Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Genre: Drama, Biography, History
Running Time: 117 minutes
Synopsis: An imperfect man fights for survival during an uncertain time in America. Inspired by true events, Ron Woodroof's story of strength is told in Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from an original screenplay by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack. Spirit Award winner Matthew McConaughey portrays the real-life character, whose selfinterest is galvanised into something much more.
A son of Texas, Ron Woodroof is an electrician and rodeo cowboy. In 1985, he is well into an unexamined existence with a devil-may-care lifestyle. Suddenly, Ron is blindsided by being diagnosed as H.I.V.-positive and given 30 days to live. Yet he will not, and does not, accept a death sentence.
His crash course of research reveals a lack of approved treatments and medications in the U.S., so Ron crosses the border into Mexico. There, he learns about alternative treatments and begins smuggling them into the U.S., challenging the medical and scientific community including his concerned physician, Dr. Eve Saks (Screen Actors Guild Award winner Jennifer Garner).
An outsider to the gay community, Ron finds an unlikely ally in fellow AIDS patient Rayon (Gotham Independent Film Award winner Jared Leto), a transsexual who shares Ron's lust for life. Rayon also shares Ron's entrepreneurial spirit: seeking to avoid government sanctions against selling non-approved medicines and supplements, they establish a 'buyers club," where H.I.V.-positive people pay monthly dues for access to the newly acquired supplies. Deep in the heart of Texas, Ron's pioneering underground collective beats loud and strong. With a growing community of friends and clients, Ron fights for dignity, education, and acceptance. In the years following his diagnosis, the embattled Lone Star loner lives life to the fullest like never before.
Dallas Buyers Club
Release Date: 13th of February, 2014
In September 1992, Ron Woodroof succumbed to complications from AIDS. Seven years earlier, he had been given 30 days to live.
The month before Ron Woodroof's death, screenwriter Craig Borten drove from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas to meet him and begin work on telling Ron Woodroof's story for a movie that would ultimately take 20 years to get made, Dallas Buyers Club. Craig Borten was drawn to Ron Woodroof's story, and that of the Dallas Buyers Club, after being pointed towards it by a friend. Ron Woodroof had been diagnosed with H.I.V. in 1985, at the flashpoint of America's growing awareness of AIDS. The syndrome had already been ravaging the nation's gay community for over four years; this womanising, macho electrician was one of millions who saw AIDS only as 'that gay disease."
At age 35, the proud son of Texas found himself shunned and ostracised by his friends and co-workers. He was dying and nearly broke. Yet he was determined to survive and, against all odds, he not only survived but thrived and helped save lives.
In the seven years since his diagnosis, Ron Woodroof had become a walking encyclopedia of anti-viral meds, pharmaceutical trials and patents, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations, and court decisions. He was fighting for patients' rights, including for access to alternative medicines and treatments. After writing letters that went unanswered, Craig Borten phoned the Dallas Buyers Club offices. Ron Woodroof got on the phone and told the writer to come and visit the very next day.
Craig Borten felt that the story of a homophobic cowboy who suddenly, incredibly found himself on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic was profound and unique. The screenwriter reflects, 'The more I found out, the more compelling it was. What interested me was having this man who goes from being extremely bigoted to having his closest friends throw that right back at him – and then he evolves to learn what real friendship is and what it means. Those who accept him and support him are H.I.V. and AIDS patients, nearly all of whom are gay. 'Here's someone who gets a death sentence and turns it around, and makes these discoveries. In the process, he is changed and he helps other people.
Anyone who defeats the odds is inspiring to me and that's what Ron Woodroof did. And he was a better person for it."
Craig Borten spent several days with Ron Woodroof, recording with a Dictaphone more than 20 hours of interviews with him at the Dallas Buyers Club.
After Ron Woodroof passed away, the telling of his story – one of self-preservation and self-interest that flowered into benefitting so many others – began its own unexpected journey. Craig Borten continued doing further research, and kept writing.
Once confident that he had told Ron Woodroof's story well in feature script form, he gave the screenplay to a close friend, producer Robbie Brenner, to read.
'I fell in love with it instantly," says Robbie Brenner. 'What an incredible journey Ron Woodroof lived. The story is very human on all levels. Because of who Ron Woodroof was, how he was raised and where he came from, he had the will to question and to fight through adversity and tragedy. When he got AIDS, he was able to see his life through a different lens; he changed the course of it, affecting other people and helping them. Yet he didn't set out to do those things. He was just trying to survive.
'The script reminded me of movies I love that mattered. I told Craig Borten I wanted to produce this movie."
That was in 1997, when Robbie Brenner was a production executive at a studio where the project went into development but didn't get made. Craig Borten got the rights back, shopped it around, got it optioned, and rewrote it, adding in new material based on further research.
In 2000, Criag Borten teamed with screenwriter Melisa Wallack to rework the script. Together they streamlined the scope of the story, stepping back from the volumes of information and opinions to take a closer look at one man's odyssey. Craig Borten remembers, 'We broke it down into different people representing different points of view."
Melisa Wallack remarks, 'Ron Woodroof's evolution was pretty amazing, and it was his discoveries and insights into himself as well as into AIDS research and medications that pointed the script in the direction it ultimately went."
In 1985, AZT (Azidothymidine) was the only anti-viral medication to show promise in treating H.I.V. and AIDS. Yet it was largely unavailable – limited to patients in clinical trials, or sold underground on the rapidly developing black market. Then, in 1987 it was brought to market as the most expensive approved drug ever sold, costing more than $10,000 for a year's supply.
Patients died daily. H.I.V. infections and AIDS-related deaths climbed exponentially year after year. All the while, AIDS activists and patients like Ron pushed for affordable and alternative treatments. They urged expedited FDA approvals for the dozens of potentially helpful medications that were not available in the U.S.
