McConaughey shed nearly 40 pounds to play Woodroof, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985 and informed that he had a month to live. He began investigating alternative treatments and smuggling illegal meds into the country, ultimately setting up shop to sell his drugs and regimens to others afflicted with the virus. Woodroof lived seven more years.
"It was a mantra: 'No one is ever going to make a film about AIDS,' " Borten recalls being told. "'No one's ever going to make a film about a racist homophobe. It's just too difficult, you need to let go.' "
But Borten, who shares writing credit on Dallas Buyers Club with Melisa Wallack, had his champions - most notably producer Robbie Brenner, who signed way back in the mid-1990s and never gave up, even when deals with Brad Pitt, then Woody Harrelson, then Ryan Gosling collapsed.
"Without people who believe in you as a writer, or in your screenplay, or in the film itself, it would have been impossible," says Borten, on the phone from his home in Santa Monica.
It was summer 1992 when the fledgling screenwriter met with Woodroof. A friend had sent Borten an article headlined "Staying Alive" about Woodroof and his underground, gray-market mecca for alternative AIDS treatments and FDA-unapproved pharmaceuticals. Borten, who studied international relations at Syracuse University, had moved to Los Angeles five years earlier to get into the film biz. He had sent Woodroof letters, all unanswered.
"And then I called a few times, and one night he picked up the phone and just said, 'If you can be here tomorrow, you can interview me.'. . .
"So I got in my car and I drove out to Dallas. . . . He wore a big cowboy hat and he had a briefcase full of money - 100s, 50s, 20s, rubber-banded together. There was a revolver on the desk. And he told me sometimes he would put tequila in the IV - I don't know if that meant he injected it, or drank it from the IV, but you get the idea. . . . he was a seductive character, with a passion to live."
Borten stayed three days. He had 25 hours of taped interviews. "At the end, Ron said, 'I think a film should be made,' and I said, 'I do, too.' And I asked, 'Why do you think a film should be made?' And he said, 'Because people should ask questions.'
"And that stayed with me. That stayed with me through the development of the screenplay, and I think even today, 20 years later, I hope people see the film and that they ask questions."
Borten grew up in Plymouth Meeting, attended Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. He has been obsessed with films since he was a kid, "through seeing them with my father."
His father, Buddy, who ran a swimming pool business, was another reason Woodroof's story connected so deeply.
"I had gone through some similar experiences with my father having lymphoma, in terms of the doctors, and dealing with the medical establishment, the protocol, the coldness," he explains. "My father was thinking of seeking out alternative treatments in Mexico - so Ron's experiences spoke to my heart."
The screenwriter's father died in 1986. Borten's mother, his sister, and other relatives still live in the area. Borten flew the family to Los Angeles two weeks ago for Dallas Buyers Club's Hollywood premiere.
Right now, Borten is in Colombia, in a hotel room, "a ball and chain attached to my ankle, hunched over the laptop" (he reports via e-mail), doing rewrites for The 33, shooting in Colombia and Chile, about the 2010 Chilean mining accident that trapped 33 men underground for 69 days. Antonio Banderas stars. It is Borten's second produced script in - yes - 20 years.
"I've sold some other screenplays, and I sold some other pitches, and adapted some stuff over the years," he says. "But I've never got anything to the finish line."
Until Dallas Buyers Club.
"People ask, if you knew it would be 20 years, would you still have done it? And that's been a tough question to answer," he says.
"But sitting here today, I can tell you it was worth it."
Dallas Buyers Club
Opens Friday at the Ritz East, Ambler Theater, County Theater, and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.