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The Controversy Behind the Scenes of Dallas Buyers Club

My first thought was How fucking cool is that? I had heard about the film project for years, as various actors and directors were attached to it, but it never actually came together. I knew the real-life story of Ron Woodroof, the founder of the buyers club in Dallas. I hadn’t known Woodroof personally, but one of my best friends, Derek Hodel, had been the founding executive director of New York City’s buyers club, and had crossed paths with Woodroof often. Before boarding my flight to Oslo, I opened the script and did a quick search for scenes with IAN and MICHAEL, the roles I was being considered for. The two characters were described as “a conservative gay couple in their 40s,” and they had two scenes with Ron Woodroof. Ian has AIDS, and Michael is desperately trying to find experimental treatments to save his partner’s life. In the first scene, they are in Ron’s office at the buyers club, hoping to sign up Ian as a client, listening to Ron’s pitch to new members. In the second scene, they offer an empty house to Ron after the FDA closes down the club’s first office space. Michael has six lines in total. Ian just has to look sick and worried. That the person with AIDS seemed incapable of speaking for himself should have been my first red flag, but all I could think about was how cool it would be to shoot two scenes in New Orleans with Matthew McConaughey. Peter StaleyBY EMIL COHEN. I wanted to read the entire script before answering the email, but Bergen monopolized my attention for a week. Finally, on the flight home, I started reading the very made-for-Matthew-McConaughey opening: a rodeo stud has sex with two women while snorting coke before riding a bull. Well, that’s strange. I thought Woodroof was gay. My friend Derek certainly thought he was. But it was true he wasn’t out about it. His friends had said he told the local press he contracted HIV from injecting drugs, thinking that carried far less stigma than gay sex, at least in Texas. But as I read on, it didn’t take long before my jaw was in my lap. I knew the real Woodroof had tried the antiretroviral drug AZT early on and—like many, including me—had to stop taking it because of the anemia it caused. He joined the AZT-is-poison crowd but went on to become the country’s biggest buyers club supplier of bootleg ddC, AZT’s equally toxic sister drug. Logic wasn’t one of his strong suits. The script was predictably filled with AZT-bashing, but there was an entire storyline added on top of this that had nothing to do with Woodroof’s actual story. Ron has a sexy doctor and potential love interest, Eve Saks, the role snapped up by Jennifer Garner shortly before shooting started. Page 59: INT. DALLAS MEMORIAL HOSPITAL — HALLWAY — NIGHT WATCH

Eve walks down the hall, in mid-conversation with Dr. Sevard: EVE Dr. Peter Duesberg — the molecular biologist — he says HIV is a harmless passenger virus. DR. SEVARD Based on what? EVE That women aren’t contracting AIDS at the same rate as men. Not to mention no one has been able to infect an animal with AIDS. The point is we don’t know for sure if HIV is the cause. DR. SEVARD I’m not going to debate HIV with you. EVE (holding out a file) Ron Woodroof has a low T-cell count but other than that he’s healthy as an ox-- For the uninitiated, Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, was the founder of one of the most deadly conspiracy theories in history. In 1987, he claimed that HIV was a harmless virus that doesn’t cause AIDS. The theory’s ability to offer false hope to those who tested HIV positive helped birth what soon became an incredibly dangerous movement: AIDS denialism. All sorts of quack ancillary theories were offered to explain the rising deaths from AIDS, including that the drugs to treat it, like AZT, were responsible. A couple of journalists tried to make their names promoting AIDS denialism. Websites were launched. And a nutty millionaire funded a slick documentary that claimed to expose the scientific fraud around the “harmless virus” HIV. But most enraging of all, South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki became a denialist and kept antivirals out of his country from 2000 to 2005, until finally its supreme court intervened. An estimated 340,000 lives were lost and 35,000 babies were infected because of Mbeki’s denialism. And now here was a script in which Duesberg, the denialists’ founding nutjob, was an off-screen hero. Even worse, Woodroof becomes a denialist, then convinces his doctor to become one too. Dr. Eve immediately pulls all her patients at Dallas Memorial Hospital off AZT, because she becomes convinced the drug itself is killing her AIDS patients. Her patients start doing better after she rescues them from AZT. Whatever is making Woodroof sick, an experimental drug called peptide T seems to help. It even helps his ailing dad with his Alzheimer’s! Another Hollywood addition to Woodroof’s story brought more strange twists: Rayon, Ron’s fictional business partner who would end up being played by Jared Leto, is described in the original script as “a cross-dresser in his early 30s,” and serves as a constant challenge to Ron’s pervasive homophobia—a character trait that, by most accounts, the real Woodruff never displayed. INT. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB APARTMENT — LIVING ROOM — NIGHT Music plays. Rayon, extremely sick, holds a bottle of POPPERS, watches Sunny dance around the room amongst the stacked moving boxes. Rayon starts coughing into a handkerchief, pulls it away, it’s covered with BLOOD. Sunny stops dancing. One page later, Rayon is dead. The scene includes a major dog-whistle for the AIDS denialist movement. One of its earliest ancillary theories was that gay men were dying from AIDS because our immune systems couldn’t handle all the party drugs we were using, including poppers. To drive this point home, another scene has Ron picking up a pamphlet from a literature table during a mostly gay community meeting on AIDS that says, “POPPERS STUDY: POSSIBLE CAUSE OF AIDS.” By the end of the script, McConaughey is riding bulls again, happier and healthier, having empowered Dallas’s gay community to live longer lives by bucking FDA advice and using alternative therapies. This is followed by two final title cards: Ronald Woodroof died on September 12, 1992, six years after he was diagnosed with the HIV virus.