'Ron Woodroof went toe-to-toe with the FDA – and at times the DEA, the FBI, and the IRS," marvels Melisa Wallack. This is a man who fought the government for the right to control what went into his body. He sued the FDA in federal court in San Francisco, asserting that their actions had violated his 9th Amendment -right to a healthy mind.' The more we researched, the more we were struck by the broader constitutional questions about personal freedoms."
Ron's Time Comes
Once Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack had a new draft of the screenplay written, Dallas Buyers Club got into active development at a studio, this time for nearly a decade. But it still was not made. When the WGA's reversion clause brought the rights back to the two screenwriters in 2009, the duo sought out Robbie Brenner anew. Although their script had earned plenty of supporters over the years, none had remained as ardent or dedicated as Robbie Brenner.
Craig Borten recalls, 'Every time the project went into turnaround, Robbie Brenner would say, -I can get this movie made.'"
Melisa Wallack notes, 'We felt, now was the time; we gave her permission to shop it around."
Robbie Brenner sent Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's screenplay to actor Matthew McConaughey to see if the Texas native would be interested in playing another Texas native. 'I asked myself, -Who is Ron Woodroof?' and in my mind, it was Matthew McConaughey," says Robbie Brenner. 'Like Ron Woodroof, he's from Dallas, he's handsome, and he has a twinkle in the eye. Matthew McConaughey also has intensity and intelligence like Ron Woodroof did, mixed with that cowboy charisma and fighter's spirit. He was beyond perfect for the role."
Craig Borten adds, 'Ron Woodroof was a very charismatic, funny and persuasive, a real salesman. Even if he was making fun of you, you wanted him to continue because he was so charming. Matthew possesses a lot of those same qualities." When Matthew McConaughey first read the screenplay for Dallas Buyers Club, he found 'a great story that bled off the page. It was incredibly human, with no sentimentality. I'd never read a script that tackled the issue from this point of view.
'Ron Woodroof was an American original. He shook the tree. He made noise. I said, -I want to get this made, get Ron Woodroof's story told.'"
That was all Robbie Brenner needed to hear; determined to get the film from development to production, she asked another passionate advocate of the project, Rachel Winter, to team with her as producer; Robbie Brenner would be continuing work on Dallas Buyers Club even while taking on a new full-time job at a film company.
Robbie Brenner didn't need to ask twice. 'I was honored; it was a story I needed to help tell," says Rachel Winter. 'It spoke to me personally: my father and I had gone through my uncle's dying from AIDS."
She reflects, 'What was thrilling is that I love true stories and this was a Davidand- Goliath story of one person fighting the good fight. It put me in mind of movies like Erin Brockovich, Milk, and Schindler's List, all of which showed us the power of the human spirit. You learn facts and history, but the dramatic impact
is in the person's journey. These are films that have stayed with me over the years, and I feel that they have a lot in common with Dallas Buyers Club.
'Reading Ron Woodroof's story made me wonder what I would do in that situation. What am I made of? Would I lie down and die? Would I become part of a community previously completely unknown to me? These were all elements of a great story."
The two producers sought a creative thinker who would feel the same way, and Robbie Brenner sensed that award-winning Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée was a director worth approaching.
Robbie Brenner thought he would bring 'something interpretive and poetic that would register on-screen. I had seen his first two movies and thought, -Any filmmaker who can make an out-there movie like C.R.A.Z.Y. and then go and make The Young Victoria, which is a classical love story and historical epic – well, this guy's amazing.'
'Jean-Marc Vallée has a strong style of storytelling through imagery, so I felt that he could make our movie both visual and performance-driven." Rachel Winter adds, 'His direction is visceral in the way it enhances the richness of character and emotion."
Jean-Marc Vallée was already at work on another movie, Café de Flore, but was floored to learn of the Woodroof story. 'I was wowed," says the director. 'I'm drawn to character-driven material, and this was emotional and inspiring. I loved the script immediately. Despite all of his flaws, I fell for Ron Woodroof and I think audiences will too."
Matthew McConaughey says, 'We didn't want to make -a message film,' or a documentary about AIDS. This is a dramatic film about one man's life."
Jean-Marc Vallée concurs, 'It's not a docudrama, nor a biography."
By mid- 2012, pre-production was under way. Jean-Marc Vallée asked department heads and actors to watch the award-winning documentary feature How to Survive a Plague. He remarks, 'It's a great film, and it was helpful for reference, showing the early years of AIDS advocacy groups. They were essential." Notable groups included ACT UP; Project Inform; AIDS Action Council; and People With AIDS (PWA) Coalitions.
To play opposite Matthew McConaughey, Jean-Marc Vallée and the producers sought actors who could hold their own – since their characters would have spirited give-and-take with Ron Woodroof. 'This was going to be a movie where a great script would only be as good as the people you put in it," said Craig Brenner. 'The bar was being set with Matthew McConaughey transforming himself into Ron Woodroof.
'For Rayon, I suggested Jared Leto to Jean-Marc Vallée. I kept thinking of Jared Leto; I heard his voice as the character's."
Robbie Brenner's instinct was correct, as Leto began working first 'on Rayon's voice, for weeks;" throughout film history, actors like Peter Sellers have needed to create and perfect their characters' speaking voices before the rest of the portrayal could crystallise.
Which it did: Jean-Marc Vallée states that he 'never met Jared Leto. I met Rayon; I don't know Jared Leto. Jared Leto never showed me Jared Leto. During our first meeting he was Rayon, and he tried to seduce me. He was so into the character, and had dressed as Rayon."
Jared Leto had been working as a writer/director and singer/musician for nearly five years, and wasn't looking to return to acting. But, as he explains, 'The convergence of elements – the role, the script, the director, Matthew McConaughey as Ron – made it impossible to turn this down.
'I was busy doing other things, but, as a friend of mine always says, -If you want something done, give it to the busiest person in the room.'" Robbie Brenner states, 'We were blessed to have Jared Leto return to acting with our movie."
