Written By February | March 2014 : Page 34
20 LOUISE FARR TOM KELLER WRITTEN BY PORTRAITS BY 34 • WG A W WRITTEN BY FEBRU AR Y | MARCH 20 14
20 Years To The Finish Line
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack win the Dallas Buyers Club marathon.
Screenwriter Craig Borten remembers the first day of the Dallas Buyers Club shoot. In 2012, on location in Louisiana, Matthew McConaughey emerged from his trailer emaciated, having lost 45 pounds to realistically portray his AIDSstricken character, Ron Woodroof. “Here’s to a 10-year pregame,” the actor said casually to producer Robbie Brenner, standing nearby. Glancing at Borten, he added: “There’s the other 10.”
McConaughey’s math was off, but he couldn’t be blamed for not grasping the time it had taken Borten’s script to be in front of the camera. Borten had invested a whopping 20 years, and Brenner had been championing it for 18.
The saga began in 1992 when, fresh out of Syracuse University, Borten first read about Woodroof, whose story was both gritty and emotion-grabbing. In the early days of the AIDS panic that was sweeping the gay community, the homophobic cowboy-electrician-womanizer had been diagnosed with the disease and given 30 days to live. Denied a place in a trial for the promising drug AZT, he began smuggling underground alternative medications into the United States to use and to sell to other desperate sufferers—hence his Dallas Buyers Club organization. Despite his original prognosis, Woodroof would survive for seven years.
Intrigued, Borten interviewed Woodroof, wrote a screenplay about his life, and immediately had it optioned—with Woody Harrelson set to star and Dennis Hopper to direct.
“I love ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and how they react,” says Borten, a lean figure dressed in black, speaking in the swanky United Talent Agency building in Beverly Hills, where an office has been cleared for the interview. “Writing is almost easier when you know that every scene speaks to their survival.”
By late 2000, though, no production had come of his script. That’s when he met Melisa Wallack and they began writing together. Pixieish in turtleneck, skinny jeans, and thick-soled hipster sneakers, Wallack joins the conversation: “I always found it inspiring that someone with a seventh-grade education would take on an industry—and a government agency—that is so rarely taken on,” she says about Woodroof. “It’s a lesson that, if you’re going to wait, it’s never going to happen.”
On the other hand, Dallas Buyers Club happened after a near-interminable wait that included three rewrites by other screenwriters and Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling attached to the project after Harrelson. During this time, Borten fought a successful battle with substance abuse. Finally a “go” project, with McConaughey on board and the Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée at the helm, the production lost funding a few weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin.
“We were down in New Orleans, and people were being paid with credit cards,” Wallack remembers of the days after the money evaporated. “It was like, literally, everyone willing this movie to happen—the actors, the director, us.”
Undaunted, Brenner—Relativity Media’s president of production— immediately helped orchestrate the $4 million production’s new financing, put together by Cassian Elwes, with Nicolas Chartier of Voltage Pictures, and Truth Entertainment. “To me there was no no in the equation,” Brenner says by phone. “It was when and how. We had to find somebody to step in, and we did. I was just the one who pushed the rock up the hill and never lost hope.”
Skip forward a year to 2013, when Borten and Wallack walked the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, where their movie debuted to strong reviews and immediate awards chatter. At press time, both McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays Woodroof’s transgender fellow AIDS patient Rayon, had won Golden Globes and Borten and Wallack are up for a Writers Guild Award.
“We had been rewritten three times, but what was fantastic is that the draft that was used and bought was our original,” Borten says. “There was all this money against all these other writers, but Robbie was, ‘No, we just want Craig and Melisa’s draft.’”
Louise Farr: Let’s start at the beginning. Craig, how did you persuade Ron Woodroof to talk to you after you read about him and his Dallas Buyers Club?
