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Jean-Marc Vallée was coming off the disappointment of a potential follow-up to 2009's "The Young Victoria" falling through when the script for "Dallas Buyers Club" first floated across his desk, courtesy of producer Robbie Brenner. The story of Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 was diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, moved the director deeply. It was a story of drive and fire, a portrait of a man who, through smuggling unapproved medications from all corners of the globe, managed to stretch that 30 days into seven years…and prolong a few other lives along the way, too.
But Vallée was skeptical when Brenner brought up the possibility of actor Matthew McConaughey taking on the role. This was before the star's recent resurgence on the art house scene, before the pendulum of his career had begun to swing away from the paycheck gigs with which he had come to be associated.
"I went to New York and we had a meeting," Vallée recalls. "He was trying to see if I was the right director. I was trying to see if he was the right actor. And we understood that we wanted to make the same film. It was an instinct thing. I got the feeling that, 'Okay, I think this guy's at a place in his career where he wants to change perceptions and he wants new challenges. He wants to show us that he's a great actor.'"
When it came to Rayon, the transgender woman Woodroof befriends and goes into business with as they set up the film's eponymous med-pushing organization, 30 Seconds to Mars lead singer and sometime actor Jared Leto was equally unlikely. This was a period of time when Leto had really stopped receiving scripts, his big screen career having hit a lull in the years following the 2007 critical bomb "Chapter 27."
So they set up a Skype call and Vallée was met with Leto staring back at him in a wig and dress applying lipstick. "He was hitting on me," Vallée recalls. "I thought he was going to do this for five minutes, two minutes, and he just did it like until the end of the conversation, 25 minutes later. I hung up and said, 'This guy's crazy. He just showed me that he wants the part.' When he arrived on the set, he got off the plane dressed as a woman, with high heels and everything. And at the end of the shoot, he left dressed as a woman…The guy is a rockstar. A natural rockstar."
And so it was off to the races on a month-long indie shoot and a project that, Vallée was well aware, had certain notable parallels to the current health care crisis. "Dallas Buyers Club" is a film about desperation, about fighting for access to the proper care (though "proper" in this case was quite risky, but when your back is against the wall, you'll do anything to survive). But Vallée makes it clear that it wasn't an overt statement.
"The goal was just to serve this amazing story, even though it resonates to what's going on," he says. "This guy's fighting to survive and he wants to do it his own way. He wants to try to change the system and they weren't there yet. They weren't ready."
Meanwhile, the director was conscious of not painting things in black and white. The doctors in the film, the FDA, these weren't meant to be black hat villains. "It just wasn't the right period when they could all work together," he says. "Like 13 years later, in 1996 -- if we say 1983 is the year where [the AIDS epidemic took off] -- it's only 1996 that the pharmaceutical companies, the activists, the government and the FDA worked together and found some sort of a solution."
Vallée also concedes, as does McConaughey, that Woodroof may well have been the sort of person who thrived on that adversity to survive for as long as he did. "Just like McMurphy in 'Cuckoo's Nest,' some people need conflicts," Vallée says. "He's a kind of guy that I think, if he was told, 'You've got 30 days,' well, 'Oh yeah? You watch me. There's nothing that can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days.' He became his own expert, his own doctor, his own specialist…on a seventh grade education with no diplomas."
That speaks to the spirit of the setting in some ways, too, Vallée says. The contrast of the LGBT community and the AIDS epidemic against the state of Texas was interesting to him. "I think the fact that it's a cowboy with this cowboy attitude, it's like you need this attitude, to have the balls to do that," Vallée says. "And to have this kind of mentality, 'We're proud. We're the strongest. We want to be independent. No one tells me what to do,' it's Texan. So this attitude helped the community a lot."
And of course, that contrast extends to Woodroof himself, a homophobe prior to his ordeal, partnering with someone like Rayon and becoming the figure he did in the community. The truly moving and meaningful aspect of the script, Vallée says, was that arc.
"This guy, who didn't want to change and didn't want to become a crusader, without even realizing it and wanting it, he became their spokesperson. That was the beauty of the project."
"Dallas Buyers Club" opens in limited release on Nov. 1.
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