't know what kind of movies he wanted to make, or if he wanted to make them at all.
But he'd read about Woodroof, a fast-living — and, as it happened, deeply homophobic — straight electrician and rodeo habitue who had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. First out of self-preservation and then as a grudging crusade, Woodroof began smuggling unapproved drugs from Mexico and other countries, prolonging his life and the lives of thousands of others. Borten thought there might be a movie in his tale.
For nearly three days, an ailing Woodroof talked as Borten ran the tape recorder. The would-be filmmaker was astonished at how a crude and self-involved homophobe could become an unwitting hero in the terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic. "He was this enigmatic character: wearing a cowboy hat, incredibly raw about women, about drugs, about AIDS," Borten would later recall. "I remember thinking 'this is bigger than life itself.'"
Woodroof died a few months later in his early 40s. Shortly after, Borten completed a script about him and his flouting of the medical establishment, setting it in the worlds of hospitals, the gay community and Texas rodeo. He called it "The Dallas Buyers Club," after the pharmaceutical ring Woodroof ran.
Flash forward to a cold day last December in this scruffy suburb of New Orleans, where a surreal scene unfolded. At a usually straight working-class watering hole, actor Matthew McConaughey — mustachioed and weighing barely 130 pounds — stood at a bar that had been tricked out in flamboyant fashion. In front of him was a large case packed with fake vials and pills. Actor-musician Jared Leto — in a skirt, stilettos and enough mascara to drown an elephant — was dancing nearby, surrounded by dozens of male extras similarly attired. Prop signs promised the "hottest men and coldest beer in Dallas."
Suddenly, a member of the crew yelled "Let's do the frontal crotch business." The crowd of male extras was unloosed. A few hours later, after more wild dancing, some crotch grabbing, plenty of Leto tottering fake-drunkenly on his heels, there was a call: "That's a wrap." "The Dallas Buyers Club" had finished shooting.
Bottles were broken out, real ones. The director, the French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, looked relieved, and a little like he might fall over from exhaustion. A group of Houston good-ol' boys who'd helped finance the movie had flown in by private jet, impossibly buxom dates in tow.
There was clapping for McConaughey as he staggered, emaciated, into a black car waiting to whisk him to the land of more than 400 daily calories. Leto retired to a trailer a few blocks away, two beauticians furiously peeling away layers of lipstick and rouge, the actor's voice finally dropping below the alto range he maintained, even off-set, for the previous five weeks as Woodroof's unlikely gay friend and accomplice.
And now, more than 20 years after Borten took his exploratory trip, the film is ready to enter the world, making its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month before coming to theaters in December. Already the improbable project has generated a significant amount of pre-awards season interest for its showy performances and for its willingness, in this post-DOMA world, to examine a darker time.
Many movies have a twisty backstory, but inside Hollywood, "Dallas Buyers" is the stuff of legend. It is a tale of the doomed commitment of superstars like Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, the dissipated interest of filmmakers as diverse as Marc Forster and Dennis Hopper, numerous shaky financial arrangements, two studios with cold feet, a writer so tortured by rejection that he spiraled into addiction, a bailout by men in the decidedly unglamorous business of Texas fertilizer, and the film's eventual salvation by an actor who for many years had best been known for semi-naked bongo drumming.
In short, a story as mythic as Woodroof's itself.
Just a few days after 9/11, producer Robbie Brenner received a call.
Brenner had been guiding Borten on the "Dallas Buyers" script since the 1990s — she and others had pounded the pavement to track down financiers and studios willing to back it, only to be met by a familiar reply. We love the script. But we just can't put up the money for a movie about a man dying of AIDS, it went. And sure, "Philadelphia" had been a huge hit, but the hero of that film was a sympathetic man wrongly fired for the disease, not a cynical rogue who went around insulting people.
Borten said he couldn't blame them. "This was the elevator pitch for my film: 'It's a story about a racist homophobe with AIDS who befriends a man who dresses as a woman. Then they both die.'"
But many actors and filmmakers embraced it. There was a David-vs.-Goliath quality to a story of a man who challenged Big Pharma. Woodroof was a colorful and juicy antihero. And the film was about AIDS, which had jolted society and also afflicted many in Hollywood.
Woody Harrelson agreed to star and Dennis Hopper was aboard to direct in the mid-1990s. Columbia Pictures was set to buy the project. But the studio didn't seem intent on making it, and the principals decided to keep it independent. When no financing materialized, Harrelson and Hopper wound up leaving.
