Opening night of the 2013 Film Independent (FIND) Forum, a three-day intensive on filmmaking at the Directors Guild on Sunset Boulevard, featured a preview of Dallas Buyers Club and a question and answer session with its producers, Robbie Brenner (Escape Plan, Immortals) and Rachel Winter (Brooklyn Rules, The Lather Effect).
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jered Leto, Dallas Buyers Club chronicles the quest of real-life Texas cowboy Ron Woodroof. Woodroof moves from hard partying, “homo hatin’,” rodeo trailer-trash to a crusader for the rights of HIV victims.
In 1985, Woodroof discovers he has AIDS and seeks medical help, but finds the only effective treatment is illegal in the United States and only available in Mexico. He uses a loophole in the law to create a “buyers club”, a way to distribute medication without being charged with selling illegal drugs or practicing medicine. The buyers club technique was used in many cities across the country as a way to deliver otherwise unavailable help to HIV victims.
Woodruff finds allies in another AIDS patient, a pre-op transexual played by Leto, and a doctor played by Garner. During the question and answer session producers Brenner and Winter discussed the challenges they encountered in bringing Woodroof’s story to the screen.
The script, Brenner explained, had been bouncing around Hollywood for almost 20 years. Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, it had been picked up by Universal with Brad Pitt attached, but it languished there in “development hell” for eight years. After a screenplay goes undeveloped for that long, according to Writers Guild agreements, it reverts to the authors. That’s when she got involved.
“No matter how many times the studio re-wrote the script,” Brenner explained, “it was still about AIDS.” When she started on the project she went back to the original script. The subject matter also hindered financing. Brenner considered postponing production, but when she called McConaughey to discuss this, it was a no-go. McConaughey had another film scheduled to begin shortly after this one, and, more importantly his health was at stake. He had lost 30 pounds to play the AIDS-wracked Ron Woodroof and his doctor told him if he tried to do that again, he would be endangering his life.
“The first few days of production,” Winter recalled, “I was buying the crew lunch on my credit card.”
The final financing was secured three days before production by executive producer Cassian Elwes. In a separate session of the FIND Forum, Elwes was asked about this. “I was doing my ex-wife a favor by taking her new boyfriend to meet some financiers in Dallas. They didn’t like his project, but when I told them I was doing a film called ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ they said, ‘Hey, we’re from Dallas. Cool, we’re in.’”
Brenner was busy on another job, so she brought in her old friend Winter who she knew was good at keeping things going on a set. She also recruited European director Jean-Marc Vallée. “I wanted the film to have a gritty, European feel,” she said. Vallée’s ideas produced some unintended consequences. He wanted to make the film using all natural light. Brenner was skeptical of the plan, but Vallée had recently shot half of another film that way, and the results had been good.
The unintended consequence of this decision was to speed up the production and it allowed actors to stay in character almost all the time. This was particularly true for Leto. Winter said, “He showed up dressed like a woman, used the characters voice the entire time, and left that way, too. After a couple days, I saw some of the crew searching for You-tube videos of him, just so they could find out what he really looked and sounded like.”
Though certainly not the intention of the writers or producers, the release of the film during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act should help those not enamored of government control of health care. The film carries a strong libertarian message and McConaughey’s character spends much of the film avoiding or actively fighting against the Food and Drug Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. The film illustrates how big government and big pharma can stand between sick people and the medicine that can save them.
As I left the Directors Guild, I turned my car onto Sunset Boulevard and within a block I looked up and saw one of the large, often unique, billboards for which the street is known. The signage on the billboard consisted of the words “HIVcare.org”, a picture of happy people, and the words “Not Scary.” To the extent that is true, HIV patients owe a lot to Ron Woodroof.
Dallas Buyers Club, rated R, opens November 1, 2013.