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'Dallas Buyers Club': underdog film turned scrappy Oscar contender

By Eric Kelsey and Mary Milliken

BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - "Dallas Buyers Club" is a film that prompts a discussion about money - not big Hollywood money, but rather the lack thereof.

The scrappiest of the nine films nominated for a best picture Oscar on Thursday cost just $4 million to make - a speck on a Hollywood studio spreadsheet - and 25 days to film.

But the real-life story of an unlikely activist in the fight against AIDS drew big talent, like Matthew McConaughey who plays the lead role of Ron Woodroof, Jared Leto as his transsexual side-kick, Rayon, and up-and-coming Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee.

Co-producer Robbie Brenner, after earning her first Oscar nomination with the best picture nod, remembered how they were handicapped by the lack of money.

"When we told Jean-Marc that he was going to have less days, he said 'I am going to get rid of the lights, I am going to shoot the movie without lights,'" she told Reuters after what she called "tears and screams" upon hearing Thursday's news.

"Dallas Buyers Club" garnered six nominations in total, predictably for McConaughey and Leto who both shed dozens of pounds (kilos) for their roles and were rewarded with Golden Globes last Sunday for best actor in a drama and best supporting actor, respectively.

The film took 20 years to make from script inception and was touch-and-go even after McConaughey got involved in pulling together financing.

"I'm like, wow, this little story that was declined and rejected 137 times. This little story that was around for 20 years that never could get made," McConaughey told Reuters soon after the pre-dawn nomination announcements, injecting a few "wahoos!" in the interview.

"Dallas Buyers Club," from Focus Features, a unit of Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to favorable reviews and was released in November. It has earned $16 million at the North American box office.

'NEVER SAY DIE'

While McConaughey, once a hunky staple of the romantic comedy genre, has had several acclaimed roles in the last year, his portrayal of the homophobic Texan who fights for AIDS treatment after he contracts the disease in the 1980s is the one that got critics talking about the new, more serious direction in his career.

"What it means for my career is that I can't wait to go back to work again, tomorrow morning, whenever that is," McConaughey said. "I'm really, really having a wonderful moment in my career now."

Leto, who came back to film after a six-year break to focus on music, said the nominations are "a testament to hard work and independent cinema and to art house film."

"Hopefully, it gives people the encouragement to continue to make smart films, films that are different and films that kind of maybe contain more difficult subject matter," said Leto, who is currently biding his time on Los Angeles jury duty.

Woodroof died in 1992, seven years after being diagnosed with AIDS, and by then he had organized a "buyers club" for mostly gay male AIDS patients to acquire drugs not available in hospitals in the early days of the AIDS crisis and battling in court for access to better treatment.

And for co-producer Rachel Winter, the determination of Woodroof infused the film and its cast and crew with a defiant attitude.

"He didn't want to lay down and die, he wanted to stand up and fight. That's why we wanted to tell this story," she said.

"We had so many hurdles, but it was very much a 'never say die' attitude from the top down," she added.

When she heard the news this morning, that put her in the elite best picture category with some of Hollywood's biggest producers, Winter said she reverted to her days as a Valley girl, with the signature exclamations of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.

"I think I said 'Oh my God,' like, 45 times. It was the only thing coming out of my mouth," she said.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

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