Ahead of Dallas Buyers Club’s Toronto premiere, director Jean-Marc Vallée tells Jeremy Kay how Matthew McConaughey left him ‘flabbergasted’.

Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian wunderkind behind C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Young Victoria, is chomping at the bit ahead of the Toronto world premiere of Dallas Buyers Club. “I’m proud of this,” he says. “You’ll see - it’s a very independent film.”

Grit and determination are often the bywords of the independent world and the back story here boasts plenty of both. The turbulent history seems an appropriate cue for a film based on real events that is unlikely to be an easy watch despite its redemptive heart.

In 2010, producer Robbie Brenner handed Vallée the screenplay about Ron Woodroof, the hard-living Texas electrician and rodeo cowboy who, when diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985, began seeking out and smuggling into the US alternative medicines from around the globe.

Co-screenwriter Craig Borten had met Woodroof and drafted his first screenplay shortly after the latter’s death in 1992. “I thought, ‘My God, let’s try to make this beautiful story,’” says Vallée. “It took about two years to get the financing together. I guess it was a film that was scaring people because of the subject matter. Universal had the rights and were trying to make this film at the end of the ‘90s and it never happened.”

Voltage Pictures head Nicolas Chartier, the firebrand producer-financier who took The Hurt Locker all the way to Oscar glory in 2010, was moving things forward as executive producer and international sales agent. Voltage co-produced Dallas Buyers Club with Truth Entertainment.

‘This is the film in my career that will touch people’

Jean-Marc Vallée, film-maker

Matthew McConaughey signed up in 2011 and the following year went on a brutal diet to play the lead, shedding 50 pounds. “I am flabbergasted by his performance and his devotion, and how he always remained in service to the story,” says Vallée.

The movers and shakers shaved the budget down to a universally acceptable figure in the sub-$10m region and finally Dallas Buyers Club got underway, shooting over 25 days from October to December 2012 in New Orleans.

“We took artistic licence, but the facts about Ron are true,” says the director. “This guy [Woodroof] was a cowboy from Dallas - partying, drinking, doing drugs. He was also a little bit homophobic; when he heard ‘Aids’ his response was, ‘Well, that’s just not possible,’ which was most people’s perception of the illness back then.”

Fight for life

Given 30 days to live, Woodroof “fought to survive. He was determined to live. That’s what drove him; that was his absolute guiding force and it’s what inspired us to tell his story,” says the director. “He read in the paper about the New York Buyers Club, so he created Dallas Buyers Club to import alternative medicines from around the world and give [these] to everybody who needed [them].”

A loophole in the law allowed personal consumption of drugs that were not approved by the FDA. The director explains: “People were buying a membership and in exchange they had alternative medicines for personal use. They were not buying the drugs.

“The FDA and the government tolerated the clubs because the gay community was putting pressure on the government to move faster on finding better medicine that worked faster.

“[Woodroof’s] thing at the beginning was to make something out of the gay community,” says Vallée. “He was not down with them. But somehow he became their spokesperson and that’s the arc of the real guy and the character. There is a beautiful humanity and change in this man who got this disease and it transformed him.”

Focus Features acquired US and Latin American rights in April. “We are so lucky to have them behind us. They are going to work very hard to promote this and offer it to America,” says Vallée, adding: “This is the film in my career that will touch people.”