METAIRIE, La. — In the summer of 1992, an aspiring filmmaker named Craig Borten drove from Los Angeles to Dallas to see a man named Ron Woodroof. Borten was just a few years out of Syracuse University and didn't know what kind of movies he wanted to make, or if he wanted to make them at all.
But he'd read about Woodroof, a fast-living — and, as it happened, deeply homophobic — straight electrician and rodeo habitue who had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. First out of self-preservation and then as a grudging crusade, Woodroof began smuggling unapproved drugs from Mexico and other countries, prolonging his life and the lives of thousands of others. Borten thought there might be a movie in his tale.
For nearly three days, an ailing Woodroof talked as Borten ran the tape recorder. The would-be filmmaker was astonished at how a crude and self-involved homophobe could become an unwitting hero in the terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic. "He was this enigmatic character: wearing a cowboy hat, incredibly raw about women, about drugs, about AIDS," Borten would later recall. "I remember thinking 'this is bigger than life itself.'"
Woodroof died a few months later in his early 40s. Shortly after, Borten completed a script about him and his flouting of the medical establishment, setting it in the worlds of hospitals, the gay community and Texas rodeo. He called it "The Dallas Buyers Club," after the pharmaceutical ring Woodroof ran.
Flash forward to a cold day last December in this scruffy suburb of New Orleans, where a surreal scene unfolded. At a usually straight working-class watering hole, actor Matthew McConaughey — mustachioed and weighing barely 130 pounds — stood at a bar that had been tricked out in flamboyant fashion. In front of him was a large case packed with fake vials and pills. Actor-musician Jared Leto — in a skirt, stilettos and enough mascara to drown an elephant — was dancing nearby, surrounded by dozens of male extras similarly attired. Prop signs promised the "hottest men and coldest beer in Dallas."
Suddenly, a member of the crew yelled "Let's do the frontal crotch business." The crowd of male extras was unloosed. A few hours later, after more wild dancing, some crotch grabbing, plenty of Leto tottering fake-drunkenly on his heels, there was a call: "That's a wrap." "The Dallas Buyers Club" had finished shooting.
Bottles were broken out, real ones. The director, the French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, looked relieved, and a little like he might fall over from exhaustion. A group of Houston good-ol' boys who'd helped finance the movie had flown in by private jet, impossibly buxom dates in tow.
There was clapping for McConaughey as he staggered, emaciated, into a black car waiting to whisk him to the land of more than 400 daily calories. Leto retired to a trailer a few blocks away, two beauticians furiously peeling away layers of lipstick and rouge, the actor's voice finally dropping below the alto range he maintained, even off-set, for the previous five weeks as Woodroof's unlikely gay friend and accomplice.
And now, more than 20 years after Borten took his exploratory trip, the film is ready to enter the world, making its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month before coming to theaters in December. Already the improbable project has generated a significant amount of pre-awards season interest for its showy performances and for its willingness, in this post-DOMA world, to examine a darker time.
Many movies have a twisty backstory, but inside Hollywood, "Dallas Buyers" is the stuff of legend. It is a tale of the doomed commitment of superstars like Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, the dissipated interest of filmmakers as diverse as Marc Forster and Dennis Hopper, numerous shaky financial arrangements, two studios with cold feet, a writer so tortured by rejection that he spiraled into addiction, a bailout by men in the decidedly unglamorous business of Texas fertilizer, and the film's eventual salvation by an actor who for many years had best been known for semi-naked bongo drumming.
In short, a story as mythic as Woodroof's itself.
Just a few days after 9/11, producer Robbie Brenner received a call.
Brenner had been guiding Borten on the "Dallas Buyers" script since the 1990s — she and others had pounded the pavement to track down financiers and studios willing to back it, only to be met by a familiar reply. We love the script. But we just can't put up the money for a movie about a man dying of AIDS, it went. And sure, "Philadelphia" had been a huge hit, but the hero of that film was a sympathetic man wrongly fired for the disease, not a cynical rogue who went around insulting people.
Borten said he couldn't blame them. "This was the elevator pitch for my film: 'It's a story about a racist homophobe with AIDS who befriends a man who dresses as a woman. Then they both die.'"
But many actors and filmmakers embraced it. There was a David-vs.-Goliath quality to a story of a man who challenged Big Pharma. Woodroof was a colorful and juicy antihero. And the film was about AIDS, which had jolted society and also afflicted many in Hollywood.
Woody Harrelson agreed to star and Dennis Hopper was aboard to direct in the mid-1990s. Columbia Pictures was set to buy the project. But the studio didn't seem intent on making it, and the principals decided to keep it independent. When no financing materialized, Harrelson and Hopper wound up leaving.
So when Brenner picked up the phone that September she couldn't believe her ears. On the other end of the line was the director, Marc Forster. Forster was a film-school pal of Brenner's, and was white-hot as buzz built for his upcoming interracial romantic drama "Monster's Ball." The filmmaker told his old friend that he had just read the "Dallas Buyers" script (which had since also added a co-writer in Melisa Wallack), and wanted to make it his next film.