Lukas Reiter Discusses Making “The Firm,” NBC’s New Washington-Based Show
The executive producer of the new primetime drama talks about his follow-up to the John Grisham novel.
Juliette Lewis as Tammy Hemphill, Callum Keith Rennie as Ray McDeere, Josh Lucas as Mitch McDeere, Natasha Calis as Claire McDeere, and Molly Parker as Abby McDeere in NBC’s The Firm. Photograph by Frank Ockenfels.
It’s not unusual to get so attached to the characters in a book or film that you long for a sequel so you can find out where they end up. But for Lukas Reiter, his affection for The Firm, the 1991 legal thriller that made John Grisham a household name, led him to actually conceptualize a show that follows up with Mitch and Abby McDeere ten years later. The show, which is set in Washington and stars Josh Lucas as Mitch (played by Tom Cruise in the 1993 movie), imagines Mitch and Abby as parents, finally stepping back into their lives after spending the better part of a decade in witness protection. Also starring in the series, which premieres this Sunday at 9 PM on NBC (it will normally air Thursdays at 10), are Molly Parker as Abby McDeere, Callum Keith Rennie as Mitch’s brother, Ray, and Juliette Lewis as Tammy Hemphill. We talked to Reiter to discuss why he wanted to make the show, where it finds the main characters, and why he thought Washington was the perfect location for it.
How did the concept of the show as a follow-up to the movie first come up?
I write legal shows these days but I’m a former prosecutor, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the great legal stories of our day. The Firm has always been at the top of my list. I love the novel and the movie, both of which are real classics in the legal genre, and I kept wondering why John Grisham had never continued the story of Mitch and Abby McDeere. The book was such a success for him, and the characters were so loved. I joke sometimes that lawyers and writers have one thing in common, and that’s the ability to think about the same thing for an irrational amount of time. I kept thinking about this, and fortunately with great representation I was able to get a meeting with David Gernert, John Grisham’s agent. He was very generous and said he would pass on my thoughts to John, and a few days later I got a phone call saying he wanted to talk about it. That was three years ago.
Were your visions for the show similar?
As opposed to having any concrete ideas, we really just sat down and started a conversation about how it felt right to continue the story. From the beginning [Grisham] brought up witness protection and the idea that Mitch would be the kind of character who was so independent-minded that he would leave the witness protection program once he thought the threats were no longer out there.
What made the story so compelling to you?
I think The Firm is a great example of John doing what he does best, which is creating characters you care about, putting them in dangerous situations where you worry about them, and then allowing you to enjoy the experience of watching how they manage to get out. I think that’s something John has mastered as a storyteller. You immediately get swept up in the lives of Mitch and Abby, and you watch them realize that the promising life they had planned is falling apart right in front of them. I thought it was very interesting to go back to the character of Mitch ten years later and see how much of his original promise he was holding onto, and whether he’d be able to reclaim some of that now.
What made you decide to set the show in Washington?
Washington was the perfect spot for this series because it has all of the politics and the power, along with the monuments and all they represent. Mitch’s feelings about the government and powerful companies, and the way in which they influence and at times manipulate the everyman, is right at the core of the show, so setting it in Washington, in the shadow of the authority the city holds, felt right.
Is there a political aspect of the show?
There is. There’s a conspiracy at the center of the season that arches over the first 22 episodes, and the political, legal, and moral aspects of the story are front and center. It’s not a show driven by politics in the way that, say, The West Wing was, but the political influences on the players are very much a part of the storytelling.
Can you give us an idea of where the characters are in terms of the first episode?
People who know the book and the movie know that they have different endings. The book ends with Mitch in a rather dark place, and the movie ends with a future for him that’s more intact, with him and his wife returning to Boston and him intending to set up his own practice. The quick backstory that we share in the pilot is that while Mitch thought he was free and clear, he comes to learn things didn’t turn out quite as he expected, and as a result he ends up in the witness protection program. The show picks up ten years later: The head of the Morolto mob family in Chicago has died, and Mitch and his family believe perhaps it’s safe for them to come out of hiding to reclaim their futures and start a new life in Washington, DC. Mitch starts his own law firm, and he works with his brother Ray, who’s a private detective, and with Tammy Hemphill, a character people will recognize from the original story.
You were a lawyer before you worked in TV. Why do you think people are so fascinated with legal shows?
Legal stories and courtroom dramas have high stakes. They’re incredibly relatable, I think—you can imagine this is a universe you could find yourself in, and it’s an environment where a tremendous amount is on the line. People are making decisions that affect their lives in profound ways, and the truth is getting subverted, or the powerful are taking advantage of the weak. There’s such drama inherent in great legal stories that they just prove to be timeless.
In your experience, is there a difference between practicing law in real life and the way it’s portrayed on television?
I joke that the good news on TV is that all the homicide victims are acting. In a television show there’s always the heightened drama and the incredibly high stakes. I’m sure the average lawyer doesn’t encounter as many life-and-death circumstances as the characters in a television drama do, but that’s why it’s fun to watch.
Recently with Homeland , people here had a few quibbles about the way Washington was portrayed. How did you go about trying to portray an accurate version of the city while filming mostly in Toronto?
Well, we were on the ground and shooting DC very much as we found it. We were fortunate that we got to shoot by the Jefferson Memorial; that proved to be a terrific location for us. I was very happy with what we shot there.