The Firm premiered Jan. 9, 2012 on NBC, and while I’m not sure we need yet another show about lawyers, the pedigree of this one makes it worth checking out. The episodes I’ve seen are very well done, with Josh Lucas taking the character of Mitch McDeere in a new direction.
If you’ve read the book or seen the 1993 Sydney Pollack-directed film starring Tom Cruise, you already know the backstory for The Firm. Fresh out of law school, McDeere brought down the prestigious Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke, which operated as a front for the Chicago mob.
After a difficult decade, which included a stay in the Federal Witness Protection program, Mitch and his family, including wife Abby (Molly Parker) and daughter Claire (Natasha Calis), have emerged from isolation to reclaim their lives and their future — or so they thought. New threats lurk everywhere.
I caught up with executive producer John Grisham and learned his thoughts on the new series, what it’s like to re-visit a story he left behind nearly 20 years ago, how he feels about Kindle, and how he never — yes, NEVER! — suffers from writer’s block. That’s just not right, John.
What are your thoughts on bringing The Firm to TV, especially given the fact that The Client didn’t last long?
John Grisham: It certainly gave me great hesitation, because The Client was such a dreadful show and a painful experience. I didn’t want to do it again for a long time, and I forgot about television over the years. I never really forgot about film, but films have become very difficult to make for a bunch of different reasons.
I was not excited about The Firm and didn’t really think about it as a TV show until [executive producer] Luke Reiter appeared on the scene and showed me a script. When I read Luke’s script three years ago, I thought it was very good and got excited about the idea of a weekly drama.
Do you read the scripts for each episode?
I don’t read every script. I’ve read a lot of them, but my involvement so far has been to talk to Luke and pass along big ideas about where the series might go. I saw the pilot a couple of weeks ago, and Luke has offered to send me each episode as they finish them, but I don’t want to see them. I want to sit back on Thursday night and watch the show with everyone else.
What are your thoughts on Josh Lucas as Mitch McDeere?
Josh Lucas is terrific. He’s got all the makings and mannerisms and charisma of a real star. He’s very good in the role, and it’s been a lot of fun watching somebody else’s vision of these characters ten years after we last saw them. A lot of good legal intrigue, a lot of courtroom stuff, lawyer-client problems, big law firm intrigue … all the stuff I love to write about.
I loved the book and the film with Tom Cruise. Are you worried that the series won’t measure up?
No, I’m not worried at all, because I’m convinced the show is going to be a success. And I’ve already had so much success because of that one book that nothing could worry me about it now.
The book was published 20 years ago in 1991, and it’s sold between 15 and 20 million copies in 40 languages. The movie came out two years later in 1993. It had a big cast, it was a big box office success, and it’s still the highest-grossing movie of any of the eight or nine films that have been adapted from my books.
So, believe me, I’ve had my share of success from the original story. What we’re doing now is just pure fun. I mean, it’s fun because Luke’s doing all the work. It’s nice to be able to collaborate with somebody who just listens to your ideas and then goes off and does all the work.
Are there directions you’d like to take Mitch McDeere on TV that you couldn’t with the book and film?
I can’t say I wanted to take Mitch anywhere. When I left him in the book, he was pretty much on the run and probably facing a lifetime of that because he had ticked off some really nasty people. The movie had a very different ending, but I’ve never been one to go back and think about sequels or finding the characters again.
I’ve yet to suffer from writer’s block, but if one day I get a good dose of it, I may have to go back and resurrect some of these old characters and start writing sequels. But I hope not.
So when I was finished with Mitch and Abby, I was done with them. The cool thing about the TV show is that each week you get to watch Mitch in action as a real lawyer with different cases. That’s what I’ve always wanted to see on television. And you always know there are bad guys still back there that aren’t going to go away. The suspense is really well done.
What are your thoughts on the time lapse of ten years between where the book ended and where the series picks up?
