Craig Borten’s first film project got off to a fast start back in 1992. A friend sent Borten, an aspiring filmmaker then in his late 20s, an article about a hard-living, ill-tempered, homophobic man who had contracted AIDS. The man, Ron Woodruff, was helping himself and other AIDS patients obtain unapproved, hard-to-get treatments through a controversial underground operation called the Dallas Buyers Club. Borten was instantly hooked on the story.
“He was this colorful, fascinating character who I thought would be great in a film,” Borten said. Borten tried right away to contact Woodroof, but didn’t hear back for a while. But as soon as Woodroof got in touch, Borten was in his car, and within days had driven from Los Angeles to Texas to spend a few days with his intended subject.
Progress slowed considerably from there. Four directors showed serious interest in heading the project. Four big-name actors were eager to portray Woodroof. Various studios wanted to take on the film. The project nearly got into production with Dennis Hopper directing and Woody Harrelson starring. Borten wrote numerous drafts of the script. In 2000, eight years in, he met another aspiring screenwriter, Melisa Wallack, and brought her on board as co-writer.
Finally, on Sept. 7, 2013, Borten saw his 21-year-year odyssey (and Wallack’s 13-year journey) appear on a big screen, with the premiere of “Dallas Buyers Club” at the Toronto Film Festival.
“We’re both persistent people. Very persistent,” Borten said in a phone conversation.
That persistence is being rewarded with more than the mere satisfaction of getting Woodroof’s story into a movie theater. “Dallas Buyers Club” has earned numerous honors on the film festival circuit; at the Rome Film Fest, it took four trophies, including the Audience Award and the Golden Butterfly for Canadian-born director Jean-Marc Vallée. It shows Monday (5:30 p.m., Wheeler Opera House) in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series, a showcase for films considered Oscar contenders.
Most of the critical attention has gone to actors Matthew McConaughey, who stars as Woodroof, and Jared Leto, who portrays the flirty, drug-addicted, transgender woman Rayon. The award nominations are piling up for both; each is currently nominated for a Golden Globe. Both McConaughey and Leto lose themselves in the roles: Leto is essentially unrecognizable, thanks to the form-fitting dresses, scarves and make-up, while McConaughey lost a startling portion of his usually beefy frame, and turns in the kind of full-throttle performance that has audiences rethinking the way they look at the 44-year-old actor.
“I agree with what most critics are saying — it’s groundbreaking, a tour de force,” Borten said of McConaughey (who has also earned acclaim recently for his acting in the well-received indie films “Bernie” and “Mud”). “What a performance to watch, that physical transformation, the emotional transformation.”
Borten praises more than McConaughey’s on-screen work. The writer says that his star showed a similar commitment behind the scenes as he did to the performance. “He was going to do anything it took to get the movie made,” Borten said.
Borten and Wallack show little exasperation, and even less surprise, that it took two decades to get “Dallas Buyers Club” released. Borten knew going in that the story of a homophobic AIDS patient would be a tough sell.
“People get into Hollywood for different reasons. I just wanted to tell stories that needed to be told,” Borten said. “My friend told me about Woodroof — ‘Great story, but it’ll never get made.’ Maybe I had blinders on. But everything is one in a million here.”
In 2000, eight years into the project but having lost little optimism, Borten brought in Wallack. “I knew I needed another window into this film,” he explained.
Wallack brought a fresh vision to the story, but she also had Borten’s realistic perspective on the material. “It’s definitely difficult subject matter,” she said. “It needed to be made on a smaller scale. When the line is, ‘A homophobic cowboy with AIDS ...,’ it’s harder to get it made.”
“The subject matter is really challenging for studios, who like to play things safe,” Borten said. “The subject matter isn’t safe, the leading character isn’t safe. It doesn’t fit into the summer-movie slot. Or the winter-movie slot.”
While the subject matter is definitely edgy, McConaughey’s appearance and demeanor can be shocking, and the script doesn’t shy away from the rougher corners of Woodroof’s story, “Dallas Buyers Club” unfolds with elements that are not foreign to mainstream cinema. From one angle, the core story fits in well in Hollywood — it’s the story of a deeply flawed character embracing the underdog role, discovering his strength and using his unique qualities to help others. There is humor and heroism, thrills and redemption, good guys and bad guys. There is a something like a romance, between Woodruff and a sympathetic doctor, played by Jennifer Garner.
“There’s a lot of levity, which helps it along,” said Borten, whose previous writing credits include last year’s “Mirror Mirror,” which starred Julia Roberts, and 2007’s “Meet Bill.” “And Ron becomes the person you want to ride along with.”
Borten and Wallack are even-keeled about their own long ride. They point out the benefits of waiting: the time to sharpen their script, and the fact that a story about AIDS has become easier to digest than it would have been in the early ‘90s. And Borten is grateful to the people who showed interest in his project, even those who were not ultimately involved in the final product.
“I had champions in my life, people who championed this story, this screenplay,” said Borten, who is reportedly involved with “The 33,” about miners trapped for two months, and featuring Juliette Binoche, Antonio Banderas, Martin Sheen and James Brolin. “That drives you forward. It gives your work purpose.
“There’s a ton of inspiring stories and not all of them fit into a film.”