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

My big moment was banging the gavel and calling for the jury report — I admit I stretched it a bit to get more screen time.

During a short break in the shooting I had a chance to talk with Carrey, who came over and introduced himself. Most of our talk centered on Russell. Since Carrey had not had time to visit Russell in prison, I had gone to the Michael Unit near Palestine, Texas, and recorded a casual conversation between Russell and me. I sent those tapes to Carrey so that he could get a better feel for the character he was portraying. Carrey had also heard about a series of personal health problems I'd been having. We talked about those for a while. The conversation ended with Carrey saying, "You're going to get through this."

In the summer and fall, I kept hearing various unsubstantiated reports about the movie, its premiere and release date. Finally, in late November of last year came the official word: The movie would have its initial screening at the January 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Steven Russell escaped from prison in January 1997 by dyeing his prison uniform green and posing as a doctor.
George Hixson
Steven Russell escaped from prison in January 1997 by dyeing his prison uniform green and posing as a doctor.
Phillip Morris, shown here in 1997, first met Steven Russell two years before, while incarcerated at the Harris County Jail.
George Hixson
Phillip Morris, shown here in 1997, first met Steven Russell two years before, while incarcerated at the Harris County Jail.

I went to visit Russell in prison again a couple of weeks before heading out for Sundance. As always, he was in good spirits despite spending 23 and a half hours a day in a solitary confinement cell for the past 11 years. The only time he leaves is to take a shower.

Anytime he leaves the prison for medical or dental reasons, the prison system's internal affairs division is notified — just in case he is working on a new escape plan. He doesn't seem at all bitter that state law prevents him from profiting from the film. Instead, the news appears to feed his ego, and he is treated as something of a star by the prison staff and other inmates.
_____________________

As I have found out, moviemaking can be as convoluted as life. When Andrew Lazar, the producer, called me last summer and offered me a spot in the film, it didn't seem like a big deal to hop in a car in mid-June with a friend and head out for New Orleans.

The next day, I tried to stay loose by hitting the casinos and having a big breakfast before going over to the set. They took one look at my long hair and whisked me aside for a quick cut and then a comb-over. Huge glasses and a judicial robe (worn over my jeans, but hey, you only see me from the chest up) completed my character.

I'm very proud of the fact that it took only three takes for me to get my line down. "Has the jury reached a verdict," was maybe not very original, but I owned it. Phillip Morris, on the other hand, chalked up 15 takes before they said okay. Playing Russell's attorney, Morris just couldn't keep from looking at the camera.

Carrey was there for the whole scene, but since he didn't have any lines, he occupied himself in another way. With each shot he tried out another facial expression, finally settling on looking up at the ceiling.

So you'd think if I could do all that, an experienced traveler like me could handle a simple plane ride to Sundance seven months later. But there I was, struggling to breathe, the flight attendant helpfully offering that we could divert to Denver — a statement met with dagger eyes from my fellow passengers determined to begin their ski vacations. I declined.

Accompanied by Salt Lake City paramedics, I was allowed to leave the plane ahead of the other passengers. I didn't want to go to the hospital; I was afraid I'd miss my screening. A stern lecture from a paramedic, combined with the fact that I could no longer speak or walk, convinced me that maybe I should take that ambulance ride to the emergency room after all.

When I arrived at the ER, my blood pressure was 235 over 185, and my pulse was 150. I assumed I was about to code out. Hospital staff immediately began running tests on me. First the EKG showed no sign of a heart attack or stroke. A blood enzyme test also came back negative, as did a chest X-ray. The doctor in charge hooked me up to an IV with fluids to combat dehydration. He also gave me a drip of something to calm me down. My blood pressure and pulse began to drop.

A few minutes later the doctor returned with his diagnosis. I wasn't having a heart attack or a stroke. Instead, I was suffering from one hell of a panic attack.

Two hours later, I was in a cab headed for Park City, Utah, the Sundance headquarters. The snow-covered mountains that surrounded Salt Lake City were beautiful. I stuck my head out of the backseat window like a dog breathing in the fresh, cold air.

The next few days were a whirlwind of screenings and lunches. Sunday was the big night for our movie, my movie. At 6:30 p.m., we arrived at a two-story tent on Main Street for the prescreening dinner. As soon as I walked in, I was grabbed by a representative of the Sundance Channel for an interview. Despite the crush of reporters, Carrey and I talked ­briefly again.

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