I thought it was a smart idea, because you’ve got to put a lot of distance between Mitch and Abby and their past. You can’t run from the Mafia. They’re notorious for always finding their man, so you’ve got to have at least ten years between the threat that Mitch faced when he blew up the law firm in Memphis. He was a marked man. But he thinks that ten years is long enough. He’s tired of witness protection and life on the run. He wants to have a normal life.
On a personal level, what’s it like for you to revisit the story and the characters from 20 years ago?
When I started writing The Firm in 1987, I didn’t know if I was going to finish it or if it was going to get published. I had no idea it would become a bestseller. I had just finished writing the first book and it didn’t sell, so I was trying to write something that might be a bit more commercial and profitable and popular. But I’ve never gone back and read the book. I’ve never gone back and read any of my books over the past 20-some-odd years, because when I’m through with them, I’m through with them. I’m onto the next book.
How often are you approached by producers or networks to re-visit these characters and stories? Are they beating a path to your door?
Not that often. Maybe a couple times a year. I mean, there are always a lot of phone calls, but most of them I don’t even know about. But when something fairly serious comes across, we’ll sit down and take a look at the idea. There are a lot of proposals floating around, but most of them I just don’t want to pursue.
But occasionally, someone will do what Luke did — have the idea and then write a really good script. That’s rare because I look at a lot of bad scripts. It was really unusual when this idea was pitched to me and then followed up with a well-written, solid script.
When did you become interested in writing about law?
I never thought about being a writer when I was a kid or a student or even a law student. It came later in life. I was about 30 years old, and I was sort of hit with a lightning bolt about the idea of a courtroom drama in a small town in Mississippi as seen through the eyes of this young idealistic attorney. And I kind of fancied myself as being him, because that was the life I was living. You know, the guy about to starve to death.
That became A Time to Kill, which was the first fiction I ever wrote, and it didn’t sell. It wasn’t published until 1989. By then, I was in the habit of pursuing my secret little hobby of writing something every day. The next book was The Firm. Around my house, we still measure time as B.F. and A.F. — Before The Firm and After The Firm. That changed everything. That’s when I stopped being a lawyer immediately and started writing books.
How do you get around the fact that some things — like info on the Witness Protection Program — aren’t readily available?
You just make it up. That’s the world of fiction. I hate to do research. I’d much rather just create something than have to stop and go do the research. I’m terrible at research and pretty good at fictionalizing things, so that’s what I do.
When you’re writing, do you ever visualize a particular actor for a character you’re creating?
With The Firm, I actually sold the film rights to Paramount in January of 1990, before I sold the book rights. It was an overnight deal that just came out of nowhere. Then I sold the book rights to Doubleday.
From the very beginning, I did not have any input into the process because I was a rookie unknown writer and that’s the way things go and I understood that. But it was rumored throughout the whole process that they were going to go after Tom Cruise, and they got Tom Cruise and it was a big commercial success.
So I thought, this will be easy. The Pelican Brief was next, and it came out six months after The Firm, Christmas of 1993. From the very beginning, Alan Pakula, the director, said we’re going to get Julia Roberts, and they did.
And again I thought, this is easy. Just pick out the star you want, and sign them up to be in your movie. And that’s the last time it happened, to be honest. Over the years, I’ve found that you rarely get the person you want to star in your film.
You said you sold 15 to 20 million copies of The Firm – a staggering number in this era where books aren’t selling all that well. Do you see movies and TV shows as essential in continuing to drive book sales?
It’s going to be intriguing to see what happens with the paperback book sales of The Firm when the TV series starts. Doubleday is, to say the least, very enthusiastic. There’s a TV tie-in edition with Josh Lucas on the cover of the paperback that you’ll see all over the place, airports, wherever.
We’re always going to have book stores, and we’re always going to have books and films and movies. I don’t care what happens to the Kindles and E-Readers. People are always going to buy books.
The problem with book selling is that we have 3000 fewer book stores today than we had 15 years ago, and they’re closing all the time. For my last two books, we issued the digital book the same day as the print version. The numbers have gone up across the board. Not just for me, but for a lot of commercial authors. We’re seeing overall sales go up, because more readers are coming online and they love their Kindles and IPads and Nooks. So maybe it’s a good thing.