Inside the real Dallas Buyers Club
Ron Woodroof survived with AIDS for seven years through smuggling drugs into the US. His story has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated movie.
Published 11/02/2014 | 02:30
Bill Minutaglio leafed through the pages of the Village Voice newspaper. A New Yorker living and working in Dallas, Texas, Minutaglio loved to catch up with the minutiae of his old home town, and as a staffer on the Dallas Morning News's Sunday magazine, he was always on the lookout for stories that might resonate with his readers.
That morning there was one: the Voice contained a piece about so-called "buyers clubs". It was 1992, and the world had been grappling with the AIDS epidemic for a decade.
Although progress had been made in the treatment, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates pharmaceutical drugs in the United States, was accused by some people with AIDS of being too slow to sanction the use of medicine they believed could extend their lives – drugs approved in other countries.
Buyers clubs were forming around the country in which members' monthly fees were pooled to import prescription drugs, often illegally.
Buried in that Village Voice story was what Minutaglio today calls a "throwaway line" about a specific buyers club in Dallas. "It was recognised as being one of the edgiest and more daring," he says. "I don't think it even mentioned the person who ran it by name – but I called around."
The man Minutaglio was eventually put in touch with was Ron Woodroof, a wiry former electrician from Texas. And more than two decades later, Woodroof's story is now a Hollywood movie starring Matthew McConaughey – a role for which the actor has won a Golden Globe and the film no fewer than six Oscar nominations, including best picture and actor.
Dallas Buyers Club – in cinemas now – is a blackly comic tale of Woodroof, a man diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-1980s. At a time when the disease was misunderstood and a successful drug combination more than a decade away, Woodroof was given just 30 days to live. But in the film, Woodroof refuses to accept his fate. "Nothing can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days," he says before he's seen smoking, drinking, having sex and snorting cocaine with a rolled-up dollar bill.
What follows is a larger-than-life story of a man on a mission not only to treat his own illness but also to supply the same drugs to thousands of other people in Dallas.
Based, in part, on Minutaglio's interview with Woodroof, we see McConaughey dressed as a priest smuggling medication back from Mexico in the boot of his car.
Woodroof used to rig his car so that the suspension wouldn't reveal the hundreds of pounds of drugs in the boot. He even impersonated a doctor, on occasion, to slip across the border with his haul. He also smuggled drugs from Israel, Sweden and Japan.
During a trip to the latter, he bribed a doctor to write him prescriptions for 36 vials of alpha interferon, an antiviral agent. On his way back his suitcase, which was full of dry ice, started to give off little puffs of smoke.
"Why are you carrying dry ice?" a customs official asked. "Because I'm partial to it," Woodroof replied nonchalantly. The official took the issue no further.
Woodroof also imported Peptide T, a drug that had been confirmed as non-toxic but had still not been approved by the FDA. He thought the drug helped him stave off the symptoms of dementia associated with AIDS, and was so furious with the FDA for not authorising its use that he launched a legal case against the government agency.
By 1992, the Dallas Buyers Club had 4,000 regular customers and was supplying up to 112 chemicals, all of which were unapproved by the FDA. As Sherry Jacobson, another Dallas Morning News journalist, has written, Woodroof was an "improbable hero" who helped hundreds – "perhaps thousands" – of AIDS sufferers prolong their lives.
But he never pretended for one moment that his own well-being was not at the root of his crusade. Woodroof experimented with a whole host of drugs in a desperate attempt to save himself, including one from China that was banned by the FDA in the US and that Woodroof himself admitted was so dangerous it could kill him.
"It is not a matter of whether or not you want to take these risks," he later told Minutaglio. "It's a matter that you have to take these risks." According to screenwriter Craig Borten, who also interviewed Woodroof, his apartment was full of supplements and medication, "cash bundled in a briefcase", a gun, and "tequila in an IV-bag".
But, whatever the risks, it seems that Woodroof's strategy paid off: instead of the 30 days the doctors gave him, he survived for seven years. On that fact, Minutaglio and Borten agree. But there are other aspects to Woodroof's character, as portrayed in the film, that have caused controversy.
For a start, Minutaglio says Woodroof was not the "bull ridin' cowboy" the film would have you believe; he didn't ride rodeo and he didn't chew tobacco. "He was always very well turned out," says Minutaglio. "He looked like an accountant: clean, white dress shirt, carefully laundered tie, hair neatly combed."
What's more, Minutaglio and others who knew Woodroof take issue with the film's claim that the Texan was a homophobe who overcame his prejudices as he became entwined with the "customers" who bought his drugs. Instead, Minutaglio says that was probably a device that the filmmakers employed to give their story an emotional "arc".