More dog whistles. Early in the script, Ron is told immediately after his diagnosis that he only has six months to live. In the title card, he hasn’t died of AIDS; instead, he has survived six years beyond a misleading diagnosis. Oh, and after multiple studies, peptide T turned out to be a worthless drug that was never approved for anything. The script was a horror show for AIDS activism. We had done a fairly good job in recent years of snuffing out the impact of AIDS denialism, especially after what happened in South Africa. Whenever the denialists’ slick documentary was added to a film festival’s program, we’d bombard the organizers with pro-science how-could-you’s. They’d pull it from the program every time. If the script I had just read made it into theaters with a roster of A-list stars, AIDS denialism would be reborn. And people would die unnecessarily as a result. I returned from Norway on October 21. The next day there were stories out of Hollywood reporting that Matthew McConaughey had already lost thirty pounds to play the part. Filming was scheduled to start on Monday, November 12, exactly three weeks away. I emailed Professor John Moore, a Cornell University virologist and cofounder of the group AIDSTruth, a collective of scientists and activists who actively fought AIDS denialism with truth and science. He immediately cc’d others in the group, including Nathan Geffen, a South African activist who had spent years fighting Mbeki and the denialists; Gregg Gonsalves, who was earning his doctorate at Yale; and Richard Jefferys, director of the Basic Science Project at TAG. Richard had been sued by a denialist for libel and won a resounding victory against the accuser in court. Buy on Bookshop or Amazon AIDSTruth shared my alarm at the script. I asked if we should go public with our concerns as a way to pressure the film’s creative team, but they advised against this. They had learned the hard way that fighting denialists in the press often backfired. Conspiracy movements thrive on all public mentions, including scathing ones. As long as their theory gets mentioned, there will always be one person out of a thousand who becomes intrigued and Googles the theory. All press, including bad press, helps a conspiracy movement grow. John Moore suggested an alternative strategy. “We’ve got three weeks to work with, and you’ve got an in with the director. Let’s try to push them to fix the script,” he told me. “We need to find out how the denialism got added to it. Was it just some innocent Googling by one of the screenwriters, or is there a full-on denialist within their creative team?” We aimed to find out. I needed to bait a hook to quickly grab the director’s attention. All I had at that point was the talent agency’s e-mail, so I sent them a short reply: I finished reading the script this week. I know Ron Woodroof’s story pretty well, and there are some major threads in this script that had nothing to do with Ron and would infuriate the AIDS community—activists, researchers, you name it. I’m more than willing to help Jean-Marc and the writers fix the main problems in order to prevent a huge backlash down the road. By not describing the problems, the e-mail would hopefully prompt an inquiring dialogue. It worked like a charm. My phone rang five minutes later. It was Jean-Marc Vallée. Vallée was a French Canadian director who had done a few well-reviewed art-house films, and I would quickly learn that his knowledge about HIV/AIDS was extremely basic—what you’d expect the average progressive straight guy from outside New York City or San Francisco to know, which isn’t much.


