Long, winding road to ‘Dallas’ leads to six Oscar noms

Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, producers of “Dallas Buyers Club,” scarcely slept the night before the early-morning announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations on Jan. 16.

Their movie — the real-life story of a Texas homophobe (Matthew McConaughey) who becomes an unlikely activist once he contracts AIDS — had taken almost two decades to bring to the big screen, as actors and directors dropped in and out of the project and potential financiers rejected it around 140 times. Perhaps the scrappiest of this year’s contenders for best picture — a list that also includes studio blockbusters like “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” — the $4.75 million independent feature was finally shot in 2012 in Louisiana in just 25 days. Its funding was so scant by Hollywood standards that director Jean-Marc Vallée gave up using a musical score and any movie lights, even shooting one scene in a strip club illuminated only by 150 candles plus the club’s lights.

So when the word came that “Dallas Buyers Club” had garnered six Academy Award nominations — including for best picture, as well as best actor for McConaughey — the producers were beyond elated.

“I was screaming and crying,” Brenner, 42, recalled during an interview in her office at Relativity Media, where she serves as president of production.

“It was surreal,” said Winter, also 42, in a phone interview from her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Winter’s husband, the screenwriter Terence Winter, also happens to be an Oscar nominee this year, for “The Wolf of Wall Street.”) “I was kind of sitting there thinking, ‘Wait. I’m this Jewish girl from the North Valley. What just happened? How did I get here?’ ”

In fact, the producers’ crusade, Winter added, “mimics the overall theme of the movie. It’s the attitude of never give up; never say die.”

The journey of “Dallas Buyers Club” began 17 years ago when Brenner, then a creative executive at Miramax, received a script to read from her old friend, Craig Borten, now a nominee for best original screenplay along with his “Dallas” co-writer, Melisa Wallack.  

Borten wrote the first draft of the script solo after being intrigued by an article on Ron Woodroof, a straight Texan rodeo enthusiast and electrician who had led a wild life of womanizing, booze and cocaine before being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. To fight his own illness, Woodroof began smuggling unapproved medical drugs from Mexico and became a crusader against government officials after he started a pharmaceutical “buyers club” for others with the disease. While doctors initially gave Woodroof only 30 days to live, he survived almost seven more years with the help of the smuggled drugs, until he finally succumbed to complications of the disease in 1992, while in his 40s.

From left: Producers Rachel Winter and Robbie Brenner.

Borten had repeatedly phoned Woodroof for an interview during the last months of his life, only to learn that the Texan never picked up his telephone, Brenner said. “Then, one day, Ron answered and told Craig, ‘You can interview me if you can be here tomorrow.’ So Craig set out in a truck from Los Angeles with a friend, drove down to Texas, slept in a tent somewhere overnight and arrived the next day,” Brenner said.

“He ended up spending 25 hours with Ron, recording him on audiotape, and the interviews became the building blocks of the script.”

To enhance the drama, Borten added the fictional character of Rayon (played in the film by Oscar nominee Jared Leto), a doomed transsexual who becomes Woodroof’s business partner and teaches the homophobe a few lessons about tolerance.

Brenner, for her part, was immediately riveted by the screenplay, which she perceived as “a David and Goliath story about a little man against the system,” she said.   

But when Brenner and others proceeded to contact studios and financiers, they found little enthusiasm for the project. With the advances in AIDS medications, a film highlighting the disease no longer seemed relevant in Hollywood.  

“In the beginning, Craig had an ‘elevator pitch’ for the movie: ‘It’s about a homophobe who contracts HIV. He meets this other guy, and both of them die at the end,’ ” Brenner said. “Most people were like, ‘Absolutely not. This movie is never going to get made.’ ”

Even so, around 2001, Brenner got a major break when, along with another producer, she managed to sell the film to Universal, with Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”) attached.  

Brenner left the project for a time as it moved in and out of development at the studio and hit numerous dead ends, but she returned when the rights to the long-delayed film reverted back to the screenwriters in 2009.

