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THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

One love, many escapes in 'I Love You Phillip Morris'

Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor star in the story of real life con artist Steven Russell. Writing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa make their directing debut.

January 18, 2009|Rachel Abramowitz

Make no mistake: "I Love You Phillip Morris" is no "Brokeback Mountain."

Sure, both are high-profile films that tell the story of two men sincerely in love. "Brokeback Mountain" came from Oscar-winner Ang Lee, well known for his finely etched studies of repressed human beings. "I Love You Phillip Morris," on the other hand, is the directorial debut of longtime writing partners Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, best known for the Billy Bob Thornton comedy "Bad Santa," about a misanthropic, drunken department store St. Nick and his partner in crime, an utterly profane homicidal dwarf.

"Brokeback Mountain" is based on a poignant Annie Proulx short story. "I Love You Phillip Morris" happens to be based on fact, the true-life tale of a onetime married police officer turned gay Texan con man, Steven Russell, who had a penchant for breaking out of prison on Friday the 13th and a mad passion for a fellow inmate by the improbable true name Phillip Morris. The $14-million film stars Jim Carrey as Russell and Ewan McGregor as his younger lover Morris and premieres tonight at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Russell's whole thing was 'Dare to be stupid,' " says Ficarra, the smaller, darker, less loquacious half of the pair that all associates seem to refer to as "the guys."

"Dare to imagine the world is full of idiots who are incompetent and lazy and don't do their jobs well," says Requa, a balding redhead who wouldn't seem out of place in an aging indie grunge band. "For the most part, he proved to be right."

It's the weekend before their Sundance debut, and the pair are having coffee in a restaurant blocks away from their respective Los Feliz homes. Well, Ficarra is having cappuccino, which he stirs with one finger, licking off the foam. Requa has just emerged from his sick bed, and meticulously refuses to shake hands, though the remnants of illness haven't seemed to dent his general air of congenial jolliness.

Both become animated when talking about Russell, who broke out of prison four times -- none of them violently -- using a variety of scams, like posing as a judge and calling the courthouse to get his bail reduced, or pretending to be a prison doctor. Once, he broke open the cartridge of a green felt-tip pen in his cell sink and dyed a set of infirmary scrubs green, just like those of the jail physicians, and then he simply walked out the door. When he was captured 10 days later, he told journalists how he did it: "I didn't break out. I asked if I could go home and they opened the door."

And all of the escapes are in the film, says Ficarra. "All together. A montage of it."

It's hard not to be amused by the exploits of Russell, now a permanent member of the Texas penal system. Other notable pre-prison ruses included posing as a lawyer and landing a job (via a totally faked resume) as the CFO of a company that managed the finances for doctors' offices. "He figured out a way to make the company money, then took half as a commission," says Ficarra. It was a commission that wasn't technically his; Russell wound up embezzling close to $1 million from the firm.

While in prison, Russell met the love of his life in the library: a pretty, porcelain-skinned petty criminal by the name of Phillip Morris who'd landed behind bars after failing to return a rental car. "They were able to create a world for themselves inside [prison] that was outside of that world," says Requa. "They created their own world. We go to lengths to show that. We have a romantic montage where we try to juxtapose the reality of prison and their . . ."

"Love bubble," interjects Ficarra.

"This envelope of love," offers Requa. "There's comedic potential, but it's actually quite sweet."

Approached by producer Andrew Lazar with a proposal to adapt a book written about Russell by Houston journalist Steven McVicker, the pair opted to write the film on spec and spent almost a year doing it, much to the chagrin of their agents and managers, who would have preferred them to make money. "Glenn almost lost his house," says Requa.

Jim Carrey was their first choice to play Russell, perhaps because of his ability to blend comedic high jinks with pathological neediness, and he immediately signed on, explaining that there have been only three scripts that he truly felt compelled to do: "The Truman Show," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and this.

As he read the script, "there was a kind of attraction-polarizing thing going on," explains Carrey during a phone interview. "I would read two pages and be kind of disgusted by Steven Russell, then read the next page, and I'd love him, then I'd be repulsed by him, all the way through the script. You don't know whether to love or hate the guy.

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