After some very kind words about my activism as documented in How to Survive a Plague, he asked me about the problems in the script. I tried to explain the history of AIDS denialism, which meant describing quite a bit of overall AIDS history as well. Without this larger knowledge of the crisis, it would take him time to grasp how serious the script issues were. Thankfully, he immediately made clear that he wanted to get things right. “I want this film to be beautiful, and I want it to be true,” he kept saying. But I could tell that most of his knowledge about AIDS came from the script itself, which he was led to believe was Woodroof’s real story. He immediately suggested setting up a four-way conference call with me, him, and the two screenwriters, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Richard Jefferys helped me furiously Google everyone involved with the film, but we had found very little info on the screenwriters. Both were apparently L.A.-based and in their forties. Borten had no prior screenwriting credits. Wallack had one previous screenplay project, having written and codirected Meet Bill, a 2007 film starring Aaron Eckhart. Vallée was already in New Orleans, living in a rented apartment as he scouted possible sites for shooting the film. He suggested a Skype call for later that night. Borten wasn’t available then, so we did the call with Vallée, me, and Wallack. After friendly introductions and niceties, I once again started to explain AIDS Denialism 101, starting with Duesberg and finishing with Mbeki. I pointed out that Ron Woodroof was not a denialist. After being asked about AZT’s toxicity, Woodroof was quoted in a 1992 Dallas Morning News article saying, “I don’t see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself.” They let me ramble on for ten or fifteen minutes with only one or two questions from Vallée. I had no idea what Wallack was making of any of this history, but once she finally weighed in, everything became clear in an instant. “Well,” she said, “I can’t believe you’d say disparaging things about a genius like Peter Duesberg.” DING-DING-DING! My eyes widened. My nostrils flared. Our denialist had just revealed herself. Within seconds we were screaming at each other. “You can’t be serious,” I yelled at one point. “I’ve met and interviewed Duesberg, along with other experts who agree with him,” she yelled back. “Their story is hugely important to tell!” Our screaming match escalated even further. Vallée looked stunned, not quite understanding what was happening. And then the AIDS gods intervened: the Skype call went dead. Vallée called me back immediately on his cell phone. The power had gone out in his apartment. He offered to use three-way calling on his cell phone to get Wallack back on. “No, no, no,” I replied, “I never need to talk with her again. Jean-Marc, Melisa is an AIDS denialist, and she added denialism into your script, even though it was never part of Ron Woodroof’s amazing life. The number-one drug that his buyers club distributed was bootleg ddC, a very similar drug to AZT. Ask Melisa why her script doesn’t mention ddC. I’ll tell you why: because it would destroy her denialist storyline.” I could tell he was a bit frozen at this point, not knowing enough to pass judgment either way. “Jean-Marc, I know this is a lot to take in, but what you do next could make or break this film,” I continued. “I implore you to reach out to any and all opinions you can find in the next twenty-four hours—find others who lived through the early AIDS years and know its history. Find some doctors or experts. Reach out to some national AIDS groups. If you want a truthful film, you have one job in front of you. Don’t just trust me or Melisa, because one of us is right and the other one is crazy, and you need to figure out which of us to listen to.”

