Dallas Buyers Club Screenwriters
Talk The Film’s Journey To The Screen
By Erin Whitney
Screenwriter Craig Borten made a promise 20 years ago to Ron Woodroof. This year, Borten followed through on that promise in bringing Dallas Buyers Club to the screen.
The film, which has been nominated for a handful of Golden Globes, SAG and Academy awards, recounts Woodroof’s journey as a homophobic rodeo cowboy who became a champion for AIDS victims. Woodroof, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live. After an FDA-approved drug nearly kills him, he decides to take control of his recovery and begins illegally smuggling medications into the U.S. With the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender suffering with AIDS, Woodroof starts a buyers club that sells the alternative medicines to victims of the disease.
The story behind Dallas Buyers Club is not only one about a man fighting to stay alive, but also one about those devoted to telling his story, even if it took two decades to make it happen. The screenwriters behind the film, Borten and Melisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror), talked with REAP about the seemingly endless challenges they faced and what they hope the film inspires in audiences.
How did you first learn about Ron Woodroof’s story?
Borten - A friend of mine sent me an article in The Independent. It was called "Staying Alive", and it covered the international gray market and the people that established it, who were smuggling in underground AIDS therapies for opportunistic infections and started buyers clubs. It had a feature on Ron Woodroof, who started the Dallas Buyers Club. I just thought he was a fascinating character, wrote him a letter, ultimately got him on the phone, and he said, “If you want to interview me, be here tomorrow.” So I drove to Texas and met with him for three days, about 25 hours of interviews on Dictaphone, and that’s what the movie’s based on.
And was that back in 1992?
Correct. That was 1992, and he passed about a month later.
Melisa, when did you join the film, and what drew you to it?
Wallack - I came on in 2000. What drew me to it? I think basically the character of Ron and his journey. Craig had written a bunch of drafts, and when I read it, I just immediately knew that he was a character that would be so much fun and gratifying to write.
Making this film took 20 years. What were the main setbacks?
Borten - There were so many different setbacks. One was the time, the closeness to the disease. It’s a tough subject matter, it’s a tough character. His character [Ron] doesn’t really lend itself to a studio movie, even though we got a studio involved. I think the different types of actors that were involved and filmmakers kind of elevated the material so that studios couldn’t look away. Ultimately, I think it was always an independent film that Melisa and I saw as this unlikely friendship between Ron Woodroof and Rayon, and it was best served as an independent movie. The thing is, certain films just take what they take. People think you set up a project and it’s in production six months later, but the truth is a lot of great films, or a lot of good films, take at least 10 years to get off the ground, and if you get it done before then, you’re lucky.
Were there any other challenges when developing the film?
Borten - Are you kidding me? (Borten and Wallack laugh)
Wallack - Every challenge. It was a difficult movie when we tried to get financing for it. I think almost every financer was like, “No one cares about AIDS. We don’t want to make a movie about it.” And obviously the financing part of every movie is so difficult, but this movie in particular just kept falling apart. Three weeks before we were shooting it fell apart. We kept on losing days, we kept on losing money. Writing someone’s life is a very difficult thing to do, and you always know there are going to be aspects that are left out. I think you definitely have to fall in love with the character and the story in order to persevere, so thankfully we had Ron as a character. I think both of us are so inspired by him that he kept us going.
Borten - His “never say die” attitude created our “never say die” attitude. Also, I made a promise to Ron that I would get his story told. He’s like, “I have a question for you, Craig. When will this film be in production?” And I was like, “Maybe a year, year and a half tops.” I was like, “Geez, I’m late.” I was late on the promise, but it happened eventually.
Did you ever have a specific actor in mind to play Ron?
Borten - Mostly I don’t write with actors in mind. We just fell in love with this character, and we just wanted to service the page and write an amazing character. We just happened to get, I don’t know, I guess we got lucky. We got four great actors that cast at different times that loved the material.
Jared Leto’s Rayon is one of the best parts of the film, and he has been nominated for a Supporting Golden Globe. What was it like writing such a groundbreaking character who is transgender?
Wallack - It was really great. Jared’s character is really the heart of the movie. We met with a lot of people, transgender people, Craig had spoken to them too before, and I think it was a very interesting experience. We feel really blessed to be able to write a character like that and see it come to life. And the added benefit of Jared, who is so much more amazing than we could’ve hoped for or thought anyone would be.
Borten - I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I think it was a very risky role for an actor to take. You could fall on your face, but Jared just humanized him, just made him beautiful. It was so much fun to watch him create this character, bring this character to set, and watch it evolve over the 25 days.
I read that when Craig met with Ron, he said he wanted a film to be made so that people would ask questions. What are those questions you, and he, hope the film makes people ask?
Borten - That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked it! I think ultimately, he wanted to empower people. From his point of view it was like, “I’m given these 30 days, what do you do?” For me, it was like, “Would I have the balls to be as proactive as Ron? Would I have the balls to sue for medication and smuggle drugs that I feel could help me and create a movement?” I found it inspiring, and I think Ron in the film poses that question.
Wallack - I think that our film and what Ron was getting at is that it transcends the AIDS epidemic. That you don’t sit and be a passive observer, and that you really become proactive in all aspects of your life. That you don’t just take everyone’s opinions. You have to formulate what your own path is going to be. You really have to ask questions about everything.
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