Jared Leto 'knew the role was going to demand a massive commitment, but that's also part of what was attractive to me about it. I didn't want to be far from this character; I wanted to be as close as I could be.
'I got to know people through this wonderfully beautiful character who was a joy to build, to create. It was so rewarding."
After initially having being told about the project by Matthew McConaughey, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award winner Jennifer Garner read the script and signed on to play compassionate immunologist Dr. Eve Saks.
She found the story to be 'shining a light on a time in this country that was dark, taking a look back to see how far we've come while also taking a look at people who helped us move forward."
Rachel Winter says, 'The role of Eve is the most grounded in the film; Jennifer Garner is as well, and that comes through. A large part of Eve's journey is reacting to what she's learning from warriors as they're fighting the fight. Jennifer Garner brings a natural warmth and intelligence to the character."
'There's no falseness with Jennifer Garner," says Robbie Brenner. 'You look at her, and you believe that Eve wants to do some good."
Matthew McConaughey agrees that Jennifer Garner's 'inherent qualities and her gracefulness" serve her well in the role. He says, 'Eve wants my character to do the right thing. He sees that she's a good person, the kind of woman that a man should stand up for. Not that she's weak; it's more of, -Well, I know she's not wrong, so you must be.' With Jennifer Garner playing her, you see Eve's caring nature and her heart."
Jared Leto remarks, 'Jennifer Garner is empathetic and wonderfully connected, so Eve is always tender with Rayon."
The actress, who was born Texas and raised in West Virginia, saw her character as being caught between different worlds. She notes, 'Eve is dealing with this cowboy Ron Woodroof and with Rayon, who is an old friend of hers. Now she's in the establishment, but she wants to do the right thing for her patients. When she finds out that there might be other ways to think about and approach the treatment of AIDS, she starts to challenge the system. She's a doctor who becomes more of a healer."
With challenges of getting cast and financing in place at last being met, production finally began in November 2012.
Vallée states, 'This story is a beautiful and compelling one that had to be told.
We are all grateful and privileged to be part of this.
'Dallas Buyers Club is a personal story that is bigger than life. Ron Woodroof's story touches the heart."
The Battles and Business of AIDS
In the early 1980s, Michael O'Neill, who portrays FDA official Richard Barkley in Dallas Buyers Club, was a working actor living in New York City. With so little known at the time about how the illness was spreading and with misconceptions rampant, he remembers how 'everyone was so confused and afraid. 'One evening, I was on a subway and I saw this big kid who looked like a sweet guy from the Midwest. He was trying to cover his lesions with make-up. I thought, -He came here where it is okay to be who he is, and he is going to be gone."
Bigotry and prejudice against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is cited as a reason for the U.S. government's initial slow response to H.I.V., including insufficient funding for AIDS research. The association of AIDS with homosexuality triggered a ferocious anti-gay backlash, as patients
died in the trenches of an undeclared war.
H.I.V. and AIDS devastated neighborhood after neighborhood. Having lived in NYC's Chelsea – an area that had only just begun coming into its own – at the time, O'Neill reflects, 'It's important to remember this period."
Dallas Buyers Club costume designers Kurt and Bart do, all too well. They 'lived through all of that, including the fear. There was so much loss during that time, and so little that was known about treatment – and so much hard work being done by people fighting for lives. There haven't been enough movies
'Everyone on the film felt a personal connection and joined up for a reason. The character of Rayon, and the bond that she forms with Ron Woodroof, brought back a lot of memories."
Through it all the LGBT community led by example, responding to the disease with activism, research, and caring. Coming to the fight from a different vantage point, Ron Woodroof rallied in a manner all on his own.
Producer Robbie Brenner reminds, 'A lot of people still thought, -well, it's only in the homosexual community,' and wondered if it was airborne or you could get it by touching a H.I.V.-positive person. People were scared, and doctors were still wearing masks because they didn't know enough. When Ron Woodroof found out that he would die of a disease that was seen by him as counter to everything he knew in life, he embraced education."
Matthew McConaughey, in preparing for months to play the role, did everything he could to get into Ron's Woodroof mindset. He notes, 'After listening to audiotapes and doing my research, I didn't feel I needed any more information. Interviews with Ron Woodroof were so helpful. In listening to Ron Woodroof talk after seven years with H.I.V., I realised that a man speaks differently about himself and his legacy in retrospect than he does when he's living it in progress.
'But then I did decide to meet with Ron Woodroof's family, and that made a difference. It was very informative. They are wonderful people who opened up the library of their house to me, lent me scrapbooks, other tapes, a couple of his diaries, and more." Matthew McConaughey was quick to share the materials with members of the production team, bolstering the creative process for several key departments.
While reading journals and sitting with loved ones to talk about Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey gained new admiration for the man he would be portraying onscreen.
'At the beginning of this journey he's a two-bit cowboy, and by the end of it, he's a damn scientist. He did have an engineering mind which he'd put to good use to make something of a living as an electrician. That, too, came from the will to survive. Once he grasped that he had H.I.V., he gains purpose, he had this one clear thing to do – stay alive. Everything else followed from that."
Producer Rachel Winter reflects, 'When Ron Woodroof shares his news with his inner circle, their response is so hurtful – and, given the fear and ignorance of the times, hardly an exception. I think T.J., whom Kevin Rankin did a fantastic job playing, represents the last vestiges of Ron Woodroof's old life."
Screenwriter Melisa Wallack notes, 'Ron Woodroof's new life starts when he goes out and educates himself. Just imagine what this was like before there was an Internet!
We show how he was going to libraries, searching through microfiche files and newspapers, reading through scientific and medical publications looking for information about an illness that no one knew enough about. He knew nothing about the government agencies, the drug companies, and the medications – but
he learned and then he challenged everyone."
