In September 1992, Ron Woodroof succumbed to complications from AIDS. Seven years earlier, he had been given 30 days to live.
The month before Woodroof's death, screenwriter Craig Borten drove from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas to meet him and begin work on telling Ron's story for a movie that would ultimately take 20 years to get made, Dallas Buyers Club.
Borten was drawn to Ron's story, and that of the DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, after being pointed towards it by a friend. Ron had been diagnosed with H.I.V. in 1985, at the flashpoint of America's growing awareness of AIDS. The syndrome had already been ravaging the nation's gay community for over four years; this womanizing, macho electrician was one of millions who saw AIDS only as "that gay disease."
At age 35, the proud son of Texas found himself shunned and ostracized by his friends and co-workers. He was dying and nearly broke. Yet he was determined to survive and, against all odds, he not only survived but thrived and helped save lives.
In the seven years since his diagnosis, Ron had become a walking encyclopedia of anti-viral meds, pharmaceutical trials and patents, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations, and court decisions. He was fighting for patients' rights, including for access to alternative medicines and treatments.
After writing letters that went unanswered, Borten phoned the DALLAS BUYERS CLUB offices. Ron got on the phone and told the writer to come and visit the very next day.
Borten felt that the story of a homophobic cowboy who suddenly, incredibly found himself on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic was profound and unique. The screenwriter reflects, "The more I found out, the more compelling it was. What interested me was having this man who goes from being extremely bigoted to having his closest friends throw that right back at him - and then he evolves to learn what real friendship is and what it means. Those who accept him and support him are H.I.V. and AIDS patients, nearly all of whom are gay.
"Here's someone who gets a death sentence and turns it around, and makes these discoveries. In the process, he is changed and he helps other people. Anyone who defeats the odds is inspiring to me and that's what Ron did. And he was a better person for it."
Borten spent several days with Ron, recording with a Dictaphone more than 20 hours of interviews with him at the DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.
After Ron passed away, the telling of his story - one of self-preservation and self-interest that flowered into benefitting so many others - began its own unexpected journey. Borten continued doing further research, and kept writing. Once confident that he had told Ron's story well in feature script form, he gave the screenplay to a close friend, producer Robbie Brenner, to read.
"I fell in love with it instantly," says Brenner. "What an incredible journey Ron lived. The story is very human on all levels. Because of who Ron was, how he was raised and where he came from, he had the will to question and to fight through adversity and tragedy. When he got AIDS, he was able to see his life through a different lens; he changed the course of it, affecting other people and helping them. Yet he didn't set out to do those things. He was just trying to survive.
"The script reminded me of movies I love that mattered. I told Craig I wanted to produce this movie."
That was in 1997, when Brenner was a production executive at a studio where the project went into development but didn't get made. Borten got the rights back, shopped it around, got it optioned, and rewrote it, adding in new material based on further research.
In 2000, Borten teamed with screenwriter Melisa Wallack to rework the script. Together they streamlined the scope of the story, stepping back from the volumes of information and opinions to take a closer look at one man's odyssey. Borten remembers, "We broke it down into different people representing different points of view."
Wallack remarks, "Ron's evolution was pretty amazing, and it was his discoveries and insights into himself as well as into AIDS research and medications that pointed the script in the direction it ultimately went."
In 1985, AZT (Azidothymidine) was the only anti-viral medication to show promise in treating H.I.V. and AIDS. Yet it was largely unavailable - limited to patients in clinical trials, or sold underground on the rapidly developing black market. Then, in 1987 it was brought to market as the most expensive approved drug ever sold, costing more than $10,000 for a year's supply.
Patients died daily. H.I.V. infections and AIDS-related deaths climbed exponentially year after year. All the while, AIDS activists and patients like Ron pushed for affordable and alternative treatments. They urged expedited FDA approvals for the dozens of potentially helpful medications that were not available in the U.S.
"Ron went toe-to-toe with the FDA - and at times the DEA, the FBI, and the IRS," marvels Wallack. This is a man who fought the government for the right to control what went into his body. He sued the FDA in federal court in San Francisco, asserting that their actions had violated his 9th Amendment 'right to a healthy mind.' The more we researched, the more we were struck by the broader constitutional questions about personal freedoms."