Dallas Buyers Club’s 20-year journey from page to screen

Canadian Press, Oct. 8, 2014

VANCOUVER - Dallas Buyers Club had its moment of glory at the Academy Awards earlier this year, a night two decades in the making for screenwriter Craig Borten, who penned the first version of the film’s script in 1992.

‍     “Nobody wanted to make it because of its subject matter,” Borten said at the Vancouver International Film Festival Industry Conference. “But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a great story.” 

‍     The film tells the story of hard-living Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, who contracted HIV in the ’80s and smuggled drugs from Mexico for himself and others, becoming an advocate for patient rights in the process. 

‍     After reading about Woodroof, Borten interviewed him in Dallas, then wrote the first version of the screenplay in 1992. 

‍     “People fell in love with that anti-hero character, Ron Woodroof, and also a story about somebody who was told they were going to die, and at that point, started living,” he said. 

‍     Keeping the project alive was a challenge. Studios bought the script then went bankrupt, financing collapsed — in one instance, three days before principal photography was scheduled to start. Four different directors were attached at various points, and four different actors set to play Woodroof. But for every setback, there was a champion. 

‍     “The thing that keeps you going is that you meet people along the way that also say, ‘This is an incredible story, this is an important story, this is a story that needs to get made,’” Borten said. “When you have these champions — agents, producers, actors or even studio executives — that helps uplift you. As the years go by, you realize how hard you have to work, how hard other people have to work. You just keep going.” 

‍     Dallas Buyers Club was finally produced in 2012, directed by Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallée, garnering six Oscar nominations, including best original screenplay, and winning three prizes. 

‍     Borten did other jobs to keep himself afloat while Dallas Buyers Club moved forward or stalled, including other writing assignments. 

‍     “Each project you work on helps you learn your craft, sharpen your creative pencil,” he said. “But each one is its own separate entity and they are all incredibly challenging and you’re always looking at a blank page.” 

‍     He’s been busy since Dallas Buyers Club, having written The 33 about the Chilean miners trapped in 2010, as well as a picture about John D. Rockefeller and his journalistic nemesis Ida Tarbell. And he’s currently working on the story of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. 

‍     “All biopics,” Borten points out. “What I find interesting is ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and how they behave. I just think that’s so interesting. It’s the human condition.”

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