By all accounts, Rachel Winter, the Oscar-nominated producer of Jean-Marc Vallee’s landmark 2013 drama Dallas Buyers Club, which charts the real-life story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas hustler who bucked the system to get AIDS patients their medication in the 1980s, is “a nice Jewish girl from the Valley.”
Which is ironic considering she got her career start in porn.
“I was an English major at UC Santa Barbara, and I was sort of done a little early and needed something to fill the time my last quarter,” says Winter. “I don’t why, because I certainly hadn’t gone to film school, but I went to the head of the film department, knocked on his door and said, ‘hi, I have an amazing opportunity to get an internship in LA. I’ll drive down there a couple of days a week and work for a producer. Will you give me four units and a grade? He said, ‘yes, I just need the name of the producer.’”
But Winter (nee Frazin ) had no name or number of a producer. “I had completely lied,” she says. So she pedaled her bike back to her campus home, called her mom, and asked if she knew anybody in the film business from their hometown of Granada Hills, a residential neighborhood in LA’s San Fernando Valley.
“She said, ‘we do know somebody but he does porn. Do you remember him, [name redacted] from the North Valley Jewish Community Center?’ I was like, fantastic, give me his number. And I called him up and I was like, ‘this is Rachel from the North Valley Jewish Community Center. Do you remember me?’ And, in this New York accent, he said, ‘Rachey, of course I remember you!’ Next thing I know I was working for a softcore porn company in LA. And it was great.”
At the adult entertainment company, Winter’s primary responsibilities included PA work and penning script coverage.
“Yes, there are scripts,” she says with a dry laugh. “There’s a formula: For every 30 minutes of programming there’s two teases and a sex scene.”
“It’s a fun part of my journey,” Winter adds. “I think there’s a real perception that if you grow up in LA that you know somebody and that’s how you get your foot in the door and, I guess, in my case, that’s true, too—my foot was in softcore porn.”
For Winter, who’s married to Terence Winter, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Wolf of Wall Street), Emmy-winning producer (The Sopranos), and creator of Boardwalk Empire, the Golden Globe-winning crime series, “everything always comes back to the Jewish community.”
Winter’s family belonged to Temple Ahavat Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Northridge, which is where Winter became a bat mitzvah; she attended preschool at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and, at age 11, was a counselor at its day camp. Her father, a public defender for juveniles, plied his dramatic side acting in plays at the Center.
“I come from a Jewish community theater family,” says Winter, who recently moved back to LA with her children after a several-year stint in New York, where Terence was shooting Boardwalk for HBO. “My dad played the Robert Redford role from Barefoot in the Park. We did Working, and my brother was the newsboy.”
And because growing up in LA guarantees film industry success for no one and stories about contracts being handed out at the airport are forever pure chimera—“The most famous kid I knew was Alfonso Ribeiro who was at Nobel Jr. high for maybe half a year in 7th grade, and Corey Feldman did a pit stop at our junior high, but that was the extent of that,” she says—Winter started at the bottom of the professional totem pole and worked her way up.
“I definitely went up the lower alphabet,” she says. “Whatever softcore is categorized at, if that is D, from there I started to meet people in production. That’s the great thing about the production side of community—it’s a traveling band of gypsies who really will embrace you and take you along.”
Winter’s then-fledgling career took her around the world. She was a production assistant for director Albert Pyun on what she dubs “low-budget, c-minus” movies in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Rome, working 17-hour days and making $400 a week.
“It was such film boot camp for me, and it was so exhausting, but it was such an incredible experience,” says Winter. “It was the opposite of glamorous but, in a weird way, there was something romantic about being far from home and working so hard with people you’d never otherwise know, and I still know some folks from back then.”
Through those connections, Winter met Steve Nicolaides, her “first real mentor,” who’d produced such films as John Singleton’s Poetic Justice and Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally.
“He taught me that a producer is the first to arrive and the last to leave,” says Winter, whose latest feature, Krystal, was directed by William H. Macy, who also stars in the film. “[Steve] was also part of my film school education. He taught me, you’re the cheerleader and it starts with you.”
Dallas Buyers Club, the film Winter calls “the honor of her career to have been a part of” is a result of Winter’s passion for cinema and her indefatigable work ethic, as well as her desire to tell true stories with a strong “social justice” bent.
“I’m a crusader by nature,” says Winter.
While the film, which she co-produced with Robbie Brenner, is not directly rooted in her Jewish roots, per se, it was deeply influenced by the Tikkun Olam aspect of Judaism, instilled in her by both of her parents.
“My dad’s a dreamer,” she says. “He was a very left-y guy. Because he was a public defender, he believed you didn’t pull all of the white kids out of public schools. My dad’s the type of guy who, about once a month, would send me some incredibly inspirational story [from the newspaper]. We were always learning about people or groups of people that had been persecuted. And I guess being exposed to stories about people who go off to find their authentic selves, and the lives they were meant to live, despite the intolerance that’s out there in the world, it’s just my instinct to create films about these characters.”
Winter also had a special connection to those with AIDS: her uncle, her father’s brother, died of the disease.
“The day we were filming the scene where Jared Leto’s character Rayon passes away we were in this kind of dingy hospital and it was just so similar to what my uncle went through, and I remember that I had to leave the set and a few people saw me bawl in the corner,” she says.
But difficult subjects are not something from which Winter backs away. To wit, her current slate of projects—she and Terence are working on several of them together —includes a Holocaust-era film based on the award-winning anthology of essays We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezíncompiled by Marie Rut Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest, all survivors of Theresienstadt concentration camp.
“We learned about the Holocaust at a very early age,” says Winter. “I remember at Passover time I didn’t want my parents to leave the door open for Elijah. I was scared the Nazis were going to march down our street in Granada Hills. Looking back, I now long for those days when it seemed so much less likely.”
Sully scribe Todd Komarnicki is currently penning a draft of the screenplay. While not Jewish, “Todd is smart, sophisticated and a very emotional writer,” says Winter, “and to me that’s all that we needed.”
Despite the critical fanfare of such Oscar-winning films as Schindler’s List and Son of Saul, Winter readily concedes it’s no easy feat bringing a Holocaust film to the screen, particularly when it comes to financing the development of a project.
“Making movies is hard in general and I would say this falls into the category of maybe one click harder,” she says. “We had to really think outside the box for how were going to find somebody to finance the film. We bumped up against a potential writers’ strike, we got rejected by everyone we pitched to. But generally producers don’t ever like to hear no; my brain tends to shut down when I hear no.”
After countless phone calls and meetings, it was the Jewish community that came to the film project’s rescue.
“We found an entertainment investment company—one of the partners is Jewish, one is not,” says Winters. “And they were able to pull together equity from the families of [Holocaust] survivors who want to be a part of this. It’s an example of the Jewish community coming together to help tell important stories. They believe in Todd, they believe in this story—and it’s an exceptional story. They are human beings who feel that it’s important. And that’s my job. My job is to share my passion and convince people that it’s their passion to.”
Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.