This story appeared in OscarWrap: Director/Best Picture/Screenplay/Animation.
Craig Borten can rattle off the major actors and directors who were supposed to make “Dallas Buyers Club” like a gathering of old friends. Dennis Hopper agreed to direct it at one point. Woody Harrelson was going to star. Brad Pitt was attached when the project moved to Universal. Ryan Gosling‘s name weaseled its way in at some point. But for two decades, every time the writer thought his movie was going to get made, somebody got cold feet. It’s not hard to see why — a drama about a man dying of AIDS was never an easy sell to financiers.
Borten’s road to “Dallas” began when a girl he was dating showed him an article about the international gray market of the early 1990s, when people with AIDS were desperate for alternatives to AZT, the drug most doctors were hawking to combat HIV. The article mentioned several people who offered unapproved medicines through “buyers clubs.” One of them was a Dallas electrician named Ron Woodroof. “He was this cowboy,” Borten told TheWrap. “A brash guy who would try anything on himself. He was his own guinea pig.”
Woodroof’s story struck a chord with Borten, far right, who had lost a father and stepfather to cancer. “I had seen them go through similar things in terms of coldness of doctors,” he said. “They were both looking at and thinking about seeking out alternative treatments in Mexico.”
Borten, an actor with no writing credits under his belt, began corresponding with Woodroof, pictured below left, trying to persuade him that the story merited a movie. In 1992, Woodroof consented and, before his death in September, sat for interviews with Borten. Borten wrote the script, began pitching it and experienced a decade of starts, stops and rejections before turning to screenwriter Melisa Wallack (“Mirror Mirror”), whom he’d met through a mutual friend. “I was tired. I needed another eye, and she’s an incredible writer. She helped elevate everything I’d started.”
Wallack’s first suggestion was that Borten lighten up a bit. “There had to be this other side to dealing drugs,” Wallack, near right, told TheWrap. “Ron had this personality that was so incredible. The funny moments in the script are from what he really would say.”
Together, the writers came up with Rayon, a transgender character that was an amalgam of various people they’d met and read about. “There was no better way to put [Ron’s] homophobia in place than to have him face a transgender person.” Borten said. “We had so much fun with this relationship.” Eventually, Jared Leto, who’d put his acting career on hold to play in the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, broke his six-year hiatus to portray Rayon. The vividly drawn character came alive in Leto’s hands.
Wallack’s and Borten’s revised script lured Universal and Pitt, but it would be several more years before Universal’s subsidiary Focus Features would acquire the rights to release the film. By that point, it had a different leading man: Matthew McConaughey, in the middle of a career renaissance. But even that hadn’t come easy: McConaughey had kept Borten and Wallack’s script on his desk for 10 years before taking on a part he was born for: a charming, womanizing, homophobic Texan turned advocate for those with AIDS.
Once signed, the actor spent months researching Woodroof with director Jean- Marc Vallée. Like Leto, he shed close to 40 pounds for the part, leaving him a gaunt shadow of his typically muscular self.
But as McConaughey and Leto transformed their bodies to prepare, Borten, Wallack and producer Robbie Brenner found themselves staring death in the face one more time. With production three weeks away, and with two emaciated lead actors, the financing dropped out. “The money was not in the bank for the first 10 or 11 days,” Borten said. “We were self-financing it.” Brenner called McConaughey and asked him if he would be comfortable postponing until the spring. Wallack recalled his response: “It’s a moving train; get on it.”
“That’s why it got made,” Borten said. “Matthew said, ‘We’re not pushing anything.’ It was either put Matthew on a feeding tube or finance the story.”
Truth Entertainment and Voltage Pictures finally stepped in, and the filmmakers ended up making “Dallas Buyers Club” for about $3.5 million, less than half of what they initially expected. “The scope had to be different,” Wallack said. Instead of portraying a grander tableau, “It was tied close to Ron Woodroof.”
Finally, after 20 years and endless drafts, Borten and Wallack arrived on the set of a movie that would put them in the center of this year’s awards race. “It was heaven on Earth,” Borten recalled. “On the first day of principal photography, Matthew said, ‘Here’s to a 20-year pre-game.'”