Throughout the screenwriting process, Melisa Wallack relished writing the lead character's combativeness. She marvels, 'Ron Woodroof was a s"t-kicking cowboy who ended up taking on so much and so many. He was a very resilient person. Maybe it was a Texas thing – -the government can't tell me what to do' – that made him so proactive. He was self-motivated in the beginning because he wanted to live, but he became very selfless. He wasn't a person who felt sorry for himself. He knew he was going to die, but he was going to die with his boots on and while kicking."
In Dallas Buyers Club, when thwarted by his own country's health care system, Ron Woodroof turns to the black market and discovers a caché of alternative drugs just beyond the Texas border in Mexico. At the AIDS clinic there, he meets expatriate physician Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne). In Mexico, Ron Woodroof finds renewed health and hope – and he also sees a lucrative business opportunity in smuggling the medications into the U.S. to sell, since he knows firsthand how AIDS patients were looking for affordable alternative treatments. His business soon brings him the unwanted attention of the FDA's Barkley, who will dog his trail for years to come.
For O'Neill, key to his portrayal was that 'Barkley can see that Ron Woodroof is ill, so he doesn't want to be the bad guy. Barkley gives him a pass, at least at first. During their initial interrogation, Barkley believes what he wants to believe – which most of us do anyway.
'I don't see my character as being wrong. He's standing by a system put in place to protect the American public. The question is, was that system remiss at that time?"
In learning that selling his smuggled drugs is not as easy as he first thought, Ron Woodroof discovers that Rayon is a formidable negotiator – and the vital link that can connect Ron to a community he doesn't, and hasn't tried to, understand.
Matthew McConaughey says, 'In Rayon, I think Ron Woodroof finds another person who's something of an outcast. But it's not this -now I understand' moment; that wasn't Ron Woodroof. He was determined to stay alive and get into this business, and he sees in Rayon a good business partner. So then it becomes -us against them,' or -us against the world.'"
'Rayon and Ron Woodroof are polar opposites," comments Jared Leto about the character dynamics. 'That's what made it so interesting: a cowboy and a queen. It is really a great pairing in terms of the construction of the scripting. It's wonderful screenwriting that the director embraced in terms of conveying how they
interact and find their way together. Partnering with Ron Woodroof gives Rayon more purpose in her life, more to live for."
As Ron Woodroof and Rayon's business grows, the Dallas Buyers Club becomes the subject of frequent raids by the FDA, DEA, and local police – with the entire inventory subject to confiscation. In turn, Ron Woodroof would apply for restraining orders and defiantly re-stock. When the FDA blocked the import of some of these drugs from specific countries, Ron Woodroof would travel to other countries to get them, or new alternatives.
Robbie Brenner remarks, 'The FDA was, and is, a necessary regulatory agency in that this country needs a place that checks to see the food and drugs we put into our bodies are safe. But it's also regulating powerful multi-billion dollar businesses and any time there is that much money involved, lines can get blurred.
'We were all very cognisant of doing research to make sure that everything we put into the script was accurate, and considerate of the people who lived and died during that time. Everything in the script was vetted – from all sides of the equation, including doctors and activists. Ron Woodroof extended his life through a lot of alternative medicines which helped contain the symptoms of AIDS, but were not a cure."
Rachel Winter notes, 'Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack found the right blend of accuracy – not only for the medical details, but for the legal and government issues that Ron Woodroof faced. There was only so far we could go into -procedural' mode; the movie had to be entertaining.
'It was so important to stay close to who Ron Woodroof was – which was something Matthew McConaughey felt particularly passionate about."
McConaughey believes that Ron Woodroof's relentless boundary-pushing was an important part of advancing the fight for accessible AIDS treatments forward. He remarks, 'Ron Woodroof was such a thorn in the side of the FDA, and he encouraged his Buyers Club clients to raise a ruckus. He and other patient advocates and activists successfully put the pressure on to speed up the process of getting these drugs available – and, crucially, affordable."
Those trailblasing activists and advocates often found themselves coordinating efforts, and sharing information, with Buyers Clubs. In December 1991, Chicago Tribune journalist Jean Latz Griffin reported that there were over a dozen Clubs operating out of 'small offices, storefronts and lofts" – and serving an
estimated 10,000 clients all across the U.S. Aside from Ron Woodroof's, Buyers Clubs at the time included the Healing Alternatives Foundation in San Francisco, the People With AIDS (PWA) Health Group in New York City, and Fight for Life in Fort Lauderdale.
By the mid-1990s, 'the AIDS cocktail" combination therapies became accepted treatment protocol for H.I.V./AIDS patients. In reduced doses, AZT was an early ingredient in these lifesaving treatments. These drug combinations have saved and prolonged millions of lives; in an 'ARV cocktail," three drugs each attack
different elements of viral replication, thereby greatly reducing the effects of H.I.V.
The struggle to find a cure is ongoing, as is the struggle to provide therapy for those patients in need of it; tens of thousands of people with H.I.V. in the U.S., and many millions overseas, lack access to information or treatment. Jennifer Garner reminds, 'Any progress that has been made is because of the sacrifices people make – and made; I still can't even imagine what it must have been like to lose so many friends back then."
Deeper Into Character
From the time they first convened in New York City to discuss making Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey and Jean-Marc Vallée had a meeting of the minds. The actor from Texas and the filmmaker from Montréal were both determined to keep Ron's story as raw and revealing as the man lived it.
Matthew McConaughey notes, 'The first thing I try to do as an actor is to humble myself before the text. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's script informed me of everything to take literally about the character, and also informed me of who Ron Woodroof was not.
'Jean-Marc Vallée and I felt we had a wild and crazy story that was pretty rock'n'roll with a lot of heart and a lot of humor, and some very ironic relationships that we were never going to shy away from. Our thinking was, if it's human, it's going to work."
Jean-Marc Vallée says, 'On each film, I'm hoping to capture reality, to be honest and try to make authentic and true moments on-screen. With the actors, I explore the emotional content of each scene and try to create the right rhythm for the work. On this project, we had to achieve a rollercoaster of emotions."