So when Brenner picked up the phone that September she couldn't believe her ears. On the other end of the line was the director, Marc Forster. Forster was a film-school pal of Brenner's, and was white-hot as buzz built for his upcoming interracial romantic drama "Monster's Ball." The filmmaker told his old friend that he had just read the "Dallas Buyers" script (which had since also added a co-writer in Melisa Wallack), and wanted to make it his next film.
Brenner hung up elated. More than a decade after the Magic Johnson announcement — and nearly as long after "Philadelphia" — Hollywood would at last produce another high-profile film about AIDS. The movie about an outlaw who discovers himself was, as she put it, "a coming-of-age story about a grown man" but it was also set against an important social backdrop. "Monster's Ball" was soon shown to Brad Pitt, who also liked the "Dallas Buyers" script. He and Forster decided to team up. (Years later, this budding relationship would yield "World War Z.")
Brenner and another producer on the project, David Bushell, sold it to Universal, and soon Bushell and the Universal producer Marc Abraham were developing it.
And then "Dallas" hit a wall. With concerns that the script wasn't sufficiently polished, according to a person involved with Universal at the time, executives began a fruitless cycle — they'd hire a writer, pass on their version and then repeat the process all over again. In one instance, they handed the keys to Stephen Belber, a playwright who had also written the screenplay for "The Laramie Project," about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. They tried an up-and-comer named Chase Palmer. They gave a shot to Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of "Amores Perros," a triptych with a similarly tragic undertone. They passed on his script too.
Beset with offers for movies that were actually getting made, Forster moved on. So did Pitt.
Plenty of acclaimed movies, including "Shine" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," have endured years of false starts. But more than almost any other film, "Dallas Buyers" underscores just how capricious a place Hollywood can be. Producers game-plan pitches and strategize cast choices, but the decisive factors often are well beyond their control.
Years had gone by, and the movie was back to Square One. Borten, meanwhile, his once-hot project now nearly 15 years old, began wrestling with substance-abuse issues. He had once been a wunderkind who had written a daring movie about AIDS. Now he was on his way to becoming famous as the author of Hollywood's longest-stalled script.
"You hear about the entertainment industry beating you down, but you don't realize what that kind of rejection can do to you until you go through it," said Borten, an imposing man who counts among his unexpected life experiences a past romantic relationship with the actress Julie Delpy.
In 2008, things briefly looked up for "Dallas" at Universal when Ryan Gosling and Craig Gillespie, who were coming off the sleeper hit "Lars and the Real Girl," signed on. But the financial willingness wasn't there. There were murmured jokes at the studio about that "feel-good AIDS movie." There was talk about trying to move the project to the more prestige-oriented Focus Features, but little action.
Frustrated, Borten and Wallack extricated the rights and brought Brenner back to find new money. But the well was dry. Even though years had passed since her last go-round, and the AIDS crisis in the U.S. was neither as taboo nor as grave, financiers were still reluctant. It was as though Hollywood executives had done an about-face but still come to the same conclusion. Before, the subject of AIDS was too touchy. Now the feeling was that it was no longer relevant.
In the spring of 2011, as he rode around Los Angeles with a reporter talking up "The Lincoln Lawyer," Matthew McConaughey sipped a Corona and, very calmly, said that he thought by making "Dallas Buyers Club" a top priority for him, the movie could finally get made.
But surely he had heard about all the big-name actors who'd struck out? "Oh, I know," he said, a twinkle in his eye. "But I think we may have it this time."
You could be forgiven for doubting McConaughey. The actor was coming off the not-quite-Oscar-caliber "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" and "Surfer, Dude," and still hadn't accrued the credibility movies like "Bernie" and "Mud" would bring him. He did, however, have a level of intense commitment, the kind that comes from wanting people to see you differently.
In the project's latest director, Jean-Marc Vallee, McConaughey also had a partner in stubbornness. A veteran indie helmer, Vallee had made movies like "C.R.A.Z.Y." and "Young Victoria" outside the system. He didn't know about the Hollywood ways of overthinking a movie to within an inch of its life, and didn't much care about it. With his prodding, with Brenner's persistence (Wallack describes her as someone who "somehow always gets things done") and with McConaughey making clear to his agents at CAA that this was a priority, it had a shot.
