Reporter cracked case of behind Philip Morris
January 16, 2009
Before "I Love You Philip Morris" became one of the biggest films at Sundance, it was a real-life caper worthy of the Cohen brothers.
Steve McVicker, a crime reporter based out of Houston, wrote the book "I Love You Philip Morris" in 2003 about con artist Steven Russell and Russell’s lover, Phillip Morris. The book, like the film, chronicles Russell’s start as a police officer in Virginia, the life of crime that followed, and the romance that blossomed between Russell and Morris while in prison.
Russell used at least 14 different aliases and escaped from prison four times. He committed a number of nonviolent crimes including fraud and embezzlement. He convincingly posed as police officers, doctors, millionaires and even a terminally ill AIDS patient over the course of 20 years in and out of police custody. He is currently serving a 144-year jail sentence in Texas.
In the film, Jim Carrey plays Russell and Ewan McGregor plays Morris. McVicker briefly shares the screen with Carrey and the real-life Phillip Morris in the film during a trial scene. He plays a judge and Morris plays Carrey’s lawyer. McVicker talked to SCENE about reporting the story and having his book adapted into a screenplay.
SCENE: How did you discover the story?
MCVICKER: I saw a story in the Houston Chronicle about this guy who had managed to get out of the Harris County jail here in Houston by somehow manipulating the phone system at the Jail and getting an outside line. Any call to the jail is a collect call, so he had to get ahold of some clear lines to call the district clerk’s office. He told them he was a state district judge and that he was lowering Mr. Russell’s bond from $900,000 to $45,000 and they just signed off on it without any more verification than that. He convinced a bail bondsman to come down and make the bond, and he was on the run. They caught him not long after that and I wrote a letter to him.
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SCENE: Are you surprised, as someone who has covered crime, that he was able to escape from jail again and again?
MCVICKER: You think, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four times, someone is asleep at the switch.
SCENE: What makes Russell a successful con artist?
MCVICKER: He comes off as very earnest. He’s a very likeable, convincing guy. And he’s got the balls of a cat burglar. He doesn’t blink. When someone else has a twitch that might give them away, Russell just marches right on through it.
SCENE: What was the process of having your book adapted for the screen?
MCVICKER: It was optioned right before it was released in 2003, and every year they kept renewing the option. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was nice walking-around money. And you keep hoping some day they’ll get it into production. Eventually, the guys who ended up being the directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, finally sat down and wrote the screenplay.
At that time, I thought we were getting pretty serious because you don’t do all that work and not have it made. Still, a lot of screenplays don’t get made, so I wasn’t going out and buying champagne or anything yet. My agent kept telling me, "Don’t get too excited yet." His words were, "Don’t go buy the champagne, but think about what kind you’d like."
SCENE: When did you find out that Jim Carrey was involved in the project?
MCVICKER: last spring, I was pretty sure it was going to get made. My agent was telling me they had an A-list actor, but they couldn’t tell me who it was because they were still negotiating, and then they told me it was Jim Carrey and I was like, "Good God, this is big time!"
SCENE: Did you think, when you were writing the book, that the story had cinematic potential?
MCVICKER: Absolutely. I always thought it was one of those larger-than-life stories and I’d always hoped that it would get done.
SCENE: Some have described Russell as the anti-Harvey Milk. How do you see him?
MCVICKER: [Laughs] That’s a good one. He’s definitely an anti-hero. I’d really like to sit down to dinner with him, but I don’t think he’ll ever get out. I don’t think he thinks he’ll ever get out.
SCENE: Do you see the story as a crime story or a love story?
MCVICKER: It’s a crime story and a love story. I think Steven and Philip were in love, but there’s no getting around the escaping and embezzling.
SCENE: Tell me about acting alongside Jim Carrey.
MCVICKER: I play a judge at one of Russell’s trials. I didn’t meet McGregor, but I met Jim Carrey and he couldn’t have been nicer. He wasn’t like the manic guy you see on the screen. He couldn’t have been more down to earth.
SCENE: Did you have any tips for Carrey on playing Russell?
MCVICKER: No. I just let him do his thing.
SCENE: How did the real-life Philip Morris and Steven Russell feel about the book?
MCVICKER: They’ve both read the book. They were both upset that I portrayed Steven as being obsessed with Philip, but the problem is, he was. And everything’s cool now.
SCENE: Is Russell a genius?
MCVICKER: I don’t know if he’s a genius, but he’s damn smart.