Matthew McConaughey found Jean-Marc Vallée's collaborative approach and 'dexterous mind" to be to his liking. The actor says, 'My favorite part of making movies is the architecture of the films, the process. From the moment Jean-Marc Vallée and I began talking, I found that he was a great listener; I don't think he's ever interrupted me once, and I can talk for a long time!
'We had a similar sense and understanding of what would be best for this movie, what fit. Early on, when we had a lot of choices to make, we would pick the same ones independent of each other."
Jean-Marc Vallée was impressed with Matthew McConaughey's dedication. 'He's a hard-working pro," marvels the filmmaker. 'He's a great student who does his homework. I've rarely seen an actor work like he has and prepare like he did. His script copies would be covered with notes. He's always challenging the storytelling and his character to make sure that it all works. Matthew was born and raised outside of Dallas, so he well knew where Ron Woodroof came from and the culture and history that shaped Ron Woodroof."
The actor allows that his character is 'a cantankerous bastard with a wicked sense of humor. He's a guy who's easy to hate, yet you can't help but love him. When people are true to themselves like that, you realise, -Man, that's just who he is,' and you end up caring about him.
'The way I approached playing him is to never forget that he was a businessman first, a man doing what was necessary to survive. Later on, he became a crusader for the cause, but almost without even knowing it. He helped save so many people, and whether he was doing it for all of us or doing it for selfish reasons, he did it."
Producer Rachel Winter observed Matthew McConaughey being true to Ron Woodroof. She remembers, 'He worked hard with us, with Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, to weave Ron Woodroof's personality, voice, and guts into the script. Ron Woodroof was a fast talker, a hustler by nature, and a fighter. Matthew McConaughey made sure that each of these qualities was reflected in the dialogue, in the way he spoke, and constant in his characterisation."
Jean-Marc Vallée marvels, 'Having studied the original audiotapes and Ron Woodroof's journals and quotations, Matthew McConaughey got close to the genuine article. Over the time that we worked together to bring this movie to fruition, he became someone else.'"
Jennifer Garner states, 'I could not have more respect for Matthew McConaughey, and not just for what he put himself through physically; it takes more than that discipline, it takes an intense need for truth. He knew the character inside and out, tore it apart and put it back together. Every day, he would lay himself open emotionally."
To prepare for her role as an AIDS immunologist, the actress spoke to different doctors and did a lot of reading – yet 'learned more from Matthew McConaughey about this time in history, about these drugs, about their effects on people, than from anyone or anything else."
Rachel Winter offers, 'Matthew McConaughey was beyond laser-focused in his passion to tell the story; the weight loss he underwent and the research he did spoke to his devotion to Dallas Buyers Club.
'I think audiences are going to forget that they are watching Matthew McConaughey, and will just see Ron Woodroof."
Producer Robbie Brenner concurs, saying that 'he transformed himself into Ron Woodroof. When I saw the hair and make-up tests, I got chills."
From all the research Matthew McConaughey did, he found Ron Woodroof's journals to be the most informative for comprehending just how a rodeo-riding electrician found the fortitude and tenacity to become an educated stalwart of the AIDS movement: Ron Woodroof had kept journals from when he was only sporadically employed.
'Everything was meticulously put into writing," reports the actor. '-Wednesday, got $12 worth of gas, still owe $3 to Mrs. Rosa down at so-and-so.' He'd talk about work that week; at the end of the week you'd see that he didn't quite get as much work as he had hoped for, yet he was positive. He'd get up every morning at 6:00 A.M., acting like a man who had a full-time career. He'd be ready to go to work every day and then sit and wait. His pager wasn't paid off, his phone wasn't ringing, but he stayed ready.
'Then there would be two pages of big doodles, from when I suppose he was just sitting at home getting high and dreaming of a better life."
The actor further confides, 'What I found is that he struggled with following through – in a relationship with a woman, on his ideas for inventions. And he had creativity, he would come up with viable things; family and friends would tell him, -You should patent that.' But he would complete the project and then walk away from it, never patent it – could have, but never did. He didn't finish things that he'd started.
'Then, when he got sick with AIDS, he finally did see something through: survival.'"
Matthew McConaughey underwent a complete physical metamorphosis to play the frail, emaciated, and dying man. He recalls, 'Jean-Marc Vallée and I started that dialogue early on. His concern was, -How are you going to lose all that weight?' I said, -Don't worry about that, it'll be my job.'"
This process spanned four months before filming began. Matthew McConaughey first figured that losing weight would necessitate '50 percent diet, 50 percent exercise. Thankfully, I found out it was 98% dieting – though that was pretty hardcore, with the controlled meals – and 2% exercise."
The latter regimen enabled him to shed muscle mass and tone while pushing past key weight checkpoints. 'The toughest part was reaching those plateaus," reveals Matthew McConaughey. 'When I got to 177 pounds, I flew to 170. Then it was tough to get to 167 but once I got there, I flew to 160 and so on. It takes a mental lock-in. I was always hungry, so I had to constantly dampen the fire of desire; you find out just how much food sublimates your time. I chewed a lot of ice."
Consulting with doctors all the way, Matthew McConaughey ultimately shed nearly 50 pounds to play Ron Woodroof at around 140 pounds for the majority of the shoot, playing one pivotal hospital scene at 135 pounds. He states, 'It was a wonderful journey, spiritually and mentally, something that was good not only for the role but also for me. I read more. I wrote more. My mind became sharper. I slept less, three hours less a night, every night. I learned a lot about discernment and choices, and about respecting things you take for granted."
After filming wrapped, the actor was advised to be cautious in building back body and muscles after becoming accustomed to little or nothing in the way of food intake. He reveals, 'That was actually the more dangerous part. You can't just go out and start eating ice cream and cheeseburgers. The body can't take
it, and the organs can't take it. Since we finished filming I have continued to eat healthy, raising amounts of protein for every pound I gain, and took my time integrating exercise back into my regimen.