And so last summer, a group of Canadian equity investors was willing to put up the funds. Then they got cold feet. "Sometimes you think you're right there, and it turns out you're not," Vallee, with salt-and-pepper hair and an intense aura, would say later. "But I like to say 'keep the faith.' I thought, 'Something will save us.' "
That something turned out to be CAA agents Laura Lewis and Roeg Sutherland. Or, more specifically, McConaughey's subtle ways of pushing them and their colleagues. The actor had begun losing weight, and he started talking about it in late-night interviews. He was essentially dictating that the movie get made, a kind of caloric throwing of the gauntlet. If he lost the weight and his representation couldn't justify it, they'd have egg on their face.
CAA and the indie-film wrangler Cassian Elwes landed a few million dollars from the upstart L.A.-based Voltage Pictures, which had helped finance "The Hurt Locker." But they were still at least $2 million short, and time was running out. McConaughey couldn't keep the weight off forever. They would shoot in 2012 or not at all.
Their angel came from an unlikely place. Elwes' ex-wife, Holly Wiersma, also a producer, was now dating the investor-producer Logan Levy. And Levy's father had a friend who worked at Truth Chemical, a Houston-based company that had made its money primarily in the fertilizer business. Hollywood glamour it wasn't. But the Truth Chemical partners, Tony Notargiacomo and Joe Newcomb, were hankering to get into the movie business. A period AIDS drama wasn't exactly what they had in mind. But it had a movie star in McConaughey — a Texas boy with some swagger, like them — and it had buzz, and that was enough.
"Dallas Buyers" may be one of the most serious-minded dramas to come out of the mainstream movie business this year. Yet its existence illustrates that filmmaking ambition isn't just the result of persistence; it depends on more chance-y factors, like a star looking to redefine himself at the moment a couple of celebrity-minded businessmen have some change in their pockets.
"There are times as a producer when you want to scream 'Why am I doing this,' when the rock you're pushing up a hill rolls on top of you," said Brenner, whose acolyte, Rachel Winter, guided the movie as a producer on set. "And then something comes from out of nowhere to remove it."
McConaughey summed it up this way: "With indie movies, the making it is the easy part. It's everything that comes before."
Even with the money, the challenges were far from over. The production needed to find its Rayon, the cross-dressing man afflicted with AIDS who in the script forms a friendship and a business arrangement with Woodroof. Gael Garcia Bernal had dropped out for family reasons. Other big names weren't so sure about playing a cross-dresser.
Jared Leto, a successful rock star who rarely acted anymore, had less to lose. Vallee barely knew Leto. But in a Skype meeting, Leto appeared in full drag as Rayon. The director was convinced. Meanwhile, Vallee liked Noomi Rapace for the female lead, a doctor who initially fights Woodroof, but he was persuaded to take Jennifer Garner, who others felt would be more commercial.
And then the big battle ground: time and money. Vallee and his manager, Nathan Ross, another of the film's producers, wanted a budget of about $8 million and 40 days to shoot. Yet there was only $5 million and a lightning-quick 25 days. And even that was a stretch, enabled mainly by shooting in rebate-rich Louisiana.
Many directors would have walked, but Vallee stayed. Critics often extol a filmmaker's vision as "uncompromising." But sometimes the art of filmmaking comes down to knowing when to make the calculation that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
In the end, the movie was acquired this spring by Focus Features — a division of the company that, notably, tried unsuccessfully to make it for seven years. Whether the studio and audiences will find that the film resonates in an era when AIDS is far less urgent remains to be seen. (There is something of a boomlet for AIDS-themed period films; Ryan Murphy has been shooting the long-gestating adaptation of Larry Kramer's 1985 play, "The Normal Heart.")
Its fate will of course depend in large part on how filmgoers react to its vision. Several people who've seen "Dallas Buyers" say it has an arty feel, bypassing many of the Hollywood conventions of uplift while bearing other marks of an auteur piece. It is shot, for instance, with no added lighting and no score.
As the production wound down that day in December — one of Hollywood's most famous unproduced scripts now, finally, produced — there was an air of celebration on the set, and dazed disbelief. "I'm not a mystical person, but this feels like a spiritual thing. We got this done because the stars aligned," Ross later said.
"A part of it," McConaughey said as he stood in a fleece denim jacket preparing for his final takes, "has yet to really hit home."
Beaming most was Borten, who after all the ups and downs was watching the execution of the script he and Wallack had, more or less, originally crafted so many years before. Borten was decked out in an unflatteringly extravagant outfit for the gay-club scene, the result of Vallee granting, in his own way, Borten's fervent wish to be an extra in the film. But at the moment the writer didn't seem to mind.
"There's something about this film," Borten said, exhaling as the last of the extras packed up and remaining members of the crew tiredly raised their glasses in celebration. "It gets its hooks into you and won't let you go."