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I Love You Phillip Morris - Production Notes25 Nov 2010
By Tommy Pihl (JCO Editor-In-Chief)
This unabashed love story is not your ordinary romantic affair explains producer Andrew Lazar. “Yes it’s interesting that he’s a gay man,” says Lazar of Steven Russell played by Jim Carrey. “But what makes it universal is that everyone can relate to being obsessed and love sick and wanting to be with that person who’s going to change your life.”
After his conman life trips him up, Steven is sent to prison where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The rest of the movie is a Don Quixote-like story of a forlorn lover who can’t bear to be separated from his soul-mate. “On four separate occasions, through ingenious, non-violent ways he did these death-defying escapes from prison all in the name of love to be with Phillip Morris,” marvels Lazar.
Lazar admits being fascinated by unusual life stories. “As a producer you scour for material and when I found this it was not a finished manuscript,” explains Lazar of the work that then Houston Chronicle investigative journalist Steve McVicker had compiled. “There were several chapters and a treatment outlining the rest of the book. Having had success with unusual but true stories, like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” I immediately bought the adaptation rights with my own money and Miramax Books picked it up to publish it.”
Lazar sent the advance copy of the book proposal to several high-end screenwriters over a weekend and determined that the first one to respond would be offered the job. “I read the first page and called John (Requa) and said, ‘I think we’re going to do this,’” recalls co-writer/director Glenn Ficarra. “I think John heard something in my voice and went, ‘ok!’”
“I agreed to it before I even read the whole thing,” admits John Requa, the film’s co-writer/director. “The first thing that appealed to us was the fact that it was this love story about this guy doing these incredible things for love. We’d never done a love story before, had never been interested in it, but the material just seemed too strong to deny.”
While the elusive conman element drives the story in many ways, what really interested Lazar about Ficarra and Requa’s pitch was their classic approach to the inherent love story the material suggests. “There are all kinds of conman stories like “The Grifters” and “Catch Me If You Can,” but I think what makes this so unique is the core relationship and they immediately targeted that,” affirms Lazar.
Because it was Miramax Books, the first call for development funding was to Miramax. “We pitched it over the phone as a gay prison escape movie and they went very quiet,” says Ficarra. “When we left that meeting I said, ‘we’re going to have to write this for free,’” remembers Requa. “Andrew immediately said, ‘you’re going to write it for free? That’s awesome!’” Early on there was a general understanding amongst all involved that because it was about two men it wasn’t the kind of project that would attract comfortable development dollars for a big budget production. “It’s unfortunate, because if this story had been about a man and a woman we would have gotten a ton of money,” opines Requa.
As a spec writing project, the duo deferred to other paying gigs while remaining obsessed with cracking this story for almost two years. “One of the big reasons we took it is because it was chock full of challenges,” admits Requa. “We had never done a love story, we’d never done a true story, we had never adapted a book. It was a great script to fill our experience box up with.”
One of the challenges of telling a non-fiction story is “it’s an embarrassment of riches and you need to focus it and make it lean, and fashion it somewhat to the confines of a motion picture,” says Lazar. Steven Russell’s life was full of mind-blowing anecdotes and amazing cons, and the writers had to focus and find the story in the material. “We had to mix-n-match and move stuff around and make it all work,” recalls Requa. “We kicked it back to ourselves more than any studio’s ever done to us, and then we did 10 drafts for Lazar and producer Far Shariat, but all with smiles on our faces.”
A script was finally ready to go out to talent by the end of 2006 and “the first person we gave it to over the Christmas holiday was Jim Carrey,” says Lazar. “Naturally Jim responded to this incredibly charismatic and flawed yet sympathetic character. It’s always nice to get your first choice of actors, but after he committed we looked back at the script and realized that he gets to do something phenomenal on every page of the script.”
“This movie is not a straight guy pretending to be gay,” explains Lazar of the material and the creative package. “Steven Russell is a homosexual and it’s a very provocative script. We discussed a handful of really brilliant A-list directors with Jim, and after one had to leave to do another project Jim said you brought this to me with the idea of Ficarra and Requa for their potential directing debut and I feel comfortable enough with them now to take a shot. Jim and the writers had developed a relationship, and when it got down to thinking of ‘who next,’ Jim was very bold and took that leap of faith,” says Lazar about the decision to have the two writers direct the film.
