Getting 'Dallas Buyers Club' Made Took Tenacity And 'Will'
They appear remarkably unscarred for a couple of writers who survived a punishing Hollywood battle. Craig Borten is tall, with deep-set eyes. Melisa Wallack is tiny and neat, in a perfectly fitting black sweater. They're lounging in a creamily upholstered room in a top Los Angeles talent agency, as Borten dryly explains how he might have pitched their movie Dallas Buyers Club to a studio executive.
"Oh, well, it's about this heterosexual, homophobic, white-trash, urban, racist, cowboy who gets AIDS, who befriends this transgendered person, and they both die in the end," he says.
"Are you interested?"
Living In 'Development Hell'
Dallas Buyers Club is based on a real person. Borten learned about Ron Woodroof in the early 1990s when an ex-girlfriend mailed him a newspaper clipping about Woodroof and buyers clubs. Those were the gray-market groups providing HIV medications to people who needed them during the height of the AIDS crisis, when activists felt the Food and Drug Administration was letting them down. Then in his 20s, Borten drove from New York to Texas to interview Woodroof — for three days — about starting a buyers club in Dallas. He wrote a script, and sold it in 1996.
"There was Dennis Hopper to direct, Woody Harrelson to star," he recalled.
But the company that bought the script went bankrupt. Borten teamed up with Melisa Wallack, and the next year, they sold a new script to Universal, with Brad Pitt to star and Marc Forster to direct, the latter then hot off the indie hit Monsters Ball.
But Forster and Pitt ended up making World War Z instead. (Later, Ryan Gosling and director Craig Gillespie would sign on but the financing fell apart.) Universal decided the script was not ready. It languished in what's called "development hell" for nearly a decade. Hollywood screenwriters learn to detach, but Borten says losing Dallas Buyers Club was like "a death blow." He lost himself in a vortex of alcohol and drugs.
"It was everything," he said ruefully. "Everything. Just think of everything. That's what I wanted. The whole rainbow of substances."
"Yup," Wallack agreed. For her, she said, one of the darkest moments in the story behind Dallas Buyers Club came when she had to peel her fellow screenwriter off the floor. Borten said he remembers little from that time except for ending up in a state-run rehab facility.
"Ninety-five percent of the guys were coming straight out of prison or jail in jumpsuits," he recalled. "And my roommate had a swastika, and he had just done 11 years for manslaughter. And I grew up there. I was there for seven months."
Right when Borten entered rehab, the writers managed to retrieve the rights to their Dallas Buyers Club script, thanks to a clause in their Writers Guild contract.
"It went dormant during my dark days and then came to life during my light days," Borten joked. "I'm sure that's just my perspective."
The Bongo-Playing Bro
In 2009, thanks to Robbie Brenner, a producer who had been involved with the project nearly from the beginning, Matthew McConaughey got involved. Movies such as Killer Joe, Mud and Magic Mike hadn't yet transformed the actor's career, and he was still generally thought of as a frequently shirtless, bongo-playing bro with a certain stoned likability.
"He's the one who got it made," Wallack says firmly. "It was his commitment to losing the weight."
McConaughey shed more than 40 pounds — a quarter of his body weight — to play a man slowly dying of AIDS, even before there was money to make the film. All of the publicity around his weight loss on talk shows and in magazines lent Dallas Buyers Club an air of inevitability and may even have helped with a new round of financing. But just 10 weeks before filming, the investors backed out. Producer Rachel Winter was feeding the crew, which had arrived in New Orleans for preproduction, with her personal credit cards.
"We just willed that movie into existence," says Robbie Brenner. "We willed it. We willed it. We willed it. There was no time to be hysterical and pull out our hair and yell and scream. We did what women do best, which is just deal."
The epic deal-making behind Dallas Buyers Club is not particularly unusual. But in this case, Brenner sees the tenacity of everyone involved as a tribute to someone who fought the health care system to get what he needed to survive.
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"Dallas Buyers Club" is among the most talked about movies of the year, and it's nabbed Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay. NPR's Neda Ulaby met the writing team that fought for 20 years to bring their story to the screen.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack appear remarkably unscarred for a couple of writers who survived a punishing, decade's long Hollywood battle. He's tall with deep-set eyes. She's tiny and neat, in a perfectly fitting black sweater. They're lounging in a creamily upholstered room in a top Los Angeles talent agency.
CRAIG BORTEN: I mean my closest friends were like, no one will ever make that film. Put it down. It's never getting made. It's never going to happen. Nobody will make it.
ULABY: And that, from friends. Financiers would say...
MELISA WALLACK: AIDS is no longer relevant, so we don't think that we should make this movie.
