The journey of Dallas Buyers Club was much longer than from its world premiere in September 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival to its glittering success at this month's Oscars.
"I met Ron Woodroof in 1992, and the movie of Dallas Buyers Club went into production in 2012," said the film's co-writer Craig Borten. "The story just spoke to my heart. Ron Woodroof started living his life when he started dying."
Woodroof, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Matthew McConaughey, was the reddest red-necked son of a bitch you could ever encounter. But his story of how he bucked the federal government to serve thousands of AIDS-stricken Texans became one of the year's best films.
"I love finding characters that you have to inhabit," said Dallas Buyers Club co-writer Melisa Wallack. "I know that actors say that a lot, but as a writer, you have to do that, too. Even if you take on some really dark material, you may find yourself living in that space, maybe for years. But you really have to get behind your work and go to that place to make it really good."
"That's right, it all started in Toronto," recalled Borton. "When they lifted the press embargo, some of the press reviews were like love letters. But I have to tell you, that's a very vulnerable place. We thought we were going to be slaughtered."
Not likely. Dallas Buyers Club went on to become one of the most acclaimed films of the year, garnering six Academy Award nominations.
In fact, Borten and Wallack were nominated for Oscars and Writers Guild awards.
"Honesty, we're both pretty happy that the award season is over," said Wallack. "It's pretty difficult to be writing at the same time. And we're thrilled to be here in Sun Valley."
Borten and Walack spent their Thursday afternoon—the Sun Valley Film Festival's opening day—talking to screenwriters, filmmakers and the general public about their industry and the art of crafting a screenplay.
"We're so happy to be here. We have friends who attended SVFF last year and they said you just have to be there," said Borten. "And here we are."
Put your tray tables up and seats in the upright position. The pilots of the 2014 Sun Valley Film Festival are about ready for take-off.
"How do I put this?" SVFF Founder Teddy Grennan had to think for a moment for an appropriate analogy. "The landing gear is certainly up and we're ready to be mid-flight."
SVFF's runway is a pretty long one. It takes the better part of a year to build a slate of films and wrangle some of the industry's best filmmakers to spend a long weekend in Idaho to share their love of film with thousands of festivalgoers.
And indeed some of that love was flowing—along with generous amounts of wine—Wednesday night at Sun Valley's Velocio restaurant, which was packed with some of Hollywood's elite. Film-goers may not have recognized the faces from People Magazine but the credentials of the Oscar-winning and -nominated talent was stunning. Boise Weekly rubbed elbows and clinked more than a few glasses with the screenwriters and producers of Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, The Descendants, The King's Speech, Little Miss Sunshine, and many more.
"I guess we can breathe now," said SVFF Director Candice Pate. "All the work is done, and now we depend on our amazing staff and scores of volunteers who will make all of this happen over the next four days."
Thursday evening's opening night film, The Face of Life—starring Annette Bening, Ed Harris and Robin Williams—will be introduced by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, one day after Otter signed into law one of the most controversial legislative bills in Idaho history, the so-called "guns on campus" measure. And it's not lost on anyone that when a politician takes the stage, his politics come with him. Whether Otter will be met with protests or disapproval for signing the bill remains to be seen, but in Blaine County, and in particular Sun Valley, Otter has never performed that well at the polls in this traditionally Democratic stronghold.
"People are here to see movies and embrace films," said Grennan. "That said, these audiences are incredibly engaged in politics, social issues and culture. This is a very wide berth. We'll be showing films that represent a wide berth of topics—some of them quite controversial."
Director Jeremy Teicher likes coming-of-age stories. Perhaps it’s because he’s not that far from them himself.
Teicher, who graduated from Dartmouth College just four years ago, already has two films under his belt. The first, This Is Us (2011), is a short documentary comprised of vignettes about daily life in Sinthiou Mbadane, a rural Senegalese village. It was shot entirely by youth in that community using pocket video cameras, and narrated by the young people as well.
Teicher was only 19 when he directed and edited the film, which was nominated for a student Academy Award.
The second, a feature film called Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012), builds on the stories Teicher heard from the students in the village. It was screened at the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley and will also be shown at Treefort on Sunday, March 23.
The film focuses on early marriage, a topic identified by the youth in This Is Us as a challenge in their community. Most of the residents of Sinthiou Mbadane are Fulani, one of the first ethnic groups in Africa to convert to Islam. While child marriage, which is illegal in Senegal, is declining, it’s still practiced, as is polygamy, in rural villages such as Sinthiou Mbadane.
Instead of producing a documentary about the subject, though, Teicher, who is more drawn to narratives, chose to dramatize the story.
“I wanted to try and really capture the emotion of being in that situation,” says Teicher.
