Dallas Buyers Club, which opens in limited release today, is one of my favorite movies of the fall, certainly the best of the major releases so far. It follows the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician who contracted AIDS in the early 1980s. Dissatisfied with the bad prognosis he was given, like many AIDS patients at the time, he began to do his own research into the available treatments and eventually imported his own drugs. He shared them with others through a financial arrangement he called a “Buyers’ Club.”
The performances, script, and story are great, but the true brilliance of the movie, I think, resides in the way it looks. Where another sort of director would have wanted a lot of grand vistas and a dramatic score, in Dallas Buyers’ Club all that is set aside for a sort of gritty realism that really suits the tale.
The film’s director is the French-Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée. His past work includes projects as diverse as C.R.A.Z.Y. (a hit in my native Canada), Café de Flore, and The Young Victoria. Hailing from Montréal, he has lately become a hot commodity as an independent director, having been snapped up for the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Vallée’s approach to cinematic realism, which involves running a really flexible, and low-budget film set, is rapidly becoming his trademark. He was kind enough to speak with me briefly by phone about his methods.
Flavorwire: How did you come to make Dallas Buyers Club?
Jean-Marc Vallée: I read the script and I loved it. I was deeply moved. And I was skeptical about Matthew at the beginning, because that’s two years and a half ago, so Matthew was handsome, so good-looking. I read the script and it was everything but Matthew McConaughey. And then again, Robbie had the instinct of trusting Matthew, because he called her earlier and said he wrote the script, and he knew that he wanted to do this, he knew that she wanted to make this film, even though it wasn’t on the table yet. The script had been around for years and years.
What do you think kept it in limbo for so long? I read that it was partly because people seemed apprehensive about doing an AIDS story. Do you think that changed?
I’m sure it was part of the reason, one of the reasons, but it’s always complex and complicated to make a film in Hollywood with a studio, and they tried to make it with a lot of money, and it’s long, it’s complex, so we tried to make it with not a studio, with not a lot of money. Even that is hard and complex, but not as much as with a studio, I believe, and maybe that was the right timing. It must have been the right timing, since we did it.
You shot it pretty quickly, right?
Twenty-five days, yeah.
I read that the pace was facilitated by your choice to not use any artificial lighting. Can you talk about why you like to shoot that way?
First, it gives a sense of reality — not reality, I mean, you look at the film, and it doesn’t look like the director or the DP is showing off. They’re not showing off, they’re not trying to make beautiful lighting shots. It’s just captured from reality, so that’s one reason. We wanted the film to look real, and then we had only 25 days of shooting, and so it helps, because you’re not waiting for the DP, the light. And I can shoot 360 degrees, so when the actors arrived in the location — if we’re shooting indoors, for instance, I ask the crew to get out and I start shooting the rehearsal, and then they can use the space and it creates a beautiful dynamic of the set for the actors. They’re not under the impression that they’re acting with the hotspots and feeling the heat from spots, having their marks — there’s no marks, there’s no heat, just walking to real places and shoot the thing and try to touch people and try to make it real, so this approach is perfect for that.
So is this becoming a part of your style as a director, to not use artificial lighting?
Well, I did it on Café de Flore for the French part, and I did it on Dallas, and I’m doing it right now on Wild with Reese Witherspoon.
Are you choosing it as a matter of managing sets or a matter of aesthetics?
Aesthetics first, yeah, as a matter of content, of creative content and creative decision. It’s not a financial decision that supports that thing first — and then it helps the financial, of course, but the first and most important thing is the creative decision behind it.
Why do you like that natural aesthetic?
It suits the project and the story. I didn’t do that with Young Victoria, and it was relevant to do it with Café and Dallas, and it still is with Wild. And Wild, it’s lighter. It’s not as heavy. Shooting a film is so heavy, everything. You know, it’s so many people, it’s complex, it’s heavy cameras, heavy heads, tripods, dollies — it’s heavy, so I like to move fast and to have the time to work with actors and get to the essential thing, which is the emotion, and touch people, and I don’t feel I do this when I have 80 persons around me with their tracks.
Can you talk about the first and last shots at the rodeo and why you chose that image?
Well, this guy, he’s rodeo, like he says to the doctors. I like the analogy, the metaphor. At the end, when he gets on the bull, he’s trying to master the beast, which is AIDS. This guy’s been trying and trying, and so it defines the character, how gutsy, how ballsy he is, to sit on a bull and do this. I mean, I sat on a bull when he was in the stall, and I would never open that door. Never. And these guys are doing that — to do that is to be crazy. I mean, whoa.