Living and Dying with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor Over Sundance
"Life's a funny old dog." — Dan Jenkins
So there I was. About 30,000 feet high over the beautiful snow-covered Rocky Mountains, and headed for the most important destination of my life — the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The event: the premiere of the movie version of my book, I Love You Phillip Morris, starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. I was literally and figuratively in rarefied air. But there was one small problem: I also thought I was dying.
That morning the Houston Chronicle had run a story about the movie and my trip to Sundance. The piece had been accompanied by a photograph of me sitting on my front porch doing my best impersonation of some badass writer, prominently displaying my cowboy boots and sunglasses.
My stories in the Houston Press about Steven Russell, who in the mid- to late 1990s escaped from Texas jails and prisons four times in five years, always on Friday the 13th, had struck gold. I was even in the movie — if my part didn't get cut — playing a judge to Carrey's portrayal of Russell.
But now all I could think of was that I was going to die in the land of the Mormons or, at best, I wouldn't get to see my movie — a project that had been almost a decade in the making.
Operating on just three hours' sleep from the night before, I was having trouble dealing with muscle cramps that started in my feet and spread to my chest. I reached for a banana I had stored in the overhead compartment, but stretching to reach it only worsened the pain, which was especially intense in my rib cage area. I was meeting several friends in Park City, but none of them were on this flight with me. I had to work this out for myself.
I kept trying to fight off the cramps and not call attention to myself. But two hours into the flight, I only felt worse. My chest was tight, and I could feel the adrenalin pumping through my body at an alarming rate. I was sweating like a pig.
Reluctantly, I pushed one of the overhead buttons for a Continental flight attendant, and asked her to bring me some water and a soft drink. When she reappeared with the drinks, I told her I couldn't breathe.
In just moments, she came back with a bottle of oxygen. I strapped the breathing device around my face. Nearby passengers on the close-to-capacity flight began rubbernecking to get a glimpse of the guy in the back of the plane who was about to croak. The flight attendants quickly rounded up a couple of doctors from among the passengers, and they were now tending to me.
"Hi, my name is Dr. Elmer Bernstein," said one of the volunteer doctors.
It was all I could do to keep from laughing. I wanted desperately to tell him how funny I thought it was that, while I was apparently dying, I was being tended to in the air by a doctor with the same name as the great Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein, who, among other things, wrote the music for The Magnificent Seven.
Despite a life as a law-abiding, churchgoing family man, in the mid-1980s, when Steven Russell moved his family from his native Virginia to Houston for a new job, he finally embraced the lifestyle that he had so long kept hidden from his family. He became obsessed with money and men.
In comparison to some of his later grand criminal exploits, it would be a rather mundane slip-and-fall insurance fraud crime that would land Russell in jail in Houston in late 1994, and mark a significant turning point in his life.
In spring 1995, while in the Harris County Jail law library, Russell met and fell dumb-struck in love with another inmate: Phillip Morris, a small, fair boy-man who was incarcerated for theft of services — or failing to return a rental car in a timely fashion. From that point on, Russell's actions revolved around his obsession to make Morris happy. And for that, he needed money, and lots of it.
Russell first came to my attention in the summer of 1996. A story in the Houston Chronicle said that fugitive trackers had just captured a man — Russell — who had escaped from the Harris County Jail. But it had been no ordinary escape or crime.
In early 1996, with Russell and Morris freshly paroled from prison, North American Medical Management had hired Russell as its chief financial officer. He persuaded the company to hire him after producing a greatly exaggerated résumé, with all references directed back to him.
Five months later, company officials finally wised up — but only after Russell had embezzled $800,000 from NAMM, a company that handled insurance claims and billings for area doctors. Russell had used the money to buy Rolex watches and Mercedes-Benzes for himself and Morris.
Russell's escape had been equally brazen. All inmate calls from the Harris County Jail are preceded by a taped message advising the persons receiving the calls that they are being contacted by prisoners and that the calls are collect.
Somehow Russell had managed to gain access to a nonsecure phone line. He used that line to call the Harris County District Clerk's Office, and proceeded to tell the person on the other end that he was state District Judge Charles Hearn and that he was lowering Mr. Russell's bond from $900,000 to $45,000. The clerk bought the story. Russell then wrote a hot check to a bail bondsman. He also persuaded the bondsman to drive him to his NASA-area home and to stop and buy him a soda on the way.
By the time the mistake was discovered, Russell and Morris were off and running.
Russell was soon captured in Florida while attempting to rendezvous with Morris. I tried to contact Russell, but he didn't respond, so I moved on to other stories.