'The months of weight loss accomplished what I had hoped it would, being part of my commitment to playing Ron Woodroof. I got what I wanted out of it, and more." Like Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto understands what it takes to alter his body weight for a role. With only three weeks to prepare, Jared Leto fasted for a quick drop to skeletal proportions to portray Rayon, whose body is under siege from not only AIDS but also drug abuse. By the time filming began, Leto weighed 116 pounds. 'I wanted to best serve the character," explains the actor.
Jared Leto had transformed his body several times before for portrayals, including losing weight and mastering running for another true story, Prefontaine; dropping more than two dozen pounds for Requiem for a Dream; and gaining more than 60 pounds for Chapter 27.
He has vowed to never again go the latter route, explaining that 'gaining weight is worse than losing weight; it's absolutely dreadful. What you are doing to your body is a much more toxic thing, especially since you're not eating very healthy foods."
By contrast, Jared Leto was confident throughout his extremely concentrated weightloss process for Dallas Buyers Club. He offers, 'In history, people have fasted to great effect – spiritually and mentally. So I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing, depending on how long you do it, how you're doing it – and if you educate yourself about it. You are also losing a lot of muscle, not just fat. I drank a lot of water and ate really very little at all.
'It was what was appropriate for the role. The physical transformation affects you in every single way, including emotionally. It affects your energy. It affects your voice and outlook, the way you move and carry yourself. It raises the stakes. When you looked at someone like Matthew McConaughey, who made such a tremendous commitment to the character and the story, you found yourself working a lot harder in every area to make the strong choices. We all climbed a mountain together."
Matthew McConaughey offers, 'Some people may have been put off with Jared Leto's ideal of being in-character the entire time. Well, too bad, it was good for him and it was good for me; it would have been easy for an actor to caricaturise in this role, but Jared Leto kept Rayon grounded in her eccentricities. Jared Leto went for -human,' and that made him so much easier to act with, and more truthful."
Rachel Winter remarks, 'The heart of the movie is in the relationship between Ron Woodroof and Rayon. Jared Leto's chemistry with Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof is reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy with a little bit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There's a vibe between these two that comes alive on the screen."
At the Dallas Buyers Club, the LGBT community was well-represented both among staff and clientele, including a partner in the business. But, as screenwriter Melisa Wallack says, 'Texas in the 1980s was undoubtedly one of the most difficult places to be a homosexual or transsexual, much less one with
'In Rayon, we wanted to create a character who struggled with wanting to live and wanting to die. Ron Woodroof never struggled with that; he was determined to live." Given that there was leeway to interpret the character, Vallée praises Leto's instincts. 'Jared Leto came up with something very precise," says the director. 'I was seeing Rayon as a blend of glam rock, sexy gay guy, and female. But Jared Leto went for the feminine thing all the way."
The actor affirms, 'I did get in touch with my feminine side, because it's a strong attribute of the character. In terms of emotions it was important for me to study as much as I could about what it meant to be a transsexual woman, to get at how you see things and what you want out of life.
'Rayon is a ray of light, no pun intended. She is someone who wants to be loved and wants to love others, someone who wants to take care of people with humor and kindness. She looks to be electrified. I think she's a spirit of hope, joy and optimism."
Jennifer Garner adds, 'With Jean-Marc Vallée, Jared Leto and I discussed this backstory for Eve and Rayon: our characters have known each other for a long time, since well before Ron comes into their lives. Rayon has always been the kind of person who brought a little bit of levity to Eve's very serious type-A life. She's always been a bit of a caretaker to him, and now that becomes even more than case."
Jared Leto elaborates, 'Rayon calls Dr. Saks -Evie.' They were friends back in junior high and high school until Rayon started experimenting with a lot of things and stopped going to school. They serendipitously found each other again when Rayon was diagnosed with AIDS. Evie is the one who takes care of her."
Jennifer Garner states, 'Like Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto turned himself inside out for his role. He took on Rayon's fragility, like a butterfly. He had this frail, beautiful quality. It was a privilege to be on the set with the two of them."
For Jean-Marc Vallée, having two actors physically transformed and completely submerged in their characters meant that as director he was even freer to let the power of the emotional narrative and performances drive the action. He relays, 'We could trust what was on the page and just have the camera watch Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey."
Michael O'Neill recalls how he got to the set and 'didn't recognise Matthew McConaughey at first and when I saw Jared Leto I thought, -That's a pretty girl.' They were living inside these characters.
'I was happy to be part of their process, contributing to it by playing pressure opposite them while they are showing the human spirit being tenacious. But I didn't want to make Barkley a heartless company guy; Jean-Marc Vallée made sure that he was not divorced from his humanity, which opened up a whole lot for me."
The actor was able to chart his character's progress – since it is intertwined with Ron's. Michael O'Neill notes, 'Each time they meet, Ron Woodroof is going a little bit farther in his activism, so each time Barkley has to lean a little bit harder on a guy who's becoming more and more frail. He sees the pain that this man is in, but he still has to fulfill his professional responsibilities."
Dr. Eve Saks is comparably caught between professional responsibility and personal compassion, and as such Matthew McConaughey believes that Jennifer Garner's role 'is a difficult part to play. Dr. Eve has to walk a tightrope. She has to listen, perceive, and then decide what to do with the information that comes at her from all sides including at her job."
Eve is not only Ron Woodroof and Rayon's physician, but also their link to a scientific/medical community in conflict as a pandemic spreads. 'I think everyone was kind of grasping at straws trying to find a cure," notes Jennifer Garner.
'I feel that people were doing the best they could to understand this terrifying disease; I don't believe there were black hearts, yet there was supposed to be a balance between business and medicine."
Ron debates the immunologist early and often. Matthew McConaughey says, 'Ron Woodroof comes in as this lightning bolt wanting to rip it all out, saying -I got a new way to go.' It's hard for Eve to take that in."
Jennifer Garner concludes, 'Because of his evolution, Ron Woodroof becomes more than a patient to her; he becomes someone whom she can't help but respect."
