PAT DOWELL: And I'm Pat Dowell. "I Love You Phillip Morris" opens with a promise written on the screen: This really happened. It really did. There is a Phillip Morris. There is a Steven Russell who loves him, a man who actually did walk out of Texas jails and prisons four times without a weapon or a hostage -and all for love. It was the love story that attracted Glenn Ficarra and John Requa - screenwriting partners who gave the world "Bad Santa" - to write and direct a film about Russell. They pitched the story to a studio affiliated with the publisher of the nonfiction book about this con man.
Mr. JOHN REQUA (Screenwriter, Director): And that didn't go so well.
Mr. GLENN FICARRA (Screenwriter, Director): Their only comment was, could Phillip be a girl?
DOWELL: Requa says he and Ficarra wanted to make a classic romantic comedy, but with two gay men in the Rock Hudson and Doris Day roles.
Mr. REQUA: To say that the gay subject matter and just the frankness of the film played no part in our distribution problems would be a lie. I mean, it did. We went with a distributor who was not one of the major independent distributors at Sundance because I believe that the larger distributors were afraid of it because it wasn't a gay message movie, and it was a frank depiction of gay life.
DOWELL: Despite the fact that they landed a major star in Jim Carrey and a distributor, the film languished in financial limbo for more than a year, its American release scheduled and rescheduled while Europe got a good look at it.
Even Steven Russell's seen a little of it on a reporter's iPad. Requa and Ficarra went to see Russell as they were working on the film.
Mr. REQUA: Now when you go to prison and visit him, it's like seeing Hannibal Lecter.
DOWELL: Well, he's not wheeled in on a hand truck or chained to the wall, and there's no leather mask. But he is brought shackled into a tiny cubicle behind a thick Plexiglas window. The door behind him shuts and he leans backward to put his hands through the slot in the door, where the guard in the hall takes off his cuffs.
We sit on steel stools bolted to the floor and talk on a telephone. They hand him a microphone through the slot in the door.
Mr. STEVEN RUSSELL: Everything comes to me through something just like that slot right there: my mail, my food, my books, everything. And you don't reach out and touch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DOWELL: Anyone. Because he poses such an escape risk. He lives alone in a cell, locked down 23 hours a day.
Mr. RUSSELL: All by myself, not touching another individual, not being able to hold my daughter. I mean, you know, hug her. Not being able to hug Phillip, you know, and it's my fault.
DOWELL: Because he embarrassed the entire Texas prison system by impersonating judges, lawyers and doctors and literally walking out the doors of prisons four times. Today, Russell's locked in the maximum security Michael Unit, south of Dallas. It's been 14 years since his last escape.
He does still hear from Phillip Morris.
Mr. RUSSELL: When I hear from him, it's through letters. Now, he's on my visitation list. So far, he hasn't come to see me. But it's more of a mutual thing, because I can imagine how constipated the guards would be if he came up here. Now, again, he's on the list, and if he's listening to this broadcast, I think he should come and visit. How's that for a pitch?
DOWELL: Russell's excited about the movie - what he's seen of it. He particularly thinks Jim Carrey gets that daydreaming thing, where the actor sits and starts to think, as Russell says he often does, determined to think about something other than his 144-year sentence for theft and, of course, escape.
Mr. RUSSELL: You sit there and you start thinking about why is that door open right now? Is that door always going to be open? Or is that front door going to always be open? What is she going to do? Is she going to be talking on the telephone? Or is she going to be paying attention to who's going through the front door?
DOWELL: Not that he's planning to escape again.
Mr. RUSSELL: No, not now. I wouldn't wait 14 years to burn off. If I was going to burn off or escape from prison, I would have already done it.
DOWELL: Really. Somewhere tonight in the Michael Unit, Steven Russell is listening to me talk. He does get to listen to radio. But they move him to a new cell every week, he told me. The way he sees it, they really want their escape artist to get to know the whole building.
For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.
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