I Love You Phillip Morris tells the true story of Steven Russell, an inveterate con artist who meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris, while in prison. Steve McVicker’s book about Russell was adapted by the screenwriting team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also made their directing debut with the film. They join me by phone today.
City Weekly: Tell me how you first came to Steve McVicker’s book or Steven Russell’s story, and your initial reaction to it.
Glenn Ficarra: Our producer, Andrew Lazar, got us a book proposal, which was based on a series of articles Steve McVicker wrote for the Houston Chronicle about Steven Russell. … We read a few pages, and … it was this great story about love and a guy who was a fool for love, and the lengths he would go to for it. It seemed like a no-brainer.
CW: I’ve seen plenty of reviews comparing this story to the Frank Abagnale story from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Was that a touchstone of any kind for you in thinking about this character?
John Requa: We were determined not to be like Catch Me If You Can. That’s why it appealed to us. If it was just this story of a con man, I don’t know if we would have taken it or been so interested in it. But the fact that it was a love story, and it was this search for identity through love, it jumped off the page to us. That’s what appealed to us, and that was a big enough difference from Catch Me If You Can that we thought we could do this movie and still have something interesting and unique to say.
CW: A friend who’s a screenwriter was talking about pitching an idea to Jim Carrey’s agents, and warning that the idea was kind of “out there.” The response he got was, “Jim likes out there.” Is that what you discovered in the course of working with him?
GF: Well, he did it, didn’t he? Yeah, that was our first reaction, was that it was too out there for Jim. But our producer convinced us to send it to him right off. We knew that he was perfect for the part; we just thought it was way too risky and way too insane. And Jim responded faster than any actor in our experience.
JR: The script called for both dramatic and comedic scenes, and there’s just not a lot of people out there who can do both convincingly. There’s a lot of actors who can do dramatic and stumble their way through comedy, and a lot of comedic actors who can’t really do the dramatic. But Jim had proven he could do both. … So it was just an obvious choice for us.
CW: This is your first film as directors. In what way was the process of directing as a team easier or harder than the process of writing as a team?
GF: Well, I think that because we’ve written as a team for so long, and actually directed together for short films and things, it wasn’t that big a difference or challenge. I think the biggest challenge was probably just making sure information was flowing to both of us so we could both be informed the same way, and make sure we could come to decisions easier. The big thing we did was storyboard the entire movie ahead of time, no matter how mundane the scene, just so we could have all the conversations we needed to have before we got to the set.
JR: I actually think we fight less when we’re directing together. I think we fight more when we’re writing. … We’ve pre-planned, and spent a lot of time writing, and we kind of know what we want. The only time there would be any differences on the set would be if there were different goals for a scene or a performance, and that’s just never the case. At that point, we’ve been with the material for years, intimate with it, and had a strong feeling about how it should be executed.
CW: It’s obviously been a fairly long road from a debut at Sundance almost two years ago to finally getting this theatrical release. Was there ever a point when you thought, “It just might not happen.”
GF: We never thought it was going to happen when we started writing it. You know, it’s been one surprise after another on this movie, from actually getting the rights, to being shocked that somebody was going to give us money to make it, to being even more shocked that Jim and Ewan [McGregor] agreed to be in it, to being even more shocked that it turned out well. I mean, it was just a constant surprise. So we’re overjoyed it’s finally seeing the light of day.
CW: I read in another interview, I think it was John who said something along the lines of, it was harder to sell a gay love story as a comedy than a gay love story that’s a drama. Why do you think that’s the case?
JR: If it’s a gay message movie, it’s easy to sell, because that’s sort of where we are as a society. We want to deal with homosexuality in a sense of … as a culture at large, learning to cope with it. … So what makes people feel comfortable is to have the equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? with gay people. And in this movie we’ve moved past that, and we’re just trying to tell an interesting story … that just happens to have gay characters. That’s hard for people; people don’t want to be there culturally. Or at least the studios think that’s true.
GF: Yeah, from a business standpoint, that’s true. You know, there’s a reticence in Hollywood to portray any minority as flawed. … They think that if it’s something about a minority, you just have to sort of incessantly talk about it.
CW: Have you gotten any gasp responses to a line like “Being gay is really expensive?”
GF: We’ve had GLAAD and all our gay friends who’ve seen the movie, we haven’t heard anything, really.
JR: Actually, the only thing we’ve heard, is many of our gay friends have said that’s their favorite line in the movie. Because I think it’s not true obviously for every gay person, but I think a lot of gay guys identify with it. … It’s not an actual line that Steven said, but it is kind of why he was driven to crime in Florida, because bills were just adding up. He wanted this fabulous lifestyle with all these boyfriends, and all the clothes and the cars. Ewan always referred to it as “going on a gay bender.” He was this straight man living in the closet, and then suddenly he came out of the closet and he didn’t really know how to be gay, so he was sort of going about being gay in a very clichéd way in an attempt to adopt the persona. It wasn’t until he went to prison and met Phillip that he had to deal with his homosexuality on the ground level and realize it’s not so much about what you wear and your lifestyle, but about loving another man.
CW: A colleague of mine who had seen Phillip Morris on the festival circuit asked if the “spit or swallow” scene was still in the theatrical version, and was fairly shocked when he learned that it was. We all heard about the fights over this scene or that word to secure a particular MPAA rating or a release. What did you have to fight most to keep that someone might have tried to talk you out of because of commercial concerns?
GF: Well, when we pitched the screenplay, they asked us if Phillip could be a woman. That’s when we decided we’d have to write the movie for free.
JR: I think maybe some people were a little bummed out that stuff was in there, but nobody has the nerve in Hollywood to ask you to take stuff out. Nobody wants to be that guy, because people go into the film business not just to make money; they go into the film business because they want to be cool. And they don’t want to be that uncool guy who says, “Take that out.” So nobody ever asked us. But at the same time we did have trouble getting a distributor for a while. They were in a way waiting for us to do it on our own, because I think they would then be interested. We cut a couple of minutes for pacing, but it had nothing to do with any of the questionable material. And they’d go, “Oh, we thought you were going to change it more.”