Making a feature film on a 25-day shooting schedule made for an adjustment for all concerned. But for Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée, it was also an opportunity to maximise every minute of the shoot in a way that no one could have anticipated: he would simply not artificially light anything.
Jean-Marc Vallée had only recently reduced his reliance on artificial lighting for Café de Flore, which was shot entirely handheld on and with the RED digital camera. During production, half of the shots were lit with artificial light and the other half were not. The director remarks, 'I now had a perfect opportunity to try to shoot an entire movie without artificial lights, using the Alexa digital camera. Like the RED, the Alexa offers a broad spectrum of colors and shadows in even the darkest natural lighting conditions."
'I felt that the approach was right for this project. The look and feel became that we were capturing reality; even though Dallas Buyers Club is not a documentary in content or structure, it could have that subtle quality. We shot the movie 100% handheld with two lenses, a 35-millimeter and a 50-millimeter.
These get close to the actors and don't skew the images. [Director of Photography] Yves Bélanger adjusted for every shot at 400 or 1600 ASA [camera speed], displaying different color balance."
Emmy Award-nominated production designer John Paino did bring in practical, working lamps that were germane to scenes and added light. Even so, states Jean-Marc Vallée, 'We generally made do with existing light. I must credit John's hardworking design team and my and Yves' Montréal compatriots like first assistant cameraman Nicolas Marion, and script supervisor Mona Medawar. They helped me be able to film without set shots – and keep track of it all!"
Yves Bélanger reveals, 'We had our core camera crew, but this was still my first American movie. At the same time, Jean-Marc Vallée and I have known and worked with each other for two decades, but this was our first feature together."
Jean-Marc Vallée enthuses, 'Yves Belanger is a cinema encyclopedia. He also has a way of feeling the shots and the light so we will sense how to proceed creatively."
The cinematographer notes, 'For commercials shoots that Jean-Marc Vallée and I have collaborated on, we developed a style base of working with existing, available light and playing with it. So Dallas Buyers Club starts from that base, and further we did not use any camera tripods or dollies to make this movie."
Producer Rachel Winter muses, 'When Robbie Brenner and I heard that Jean-Marc Vallée was only using practical lighting in this movie our first reaction was, -What…?' Well, it looks phenomenal and adds to the storytelling. It also yields a different rhythm. We've gotten something very special under his direction and
Yves Belanger' lensing."
The director felt that he could make the movie in this new style because of the solid foundation of cast, crew, and detail. Robin Mathews and her make-up team, Adruitha Lee and her hair unit, and costume designers Kurt and Bart and their department worked closely together. Advancing beyond studying the
documentary How to Survive a Plague, everything from photographs to club flyers to documentation of activists' sit-ins was accessed. The gay publication The Dallas Voice proved to be a particularly valuable resource.
Jared Leto states, 'Our crew – wardrobe, hair, make-up – did really tremendous work and helped us bring these characters to life."
The costume designers reveal, 'We liked the way the script portrayed Rayon as someone who was shaped by different influences. While working on how Jared Leto would represent her we kept thinking about people from our past, people who were transitioning [gender] like Rayon. Some of our friends had been photographed by Nan Goldin, and we looked over her work with Jared Leto.
'Since the character has great taste but a limited budget, we went to some vintage places for her wardrobe. We would collaborate with Jared Leto every day because we felt that Rayon would have found something here and there – and always end up looking good."
Rachel Winter reveals, 'A key reference point for Rayon's look was the 1970s glam rock star Marc Bolan. What Kurt and Bart worked out with Jared was gorgeous; on the set, women would say, -Do not stand next to me, Rayon, it's not fair.'"
Kurt and Bart also worked to accentuate the weight fluctuations of the characters by changing the sizes and dimensions of clothing. Kurt and Bart reveal, 'Earlier in the story, when Ron is deathly ill and doesn't know why, we put Matthew in bigger clothes; even his belt is a little bigger. It made him look as if his clothes don't fit him anymore. We did have multiples of some of key clothes, including for later in the story, when he has stayed alive and even gained some weight back."
In working to accentuate stages of characters' being healthier or sicker, Mathews notes that 'coordinating these looks with Adruitha, and with Kurt and Bart, was a challenge. People will think, -Oh, the movie was shot at two different times for Matthew to lose and gain weight,' because that's the way other films have been made. This was not the case."
Prior to production, Kurt and Bart visited 'the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City and the New York Public Library, both of which had amazing archives on the look of the period – including all the political-statement buttons that people wore."
The costume designers, having grown up in Denver and Colorado, voice 'a huge appreciation for the West, and the cowboys that still exist there today. In terms of menswear, the classics are still around. Cowboy-cut jeans haven't changed much in decades. For Ron, it was tapered shirts with long tails, long sleeves, and snap fronts. Although the story takes place in the 1980s and beyond, Ron has probably gotten his clothes at a thrift store – so some of the shirts Matthew wears early on are more 1970s ones, with bigger collars.
'We also enjoyed outfitting Ron with 1980s shirts, a new hat and some snakeskin boots when he's got a little money. Texas was being glamorized in pop culture by that point, what with Dallas and Urban Cowboy, so we had a lot to work with visually. Richard Avedon's portrait photos in In the American West also helped us get into Ron's world."
The costume department scoured thrift stores for polyester suits, big belt buckles, waist-high jeans, and shoulder pads, among other '80s fashion finds. Jennifer Garner muses, 'Wearing those jeans way up on my waist – it's funny how much clothes can take you back to a certain time. While playing Eve, I found myself wearing the kind of clothing that I can remember on my mother.
'I picked up the copy of Time that was brought in for a scene. Well, my family has gotten Time my whole life and I remembered reading that issue. The props, like the clothes and the hair, took you back and put you right there."
While the -80s setting and research might have been expected to occasion a trove of favorite songs from the era, and Vallée has made period accompaniment a key component in his movies, in Dallas Buyers Club there is no composed score and only minimal ambient or source music; the drama of Ron's journey has its own rhythm.
Given the fleet shooting style and schedule, locations' interiors and exteriors had to be prepped for the director and actors to be free to move almost anywhere; every place, everything, and everyone had to be ready for anything when the time to start filming was at hand. Interior sets were fully dressed and 'hot." This was unlike the traditional method of staging where, after an establishing or master shot, specific angles and camera moves are cycled through with lights, equipment, and crew waiting just behind or beside what the camera sees. Without the usual physical boundaries in the form of equipment carts and lighting and grip stands, there were less people able to be on the set; on Dallas Buyers Club, crew, equipment, and anything else that did not belong in the shot were outside, around a corner, or in another room nearby.
Jean-Marc Vallée remembers, 'There would often be nobody in a room but the cameraman, the sound man, the actors, and me. I completely trusted the emotions on the page and the actors in front of the camera."
With the time that would usually be spent on lighting set-ups saved and with make-up and wardrobe changes minimised, the prep, pace, and working dynamic for every department and crew member was completely changed; it was more similar to staging a theatrical play performance, with actors moving within a dressed arena, than to a traditional film shoot. But unlike the few hours of active duty for a play performance, the crew on Dallas Buyers Club had to keep a running pace for 12-18 hours daily.
'It was constant running around," comment Kurt and Bart. 'There was none of the usual downtime or breathing room between scenes, so several things had to be going on simultaneously all the time – taking care of the present scene, readying for the next, and prepping for the ones later. Pages and pages of dialogue and scenes were being shot every day. It felt like a 40-day shoot done in 25 days."
Overall, the actors and crew found the pace to be exhilarating. Matthew McConaughey remembers, 'The only days where we'd lose time came when Jared and I were both working; we'd both have a lot of make-up and would have to share Robin [Mathews]."
Robin Mathews adds, 'We'd hear -Ready to shoot in five' while in the middle of huge make-up changes – going back-and-forth from sick to healthy. But it was an amazing experience."
Jennifer Garner reveals, 'This movie was the first project on which I'd ever done scenes where there was no lighting. I have to say I loved it, how we were on our toes and could shoot six, seven, eight scenes a day. It was incredible – and gave us plenty of acting time. You don't feel shortchanged; you never lose momentum,
you're always moving and thinking. You stay charged – since you're not sitting around between takes – and the whole team is in it together, which is great."
Jean-Marc Vallée looked to inspiration in the trail blazed by an independent filmmaker through the 1960s and 1970s. He comments, 'I was hoping to attain something in line with the films that John Cassavetes made, being about the moments of true intimacy. He just went everywhere with his cameraman following the actors, and it was happening in front of you. Even if something went out of focus, it would make the cut."
The cut for Dallas Buyers Club was made by the director with Martin Pensa, the film editor. In expanding the working relationship established on Café de Flore to being co-editors on the new movie, Martin Pensa says, 'I feel blessed to be among Jean-Marc Vallée's close collaborators; he keeps on pushing the limits and surpassing himself, and I learn so much from working with him. I'm very proud of what we achieved on this film."
In taking cues from Cassavetes' directorial style, Jean-Marc Vallée encouraged the actors to roam with a freedom and spontaneity rarely found in more traditionally staged, framed, and choreographed scenes. He remarks, 'It deepened the intimacy with the actors, and we were also ready to go this way or that with the camera. It allowed us to do a 360-degree shot, which is really being in the moment."
Garner praises 'Jean-Marc Vallée's sensibility, how he set up an environment so that things can happen on the fly. Someone would have an idea, we'd shoot in one direction – and then turn back around after discovering something else, to capture that."
Matthew McConaughey elaborates, 'He won't stop the camera; he'll run into the other room and say, -Please back up and re-enter [the room].' -Okay!'" Jared Leto enthuses, 'I wish every actor could have this experience with the camera still rolling because it's so alive and you're completely un-self-conscious."
'It's the way I'd love to do it every time," states Matthew McConaughey. 'You have your script [memorisation] down [pat], and it's camera-rolling-and-go. Show up each day and get to the work. You're behaving more than you're acting. I felt it was a new way of filmmaking.
'These 13-14-hour filming days we did? That's a fatigue I enjoy feeling; you're in construction the whole day, building something together."
Michael O'Neill adds, 'We felt like renegades; we'd move and move fast. No one was off in a trailer. You're just in it, and that was fun. Jean-Marc Vallée would be racing around a courtroom set-up with a camera on his shoulder, enthusiastically speaking French."
Despite the brisk pace, nothing in the frame escaped the director's eye. Matthew McConaughey remarks, 'I was impressed with how Jean-Marc Vallée would set up shots while working out what was right for the character and the actor. He has confidence, and also no ego about who has the best idea – he'll say, -That isn't what I had in my head but I'm hearing it now; I get it and I like it.'"
Jennifer Garner adds, 'He's plain-talking but he's also kind. I think that's a combination of strength for a director."
As a filmmaker himself, Leto feels that Jean-Marc Vallée's 'way of filming is very conducive to getting good performances out of people because it was so fluid. He is an actor's director.
'Jean-Marc Vallée can be very controlling, which you have to be when you're directing a movie. But he is so open; he likes to keep things playful and experimental, so everyone can have an opportunity to collaborate and be creative."
The actor concludes, 'He knows what he wants, but if he doesn't then he will fight to get it."
As Ron Woodroof learned, knowing what you want is the first step to getting it. He knew he wanted to live, and achieved that goal to an extent he couldn't have imagined.
In 1992, screenwriter Craig Borten asked him how he would feel about his story becoming a movie one day. Borten reports, 'Ron Woodroof said, -Man, I'd really like to have a film. I'd like people to have this information and I'd like people to be educated on what I had to learn by the seat of my pants about government, pharmaceutical agencies, AIDS. I'd like to think it all meant something in the end.'"