Jean-Marc Vallee discusses dramatising one man’s battle with the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies
The story of Texas electrician Ron Woodroof and his battle with the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, and his search for alternative treatments that helped established a way in which fellow HIV-positive people could join for access to his supplies.
To coincide with the release of Dallas Buyers Club, The Fan Carpet caught up with director Jean-Marc Vallee to discuss the making of the film, and the confrontation with dramatising one man’s story and the events he was a part of.
How did you become involved in Dallas Buyers Club, and what piqued your interest in the project?
My decision is always based on the script. When I read a script I always ask myself the question ‘Do I want to spend the next two years of my life working on this film; being at the service of that story?’
So when I read the script for Dallas Buyers Club I was taken aback because it was such a beautiful story with a powerful sense of humanity. Knowing that it was on the shelf for twenty years was just one more reason to direct the film. Both the producers and I wanted to go out and tell this story, and to be able to say that this story has been told.
In telling the story of Ron Woodruff, did you feel an added responsibility in portraying both his story and the events that he was a part of?
For the facts yes, but we were making a fictional, dramatized film that was based on his life.
All the characters except for Ron were invented, but having said that, we respected the era, the facts, and what happened to this guy. We knew we had a responsibility to the era and what he went through, and so whilst we aware that we were making a fictional film, we were nonetheless respectful towards the facts of his story.
Your filmography seems to suggest you have a penchant for stories set in the past, which Dallas Buyers Club contributes to. Was that a conscious choice?
It’s more sub-conscious. In the end I respond to the story, regardless of the era it takes place in. I have projects that I’m currently working on that take place today, but over all I would say that it is more of a sub-conscious thing.
After Philadelphia there was a hiatus from stories about AIDS/HIV in film. 2013 saw the release of two critically acclaimed documentaries: Fire in the Blood and How to Survive a Plague which were followed by Dallas Buyers Club. What is the reason for this resurgence of the subject of AIDS/HIV on screen?
It’s all about when it is the right time to talk about a subject. They were trying to make Dallas Buyers Club In the nineties and it didn’t happen. Perhaps the reason why it didn’t happen was that people weren’t ready to discuss the subject. But who wants to hear about AIDS when they are depressing stories? Perhaps Dallas Buyers Club is a film that is perfect for this moment in time.
Coming to the project, was there a period of collaboration with the writers before settling on the final version of the script?
When I first become involved in a project I always look to work with the writer. Whilst I like to make a pass of the script, I am respectful to their work. But I’ll look to bring the directorial approach to the script as well as the intentions of the music. For Dallas Buyers Club the directorial approach was mainly telling the story through Ron’s point of view, and so when I made a pass on the script we changed a lot of the scenes to discover them or to see them through Ron’s point of view. Very rarely in the film do we move outside of his point of view.
Within storytelling there is the belief in the need to have at least one character to guide the audience through the story.
Well that’s what I’m trying to do with every film I direct. If the audience are to have an amazing journey then they need to follow one, two or three characters, though in truth it is just the one.
The characters point of view tells me where to put my camera, and the more I make films the more I want to be transparent and to not be spotted by the audience. Instead I look to follow the characters, and the actors. You have to trust in that, and the way to trust in that approach is to sick with the main characters.
To conclude, how do you look back on your experience of working with the cast, and how important were their contributions in shaping the film?
They were everything. You look at Matthew and Jared whose performances are bigger than life. The two of them influenced me to take a step back – in part because I was scared of these two guys. They felt the characters, and the direction was to always be true and realistic.
Dallas Buyers Club is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of eOne