Setting Up “Dallas Buyers Club”: An Interview With Production Designer John Paino

In addition to painting and construction, production designer John Paino ensured all labels and medical equipment was accurate for the time period in "Dallas Buyers Club."
Voltage Pictures

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

When John Paino first heard about the development of “Dallas Buyers Club,” he was eager to get attached.  The production designer had lived in New York’s East Village in the 80s and experienced the impact AIDS had on so many people, including his best friend who perished from the disease.  Initially slated as a big budget feature, the script passed through numerous companies then stalled.  When Paino learned it was green-lit with a smaller budget and director Jean-Marc Vallee attached, he jumped at his chance.

“I had a meeting with Jean-Marc,  Marc sensed my passion for the project,” said Paino.  “I was there at the beginning of the plague.  I had seen it all and been a part of it.  Marc saw the benefit of that.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” is based on factual events surrounding Ron Woodruff, a straight rodeo jockey who was stricken with AIDS.  Discovering the dangers of the ATZ therapy, Woodruff started a one-man crusade against the Federal Government’s dissemination of the drug and their block against alternative therapies.   Through the assistance of foreign suppliers, Woodruff created his own drug dispensary; the Dallas Buyers Club. While researching the people and places involved, Paino obtained references directly from Woodruff’s family that helped define the settings in Ron’s life.   Researching the 1980s gay clubs in Dallas proved more difficult:  the vibrant gay scene existed under the radar, and many members of the 80s gay community had passed.

Clearance work was also complicated.  Between airport signage, hospital equipment and drug labeling/packaging, there was a lot to wrangle.  To further complicate matters, New Orleans was subbing for Texas.  Paino had to quickly determine what  elements were important to accurately establish and what locations would be influenced with creative liberties.  Collaborating with art director Javiera Vars, costume designers Kurt & Bart and cinematographer Yves Belanger, the team defined the overall atmosphere and mood that would transport the audience.

“The movie is about atmosphere, it’s realistic but gritty and hallucinogenic,” said Paino.  “In pre-production we had lots of pictures up on the wall to create mood boards, it was helpful for all departments.  There was a lot of cross pollination.”

In addition to building and painting sets, Paino flit all scenes practically.  With no overhead stage implements, he worked closely with Belanger to ensure lighting fixtures incorporated into the set would read well on camera.  On pre-existing locations, such as the abandoned hospital wings, Paino ensured the medical equipment dressing the scene was appropriate for the mid 80s.    In other found locations used for the Mexican hospital or Japanese lab, the challenge came in presenting accurate graphics.

“I created boxes and pharmaceutical graphics in Israeli and Japanese,” said Paino.  “It’s tough to find the imagery from 20 years ago.  I was so worried the words and lettering would be inaccurate.”

Some locations, such as the 1930s steak house used for the date scene, proved tricky to locate in New Orleans.  Other sets needing extensive period overhauls were too costly to recreate, so Paino worked closely with a visual effects team to reproduce the correct lighting and atmosphere.  Together the teams recreated the 1985 Dallas Greyhound bus terminal, the Dallas International flight terminal, exteriors in Israel, Tokyo, Mexico, the US boarder toll booth, even oil drillers in Dallas.

“There are a lot of oil drillers in Shreveport, but the environment was wrong, so we had to dress around it,” said Paino.  “We did this with the scene where Ron gets electrocuted; we built the electrical equipment then place the green screen behind the elements, with objects in the middle so it feels less theatrical.”

A uniquely challenging set that blended VFX and practical elements was the butterfly room.  A bug wrangler was on set to ensure the roughly 500 to 1,000 butterflies remained warm an unharmed during production.  Sugar water was utilized to attract them to particular locations, however to obtain the proper effect of the butterflies clinging to Woodruff, digital replicas were introduced.

While many of the sets had unique challenges, Paino and his team also experience some lucky breaks.  A rodeo was in New Orleans during production, and members of its staff including rodeo clowns and gate pullers worked on the production.  Some sets, such as Woodruff’s trailer, were simply fun to design.

“Rodeo guys wear tags on their backs.  I made a whole bunch of these tags, as if Ron had them all from when he was 16, and scattered them throughout the trailer,” said Paino.  “There were a lot of details I added that people may not notice.  It was a lot of fun to create that set.”

Although Paino has worked on many low budget features in the past, he acknowledges that “Dallas Buyers Club” was extremely challenging to accomplish on its budget.  He credits a great team, locations, and a gritty style of shooting as the glue that bound the film.

“”Margin Call’ was also a small budget film that had about 18 sets.  ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ was the same budget as ‘Margin Call’ and had around 60 sets,” said Paino.  “But, if it wasn’t that budget, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ wouldn’t have gotten made.    It’s much better to have the film exist and struggle through the budget, then not get made at all.”

Up next, Paino has re-teamed with director Jean-Marc Vallee for the feature “Wild,” a film he is equally excited to be a part of.

“It’s set in nature, out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s going to be another great movie!”