Craig Borten: I just thought, Wow, what an interesting character. I wrote a letter. I called three or four times. I started calling late in the day hoping his secretary had left and he’d answer the phone, and that’s exactly what happened. I said, “I’m Craig Borten; I wrote you a letter.” He said, “I know who you are. Okay, be here tomorrow.” I drove to Dallas from Los Angeles. I slept in a tent in a triple-A park, got there the next day, and met him at the Dallas Buyers Club.
You did 25 hours of interviews? He died a month later. How did his health seem when you talked to him?
Craig Borten: We sat in his office. He was thin, his speech was a little slow, but he was aware, present, engaged, and affable. Very into discussing his life. He was filling me in on all these worlds and situations that were not in the media. When you’re dying, there’s a lot that you want to do. You become reflective. You want to leave behind some kind of legacy. The Buyers Club gave his life meaning. He was proud of what he did from the point of getting AIDS as opposed to his life before that.
You were fresh out of Syracuse when you wrote Dallas Buyers Club. How did you land that initial option?
Craig Borten: I was in a basketball league with Chris Moore [Goodwill Hunting, American Pie, The Adjustment Bureau]. I used to play with Ben and Matt—Damon and Affleck. I had finished the draft, and Chris was an up-and-coming producer. I said, “Chris, I have this script I just finished. Do you want to read it?” He read it and said, “I’m going to option it from you, give you some money, and we’ll develop it.” I liked him. So I would go to his office and on one side of the blackboard it would say dallas buyers club, and he would flip the board over, and on the other side it would say good will hunting. He’d meet with me in the morning, and in the afternoon Ben and Matt would come in. So that was my first experience. We went down that road for one year. That was the first script I wrote, and I got paid. It was pretty incredible the first time out.
Dallas Buyers Club was optioned four times over the next eight or nine years. Did you get discouraged?
Craig Borten: I’d always wanted to just make this small little movie, which this ended up being, anyway, but the emotional impact was, How am I going to get there? This is really frustrating. Robbie Brenner had read the first draft I ever wrote, trying to get it set up at Miramax, so it had always had its fans. People saying, “This is an incredible story. This is the perfect antihero.” I had people championing me as a writer, people championing this story. They said, “These are difficult stories to come by. Don’t lose sight of this. Believe in it and just keep going.” And I just kept going.
How did the collaboration with Melisa come about?
Craig Borten: I met her in the latter part of 2000 through a mutual friend. We were working on a book we were adapting for Harrison Ford.
Melisa Wallack: It was love at first sight. We immediately became friends.
Craig Borten: I thought she was a terrific writer. She had great insight. [Dallas Buyers Club] was being optioned yet again, by another producer, and I said that I could use another eye, and if you like it you can rewrite it with me. It had been nine years or so. I’d been through many different producers. Many different drafts.
Melisa, the background I’ve read about you seems oversimplified. You were a business person in Los Angeles and decided to try screenwriting after you began meeting writers?
Melisa Wallack: Well, I came out here for something completely different. I was an English major at Skidmore, and a lot of my friends were out here writing. I had always been writing short stories, but I never thought professionally that I’d be a writer. It was when I was introduced to the screenplay format that I became interested. A friend of mine dragged me to this class at AFI, and I attended three of them because I was working full time. And then my brother was working at an agency. He suggested I do coverage. He said it was such a good way to learn structure and dialogue— what works and what doesn’t—and you can see what’s selling and not selling. So I went and did coverage for Roland Emmerich for a year. I learned a lot. When you have to do five [breakdowns] a week and know nothing, it’s a good introduction.
How did you tackle the script?
Melisa Wallack: We just sat down and researched and researched. There was no information available when Craig was writing. We had access to eight more years of information, and that made it a lot easier to see what the macro was. Why was Ron fighting? Why did he have to fight? What was the AZT fight about? All these things became apparent. We both decided the script Craig had written was great, but it was dark. It had to have levity. Ron was a very engaging, funny off-the-wall person. That was one of our primary focuses. We can’t write a dark, dark movie only about AIDS. We need to speak to something else. What drew people to him? The longer we wrote it, the more we liked Ron. We looked at what we were going to keep and what we were not going to keep. It was a long process.
