Jeff Shell, Ron Meyer, Camila Alves,
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Two decades of work paid off with audience enthusiasm and awards buzz as Focus Features’ “Dallas Buyers Club” screened for an industry crowd at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters Oct. 17.

At a reception afterwards, writer Craig Borten said he started the project 20 years ago when he taped conversations with Texan electrician-turned-activist Ron Woodroof. He and co-scripter Melisa Wallack, who was 14 years on the project, said deals would “come and go, come and go” over the years, but the two were obviously pleased at the results. He described Jean-Marc Vallee‘s style as guerrilla filmmaking, with a low budget, probably $4-5 million (“We honestly don’t know,” he laughed. “That’s the world of independent film.”)

Producer Robbie Brenner said, “There were five incarnations of it before I came on, and that was 14 years ago.” Various people were attached, including Woody Harrelson, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Marc Forster. Fellow producer Rachel Winter added that the project has changed a lot, because “it’s such a complex story.”

It was finally shot in 25 days on a shoestring budget in Louisiana.  Yves Belanger served as both d.p. and camera operator by filming with a camera on his shoulder, using no lamps, only natural lighting in exteriors and interiors. There were no monitors, no makeup chairs, none of the usual niceties of bigger-budget filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey was accepting congrats from well-wishers, as was Jared Leto, who plays the transgender business partner of McConaughey’s character. Leto got the job via Skype. He hadn’t acted since the 2009 “Mr Nobody,” and didn’t bother opening most of the scripts sent to him, concentrating on his work with the band Thirty Seconds to Mars. But when he received this script in Berlin, “I read it and fell in love with it.” He chatted with Vallee via Skype, and halfway in, he suddenly went into character as Rayon. “In the middle of the conversation, I reached over and picked up lipstick and began to put it on, and then flirted with the director for 20 minutes. I got the job offer the next day.”

Like Leto, Jennifer Garner got her role as a doctor three weeks before shooting. “I immediately went onto eBay and found medical journals from 1981 to 1988, I read microfilm at the library. I got a crash course in AIDS during that time. It was like a puzzle, putting the pieces together,” she said, finding out what was known about the disease when the film begins and what doctors learned over the time span.

Awards strengths: Plentiful. The performances should win a lot of fans with SAG voters and the actors who make up the largest branch of the Academy. The script that deals with topical material (AIDS and the “bullying tactics” of the FDA, as one character says), but the film always keeps things on a personal level. The direction by Vallee (who was working in Oregon and couldn’t attend) and BTL work should be remembered. And the film will play well both on bigscreen and on screeners, which is a factor not to be underestimated.

Awards challenges: Only the heavy competition this year, which means there are no guarantees, even for strong work.

Among those in the crowd of well-wishers:  Universal execs Jeff Shell, Ron Meyer and Donna Langley, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Matthew Weiner and Terrence Winter (husband of producer Rachel W.). Outgoing Focus Features execs James Schamus and Andrew Karpen, who were both beaming and receiving hugs and hefty congrats. Karpen grinned, “I’m very proud of this film” Schamus was also full of praise for the filmmakers, adding, “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

(Pictured above: Jeff Shell, Ron Meyer, Camila Alves, Matthew McConaughey, Andrew Karpen and Donna Langley)

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