One of the most talked about films of the season is Dallas Buyers Club. This film has been in development for over a decade, as star names have come and gone, and directors have been attached and then detached. But as screenwriter Craig Borten puts it, “The film had so many champions along the way.”
Writing duo Borten and Melisa Wallack helmed the script based on real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodroof, whom Matthew McConaughey plays superbly. In 1985 Texas, Woodroof begins a grueling battle with the FDA to get the drugs patients need. At the heart of the story is Ron’s relationship with a victim named Rayon, played by Jared Leto. The two create their own business, the Dallas Buyers Club, in order to distribute medication to others who suffer from the epidemic. Jennifer Garner also stars as Eve, a supportive doctor.
The film has garnered 6 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay.
I had a chance to chat with Borten this week in LA. We discussed the inception of the project and the passion that kept it alive.
Meredith Alloway: The first time you met Matthew he invited you over for lunch. Tell me about the salmon experience.
Craig Borten: You know it was just a little meet and greet. But when we went outside to have lunch it was just a tiny little piece of salmon and a plate of greens and some water.
MA: He was already dieting?
CB: He was already thin and in it. But for the next 6 hours we went through the screenplay. He had notes from the cover page to the end page. He asked incredible questions about the FDA and about AZT and AIDS . . . and he just was so invested and such a passionate person. I didn’t feel like I was meeting with an actor, I was meeting with a filmmaker. We had just lost all our money. He said, ‘We’re gonna get ‘er done.’ I’m driving back on the PCH and the sun's going down and I was like I think he’s going to get it done. It was a great moment, a great day.
MA: It sounds like the meeting you had with Matthew mirrored the meeting you had in 1992 with Ron Woodroof. You saw this passion. Did you find that those two were parallel?
CB: I think there’s something incredible about people who have passion and they’re like, I’m going to do this. This is important to me. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy not only for them, but also for those around them. Leading by example in a sense. With Ron’s passion to live, the endgame was awareness more than anything else, more than a cure or even drugs that worked. For Matthew, it was I’m going to get this film made. By virtue of losing the weight, it became Oh, he’s losing it for this film—this film that has no money right now. But the perception is that it’s already happening. His passion affected all of us to go out and make sure we got this money. I think it was a pervasive feeling for everyone.
MA: A lot of your passion to write about this comes from your dad surviving cancer. How did that fuel the project?
CB: One part of it is that I had two fathers, actually: a father and a stepfather who both succumbed to cancer. Suppose someone says to you, ‘You’re going to die. You have this long to live.’ What does that do to you? You go through all these stages. That’s how I personally came up with this idea for the beginning of the movie. I watched these two men go through it, and it’s a pretty powerful thing to observe. As they were going through it and got more into their acceptance stage, they became extremely reflective. What it could have been, what they’d like it to be, and what they hope for. When I met with Ron Woodroof, those same things came out of him. That was one part. The other part was some of the ineffectiveness of the doctors in my own experience with cancer. Given the drugs available and their pervasive attitude of this is it, everyone gets a standard of you have 6 months to live, there was something cold about it. There was a lack of self-empowerment: This is our protocol, you can go by it, and that’s it. You feel helpless.
MA: Given that you were writing about the pharmaceutical industry, which is a touchy subject, how was the research process? Were there any roadblocks, anyone that gave you resistance?
CB: As the years went on, the landscape changed. AIDS changed, the drugs changed, along with the attitude towards the disease. There were no roadblocks. We didn’t try to meet with any of the more controversial figures. We didn’t need to. It was all in the public domain. Also, we weren’t doing a documentary.
MA: I think the film blossoms into something more than what you think it’s about. Ultimately it’s a friendship story between Ron and Rayon. How did you cultivate that relationship?
CB: Rayon’s not real. Eve is not real. They’re created to tell a point of view. We didn’t even follow traditional three-act structure. Jean-Marc really wanted to keep it a small movie about this unlikely friendship. The only thing that we tried to stay true to was the personality of Ron Woodroof for those three days. It’s based on stories that we heard. But the relationship itself we created to make an emotional core, a journey that ultimately draws people into the movie.
MA: You and Melisa went through therapy in the process of writing this!
CB: I think that writing partnerships are extremely challenging and incredibly intimate. You’re spending large amounts of time with someone in a room. It’s gets heated, it’s passionate. I always say this as a joke, and people think it’s funny, but it’s literally like being in a relationship with a woman or a man but without sex. So it’s even harder! There are, in fact, a lot of writing partners who end up in therapy. If it’s worth it, you want to work through it.
MA: You really fought for this script for a long period of time and it’s comparable to the story you’re telling. In the process of making the film what were the moments of hope that kept you going?
CB: The film had so many champions along the way. Robbie Brenner read the script 18 years ago and she said this is an incredible story. This would make an incredible character. This is a really great film. The remaining people along the way said the same.
MA: So it was the people surrounding you.
CB: Yes, the people who were moved by the film and the people who supported me as a writer, and supported Melisa. The incredible producers Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter, Jean-Marc Vallée… and Matthew. They helped pick each other up as human beings. It’s such a beautiful thing.
MA: Melisa has said, ‘Ron's unwillingness to listen and follow protocol literally kept him alive.’ In what ways did your team’s unwillingness to follow protocol keep the film and script alive?
CB: Hollywood means going to war. You grow a backbone and you fight your battles, the important ones. You just learn to be a fighter; I shouldn’t even just say Hollywood, I just think in life. It’s not kids' play, it’s business. Business is shrewd. So you learn and you grow and fight for what’s important. Everyone in the film is a fighter, very strong passionate people. I think our strength held it together. Everyone. Matthew, Jared, Jennifer, Jean-Marc. I think you just fight for your beliefs.
MA: Your next project is also about someone who is a fighter: [Titan: The Life of] John D. Rockefeller.
CB: He’s an anti-hero as well. People hated him, but people didn’t really know him. Nobody can really say who he is. This story will let you inside this man who I think was an incredible person. Possibly through his need for his father’s validation, he learned to divide and conquer and to create wealth. It’s character driven, and Lasse Hallström, who’s one of my favorite directors, is really interested in making a character driven film.
MA: He, like Ron, is a questionable hero, which fascinates our culture right now, as with Walter White. Do you think we relate more to Macbeths and Iagos more than Othellos?
CB: Human beings are flawed, we’re not perfect people, and I think that’s what makes us interesting. Really we’re flawed and we have many sides and shades …and so in cable or smaller movies we’re able to really show those sides. I think that’s why people are drawn to it. Walter White: look at this journey, but it started because he was dying and he wanted to help his family. For that, we’ll forgive him for everything and it’s relate-able.
MA: Oscar day! Is there anyone you want to meet?
CB: I swear it’s not like that for me! At all these events I’m meeting these people and it’s almost effortless! It’s really fluid. It’s just been wonderful. But only because you ask, I’d love to talk to Bono. He’s a humanitarian ultimately and their music I’ve loved since I was a teenager and also he’s a big supporter of AIDS research.
Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.