A month before Ronald Woodroof died of an AIDS-related illness in September 1992, screenwriter Craig Borten interviewed the proud Texan for a few days in the hopes of bringing his life to the screen. Woodroof’s story—brought to Borten’s attention by a friend—was both fascinating and important: After Woodroof learned of his illness in the mid-’80s and after he was turned down for the new AZT drug trials by his doctors, the womanizing, homophobic electrician sought other ways of getting the treatment he believed he needed to survive. His primary venture was the Dallas Buyers Club, his own local version of an international ring of drug distribution services that trafficked in unapproved AIDS treatments for those who couldn’t afford AZT or who had adverse reactions to the drug. Upon diagnosis, he was initially given 30 days to live; he wound up living for seven more years.
It took 20 years and much extensive research alongside his co-writer Melisa Wallack for Borten to get the film made. Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof, has finally arrived, and it chronicles its lead’s struggles with AIDS, as well as his evolution from a homophobic womanizer to a compassionate friend and advocate for AIDS victims’ legal rights. “Craig and Melisa found the right blend of accuracy,” producer Rachel Winter has said, “not only for the medical details, but for the legal and government issues that Ron faced. There was only so far we could go into ‘procedural’ mode; the movie had to be entertaining.”
So what is the “right blend of accuracy,” exactly? How much of what we see in Dallas Buyers Club is historical fact and how much is historical fiction?
Unlike most people who become the subjects of feature films, Woodroof’s life has not been extensively documented in the news or in books. The most comprehensive knowledge of the activist’s work belongs to the screenwriters themselves: Borten recorded over 20 hours of interviews with him and had access to his personal journals. I spoke with Borten, who described their script as a “pretty accurate portrayal” of Woodroof’s life, but acknowledged that he and Wallace employed a good deal of poetic license in rendering Woodroof’s story on screen. What follows is a breakdown of how much of the film is strictly factual and how much is inspired by true events. I relied primarily on my conversation with Borten and on newspaper archives from the 1980s and 1990s.
In the film, Ron is portrayed as a part-time rodeo cowboy and electrician prior to his diagnosis; he has a threesome with two women in a rodeo stall and is seen cracking misogynistic and homophobic jokes with his buddies while on break from work. The real Ron was indeed an electrician who worked as an independent contractor with sporadic employment. But though the film begins and ends with him in a rodeo setting, Woodroof was only a rodeo enthusiast, not a rider; these details, as Borten explained to me, were used as a metaphor for his character’s struggle and ability to survive far longer than his doctors said he would—a “lassoing of the bull.” As for his friends, Woodroof did indeed lose them after his diagnosis was made known, as shown in the film.
In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron is diagnosed in 1985; Borten says this is his best estimate as to the year Woodroof found out about his status. But Woodroof told Borten that a doctor had informed him he might have the disease well before that. Woodroof even suggested that he could pinpoint when he may have contracted the disease: He described a sexual encounter with a woman in 1981 that “didn’t quite feel right”; Woodroof suspected she may have been an intravenous drug user, and referred to some “really raw stuff” that didn’t go into the movie. The film alludes to that encounter with a brief flashback showing Ron and an unidentifiable woman; we see this just after Ron, going through microfilm in in the library, learns that AIDS can be caused by having unprotected sex.
Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks
The characters that have the most profound effect upon Ron in the movie are Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman also living with AIDS who becomes his business partner in the Dallas Buyers Club, and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who eventually becomes a friend and ally in Ron’s quest for getting AIDS victims the treatment they need. Neither of these characters is based on a specific individual in Woodroof’s life. Borten and Wallack interviewed a number of transgendered activists and doctors who faced similar struggles with access to drugs during the course of their writing, and they created composites of those people for the film.
Rayon in particular was created as a character to give Ron a dramatic challenge to his prejudices while facing disease, Borten told me. The real Woodroof didn’t have any particular Rayon in his life, but he was, in fact, deeply changed by his diagnosis and his subsequent work with the Dallas Buyers Club. The character arc, from bigotry to tolerance, does, Borten says, reflect Woodroof’s own transformation from a homophobe to a compassionate advocate.
At the height of the Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof had a vast network of people—including lawyers, judges, doctors, airline attendants, and people at the border—who helped him get unapproved drugs into the United States and to patients who needed them. As shown in the film, Woodroof donned elaborate disguises when traveling for the Buyers Club, Borten told me.
Over time, doctors around the country also began to see the benefits of the buyers clubs (as Eve does in the film), and would even send their patients to them when AZT made them sicker or was simply too expensive. In a 1991 New York Times article on the illegal drug trade, one person dealing with an advanced stage of the disease said that his doctor gave him the number of a buyers club so that he could order a drug in the early stages of development, as he was unable to “participate in most clinical trials.”
The first time we see Ron caught smuggling drugs across the border—while disguised as a priest—he encounters FDA official Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill). Barkley tells Ron he can only bring in 90 day’s worth of drugs across the border. When Ron says that the enormous stash is his 90-day supply (to treat cancer, he claims), Barkley allows it—so long as he doesn’t sell any of it.
This scene depicts legal regulations that existed at the time: In 1988, the FDA allowed Americans to import unapproved drugs from abroad, a move that was made primarily due to the insistence of AIDS patients. Only a limited supply was allowed, enough for approximately three months worth. For a time, buyers clubs were tolerated in the manner of the FDA “looking the other way,” as a spokesperson for the administration explained in a 1989 profile of Woodroof. By 1991, however, the FDA had changed its tune, and began to investigate buyers club directors (including Woodroof), as they do with Ron in the film.
At the end of the movie, Ron loses a lawsuit he has filed against the FDA for denying him access to the then-unapproved drug Peptide T, which he claimed had significantly improved his complications with dementia. The judge’s decision in the film closely mirrors the conclusion made by Judge Charles Legge in a real-life case brought by Woodroof. Legge said that, while he personally believed terminally ill patients should be able to purchase unapproved drugs, no right to do so could be found in the Constitution. (As stated in the closing titles of the film, Ron was eventually allowed Peptide T for his own personal use.)
A turning point in the film comes when Ron learns about a study published in the Lancet* about the harmful effects of AZT on some AIDS patients; this confirms his suspicions of AZT, and he shows the review to Eve in an attempt to bring her over to his side of the drug war. There were many studies published in the Lancet regarding AZT; the one Ron finds in the movie bears a strong resemblance to a study published in a 1988 issue of the journal, which found that after initial improvements, by six months patients’ health had decreased again, “and several opportunistic infections, malignancies, and deaths occurred.”
What Didn’t Make It Into the Film
Borten told me there were too many interesting things in Woodroof’s life to include in a single movie. There were more lawsuits, including one he filed against the hospital for not allowing him to participate in the initial AZT trials. Also absent is any mention of Woodroof’s family—at least two relatives, his sister Sharon Woodroof Braden and his daughter Yvette Carroll, have spoken about his life and their feelings about the movie since it went into production. Borten never reached out to the family, and decided against including them in the script, because, he said, he sees it as a “character study” and “the way into the story was Ron Woodroof” himself.
Correction, Nov. 3, 2013: This post originally misstated the name of the medical review journal reffered to in the film as the Lancet Review.