Interview: Please Give Love to the ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ Directing Duo

By  · Published on December 9th, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris has taken its sweet ‘ole time getting to the big screen. It’s been over a year and a half since its Sundance premiere, and who would have thought a Jim Carrey starring vehicle would have such a difficult time finding distribution? Well, the material makes it understandable. But it’s pretty sad considering it’s not too often we get a good Carrey film, and, even rarer, one with a great performance.

What many will be thrown off guard by is the tone of the film. This isn’t wacky Jim Carrey, sorry Fun with Dick and Jane fans. Instead, it’s a comedic drama. It’s a difficult blend to create. Writing (and now directing) duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa know that. If you don’t know Ficarra and Requa by name, they scribed the cult classic Bad Santa and the original Cats & Dogs; this is more similar to the former.

This is their directorial debut. Instead of turning out a 90-minute film with easy, on-the-nose gay jokes, they made a love story about a truly delusional (and lovable) protagonist.

Here’s what directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had to say in our brief phone interview:

This isn’t what I would describe as a “gay relationship film,” but instead it’s just like most relationship films. Is that how you approached it?

Glenn Ficarra: Absolutely. That was foremost in our minds when we set out to do it. We didn’t want to make another gay message movie.

John Requa: Also, as a couple of straight guys, what right do we have to make a gay message movie? I mean, we’ve been in love and we felt like we could tell a love story.

I know the script was originally at 149 pages, and you cut that down to 114. What changed?

John Requa: There’s just a lot of story. This guy lived an amazing life.

Glenn Ficarra: We could have made three movies. It would have been like Lord of the Fucking Rings.

John Requa: We just had to trim it down. There are things that are not in the movie that were just golden, which we were in love with. We just weren’t able to put it all in.

Glenn Ficarra: We just boiled it all down to the main story of searching for your identity and the love story.

John Requa: We had to shave away a lot of the other stuff. The first time he went to jail he escaped, tried to commit suicide, went back to jail, escaped again, and tried to commit suicide again. He tried to commit suicide five times (Laughs). We had this whole montage of him trying to kill himself, but we just had to cut it out. It would have been so great. The other thing was that, he became CFO of a major corporation. All he has is a high school education.

The way he got the job was putting an ad in a publication saying he was interviewing for a CFO position at a prominent firm. He rented out one of those business suites for an office. People came in to drop off their résumé and do an interview. He taped all the interviews and took all the best parts of their résumés. He used all the interviewer skills he learned from those people, and he combined them all for himself. He walked into this corporation and became their CFO. He’s a brilliant guy. He’s got a genius IQ. That was cut out along with hundreds of other things that were not even in that long draft.

Was all of that cut out for pacing?

Glenn Ficarra: Yeah, we just didn’t have the time. The movie is called I Love You Phillip Morris.

With both I Love You Phillip Morris and Bad Santa, you guys seem very intent on making heartfelt stories out of twisted concepts. Is that what you enjoy aspiring for?

John Requa: This is going to sound like I’m blowing my own horn, but so be it. We’re really into fucked up characters, but we really love them. We don’t treat them with disdain. We love the humanity in our fucked up characters (Laughs). We love looking for humanity in fucked up people. Ultimately, I think that’s why our movies aren’t dark comedies. There’s not a taste of nihilism in our movies. These people are fucked up, but they’re human beings. We love deluded characters.

Do you consider Steven likable?

John Requa: I like him, but sometimes people are on the fence about him.

Glenn Ficarra: It depends on who you are. They do some shitty things, but they also do some really great things. They do criminal acts, but their hearts are in the right place. You can tell. I think that’s what makes them likable. Steven is charming, but in a very broad way. He’s also very warm.

John Requa: He’s also not manipulative with his charms. He’s a genuinely charming guy.

Can you talk a little bit about finding the right tone? There’s a tricky balance to what you guys did.

John Requa: Yeah, it’s an emotional comedy.

Glenn Ficarra: It’s hard to pull off. We had to kind of prove that it could work. There was a lot of conversations about it in the writing, when we were story-boarding and with the actors.

John Requa: It’s extremely challenging, but it’s nice to be challenged. The shifting tone in our new movie for Warner Brothers is, obviously a much more mainstream and commercial movie, but it’s also got a dramatic tonal shift. Navigating those waters is fascinating to us. It’s so challenging and fraught with obstacles. How do you deal with giving yourself the options in the editing room for dealing with problems that come up from a shifting tone? It’s trying to convince your actors to give you the genes and several versions to have more options in the editing room.

It makes it very invigorating and interesting. I think actors like it, too. They get to do something different and get to play around, there’s a sense of that play from the very beginning. It’s us asking them to give us a scene done like this and also done like that to get different levels. I think it helps and provides a fun collaboration on-set.

How important is it for you guys not to poke fun at your characters and their circumstances? Like, can you talk about not making Debbie a typical religious freak?

John Requa: I think Debbie is someone that a lot of people in America deal with, whether it be their aunt or their mother. She’s a very religious person, but also a good person. There’s a lot of religious nuts in America, but they’re not bad people or evil. They’re well-intentioned and filled with love for the world. That’s all she is.

Glenn Ficarra: She’s very Christian, in every sense of the word. She’s forgiving, loving and accepting.

John Requa: We like to write characters that make fun of themselves and are full of love. They certainly all have a life of their own, though (Laughs). We’re writing characters that we love, and they become a part of our lives. It’s hard for us to step outside and make a joke about them or treat them cruelly. That’s just not how we operate. Crappy shit happens to them and they just live in a world fraught with difficulty.

But you don’t write like the Coen brothers, who seem to love torturing their characters.

John Requa: Yeah, yeah. We love their movies. That’s how we differ from them. I mean, I think A Serious Man is genius. It’s genius, but it’s total torture [for its characters] (Laughs).

Glenn Ficarra: I think that’s how they write their characters most of the time.

Lastly, do you think Steven is bad for Phillip?

John Requa: Oh yeah. He treats him pretty much like crap. He causes him to go to prison!

Glenn Ficarra: Although, to his credit, he loves him. He loves Phillip, but just doesn’t express himself correctly.

John Requa: Someone said to me once that Phillip is like a mob wife (Laughs). He’s unaware of what fucked up shit Steven is doing.

I Love You Phillip Morris is now in theaters and expanding this friday.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.