I could tell his bubble on this project was still pretty small, and I was banking on Hollywood’s deeply felt experience with AIDS. It would likely take only a few phone calls before he’d get advice that backed me up. He agreed to make some calls the next day. It worked. Vallée set up a call with John Moore, me, and his other screenwriter, Craig Borten. Wallack had been sidelined. We now had fourteen days until filming started. Multiple calls and e-mails followed. Borten seemed willing to pull most of the references to Duesberg, but grew increasingly worried at how this was impacting his anti-FDA, anti-pharma narrative. Most of the denialism was baked into Jennifer Garner’s character, which kept shrinking with each edit. On November 8, just four days left before filming started, I e-mailed Vallée and Borten a highly annotated PDF of their most recent script, outlining thirty specific lines or scenes that still needed fixing, including one remaining mention of Duesberg. I couldn’t believe that things like the poppers scene were still in the script, and let loose about it in the email: The poppers theme was debunked once the virus was discovered. Having your lead gay character hanging around with a friend, just snorting poppers, then being rushed to the hospital where he dies, is an offensive scene. For one thing, that’s not how gay men used poppers. If you insist on having your only lead gay character remain a cross-dressing effeminate drug user whose life spins out of control—and the only character to die in the film—then how about a line of coke in that scene instead? “Rayon” is still a sad cliché (Vito Russo would be spinning in his grave), but at least the audience won’t wonder if poppers killed him. We jumped on a phone call a few hours later. Vallée voiced exasperation that I had cc’d folks at amfAR on my email. Mission accomplished, I thought, as I had hoped it would bring even more pressure on him to relent on the thirty remaining issues. Borten seemed resistant to further changes, so I called Vallée separately for one last appeal. “What you saw in How to Survive a Plague was a story of good versus evil, heroes versus villains. The story you didn’t see is the decades-long battle between AIDS activists and AIDS denialists, another story of heroes versus villains,” I said. “If your film even hints at denialist theories, they’ll use Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner’s characters as fodder for their lies. Every AIDS activist in the country will condemn your film. No matter how good your directing of McConaughey’s acting is, no one will be nominated for any Oscars.” Vallée told me he’d fix all the remaining issues and send me a final script. He asked me again to join the project as IAN or MICHAEL. He even offered a producing credit. I politely declined. He never sent me the final script. I’m guessing he got spooked, worried that I’d never be satisfied, and he didn’t want me to have something to take to a media outlet. But he assured me in a final e-mail that Dallas Buyers Club would be “a beautiful film that doesn’t support denialism.” Pictures and video of an emaciated McConaughey on set started appearing on Access Hollywood and other TV programs. After filming wrapped and months went by, I remained in the dark as to what the final product contained. In April, press reports announced that Focus Features had bought the distribution rights. The film would have its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, followed shortly thereafter by a theatrical release. And then in June, the AIDS gods intervened again. A friend of mine from the ACT UP days, Mark Aurigemma, who now did public relations counseling for UNAIDS and various AIDS conferences, sent me an email saying Focus Features had reached out to him. They wanted to hire him to manage community relations for the rollout of Dallas Buyers Club. “Can you ask Focus if I can see it?” I asked. On August 7, I sat down for a private screening of the film with John Moore and Rowena Johnston, amfAR’s director of research, in an otherwise empty fifty-seat screening room in downtown New York. Vallée found out about our screening only the day before, but asked us to call him immediately after. We liked what we saw. Almost all of my thirty script complaints had been fixed, with two exceptions. That damn final title card still said, “Ron Woodroof died on September 12, 1992, seven years after he was diagnosed with the HIV virus.” But he died of AIDS, and dodging those three truthful words was an insult to all the families and friends and lovers of those who wanted this truth known when they died. Vallée agreed to change it to say, “Ron Woodroof died of AIDS on September 12, 1992, seven years after he was diagnosed with HIV.” But as the film then stood, it still may as well have been a giant billboard saying, “AZT is POISON.” Yet AZT was still being used by pregnant women around the world to block HIV transmission to their babies. If the film convinced only one of these women to forgo this preventative therapy, it would be one too many. I asked Vallée if we could add a final title card that spoke to AZT’s later usefulness. This would also have the added effect of becoming a one-sentence inoculation against any denialist hoping to use the film as propaganda. Vallée said he could squeeze in a four- to five-second title card, which translated into about fifteen words. The final film now ends saying, “A lower dose of AZT became widely used in later drug combinations that saved millions of lives.” Dallas Buyers Club opened to very strong reviews. Six Oscar nominations quickly followed, including one for Best Picture. McConaughey and Leto both got nods. (Leto’s character, by the time shooting started, had changed from a cross-dressing man to a trans woman; that the trans community probably didn’t need another cisgender male actor playing this part is another discussion.) Vallée was nominated for his editing. And to my utter disbelief, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack were nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Just before Oscar voters filled out their final ballots, I had to intervene one last time. Borten and Wallack had done a podcast called The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. Wallack had offered up her most homophobic denialist theory to their baffled host after being asked about any research done to portray the physical signs of AIDS: Melisa Wallack: The research that we did about the—it’s called Kaposi’s sarcoma, when you get the lesions on your face . . . um . . . that men were getting from using poppers in nightclubs. Goldsmith: They were getting lesions from poppers? Wallack: Well, they were putting poppers through the ventilation systems, so it’s toxic, and it was going in their bodies every single day. Goldsmith: That’s some intense research. I’ve never heard of poppers going through the ventilation systems. Wow. Wallack: Yeah, they were putting them literally in all the nightclubs. They would just dump them in so that every single person in there was breathing them all night long.

I shot off an angry email to Wallack, cc’ing everyone I could, including senior staff at Focus Features: Your remarks during the interview below about poppers and KS are factually incorrect and deeply offensive. This is classic AIDS Denialism claptrap and comes from their canon of deeply homophobic theories around HIV/AIDS (namely that gay men died because of all our recreational drug use, including poppers, and not because of HIV). There is no connection between AIDS and poppers or KS and poppers. Poppers were never put in the ventilators at dance clubs. This is just crazy talk. You are dishonoring the memories of hundreds of thousands of gay men that died from AIDS with a KS diagnosis. I’m pretty sure Focus reined her in quickly, because I couldn’t find any interviews with her after that. McConaughey and Leto won their Oscars, as did the film’s makeup and hairstyling team. Truth be told, their KS lesions looked like the real deal. But Jean-Marc Vallée deserves all the credit. I put the man through hell and back, but he kept the promise he’d once emailed me: that in all his films, he tries to “capture humanity and reveal the beauty behind it.”

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