Craig Borten: We had about a solid year of continual research, continual writing and rewriting. We worked mostly at Melisa’s house—in her home office with all of our dogs by our side. Most of the characters were in my original screenplay. We just opened it up and made it better. This world of AZT, and how doctors felt about it, and why drugs get approved. There’s so much discovery in writing. The more you’re writing, the more you find the nuance.
How did you get along as collaborators?
Melisa Wallack: We have been to therapy a couple of times together. At what point?
Craig Borten: At many points. Who chose the therapist?
Craig Borten: I did. It just happens because you’re in this intimate relationship with someone. You spend all of your days together; you’re working on intimate material that’s emotional. It’s the most intimate you can get with another person you’re not having sex with. It’s a drama, the lead character is dying, and it brings up issues. Melisa’s forward with her feelings. She might say, like, “Craig, you’re an asshole.” And we’d get into it: “This is horrible. I’m leaving. I don’t like you anymore. I’m never going to talk to you again.” Then you have to come back tomorrow morning at 8.
Melisa Wallack: In retrospect, we can laugh at it, but at the time you’re arguing about, “This character, he would not say that.” Which is hilarious in and Of itself because the person is dead and we have no idea what he would be saying.
Tell us about the decision to make Jared Leto’s character, Rayon, transgender?
Craig Borten: What we discovered was that we wanted to service this unlikely friendship between Ron and Rayon and let that be the emotional throughline. They’re both outcasts now in the world, and how do they come together? We just thought this is a great way to put it in Ron’s face, to make him face his own fears. He can’t look away. Then at the end of, I think it was around a year, we got Brad Pitt and a big director, Marc Forster, who Robbie went to NYU film school with. The script was optioned in 2002 by Universal Studios, which then purchased it. It was a big deal. The negotiations were crazy.
Melisa Wallack: As our friend Rashida Jones always says, “Congratudolences.”
Craig Borten: There was a seven-year reversion clause that Melisa and I fought for—very hard, actually. It was a big point of our negotiation, which is why, seven years later, the rights reverted back to the writers by WGA bylaws. We gave it to Robbie, and then Robbie got it to Matthew and Jean-Marc. I feel Matthew was this film’s champion. Without his passion for the script and the great risk he took, we never would have gotten to the finish line. Three and a half weeks out, and we had no money, and Matthew had lost 45 pounds. Matthew said, “This is a moving train, and I’ve got to get on it. I cannot keep this weight off, and it’s got to be shot now.”
Melisa Wallack: The inspiring part for any writer with Buyers Club is that both of us would see it slipping away. And as the months ticked by, it would start reversing, and we would be thinking, It’s getting closer to the seven years. Then when we got it out, we didn’t even read the other [writers’] drafts.
Craig Borten [eating an office candy]: What’s inspiring?
Melisa Wallack: You’ve had way too much sugar. You need to calm down. No one said this movie was going to get made. We’d been turned down by 95 percent of the financiers: “AIDS is not relevant.” We were told by a huge director to take Rayon out: “Do not make him a transgendered person because it’s offensive.” Just the constant battle you have to fight in your head.
How did you get along with Jean-Marc Vallée?
Melisa Wallack: The working relationship evolved from the time he was on board to when we were shooting. Jean-Marc is amazing. When you’re working with someone who has such a strong vision, you can learn so much about writing. You can learn whose point of view you’re supposed to be in, what each scene is supposed to be doing. He was very collaborative. We were down in New Orleans for two weeks writing with him. To be able to do that with someone else is like taking a class in filmmaking.