"He didn't express any animosity to gay customers or the gay community," says Minutaglio. "He didn't express any homophobia that I can remember, and if he had I'm almost certain I'd have put it in my story. In a way I think it'd have been an odd juxtaposition that would have made the story more interesting." In fact, most people who knew Woodroof don't believe he was even straight.
Steven Pounders, who was Woodroof's doctor from 1989 until he died in 1992, says: "I never thought of him as straight in the least. His wife (Brenda) told me he was bisexual. I've seen the movie with her. I've had dinner with her, and she said he was never embarrassed about his bisexuality; Ron felt comfortable with who he was."
Penny Krispin, a nurse who treated Woodroof and became a close friend, concurs. "Ron was one of my gay patients," she told a newspaper last year. "I never knew anyone who thought Ron was straight."
But Borten, who recorded 20 hours of interviews with Woodroof just before he died, insists on the accuracy of his portrayal. The drug runner was "as racist and homophobic as they come", he has said.
Whether Woodroof was putting on an act for the screenwriter or was ashamed of his sexuality, nobody knows. And he never told Borten or Minutaglio how he contracted HIV. There were, says Minutaglio, some things Woodroof just refused to talk about.
The film also features other characters who are complete figments of the screenwriters' imaginations. Rayon, a transsexual prostitute also living with AIDS who becomes Woodroof's business partner in the Dallas Buyers Club (a role for which the actor Jared Leto has won an Oscar nomination), never existed. She is, Borten has admitted, a composite of a number of transsexual activists he interviewed as research for the film.
And the same goes for Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), a doctor who becomes a friend and ally of Woodroof's in his mission to get people living with AIDS the treatment they need. She didn't exist, but has been included in the film to represent the many doctors in the '80s and '90s who also despaired of the FDA and, surreptitiously, gave their AIDS patients the contact details for buyers clubs.
The colourful language McConaughey uses in the film, however, is spot on, according to Minutaglio. It emanated, he says, from Woodroof's: "anger at the government injustices that he was enduring. He'd pound his fist on the table, saying it shouldn't have the right to stop him putting what he wants in his body. That's when he started cursing".
"Dammit," Woodroof yelled at Minutaglio during one interview. "I don't see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself. I have taken chances that have almost killed me and I will keep on taking them. I have nothing to lose."
By the time Minutaglio met Woodroof, 150,000 Americans had died from AIDS. Nevertheless, there were those who opposed what the buyers clubs were doing. Doctors warned that drugs bought "off the street" could be impure and cause unnecessary suffering. But there were also, says Minutaglio, "clearly nurses and doctors around the nation who made the ethical decision to support the buyers club movement; people who were quietly saying they admired [Woodroof] and that there was no other option – if you know you're dying you should be able to control your last days on Earth."
"For me," says Minutaglio, "it was a story about ordinary people bumping into intractable, inflexible, unforgiving systems of government at either the state or national level. And Ron turned out to be a fascinating character. What was incredible was the danger he was willing to put himself in. He was desperate but his motives were so pure: he had to stay alive.
"The bigger ethical dilemma was whether he was endangering other people, but he felt it was a case of 'buyer beware'. I really admired him, and I'm not ashamed to say that."
Steven Pounders feels the same. "Ron had that Texas swagger, and if by 'cowboy' you mean he was occasionally reckless, he was," he says. "But he had a twinkle in his eye and he was very likeable. And McConaughey [who lost three-and-a-half stone for the role] looked uncannily like him, right down to the hairdo."
Eventually, the FDA allowed individuals to bring small amounts of unapproved drugs into the country to treat serious illnesses – if, that is, the drugs were for their own consumption. Even then only a three-month supply was permitted. Woodroof, although he lost his legal fight to make Peptide T available to people with AIDS, was given permission to take it for personal use.
"It wasn't until 1995 we learnt that the way to treat HIV was to take three drugs at a time," says Dr Pounders. "Unfortunately Ron got the disease before we knew how to effectively treat it." Did he feel sad when watching the film, knowing Woodroof was unable to prolong his life?
"It's sad, of course, that a lot of people died and if only they had contracted the virus a few years later those few years could have made so much difference. So many people were dying every day and the human spirit was really tested. But it makes me feel endeared to that human spirit.
"Today my office is totally different in every way. Today, if they take their pills, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives. I'm just honoured to have taken care of people who have lived to witness this big change."
THE 'DALLAS BUYERS CLUB' IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE