Inside the briliant mind of Dallas Buyers Club writer Craig Borten
I'm at RAWvolution, a hip raw foods restaurant in Santa Monica, drinking kombucha and eagerly awaiting the arrival of Craig Borten, the mind behind the Oscar nominated Dallas Buyers Club. He strolls in exactly at the appointed time, and I look up from my laptop to see a tall man (at 6’4), with curly dark hair, sparkling eyes, and an easy warmth about him.
We order a few dishes. Me: raw zucchini pasta, and Craig: the raw burger and some nori rolls. "I am starved" he says, in the breezy way that he does. He has been working on a few new projects and is busy doing non-stop interviews as the Oscars approach. He seems surprisingly relaxed.
I want to know where his passion comes from, where his first inkling towards filmmaking came from? He talks about growing up in Pennsylvania and watching the films of the seventies with his father: "Films like The Godfather and The Sting,” he says. “The Godfather really impressed upon me the idea of filmmaking and story, but it wasn't until I went to college that I got the filmmaking bug."
A friend sent him an article about Ron Woodroof, the main character of Dallas Buyers Club. Craig followed his instincts and drove to Texas to interview Ron. He pitched a tent, and interviewed him for three days straight. Ron said that he thought his story should be made into a movie, "Because people should ask questions." Although Ron passed away a month later, that short time they spent together had a powerful impact on Craig, so much so that he wrote a screenplay and spent the next twenty years trying to get the film made.
"I was going to write it with a friend,” he says, “but he ended up being too busy, so I wrote it myself.” It took him two years to finish a draft. “I didn't know much about AIDS, so I researched everything. When I finished, I was in a basketball league with producer Chris Moore, who loved it, and said he would option it for me. I would go to the office, and on one side of the blackboard it said ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and on the other side it said ‘Good Will Hunting,’ because he was developing that movie. So that was my first experience. We worked on it for a year and a half or so, but nothing happened with it. I met another set of producers and they started to develop it with me, but nothing came of it. I met with the third set of producers, and they developed it with me. I got agents who packaged it with Dennis Hopper to direct, andWoody Harrelson as star. And then we went to go sell it. The producers sent it to a few agencies, and CAA responded. Getting Agents was a big deal. We set it up at a small independent studio that had just started, Banner Entertainment. We developed it for a year, and then they went bankrupt".
Q. How did you get from being hopeful to hopeless, and then back up again?
A. I did make a promise to Ron Woodruf; that I would get the film made. I also think that when you love something, it doesn't matter what it is. It’s like riding a bike and you fall down; like playing a sport and you lose. You just practice to get better. I found a passion for it, and developed a Never-Say-Die attitude. I think the key is: endurance, hard work, and a little bit of Luck.
Q. Do you think that you are naturally tenacious? When you were a kid, is that what you were, or did the tenacity develop from your passion about this person's story?
A. I think seeing my father go through the battle with cancer, then my stepfather, and just experiencing the medical industry the way I did with cancer and terminal illness, and then meeting with Ron Woodroof. It was this thing, you know, where you are told you are going to die. What does it mean when you face your own mortality? That spoke to my heart. I had seen two men I loved go through it; and in my friendship with Ron; although it was so short. When you meet people on the brink of facing death, they are more open, and more forthcoming, as people are usually so guarded. It just spoke to me, and the film had champions. I had people come to me to say it was an incredible story, an important story, that Ron was a really moving character, and that I should just keep going. People always wanted to help get this film made, get it to directors, get it to actors, get it to studios.
Q. Do you feel that it gave Ron some comfort to know that it was going to be made?
A. He passed away a month after I interviewed him. I think it was really exciting for him. In the three days we spent together, he was passionate about talking about so many things— AIDS, death, the pharmaceutical industry. He had so much to say, so many theories. I think he was probably flattered that he had created such a worthy story. What I learned is that he didn't feel that his life had meaning until he got AIDS, and then his work gave him meaning.
Q. How did you manage to make such a great film with big stars on a small budget?
A. Jean Marc Valle, the Director... I think he knew he had limited days and a limited budget, and I think he talked to Matthew [McConaughey] about it. It was eight days until shooting, we didn’t have enough money, and we didn’t have enough days, and he said: ‘If you will be there, I will be there.’ We went on a wing and a prayer. It was hand-held. We would not have enough time to lock a camera anyway. The director didn't have a trailer, but he wouldn't have had time to sit on it anyway. There where no rehearsals. We shot the rehearsals.
Q. It seems this film has been strongly supported by women, such as your writing partner Melissa Wallack, who came on later to help with the rewrites; and producers Robbie Brennor and Rachel Winter?
A. The three of them are incredibly driven and passionate. I credit them for never taking no for an answer and having a great spirit. Robbie is an old friend. She'd read the first draft 18 years ago, and was a big supporter of this film. She brought it to Marc Forester, and she reminded me that we were up for revision. We had sold the script, and it takes seven years to get your rights back, if it hasn't been made. Robbie reminded us. She was persistent. Robbie was with me since the beginning, understanding my vision for the film. Melissa is an incredible writer, and Rachel was very driven on set. I love women and respect women, and it is incredible that we where able to make this happen together.
Q. What does a day in the life of Craig Borten look like these days?
A. I wake up at 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I am either writing right away, or I go to the dog park and come back and write right away. I have a lot of projects and meetings, and it is a full life. There's a lot on my plate at the moment, from writing to possibly directing.
Q. Tell me about your writing habits. How does one stay focused on so much, and continue to create?
A. I think that you have to really feed and nurture your creativity. I don't feel like there is any such thing as writer’s block. I feel like I am constantly working a scene out in my head. A lot of times it's to music as I drive, or when I wake up in the morning. Early mornings I am most creative, and once I have a general sense of building a line of dialogue, I will build things around it. Then when I have a sense of it, I will lay it down on my computer, or sometimes I will make notes on a pad. Music is another creative force that feeds my imagination.
Q. Why is morning your chosen time to write?
A. I love mornings; really early mornings. My head is clear in the morning; there are no phone calls, the sun is coming up. The energy of the morning is so powerful. Your mind is clear. You are more sharp and bright, and things come to you.
Q. Do you feel you work better under pressure?
A. Yeah, I think deadlines are really good, because you can't procrastinate. Because it's really easy to procrastinate with your work, except when you are under the gun. I work really well under pressure.
Q. Where do you feel most inspired to write?
A. I like to be in public places, but I end up just watching people. I love watching people. So I am better off being at home, with white walls, where it is so quiet.
Q. How does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar as 'Best Writer' for Dallas Buyers Club?
A. I am totally excited about it! It feels so nice after creating this art, that people receive it. It is incredible to share this with my family. They have seen me work so hard for so long, and it's amazing to have them now accompany me. I'm taking my mom and sister to the Oscars. Winning doesn't define me, but it sure is nice to be recognized.
I thanked Craig for the wonderful interview, and his precious time. I have no doubt that this is just the beginning of Craig Borten’s movie career, and I can't wait to see what he does next. I will definitely keep readers posted on Craig’s upcoming projects. Be sure to watch him, and all the cast and crew of Dallas Buyers Club during the Academy AwardsSunday, March 2, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Dallas Buyers Club has Six Oscars Nominations, 2014:
Best Writing, Original Screenplay
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Achievement in Film Editing
Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling