This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Matthew McConaughey's recent weight loss for a role in The Dallas Buyers Club has gotten the actor plenty of attention. But even as he was losing 40 pounds, it was up in the air whether the AIDS drama would happen. The film began shooting Nov. 11, more than 15 years after the project was conceived and weeks after it nearly fell apart on the eve of the shoot. "I pinch myself because it has been so many agonizing years bringing this film to fruition," says producer Robbie Brenner. "But I've learned that with independently financed films, you're not making a movie until the cameras are rolling."
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's screenplay about Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas electrician diagnosed with AIDS who smuggles alternative drugs into the U.S., began generating heat during the 1990s, when AIDS-themed films were au courant thanks to Tom Hanks' Philadelphia. Brenner, a longtime friend of Borten's, came aboard as a producer in 2000 and tried to get her then-boss Harvey Weinstein to make the movie. Weinstein passed, but a year later she received the call from Marc Forster that he wanted to direct, and Brad Pitt was on board to star. The project quickly was set up at Universal. "But it's a tough movie about a tough-to-stomach guy," says Brenner. "He's a racist, a homophobe and kind of a scumbag who contracts HIV." Universal tapped more than a handful of writers, but the project languished. Two years ago, Dallas Buyers was all but dead, with the rights quietly reverting to the writers. Borten then enlisted Brenner to pour her energy back into the project, and the original script made its way to hot young director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria). Vallee, a Montreal native, was able to attract Canadian financing for the $4.5 million film and thus a leading man in McConaughey (Hilary Swank also became loosely attached as the female lead).
Suddenly, the project was viable. But as the film's fall start date loomed and McConaughey began dropping wieght, the film's Canadian financier couldn't put the funds together. Again, the film was on life support, with McConaughey's availability waning due to another project that kicks off right after the new year. Indie finance guru Cassian Elwes sprang into action, and along with CAA's Laura Lewis, helped secure new financing from Nicolas Chartier (The Hurt Locker), who took foreign rights, and Truth Entertainment, deep-pocketed Texans who made their money in fertilizer.
With a new prognosis, Jennifer Garner was cast in the role once coveted by Swank and Jared Leto agreed to take on the role of a flamboyant cross-dresser with HIV, his first acting job in three years. "You never know how these things will turn out," says Brenner. "Hopefully, this one is like fine wine and worth the wait."