Craig Borten: We just found our way. He said, “I want to go from Ron’s point of view. Let’s switch things to seeing everything from his point of view.” And then, of course, his biggest note was, “Is this real life? Is this authentic?” And we would just go through each moment. Jean-Marc’s thing was, “I want to make a film where we drop into someone’s life and we don’t feel like we’re watching a movie. My actors won’t look like movie stars. The people I cast around them, the character actors, will look like real people. It’s going to be natural lighting and handheld, and I want everything to seem real and authentic.” And that’s what we did. We were there the whole time. Preproduction, production. He invited us up for post, although he was in Canada. And he included us in his cuts. I sat in on casting with him and consulted with him. It was a dream. We were in New Orleans, so we went to some great French restaurants. We’d go to his home, and he’d have cheese and wine, and we’d order dinner, and then we’d write, and we’d talk about films and filmmakers, and he’d talk about directing. It was kind of a perfect artistic experience.
Melisa Wallack: Jean-Marc makes it so you want to work hard for him.
Craig Borten: Which is the talent of a great director.
What do you mean when you say he wanted authenticity?
Melisa Wallack: If there was a derogatory line of dialogue, for example, saying sand n***** in it, he wanted to make sure that people actually in the 1980s would have used that term. I would be arguing that, yes, people did use that term. And then he’d say, find me examples of literature in the ’80s where that’s used. Things like that, even the smallest details. Thank God for the Internet. It’s healthy to have arguments, as long as they’re not screaming matches, because you can learn a lot. You can change your mind about things. It’s painful when you write something, sometimes, to let go, and even when you’re on set it’s painful too when people aren’t delivering your lines. It’s so difficult to kind of extricate yourself from the narcissism.
What did you lose from the film that you regret?
Melisa Wallack: There were some scenes that were just too dark. There was one scene where he was having anal sex with this prostitute. I loved the scene, and he loved the scene, but it was so dark we rewrote it because it was going to seem like an X-movie. There had been so much time that we had been writing it that we weren’t that precious about it. When you first write something, you also are handicapped by the struggle of just writing it.
Craig Borten: What I’ve learned through the recent years is … there’s nothing to be precious about. The only thing you want to be precious about is moving your hero forward, moving your story forward. And if it serves that purpose, great, and if it doesn’t, you have to let go. And I’ve also learned there’s 20 ways to skin a cat and write a great scene about the same subject. A lot of the scenes are similar or the same. They’re just shaved edges of moments. A line distilled from three to one.
Melisa Wallack: It’s so difficult to finish a script, so when you’ve first finished, the last thing you feel like hearing is what’s wrong with it. Mentally, you want to be done with it, done with that world. But given enough space, you kind of welcome it. I don’t find myself possessive over the minutia so much as the specifics of the character.
Craig Borten: We cut a ton of fat. We had an embarrassment of riches. Melisa always said, “How do we fit all this in two hours? And what happens when life doesn’t happen in a three-act structure?” This film, especially, was a beast because there were so many worlds we were trying to tackle: the FDA, the pharmaceuticals, the doctors, the gay movement, Ron Woodroof’s world, his old life, his new life. There was a lot going on. It was a rodeo to wrangle.
What are your favorite scenes? What about the grocery store scene where Ron defends Rayon?
Melisa Wallack: When we wrote it the first time, Ron was on this rant about, “Look what’s in our food. This is what’s killing us.” Then when we shot it, Jared did this thing with potato chips at the end, that was not scripted, where he looks so broken but so grateful. That was a moment where my script was elevated to a level I never would have expected.
Craig, did Ron talk about how he came to terms with his homophobia through his illness and the AIDS patients he met through the Buyers Club?
Craig Borten: He had to do it as a need for survival, for making money, then embracing these people. He found his humanity. He spoke about homophobia, but he was also just a racist on all fronts. He was an equal opportunity racist.
What about your favorite scenes?
