It began with a 1992 Dallas Morning News feature story about an outlaw dealer of unapproved drugs to save AIDS patients, and ended with two Oscars at the 2014 Academy Awards.
The story of Ron Woodroof, now immortalized by Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club,” caught screenwriter Craig Borten’s eye more than 20 years before the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
Borten and his writing partner Melisa Wallack spoke last Thursday in a workshop conducted by the Sun Valley Film Festival.
“His character spoke to my heart,” said Borten, whose father had recently died from cancer when he chose to seek out Woodroof for interviews, in hopes of turning his story into a film script.
“When my father was dying, he was more forthcoming about his memories, and what his dreams had been,” Borten said. “I loved how raw Woodroof was. He had no formal education. He started living his life when he was dying.”
The film script won an Academy Award for best original screenplay this year. The film took a decade to produce, and faced numerous financial and creative challenges along the way.
Sun Valley Film Festival programmers scheduled Borten and Wallack months ago for last week’s screenwriter’s workshop at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum, where they shared some inside details about the screenwriting process to a sell-out crowd.
“People wouldn’t have believed a story like this unless it was true,” said Wallack.
Dallas Morning News writer Bill Minutaglio described Woodroof as “a foul-mouthed outlaw who is as wiry as an ocotillo,” and a rodeo enthusiast who was as “cantankerous as a character in ‘Lonesome Dove.’”
Woodroof died in 1992 of AIDS, seven years later than his doctors predicted, apparently due to his reliance on drug treatments that had not been approved by the FDA.
“I’ll take a bigger chance than anybody else,” Minutaglio quoted Woodroof as saying in 1992. “If it is out there, if I can get my hands on it, if I can buy, bribe, steal or whatever, I will go for it. If you are going to live, you can’t accumulate too much information.”
Wallack said Brad Pitt was originally scheduled to play the part of Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“The script had to be changed for the Matthew [McConaughey] version,” Wallack said.
“I love finding characters that you have to inhabit,” said Wallack. “I know that actors say that a lot, but as a writer, you have to do that, too. Even if you take on some really dark material, you may find yourself living in that space, maybe for years. But you really have to get behind your work and go to that place to make it really good.”
Wallack described 15-hour days writing for no pay with Borten, after production financing was pulled only three weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin during the summer of 2012. She said she and Borten had fights over what they thought Woodroof would have said at certain times during the story.
McConaughey had already starved himself to lose 50 pounds to play the role of an AIDS patient, when the money ran out.
“They asked us if we could put off filming until spring,” said Wallack. “Matthew said, ‘I haven’t eaten in six months. I have nothing left.’”
The film was completed on a shoestring budget and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
McConaughey’s efforts paid off. He walked away with an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Woodroof.
Borten previewed a work in progress Thursday at the nexStage with a staged reading of a new script. Borten said the script is based on what he learned while spending 37 hours in the Los Angeles County jail.
“I witnessed a lot of atrocities in there,” he said.
The actors who participated in the reading included locals Scott Glenn, Mariel Hemingway and Keith Moore.