"We lucked into being introduced to Luc Besson (Executive Producer) early in the process, because sexual relationship stories don't seem to fluster Europeans as much as they do Americans," says Lazar. "Our movie is very different from "Brokeback Mountain, but there are some striking similarities in the honesty of the relationship and how it transcends any stigma. Europa understood the tone of the movie was a comedy with dramatic elements, and really let us make the movie that we wanted. Luc's prior relationship with Jim made it a secure fit and they were nothing but supportive.”
“I had an instinct that Glenn and John really were filmmakers,” says Lazar. “I hadn’t seen their short films in some time, so when we got to the nitty-gritty I showed Jim their short films from 10 years prior, which are absolutely hilarious and had such a wonderful style. I think those gave Jim the confidence and then it became about surrounding them with an extraordinary team.”
Costume Designer David C. Robinson, who was familiar with the book, prepared for his interview in an unusual way. “David came in and said I’ve got all the research right here, and he pulled out a bag of polaroids of his own life and it mirrored Steven’s life pretty seamlessly,” says Ficarra “I realized that Steven Russell and I were pretty much the same age and I had been in Key West and down south, etc. at about the same point in the movie that he had,” begins Robinson. “So I brought pictures like ones of me sitting in a hot tub in Key West with two other guys, and it was my way of saying here’s what a gay man in Key West in ’84 looked like. I’m not Steven Russell, but I certainly had vacationed with people like him. I subsequently posted all my vacation photos on a research website,” explains the costume designer whose textured work on such films as “Donnie Brasco” and “Meet Joe Black” have set him apart in the industry.
In many ways Robinson was somewhat of a ‘spirit guide’ for the directors, as they began their journey of fleshing out Steven Russell’s screen personality with Robinson’s costumes. “They were in the closet at the same time, they grew up at a lot of the same places, they came out at the same time,” offers Ficarra of the insight into Steven’s character that Robinson provided. “In the history of Hollywood, I don’t know of a costume designer that ever had more input on a movie,” states Requa of Robinson’s influence that often surpassed his department. “He was very passionate about the project from the beginning and really wanted to see it done right. He’s a man of great dedication and deeply talented.”
The directors were already fans of Xavier Grobet’s cinematography on films like “Nacho Libre” and “Before Night Falls” before meeting with him to discuss their film. “When we started to talk about the movie he said, ‘well I am a gay,’” smiles Ficarra, who welcomed Grobet’s vested interest in working with them. “Most of the gay people that worked on the movie found it appealing because ‘the gay’ was secondary. This is one of the few movies where it’s not about being gay, it’s a love story between two people who happen to be gay. It was our rallying cry throughout production: never to wear gay as a badge.”
When it came to the disparate worlds that Steven Russell moved through, the filmmakers turned to Production Designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski who had done many movies with British director Stephen Frears. “ With Hugo there’s a reality to his production design that I thought was extremely important,” says Lazar. “We had talked about different styles and ultimately decided that realism is probably best,” adds Ficarra, who explains that he and John wanted to get laughs from the characters not from the period. “Hugo really pushed for it to be realistic because he said, ‘you have enough of the whimsical quality in the material and you don’t want it to go too far,’” says Requa of their early discussions about locations and settings.
The production spent their first two weeks in Miami recreating moments from Russell’s foray into gay life in the mid-1980’s, where he meets his first serious lover, Jimmy Kemple, played by Rodrigo Santoro. “It was the first place he went when he decided to really come out of the closet,” says Ficarra. “It was like, ‘I’m going to be fabulous,’ and he found the place to do it. It was really a hot place to be and he was right there on the leading edge of this big explosion in the ‘out’ gay population.