The first-time actors, many of them the same teens who were in the documentary, are all from the village and nearby Mbour. Teicher and his co-writer, Alexi Pappas, took an improvisational approach to the script, giving the performers a general scene and motivation to dramatize, but allowing them to come up with lines that felt natural for them.
Treefort-goers will appreciate the music in the film, which adds greatly to its mood and authenticity. Composed by Jay Wadley, it’s performed expertly on the traditional 21-stringed Kora bridge-harp by Salieu Suso.
The crew, which also included director of photography Chris Collins, had to work through a translator, since the villagers speak a language called Pulaar. Teicher says he believes this is the first feature film entirely in Pulaar.
Equipment had to be brought in by horse and cart, with batteries being recharged in a nearby town. And before filming, in a traditional act designed to bring good luck, a goat was slaughtered and eaten.
The story unfolds at a languid pace, in keeping with the relaxed nature of life in the village and the often mesmerizing scenes of African landscape. But it also has its dramatic moments, as a teen girl tries desperately to prevent her 11-year old sister from being sold into an arranged marriage with an older man. Their father feels he has no choice but to marry off his youngest daughter in order to pay for the medical expenses of his son, who has fallen from a baobab tree.
While Teicher may not identify as a documentarian, the approach he and Pappas took to the script draws on elements of reportage. The controversial issue of early marriage, for instance, is not openly maligned. Instead, Teicher includes the views of the parents, for whom this is both a monetary issue and a tradition.
“All we have is our culture,” says the mother in the film, a villager who was a child bride herself.
“Don’t change your culture. Understand your culture,” she says to her daughter.
Teicher, who is clear to tell his audiences that he’s not a human rights activist, says his approach was simply to tell a human story, and not to judge.
“We didn’t see him (the father) as a bad guy,” says Teicher. “He wanted to do what was best for his family. It’s not an early marriage to them. It’s just marriage.”
Human rights groups have praised the film, though, and because so many questions about early marriage arise after it’s shown, Teicher has partnered with Girls Not Brides, an advocacy group, to provide educational material about the subject. And, in a dose of reality, Teicher says the actress who played the girl trying to prevent early marriage has herself left school to get married.
Teicher’s next film, already in production, is another coming-of-age story about a long distance runner. It stars Pappas, his partner in life and filmmaking, who is herself a distance runner hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. Expect to hear more from and about the duo in years to come.
What? You still haven't seen Oscar's big winners?
In the wake of last Sunday night's Academy Awards, here's a run-down of films that took home the big prizes and where they're currently screening in the Boise area:
12 Years a Slave—Best Picture: Edwards 9 Downtown. However, 12 Years a Slave is also showing at Northgate Reel Theatre at reduced prices (i.e. $8 at Edwards vs. $3 at Northgate).
Dallas Buyers Club—Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor: Edwards 9 Downtown
Her—Best Original Screenplay: The Flicks
Gravity—Winner of seven Oscars, including nearly every technical award: The 3D version is still playing at Edwards Boise Stadium 22 ($14.50, $12 for matinees).
Frozen—Best Animated Feature: Edwards 9 Downtown, Edwards Boise Stadium 22, Majestic Cinemas and the Village Cinema in Meridian.
Watching the documentary, Rafea: Solar Mama, one is struck once again by how limited the options still are for many millions of women and girls in the world. The film, which is being shown at the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley, was screened in Boise Wednesday night by Boise State University’s Arts and Humanities Institute, followed by a question-and-answer session with Meagan Fallone Carnahan of Barefoot College in India, featured in the film.
The documentary’s subject is Rafea, a 30-year old Bedouin woman living in a tent in a desolate, windswept area on the border of Jordan and Iraq. Rafea gets the chance to go to Barefoot College to learn how to build and operate solar-powered equipment, such as lanterns.
It’s an opportunity to not only electrify her village, but also to teach other women the same skills and form a cooperative that will give the group an income. But her husband doesn’t want her to go, and even after agreeing, threatens to take her children if she doesn’t leave India and come home.
The film, co-directed by Academy Award-nominated director Jehane Noujaim (The Square, Control Room), follows Rafea’s saga, one that should give any American girl pause when she next resists homework or a chore. Rafea’s life, by her own admission, is sheer drudgery. With four girls, no income, and a lazy husband, every day is circumscribed by the same household duties.
The delight of the film is not only seeing Rafea’s grit and determination, but also witnessing her humor. This is a woman who knows how dire her situation is, but who can also make fun of it. “We might as well be deaf!” she laughs as she and the other Jordanian woman at the college struggle to understand the instructors.
Underneath, though, is a will to succeed, not only for herself but for her daughters, and a deep sadness.
“Maybe I’m not meant to get an education,” she laments, as she’s forced to go home.