Brenner soon reached out to McConaughey to play the edgy Woodroof, even though at the time the actor was known for his work in comedies. “In the footage I had seen of Ron, he was slick, sexy and seductive — he could sell you a used car — and I thought that Matthew also had that kind of charisma,” Brenner said.  

With McConaughey championing the film, Brenner sought out her good friend Winter to help her bring the movie to life and to serve as producer on the set while Brenner manned her day job back at Relativity.

The two women’s Jewish backgrounds add an “extra layer of understanding” between them, Winter said. Brenner, the granddaughter of a cantor, grew up attending the Reform Congregation Emanu-El on the Upper East Side of New York, while Winter, a native of Granada Hills, became a bat mitzvah at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge and attended youth groups at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

Once Winter came on board, the two producers immediately began looking for a director and Brenner managed to sign up the Canadian filmmaker Vallée — no matter that his previous films, such as “C.R.A.Z.Y” and “The Young Victoria” were set worlds away from Woodroof’s milieu of sleazy nightclubs and seedy trailer parks. “But his films felt real and organic, like you’re living with the characters,” Brenner explained. “We also didn’t want Rayon to become a caricature, and we had the intuition that Jean-Marc could do that.”

Production was set to start in 2012; then, just eight weeks before the shoot, the producers received news that their financing had fallen through. The timing was especially damaging, Winter said, because

McConaughey had already lost most of the 50 pounds he would shed to play the emaciated AIDS patient, and he couldn’t keep that weight off forever.  

“Robbie and I were freaking out,” Winter said. “But then everyone just kind of Rambo-ed it. We said, ‘We’re making this movie no matter what.’ ”

The producers stayed on the telephone 24/7 until, with the help of Creative Artists Agency and producer Cassian Elwes, they miraculously procured the $4.75 million needed from sources that included Voltage Pictures and, of all places, a Texas-based fertilizer company.

Yet, obstacles continued to abound. The actor Gael Garcia Bernal was slated to play Rayon, but a month before production began, he suddenly had to leave the project for family reasons; disaster was averted when rock musician Jared Leto signed up, having “seduced” director Vallée with a Skype interview he conducted entirely in drag.

As production began, Winter recalled, Leto remained in character even between takes, applying lipstick and chatting sassily with the crew.   

Leto had to lose weight quickly to portray Rayon, subsisting on just 400 calories a day; in fact both he and McConaughey were so emaciated during filming that Winter’s inner Jewish mother cringed. “I know that one day when I’m a bubbe, I’ll fulfill my role very well, because I was just dying to say, ‘Can I get you guys a sandwich?’ ” Winter said.

Meanwhile, to make ends meet, the producers slashed the number of shooting days from 40 to 25: “It got to the point where Jean-Marc was screaming, ‘No more!’ Brenner recalled.

To keep from cutting more days, Vallée elected to make the film without a musical score, movie lights or grips and with only a bare-bones crew. One of the many night sequences was illuminated solely by the headlights of a truck; for a scene in a rowdy gay bar where Rayon dances drunkenly in heels while Woodroof peddles AIDS medication, the sole cameraman worked with a handheld camera, whipping around to track back and forth between the main characters.  

“Actually that turned out to be a great, organic way for the actors to perform in the scene,” Brenner said.

With production concluded, a coup came when Focus Features picked up the distribution rights in spring 2013, and “Dallas Buyers Club” opened to strong reviews last November.

Then came that heady moment on Jan. 16, when “Dallas Buyers Club” picked up six Oscar nominations, and Brenner and Winter heard their own names called as nominees for the best-picture race.

“It was a life-defining moment for me,” Brenner said.

The entire project, Winter allowed, “was like pushing an enormous boulder uphill. But we knew that in this universe we were never going to stop until we made this movie.”

The 2014 Academy Awards will air  March 2 on ABC.