On arriving in Miami, Robinson immediately picked up the Latin vibe, which informed his work on costumes for Santoro’s character. “When they cast him I thought that’s perfect because I can’t tell you how many gay couples I knew at that time who were a big white guy and a Latin guy,” recalls Robinson of his work with the Brazilian heartthrob best known in the U.S. as Xerxes in “300.” Suddenly Versace made sense to me seeing the hot Latin boys wearing the trademark print shirts you go, ‘of course, it totally makes sense on that.’ No wonder Gianni gave those out to all the hot Latin boys on the beach.” Lazar was amused by the early paparazzi pictures that hit the press worldwide of Carrey and Santoro walking down Collins Avenue, epitomizing the flamboyant Steven Russell coming into his own as a gay man.
“When you read the novel you get a little bit of back-story about when Steven first became part of gay culture how he let friends sort of instruct him in that,” says Robinson. “Having grown up as a cop in Virginia obviously he did not have a great fashion sense but he probably was clued into not being embarrassing in the gay community by wearing things that are really outré. Those are the few moments that you get a sense of him and his unease maybe a bit in the gay culture, trying to fit in there, because he always is trying to fit in.”
The majority of the movie takes place in Texas, in and around jails and prisons, so the producers needed a state that was very film friendly that would give them the opportunity to shoot in these types of locations. Louisiana shares a border with Texas and the state proved a perfect double. The production had unprecedented access to prisons and jails throughout the parishes of New Orleans for their locations, partly due to halting reconstruction work after Hurricane Katrina.
“We had a tremendous experience in and around the jails of New Orleans, and then we shot for five days at Angola, one of the worlds most dangerous prisons until its transformation in the mid ‘90s,” says Lazar. This is where they shot the scene of Steven’s first meeting with Phillip Russell, played by Ewan McGregor. Prison is often viewed cinematically as very harsh, but at some of the larger institutions “people have a seemingly free life and you could have a love affair there and get away with it no problem,” observed Requa.
“It’s always about the strength of the script, and we had a very strong script that offered actors a chance to do a little bit deeper characters than traditional Hollywood films,” begins Lazar, who admits that having Carey also attracted a lot of actors. Casting McGregor came out of a discussion with Jim and “basically within a day we had him,” recalls Ficarra of that day at Carrey’s house. “Phillip Morris is a very delicate role and Ewan easily assimilated this kind of waif-ish, boy-like person that captivated Steven Russell’s heart,” explains Lazar.
Leslie Mann, as Steven’s wife Debbie, was another of Carrey’s suggestions. “She is a great comedian and a great actor, and had some history with Jim because they were in “Cable Guy” together,” says Lazar, who also mentions the actress’s unforgettable roles in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” and “40 Year Old Virgin.” “When Steven finally comes out as a gay man we wanted somebody that in reality could remain friends with him. Leslie has an ability to emote the kind of the forgiveness and understanding that Debbie needed to give Steven.”
With an IQ that tests in the ‘exceptionally gifted’ range (169), Steven Russell was smart enough to know that bureaucracy plays to your advantage and he quickly learned how to exploit a situations whether they be high paying jobs or high reward cons. “He’s not like some master criminal,” explains Ficarra. “He did bold things, but he didn’t necessarily do it super slick.” “His audacity is his most powerful quality,” adds Requa.
“We like deluded and obsessive characters,” says Ficarra. “Yeah, Steven is our kind of guy,” adds Requa. “We like guys who are haunted by facts of their past and that wrestle with them the whole movie.”
“His ability to believe he could do anything put blinders on his sense of reason,” says Lazar. “It’s just the way Steven sees the world in such a daring and bold way that, even as smart as he is to pull some of the cons, it also is his Achilles heel, which enables him not to cover his tracks and not to see that his could catch up to him.”
Steven Russell (Carrey) narrates the film and it’s told from his point of view. “It’s what Steven thinks is the truth or what he told Steve McVicker is the truth,” explains Ficarra. “The truth is a little more boring, maybe not quite as clear-cut, but we wanted the audience to be the last person to be conned,” says Requa.
None of the cons or escapes are fabricated, they were only “dramatically interpreted” explain the filmmakers. “All the events happened but obviously we’ve taken dramatic license in what characters say and how they say it,” says Lazar. “We felt like we wanted to interpret the movie and the relationship in a romantic way so that’s what we’ve done.”
Steven Russell is currently on 23-hour lock down for the next 144 years. Phillip Morris served as a consultant on the film and makes a cameo appearance, along with author Steve McVicker.
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