For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its fall season next Tuesday, November 12th at 7pm with a screening of the classic Hollywood caper THE GREAT ESCAPE.
The quarterly series is hosted by nationally recognized film expert and Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond. Passes for the Fall 2013 KCET Cinema Series are now on sale. For reservations call 747.201.5800, download and mail the registration form, or buy your season passes online.
Last week, as part of the series, a special Q&A took place at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre following an advance screening of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which chronicles the real-life story of AIDS patient Ron Woodroof and is generating more than its fair share of Oscar buzz. Deadline Hollywood film critic Pete Hammond sat down with one of the film’s stars, Jennifer Garner, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and producers Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter to discuss the movie’s 20-year journey to the big screen, the challenges of abridging Woodroof’s story and creating composite characters, working with co-stars McConaughey and Leto, and the film’s death and rebirth during its perilous journey through the studio system to an independent film.
You can listen to a full audio recording of the panel on KCET’s website.
Below are some of the highlights from their conversation.
Pete Hammond: How did you decide to do this story?
Craig Borten: It’s been a 20-year journey. The film business… it’s so hard and it will break your heart, and you get doors slammed. 18 years ago, Robbie read the first draft, and she said, “this is an incredible story. This is a story that has to get made.” And she’s like, “I’m gonna make this movie” — but she didn’t say it would take 18 years [laughs]. So it’s a testament to her drive and her passion. We got here and it turned out great. People are like, “Well, if you knew if it would take 20 years would you still have done it?” Sure, it was worth it.
PH: And it still has relevance today, 20 years later.
CB: The journey started when a friend sent me an article on Ron Woodroof. It was called “Staying Alive” and it was about the international grey market and these buyers clubs that were smuggling in underground AIDS treatments for opportunistic infections, and it included Ron Woodroof, this cowboy, and it was fascinating. And so I wrote him a letter and it was unreturned, and then I called a few times, and he answered the phone and said, “Be here tomorrow. You can interview me.” So I got there the following day, and spent three days with him, and the journey began.
PH: How many hours did you record with him?
CB: It was 25 hours. It took a couple of years for me to get a draft down. There were 4 options on it. There was an actor, a director, and many other producers — and around 2000 I met Melisa Wallack and we re-wrote the screenplay, and we sold it to another actor and another director, and then there was another actor and another director… life changed. And around 2009 Melisa said, “We’ve gotta get the screenplay back. We’re going to get it made and bring it back to Robbie.”
PH: The screenplay was at Universal Studios. It was stuck there and you couldn’t get it back until there was a certain point, right?
Melisa Wallack: The turnaround clause was 7 years. We sold it with Brad Pitt and Mark Forster and then we got it back and literally gave it to Robbie and said “Robbie, go make this movie.” And then I think she gave it to Matthew. He was the first person she gave it to.
PH: So, when you came into the project, where was it in terms of writing, and what did you bring to it at that point? What was it that you thought with this story that you could sit there and write this and knew it was right for you?
MW: I got totally sucked in by the character of Ron, I think, for the most part. I listened to all his tapes and then Craig convinced me to write it with him. Craig and I became best friends and we had a great time writing it. It’s always amazing when you get a movie made, especially like this.
PH: Robbie, you never gave up on this film. It was your pet project.
Robbie Brenner: The film had several different lives. This probably was the type of movie that shouldn’t have been made under a studio umbrella. It should’ve been made exactly in the way and in the spirit that we made it — which was intimate, independent, small, personal, and where people were doing it out of the passion for the material, because I think that’s really what ultimately allowed the movie to get made. We shot the movie in 25 days. We made it for 4 million dollars. And it was amazing.
PH: That’s astounding.
RB: On this movie, it was just a very small group of people. As we were trying to put the financing together, people would say, “Oh, I love the script, this is amazing, but the script’s been around for a long time… I don’t know if I want to make a movie about a cowboy that contracts HIV.” So it was really, really hard and we had to keep on lowering the budget in order to raise the financing… and so we wound up with 25 days, and Jean-Marc took the lighting package out. And he pulled it off.
PH: Rachel, I remember that Matthew McConaughey had lost all the weight and even then the film was in jeopardy. And I think you guys had to call him and say we’ve got to delay it two months. What did he do?
Rachel Winter: It was 8 weeks before shooting, and we had to call Matthew and say, “We know you’ve lost a lot of weight, but is there a possibility we can do this in the spring?” And he’s like, “Absolutely not. We are doing this now. Get it together.”
PH: And how did you get it together? You found the dream backers here.
RW: It was CAA, Cassian Elwes, Voltage, an equity component out of Texas… and everyone kind of banded together and said, “Hey, we are going to make this movie.” But this was a very short amount of time — there are deals, and there’s paperwork, and there’s things to get done. So we basically had three and a half weeks of paid prep on the film.
PH: Was Rayon [played by Jared Leto] a real character?
MW: Rayon was a composite.
Jennifer Garner: Eve was so beautifully written that I just assumed she was real. And I did all this research looking her up, and I went and looked on microfilm at the library for Eve Saks, and I’m like, “I don’t know if she was before Google, I don’t know!” I finally called them and they said, “Yeah, she’s not a real person” and I’m like, “Oh. Thank you for letting me know.”
PH: She’s a composite too. You decided to do that, Craig, in creating these characters?
CB: Yeah, Melisa and I created that. We just wanted to get in so many points of view and we felt it was best to just create these characters to serve our story as opposed to pull from the real characters. Both of them are based on real people though, transgendered and doctors.
PH: Matthew and Jared Leto give some great performances.
JG: You might have heard by now that Jared was in character the whole time we were shooting, but it wasn’t a weird thing. I couldn’t imagine him any other way. He was so thin he didn’t have any resemblance to the kind of rock star he’s known for — he came on the film much later after Matthew. He was on another level. It was haunting. I’ve worked with Matthew before, and you guys saw what he went through to do this film, and he was way down the pike when this movie came my way. You get sucked in by Matthew’s passion for something, you can’t help it. It’s contagious.
Dallas Buyers Club is now playing in limited release. You can buy tickets to the movie here.