In 2001, right after we finished working on “Monsters Ball,” Marc Forster told me that he’d found a script called “The Dallas Buyers Club” that he absolutely loved. I read it and realized that this would be a fantastic independent follow up for him.
Brad Pitt shortly thereafter attached himself and the various agents involved decided that it would be best for the film to be set up at Universal rather than do it as an independent film which was very disappointing to me.
The studios rarely make movies like this and despite the fact that Brad was involved it really was not a studio movie.
Over the years I would call or run into the producer Robbie Brenner and ask her what was going on with the film. There was always some new element or some new piece of casting that was pushing it along at Universal and yet the film was not getting made.
Three summers ago while we were making “The Paperboy” I talked to Matthew McConaughey ,who I didn’t know very well, and asked him what he was planning to do next.
“I just attached myself to this project called the Dallas Buyers Club . I’m crazy about it,” he said.
I almost ran out of the trailer to call Robbie.
“Yes it’s true,” she said. “I got this director called Jean Marc Vallee who was developing another picture with me and he really wants to do it.”
” We are setting this up in Canada. JMV is a big star up there and we can get money from Telefilm, from foreign sales companies and tax credits enough to make it for $8 million.”
I was crushed. This movie kept eluding me somehow.
A year later in New Orleans, while we were doing “The Butler,” a young agent from CAA named Laura Lewis called me and was upset:
“You can’t believe what just happened. All that Canadian money for the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ fell through. Matthew has already lost 35 pounds (of the eventual 47) and he has to do ‘True Detective’ right afterwards in January. He can’t put the weight back on and lose it again it would be too dangerous his doctors say. You’ve been in this position before – what do you do?” she asked.
“When’s the film supposed to start shooting?” I said.
“Seven weeks from now, in mid-October.”
A few minutes later I got a call from Robbie who said very simply: “Save the movie please. You always wanted to do it now is your chance. Please just do it.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Today’s Tuesday and realistically we have to be in prep on Monday so I guess three days and the weekend.”
I hung up the phone. There was simply no time to do the presales and a bank loan – the usual indie arrangements. No, this was going to have to be something special and if I didn’t do it now I knew the movie would go back into hibernation and I would probably never get another shot at it.
I stared at the ceiling in my office for twenty minutes. I kept thinking: Who really, really owes me in the business?
And then it hit me. In March 1994 William Morris approached me out of the blue to run the independent film department. Needing the money I made a deal very quickly but we got stuck on one last point.
“When I go to Cannes I always stay at the Hotel du Cap.” I said.
“Well we all stay at the Carlton” was the reply. “And that’s where you will be staying.”
“Absolutely not,” said I and it became a one week impasse. “The reason why you’re hiring me is to get you into independent films and all the players stay there. I absolutely insist that I must stay there too.” was my logic.
Eventually they said yes. I called the hotel immediately to secure my room
“We are so sorry Mr. Elwes but we never heard back from you and we gave the room away,” said the manager. “So sorry, nothing we can do. We promise you we will get it back for you next year but this year is impossible”
I was devastated.
Cut to the third night I am lying in bed at the Carlton Hotel wide awake at 3am. I decide to read myself to sleep. So I go over to the pile by the TV and look through it. In the middle is a yellow manila envelope and in it is a script and a letter that looks like it’s been Xeroxed 40 times. Handwritten at the top:
“Dear Mr. Elwes, please read my script if you like it you can call the number below. ”
I read the script. It was a futuristic action story, kind of a “Looper” before “Looper.”
The next morning I had breakfast with TV and film producers Donald Kushner and Larry Mortoff of Kushner- Locke.
“We want to get into business with you, Cassian, and we really want to find a movie to do with Dolph Lundgren. What do you have?”
I pitched them the script. At the end of my pitch Kushner said, “I absolutely love it what you want for it?”
“Who the hell is the writer?” he says.
“Does it matter?” I say. “Do you want the project or not? Do you want me to pitch it to other people?”
“No” they say and we shake hands. We have a deal.
Now I have to go back up to the room and figure out who the heck wrote this script. I call the French number at the bottom of the page and a little French voice answers: “Yes?”
“Hi this is Cassian Elwes and I’m an agent from William Morris.”
“Oh I know who you are.”
“Listen I read your script and I’d like to talk to you about it.”
“Come to the Carlton lobby at midnight.”
At midnight in walks this little French kid. We go to the bar and I ask him about himself. ”I’m in college at the moment,” he says “and I took a summer job working at EuroDisney figuring that that was a way into the film business but all they got me doing is cleaning bathrooms. So I snuck away for the weekend and took the train up from Paris. I brought 40 copies of the script with me. I got the names of producers and agents and begged the concierges to slip it under their doors.”
“Where you staying?”
“Actually I’m sleeping in a sleeping bag on the beach in front of this hotel.”
“What about that phone number?”
“It’s a payphone on the beach and I’ve been sitting by it for the last two days waiting for someone to call me.”
“Well I just sold your script for $100,000.”
“What?!” I explain and he immediately burst into tears.
He took the money and came to California. Of course the film never got made and when the money started to run out Nic Chartier took a job working for Kirk D’Amico who runs a foreign sales company called Myriad. Within five years he rose to partner then he left and set up his own sales company called Voltage.
In 2010 he won the Oscar for “The Hurt Locker.”
I call him. ”Nic, what about the Dallas Buyers Club?”
“Oh no, don’t start with me with that. Laura has been on the phone with me for the last three days I don’t want to do this film. It will be very, very difficult to sell a movie about this subject. Cassian, please… the market isn’t there for it‘’.
“Nick, do you remember all those years ago that night that we met in Cannes?”
“And in all those years since then have I ever asked you for anything?”
“I’m going to ask you one time only – I want you to put up $3 million for the foreign rights to ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ I will never ask you for anything ever again. This is the one.”
“Well if this is the one then yes, of course I will do it.”
It turns out that we did each other a favor and on Sunday we will go to the Oscars together – a wonderful ending to this story.
The rest of the money came from a group called Truth. That will be a story for another day.