December 22, 2014

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Amherst grad’s independent feature up for Oscars

Matthew McConaughey appears as Ron Woodroof in the Academy Award-nominated film “Dallas Buyers Club.” (AP Photo/Focus Features, Anne Marie Fox, file)

Matthew McConaughey appears as Ron Woodroof in the Academy Award-nominated film “Dallas Buyers Club.” (AP Photo/Focus Features, Anne Marie Fox, file)

Big-budget blockbusters such as “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are up for Best Picture honors at Sunday night’s 86th Academy Awards.

But so is “Dallas Buyer Club,” a $2 million, independent feature for which Lorain County native Holly Wiersma served as an executive producer.

Wiersma, 38, a graduate of Marion L. Steele High School in Amherst and daughter of Eileen Novello, executive director of the Lorain County Medical Society, will be in the audience for all the glitz and glamour at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.

While she acknowledges it’s a heady experience to be at the Oscars, Wiersma said she’d rather watch the big show at home “with friends where you have little games, vote (on) winners, and order pizza.”

Besides, unless you’re in those stands lining the red carpet, you miss out “on what everybody is wearing and talking about,” Wiersma added during a phone interview from Los Angeles this week.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is up for Best Picture, Best Actor for Matthew McConaughey and Best Supporting Actor for Jared Leto. Both are seen by most Oscar pundits as front-runners in their respective races.

The film is based on the true-life saga of Ron Woodruff, a hard-living rodeo rider in 1980s Dallas who contracts HIV and is told he has 30 days to live.

Fueled by a rage to live, he creates his own business to sell drugs not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration to desperate HIV-infected patients looking for anything to improve their health and extend their lives.

The career path Wiersma traveled was shaped in part by her uncle, comic actor and Lorain native Don Novello, who is best-known for his character of Father Guido Sarducci on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I would visit him every summer,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to be in the movie business.”

Her grandfather, however, thought otherwise.

“He wanted me to be a teacher or a nurse, but he found out pretty quickly that wasn’t going to happen,” Wiersma said with a laugh.

Wiersma’s early film jobs included recruiting extras for films including Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker,” as well as “Blade” and “Amistad.”

Variety, the famed movie industry publication, once wrote: “No indie producer can put together a cast better than Holly Wiersma.”

The trade paper named Wiersma one of the “Ten Producers to Watch” for 2003.

Despite having shifted from casting to producing she has never forgotten the critical importance of assembling the right cast.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is yet another example of the long list of “what-if’’ moments when it comes to casting, according to Wiersma, who said Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling were initially considered for the role of Ron Woodruff.

“They’re both excellent actors and would have done an amazing job, but they would have brought something very different to the part,” Wiersma said.

Equally intriguing was the casting of Jared Leto just two weeks before filming began.

“He had to really come up with his character in two weeks’ time,” Wiersma said.

The casting of McConaughey and Leto has rocketed “Dallas Buyers Club” to prominence in this year’s Oscar race. The searing drama is also up for Best Original Screenplay, Film Editing and Makeup and Hairstyling awards.

“Dallas Buyers Club” saw amazing work from both lead actors, whose characters forge a seemingly impossible friendship that see’s McConaughey’s homophobic Woodruff come to respect and care about his business partner, a transgender prostitute played by Leto.

“Here you have two people who are completely different but have a unique friendship,” Wiersma said. “They somehow find common ground despite the fact their only bond with each other is an illness.”

Woodruff’s emotional and spiritual epiphany comes when he realizes “everyone is human,” Wiersma said.

Both McConaughey and Leto lost considerable weight to portray their HIV-afflicted characters.

The film was financed by Texas fertilizer millionaire Joe Newcomb.

“Independent films have such a different vibe,” Wiersma said. “They’re very laid-back.”

And they typically represent a real commitment to craft.

“Everyone is desperate to do good work,” Wiersma said. “They’re there about the work, not the paycheck.”

She said she cherishes small-budgeted films for the closeknit atmosphere they tend to generate among cast and crew.

“You’re with people for 12 (or more) weeks who you never knew before and then you’re with them every second,” Wiersma said. “It’s intense. It’s kind of like speed dating in a weird way. You get so close and learn everything about them.”

Making movies big or small isn’t easy in today’s economy, Wiersma said.

She credits tax incentives such as a recent measure approved in Ohio with fueling film production that saw 2012’s “The Avengers” and the upcoming “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” spend weeks filming and pumping millions of dollars into the Cleveland area economy.

“That is one thing that saved (the movie business),” Wiersma said. “Without that, we would really be in a hard period right now.”

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.