Brenner hung up elated. More than a decade after the Magic Johnson announcement — and nearly as long after "Philadelphia" — Hollywood would at last produce another high-profile film about AIDS. The movie about an outlaw who discovers himself was, as she put it, "a coming-of-age story about a grown man" but it was also set against an important social backdrop. "Monster's Ball" was soon shown to Brad Pitt, who also liked the "Dallas Buyers" script. He and Forster decided to team up. (Years later, this budding relationship would yield "World War Z.")
Brenner and another producer on the project, David Bushell, sold it to Universal, and soon Bushell and the Universal producer Marc Abraham were developing it.
And then "Dallas" hit a wall. With concerns that the script wasn't sufficiently polished, according to a person involved with Universal at the time, executives began a fruitless cycle — they'd hire a writer, pass on their version and then repeat the process all over again. In one instance, they handed the keys to Stephen Belber, a playwright who had also written the screenplay for "The Laramie Project," about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. They tried an up-and-comer named Chase Palmer. They gave a shot to Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of "Amores Perros," a triptych with a similarly tragic undertone. They passed on his script too.
Beset with offers for movies that were actually getting made, Forster moved on. So did Pitt.
Plenty of acclaimed movies, including "Shine" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," have endured years of false starts. But more than almost any other film, "Dallas Buyers" underscores just how capricious a place Hollywood can be. Producers game-plan pitches and strategize cast choices, but the decisive factors often are well beyond their control.
Years had gone by, and the movie was back to Square One. Borten, meanwhile, his once-hot project now nearly 15 years old, began wrestling with substance-abuse issues. He had once been a wunderkind who had written a daring movie about AIDS. Now he was on his way to becoming famous as the author of Hollywood's longest-stalled script.
"You hear about the entertainment industry beating you down, but you don't realize what that kind of rejection can do to you until you go through it," said Borten, an imposing man who counts among his unexpected life experiences a past romantic relationship with the actress Julie Delpy.
In 2008, things briefly looked up for "Dallas" at Universal when Ryan Gosling and Craig Gillespie, who were coming off the sleeper hit "Lars and the Real Girl," signed on. But the financial willingness wasn't there. There were murmured jokes at the studio about that "feel-good AIDS movie." There was talk about trying to move the project to the more prestige-oriented Focus Features, but little action.
Frustrated, Borten and Wallack extricated the rights and brought Brenner back to find new money. But the well was dry. Even though years had passed since her last go-round, and the AIDS crisis in the U.S. was neither as taboo nor as grave, financiers were still reluctant. It was as though Hollywood executives had done an about-face but still come to the same conclusion. Before, the subject of AIDS was too touchy. Now the feeling was that it was no longer relevant.
In the spring of 2011, as he rode around Los Angeles with a reporter talking up "The Lincoln Lawyer," Matthew McConaughey sipped a Corona and, very calmly, said that he thought by making "Dallas Buyers Club" a top priority for him, the movie could finally get made.
But surely he had heard about all the big-name actors who'd struck out? "Oh, I know," he said, a twinkle in his eye. "But I think we may have it this time."
You could be forgiven for doubting McConaughey. The actor was coming off the not-quite-Oscar-caliber "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" and "Surfer, Dude," and still hadn't accrued the credibility movies like "Bernie" and "Mud" would bring him. He did, however, have a level of intense commitment, the kind that comes from wanting people to see you differently.
In the project's latest director, Jean-Marc Vallee, McConaughey also had a partner in stubbornness. A veteran indie helmer, Vallee had made movies like "C.R.A.Z.Y." and "Young Victoria" outside the system. He didn't know about the Hollywood ways of overthinking a movie to within an inch of its life, and didn't much care about it. With his prodding, with Brenner's persistence (Wallack describes her as someone who "somehow always gets things done") and with McConaughey making clear to his agents at CAA that this was a priority, it had a shot.
And so last summer, a group of Canadian equity investors was willing to put up the funds. Then they got cold feet. "Sometimes you think you're right there, and it turns out you're not," Vallee, with salt-and-pepper hair and an intense aura, would say later. "But I like to say 'keep the faith.' I thought, 'Something will save us.' "
That something turned out to be CAA agents Laura Lewis and Roeg Sutherland. Or, more specifically, McConaughey's subtle ways of pushing them and their colleagues. The actor had begun losing weight, and he started talking about it in late-night interviews. He was essentially dictating that the movie get made, a kind of caloric throwing of the gauntlet. If he lost the weight and his representation couldn't justify it, they'd have egg on their face.
CAA and the indie-film wrangler Cassian Elwes landed a few million dollars from the upstart L.A.-based Voltage Pictures, which had helped finance "The Hurt Locker." But they were still at least $2 million short, and time was running out. McConaughey couldn't keep the weight off forever. They would shoot in 2012 or not at all.
Their angel came from an unlikely place. Elwes' ex-wife, Holly Wiersma, also a producer, was now dating the investor-producer Logan Levy. And Levy's father had a friend who worked at Truth Chemical, a Houston-based company that had made its money primarily in the fertilizer business. Hollywood glamour it wasn't. But the Truth Chemical partners, Tony Notargiacomo and Joe Newcomb, were hankering to get into the movie business. A period AIDS drama wasn't exactly what they had in mind. But it had a movie star in McConaughey — a Texas boy with some swagger, like them — and it had buzz, and that was enough.