By the end of the year, Russell was back in the news. After pleading guilty to the embezzlement charge, for which he had accepted an unusually stiff 45-year sentence, Russell was transferred from the county jail to the Estelle Unit, a state prison near Huntsville, Texas. Russell would admit later that he had been quick to take the 45-year deal in order to expedite his transfer to state prison, where officials were unfamiliar with his propensity for escape.
And soon after settling in to his new confines, Russell began working on his next plan. He acquired several green felt-tip pens, as well as a second white prison uniform, all of which he kept secreted from prison guards.
In December 1996, Russell put his new escape plan in motion. In his cell, Russell broke open the green felt-tip pens and immersed them in a sink full of water. He then soaked his extra prison whites in the sink until they had been dyed green. Once the uniform dried, it resembled a set of medical scrubs. Wearing the homemade scrubs, along with a fake medical identification badge he had also manufactured, Russell simply walked out the front gate of the prison.
Russell's freedom lasted only ten days. He and Morris were arrested in Biloxi, Mississippi. However, when he was returned to the Texas prison system on a bitterly cold night in January 1997, Russell finally agreed to be interviewed.
After being processed back into the system, with great sincerity Russell attempted to persuade me that he hadn't really escaped.
"I didn't break out," he explained. "I asked if I could go home, and they opened the door."
From that point on, Russell and I began developing a relationship. He had grown up in Norfolk, Virginia, where his family had a prosperous produce business. He was also, surprisingly, involved in law enforcement, serving as a reserve deputy in the Chesapeake area, and then later as a full-time officer in Boca Raton, Florida. He played organ for his church's choir, and even married the Norfolk police chief's secretary. He satisfied his secret side by frequenting men's rooms in public parks.
But even as we spoke, Russell was already working on the details of his next escape. Indeed, it was his desire to be with Morris that led to his most ingenious plan — one that would also again lead to his eventual capture.
During the next ten months, Russell ate almost nothing and began to look emaciated. Although Texas prison officials never ran their own tests on him, Russell persuaded authorities that he was dying of AIDS, and arranged for a transfer to a private nursing home near San Antonio.
Once there, he received permission from parole officials to take part in a nonexistent experimental AIDS treatment program. A few weeks later, he phoned the authorities to tell them that, regrettably, Mr. Russell had died during the treatment. Once again, Steven Russell was a free man.
And he probably would still be if not for his obsession with Morris.
After persuading state officials that he was dead, Russell obtained a Texas State Bar card. He then arranged to have Morris transferred from a state prison, where he was serving time for his part in the embezzlement, to the Dallas County Jail. There Russell visited his lover several times over the next few weeks while posing as his attorney.
But, as if he had some kind of sixth sense, Russell realized that the authorities were on to him. He stopped visiting Morris and headed, again, to Florida.
Authorities decline to say how they eventually caught up with and captured Russell, but apparently he continued to phone Morris while on the run. Fugitive trackers apparently followed those calls.
Despite his arrest, Russell could not have been more pleased with himself, and he couldn't wait to share his exploits. In early May 1998, I received a collect phone call from the Broward County Jail where Russell was being held.
"This was a masterpiece, wasn't it?" exclaimed Russell, laughing so hard he could barely speak.
"The reason they caught me is because they got lucky," Russell added. "As smart as I am, they always get a lucky break, and that's what happened this time."
My collection of Steven Russell exploits was growing, and I began to think that I might have enough material to at least start a book.
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."
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.
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.
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.
After dinner, we all headed for the Eccles Theatre for the screening of the movie. The auditorium had the electricity of a rock concert, as the audience anticipated the arrival of McGregor, Carrey and Carrey's girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy.
My friend Tim Fox, who is president of Columbia Artists Management Inc. in New York City, had gotten good seats for the rest of my friends at the screening. He and the others sat in the row behind me and my agent. I looked at Tim and said, "I feel like the dog that caught the car. What do I do now?"
And then the lights went down and the movie began to roll. At first I took notes on how the movie differed from the book. But soon I was so engrossed in the film, I forgot all about taking notes. I even forgot that it was Jim Carrey on the screen, not Steven Russell. And only occasionally would I remember that I had written the words coming out of Carrey's and McGregor's mouths.
The directors/screenwriters had condensed the book and flipped it around. Nevertheless, I couldn't have been happier. Plus, my cameo — minus my one line of dialogue — had made the final cut. And, of course, I was still alive.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Game Control: Just How Overwhelmed Have The 2015 Houston Texans Been?
- Report: Antiabortion Law Leads to Longer Wait Times at Clinics
- Harden 2.0: How James Harden Became Houston’s Biggest Crossover Sports Celebrity