Is I Love You Phillip Morris Based on a True Story?

Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is a black comedy film that chronicles the journey of Steven Jay Russell and his numerous con schemes that see him end up in prison time and time again. But the movie is also packed with romance as Russell gets infatuated with the titular character during one of his many stints in prison. Thus, most of his schemes are a way for him to either please Morris or be reunited with him, following the latter’s release.

The 2009 movie has a lighthearted tone and some of the events in the movie seem outlandish, to say the least. Add into that the comedic chops of Jim Carrey, who plays Steven Russell, and the movie is a comic caper that features situations and characters that seem over-the-top but thoroughly entertaining. Thus, it is natural for you to wonder whether ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is based on a true story. Well, it’s time to find out. Here’s everything you need to know!

Is I Love You Phillip Morris a True Story?

Yes, ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is based on a true story. Some of the events in the film are so bizarre that they defy belief. Thus, the movie itself reiterates with a pre-title memo that reads: “This really happened… it really did.” Steven Russell and Phillip Morris are real men whose story was first transformed into a book by Steve McVicker, titled ‘I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks,’ from which it was adapted to screen by writer-director duo John Requa and Glenn Ficarra

While the movie is based on real events, it does change the timeline of certain events. For example, one of the prison escape schemes with the walkie-talkie and Russell dressing in women’s clothing happens in the film as a repeated attempt to escape and be with Phillip Morris. In reality, that scheme was hatched and executed before Russell had ever laid eyes on Morris. Perhaps the most daring of Russell’s schemes is when he feigns having AIDS in another prison escape; even this was executed in reality by Russell.

At the end of the movie, it is revealed that Russell is now condemned to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. This was indeed the fate of Russell, who was sentenced to a prison sentence of 144 years after finally getting caught for good for the final time in 1998. The viewer is also informed that Morris had been released from prison after reportedly spending seven years. He even has a cameo in the film, appearing as Russell’s lawyer in the last courtroom scene.

The movie is not only authentic in the way it depicts the spree of prison escapes and frauds engineered by Russell but also in the way the central relationship is portrayed. “It was lust at first sight. I didn’t think it was possible. I mean, we were in prison! He was softly spoken, with a deep southern accent. I saw him in the law library trying to get a book. He’s short – he’s only 5ft 2 and I’m 6ft 2, and I said, ‘Hold on, I’ll get that for you.’ And that was it”, said Russell in an interview with The Guardian in 2009. In the movie, too, Russell spots Morris in prison and helps him get a book that he can’t quite reach.

Ewan McGregor plays Morris and he met his real-life counterpart (Carrey never did though obviously Morris is now a free man and Russell is not) to get an understanding of how to portray his character. “We (McGregor and Morris) spent a day and a half together. We drove to the town where he’s from, and just drove around in his car, went for walks. It was really fascinating. I was never going to do an impersonation of him,” said McGregor in an interview with Glamour.

The actor further added, “Because it’s a script, some of the details are romanticised, obviously, so it wasn’t like I was trying to find out, you know, the truth about this, and the truth about that. Just being with Philip was enough.” The production team shot a major portion of the scenes at the Louisiana State Penitentiary AKA Angola, a real prison, to capture the atmosphere of what it was like for both Russell and Morris. To reiterate, ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is a biographical film that captures the life of crimes of Steven Jay Russell, a con artist who escaped prison several times to reunite with the love of his life.

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