Living and Dying with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor Over Sundance

How I turned some newspaper stories into a book which became a movie that caused those two guys to kiss

That's when I received a phone call from writer Mark Schone. Schone explained that he was an editor for Spin magazine, that he had read my pieces on Russell and that he wanted to do a story about Russell for his own publication.

Now, usually, I like to think I'm a pretty cooperative guy. But that day, Schone's words rubbed me the wrong way — and I told him so.

"Look," I said, "I've been writing about this guy for a couple of years, and I plan to write a book about him. So, if anybody writes a piece about Russell for Spin, it will be me, not you."

A crowd jammed into the 1,300-plus-seat Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, for this year's Sundance Festival and the first public screening of I Love You Phillip Morris.
Steve McVicker
A crowd jammed into the 1,300-plus-seat Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, for this year's Sundance Festival and the first public screening of I Love You Phillip Morris.

Surprisingly, Schone was not offended by my acting like an ass. Instead, he offered his help.

"Oh, if you're going to write a book, I've got all your clips gathered here electronically," he said. "If you want me to, I could just forward them to my book agent."

"Well, yeah, that would be great," I said sheepishly.

True to his word, Schone did contact his agent about me. A few days later, I received a call from Peter Steinberg. At the time, Steinberg was an agent for JCA Literary, but he has since formed his own company, The Steinberg Agency. Steinberg told me to put together a formal proposal. Turns out, writing the proposal was almost as hard as writing the book.

What Steinberg needed before he could shop the idea around to publishers was a chapter-by-chapter outline, an overview of the book and — what was hardest for me — a sample chapter. What I initially could not get through my thick head was that a sample chapter was not the same as a magazine piece. Unlike a magazine article, which has a beginning and an end, a sample chapter needed to be just a part of the whole — a bridge from one section to the next. Each time I would submit what I thought was a chapter, Steinberg would simply say, "Do it again."

Finally, after about three stabs at it, like trying to solve an algebra problem, a light came on in my head, and I delivered to Steinberg something he could try to sell. And after several near misses, in August 2001, we finally struck a deal with the book-publishing division of Miramax. But due to a delay in receiving the advance money, I didn't get started on the book until almost the end of the year.

And while we're talking about advances, a word to any prospective writers out there: When you get the advance, you don't get the entire advance. In my case, I received 50 percent up front, 25 percent upon acceptance and 25 percent upon publication. Be sure to read the fine print.

I Love You Phillip Morris, the book, was released in June 2003. It didn't exactly fly off the shelves, but neither did Miramax pony up for the publicity tour it had promised. However, there was an unexpected bonus.

Even before the book was released, my book agent had hired a Los Angeles film agent, Marti Blumenthal, who is credited with getting the movie Sideways made, to begin shopping around the movie rights. She soon struck a deal with an outfit called Mad Chance Productions, headed by Andrew Lazar. For the next three years, Mad Chance continued to renew the option, and Lazar assured me that he was serious about turning the book into a movie — so serious, in fact, that he had convinced two well-known screenwriters, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa of Bad Santa fame, to write the screenplay on spec.

Finally, in June 2007, I received the news I had been waiting on. Lazar called to say that they had received funding — from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp — and that they were close to signing an A-list actor and A-list director for the movie, although right then, he couldn't name names. A couple of weeks later, he called back with the news that Jim Carrey had signed on to play Steven Russell. The director (who we now know was Gus Van Sant) had bowed out. So the ­writers, Requa and Ficarra, were going to direct instead. It would be their first directing gig. But what the hell, the movie was going to get made — a feeling that was reinforced after Ewan McGregor agreed to play the part of Phillip Morris.

I didn't make a fortune on the up-front movie rights — just enough to buy a small house, a car and a pair of really fancy, ­custom-made cowboy boots. I'm not ­complaining.

But when it looked like all hurdles had been cleared, one more problem popped up: the writers' strike. The movie was scheduled to begin shooting in spring 2008. The longer the strike continued, the more concerned I became.

Luckily, the strike ended in time for production to begin. The first scenes were shot in Miami. The rest of the movie was filmed in New Orleans, serving as a substitute for Houston. Both Phillip Morris, who is now a legally free man and lives in Arkansas, and I had cameos in a scene with Carrey.

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