Craig Borten: I’ve probably got eight or 10 that I love. I love that scene where he’s told he’s got AIDS. It speaks to who he thinks he is. It’s the last moment before everything is about to change. You’re dealing with his homophobia and his mistrust of doctors, and then you’re dealing with the fact that he’s hearing that he’s got 30 days to live. There’s anger coming through, there’s denial coming through, and there’s fear coming through. And you’re trying to get information into the scene.
To change the subject, Craig, you’ve mentioned that you had a drug problem in the past that Melisa helped you through. Can you talk about it?
Craig Borten: What’s the best way to talk about it? I went through a dark period, and I struggled with substance abuse. All kinds. Everything. Melisa’s a dear friend, and she helped pick me up.
Melisa Wallack: It strengthened our relationship, me going to Craig’s hovel once a year and telling him to get his shit together.
Craig Borten: My addiction was tougher on Melisa than on me. We were working a little bit through it, then I just disappeared into the vortex of addiction. I have no regrets because the end result of it was to be able to look at myself and make a decision about whether I wanted to continue down the rabbit hole toward possible death, or being the walking dead, or actually going out there and making a decision to get my life back and dare to live. I can relate it to Ron Woodroof. I’m going to choose life. [Recovery] has given me so much. It’s given me a life. It’s given me a work ethic. I went into treatment, and I went to rehab many times. I’ve been five years sober.
Melisa Wallack: Craig would call me all the time. “You need to get me the fuck out of here right now.”
Craig Borten: What ended up happening was, at my darkest moment, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize myself, and I fell on my knees and was crying. And I said, “I don’t want to be this way anymore. I’m going to fight and change.” I ended up at a state-run rehab where 95 percent of the people were straight out of prison. Not only was it a hostile environment where people had a propensity for violence, but also people died there. People took their own lives there. I ended up staying seven months, and it probably saved my life because I grew up there. I learned to become a man. I just wrote a movie about it. About my relationship with a skinhead that was my roommate who had done 13 years for involuntary manslaughter. He had a swastika on his neck. We became best friends, and he was killed. He was murdered.
Sounds like a friendship as unlikely as that of Ron Woodroof and Rayon.
Craig Borten: It was an unlikely friendship where you found your humanity and you got rid of your ignorance. There’s a poetry to life in so many stories. I’ve been writing it for two years. I just took another pass at it over the holiday. I don’t know if anyone will let me direct.
Melisa Wallack: Eighteen years from now you’ll be directing it! You must have been relieved when he got himself together.
Melisa Wallack: Very. It was a long seven years. There were some moments in there.
Craig Borten: That’s enough I want to say on this subject.
Dallas Buyers Club is a triumphant story in terms of its 20 years. My story is part of it. It’s part of our story. I want it to inspire people. I’m reborn. This is my rebirth. But I don’t want it to take away from our story.
Was your drug use related in any way to the movie not getting made?
Craig Borten: Not at all. Substance abuse and alcohol are much deeper issues. You can’t put it on an event.
Melisa Wallack: It was in no way a response to the industry. We had barely sold it to Universal at that time. If anything, the opposite should have happened.
But Ron Woodroof and the world of AIDS is such a dark world to live in for such a long time.
Craig Borten: I like living in that world. A lot of the new stuff I’m writing is dark and human. Someone said to me the other day, “My perception of the film was that it’s about a man dying of AIDS, but actually it’s quite the opposite. It’s about a man with a will to live.”
Melisa Wallack: Writing it was inspiring
Craig Borten: Because she had me.
Melisa Wallack: Because I love Craig.
“It’s healthy to have arguments, as long as they’re not screaming matches, because you can learn a lot,” says Melisa Wallack. “You can change your mind about things. It’s painful when you write something, sometimes, to let go. Even when you’re on set, it’s painful too when people aren’t delivering your lines. It’s so difficult to extricate yourself from the narcissism.”
“The only thing you want to be precious about is moving your hero forward, moving your story forward,” says Craig Borten. “If it serves that purpose, great; if it doesn’t, you have to let go.”
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