ULABY: Wallack says before "Dallas Buyers Club" was nominated for six Oscars, they had a joke about its elevator pitch. That's the idea if you're in an elevator with an executive who can green light your movie, you've got a little sliver of time to sell your story.
BORTEN: Oh, well, it's about this heterosexual, homophobic, white trash urban, racist cowboy who gets AIDS; who befriends this transgendered person. And they both die at the end. Are you interested?
ULABY: "Dallas Buyers Club" is based on a real person. In the movie, he's played by Mathew McConaughey, now up for Best Actor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) They're trying to tell me I got some sort of HIV virus (BLEEP). Like, I got AIDS. (Laughter) The hospitals, man, mixed up my blood samples.
ULABY: In real life, Ron Woodroof was a foul-mouthed, scrappy rodeo enthusiast. Borten learned about him when an ex-girlfriend mailed him a newspaper clipping back in the 1990s, about Woodroof and buyers' clubs. Those were the gray market groups providing HIV medications to people who needed them during the height of the AIDS crisis. Borten, then in his 20s, drove cross country to interview Ron Woodroof for three days, about starting a buyers' club in Dallas. Borten sold his script in 1996 to some big Hollywood names.
BORTEN: There was Dennis Hopper to direct, Woody Harrelson to star.
ULABY: But the company that bought the script went bankrupt. So Borten teamed up with Melisa Wallack and the next year, they sold a new script to Universal.
BORTEN: With Brad Pitt to act, and Marc Forester to direct.
ULABY: But Forester and Pitt made "World War Z" instead. Later, Ryan Gosling signed on, but the financing fell apart. Universal decided the script was not ready. It was sent to other writers in what's called development hell. There, it languished for nearly a decade. Hollywood screenwriters learn to detach, but Craig Borten says losing "Dallas Buyers Club" was awful.
BORTEN: Like a death blow. (Laughter) Right?
ULABY: It was a death blow?
BORTEN: Yeah, it was a death blow.
ULABY: That's when Borten lost himself in a vortex of alcohol and drugs.
BORTEN: It was everything. Everything. Just think of everything, that's what I wanted.
BORTEN: The whole rainbow of...
ULABY: Melisa Wallack says for her, one of the darkest moments in the story behind "Dallas Buyers Club" was when she peeled her messed-up fellow screenwriter up off the floor. For his part, Craig Borten doesn't remember much from that time except ending up in a state-run rehab facility.
BORTEN: Ninety-five percent of the guys were coming straight out of prison or jail, in jumpsuits. And my roommate had a swastika, and he had just done 11 years for manslaughter. And I kind of learned - I grew up there. I was there for seven months.
ULABY: Right when Borten started to get clean, they won back their script for "Dallas Buyers Club," thanks to a clause in the Writers Guild contract.
BORTEN: It went dormant during my dark days, and then came to life during my light days. I'm sure that's just my own perspective.
WALLACK: It's your own narcissism. It's OK.
BORTEN: Yeah, it's my own narcissism.
ULABY: How did it feel when you got it back?
WALLACK: Honestly, it felt like there was another long road ahead.
BORTEN: Yeah, I was like, why?
ULABY: Then, Matthew McConaughey got involved. It was 2009, and the actor was still generally thought of as a bongo-playing bro with a certain stoned likability.
WALLACK: He's the one that got it made. It was his commitment to losing the weight.
ULABY: McConaughey started losing a quarter of his body weight to play a man slowly dying of AIDS, even before there was money to make the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF "LARRY KING LIVE")
LARRY KING: He's one of my favorite people. He's Matthew McConaughey, and his new movie is "Killer Joe." We're going to talk about...
ULABY: On talk shows, Like Larry King's, McConaughey started plugging "Dallas Buyers Club" instead of "Killer Joe" and other movies actually in theaters.
(SOUNDBITE OF "LARRY KING LIVE")
KING: Why are you so thin?
MCCONAUGHEY: I'm losing some weight. I've got a role coming up.
ULABY: The actor's gaunt appearance brought not only publicity to "Dallas Buyers Club" but a sense of inevitability. The money finally came through. But then only 10 weeks before filming, the investors backed out. That gave the film's two female producers only about two months to pull together its $5 million budget. Producer Robbie Brenner.
ROBBIE BRENNER: We just willed the movie into existence. We willed it. We willed it, we willed it. There was no time to be hysterical and pull our hair out and yell and scream. And, you know, we do what women do best, which is we just deal.
ULABY: The epic deal-making behind "Dallas Buyers Club" is not particularly unusual. But in this case, Brenner sees her tenacity - and the stars' and the directors' and the screenwriters' - as a tribute to someone who fought the health care system to get what he needed to survive.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.