Mike Farris is well known as a lawyer focusing on entertainment law as well as a presenter speaking on topics ranging from beginning screenwriting and cinematic storytelling to legal issues faced by writers. He has represented various university presses in regards to film rights, most notably Free State of Jones (2016) starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Gary Ross. Mike is also an author of several titles of his own, as well as Call Me Lucky: A Texan in Hollywood were he worked alongside the iconic Bob Hinkle. His most recent book, Fifty Shades of Black and White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon is about the case he handled involving the Fifty Shades of Grey Lawsuit.
For more information on Mike’s various books please see Amazon.
What was it like growing up in Texas? How do you think your early days have shaped you into the individual you are today?
I love being a Texan. Even though I was actually born in Louisiana, my parents are both Texans – mother born in Waco and father born in Fort Worth – so I claim being a Texan by heritage. I did get here as quickly as I could, though, arriving at the age of nine and living here ever since (nearly 54 years now). High school football is huge in Texas, and I played football at Dallas’s “Heisman High” – Woodrow Wilson High School, the first high school in the nation, and still the only public high school in the nation, to have produced two Heisman Trophy winners – neither of whom was me: Davey O’Brien (winner in 1938 at TCU) and Tim Brown (winner in 1987 at Notre Dame). I also played football in college, although size and lack of talent held me back from any higher aspirations.
My father was a Baptist preacher, and a missionary to Japan, where I lived for five years (ages two to seven), so church was also a big part of my life. I think that upbringing, as well as the discipline and camaraderie of organized sports, helped shape my life in a lot of ways. Things I learned from both at an early age still inform my life today.
How did you come to be a lawyer? Why did entertainment law appeal to you most?
My original plan was to become a high school football coach. That changed in my last years of college, when I decided to pursue a PhD in American History and look for a college teaching job. I fell into going to law school almost by chance. One of my football teammates in college had his sights on law school so, feeling his influence, as well as my mother’s urging to pursue law, I took the LSAT (law school admittance test) just as I finished my course work on a master’s degree in History and prepared to tackle a thesis. I scored well on the LSAT, so I decided to apply to law school at Texas Tech University, where my college teammate was in school. When I was accepted, I made the decision to attend law school and not to write my master’s thesis. I don’t regret the choice, but I often wish I had finished the master’s degree just so I could say I finished what I started.
I took a job with one of Dallas’s largest firms after I graduated, and made partner in six years, specializing in commercial litigation. But I always had a passion to write so, after a lot of false starts, finally forced myself to start, and finish, a novel. My transition into entertainment law followed after that, as I started teaching myself about the business of publishing and the sister business of filmmaking. From there, the move into entertainment law seemed natural. Of course, there is not a lot of entertainment law to be done in Dallas, but I was ultimately able to carve out a small niche in that field as part of my law practice, with my focus on film and publishing.
What are some of the most daunting legal challenges in the industry that writers need to be aware of?
I think the most daunting challenges for writers are in the world of non-fiction, because of concerns about defaming living persons or infringing on the rights of others. Of course, copyright law also is challenging, but is something I believe writers need to be at least somewhat familiar with.
What areas of the entertainment industry would you say most need to be improved upon at this time?
I don’t really have a complete answer for that, but as it becomes easier for writers to self-publish and filmmakers to make their own movies, I see problems in quality control. Just because you can publish your own book or shoot your own movie with very little assistance from anyone else, doesn’t mean you should.
How did you make the transition from lawyer to author?
I have always loved to write, even as a kid. Back in the 1990s, I had a case I worked on for 10 years – that’s right, 10 long years for one case – that involved the world of “fidelity” law, which is a form of insurance that protects financial institutions and other businesses from losses caused by such things as employee dishonesty, counterfeiting, and other actions that border on crimes, even though this is an area of civil law. That case helped inspire story ideas for me. Additionally, the world of litigation is ripe with story ideas. Not only that, but litigation – trial work – is essentially storytelling. Each side of a lawsuit is telling a story to the judge and jury, and trying to convince them that their story is the right one. It seemed like a natural transition from being a lawyer to being an author, telling stories.
Do you enjoy one more than the other, or do you enjoy both equally?
I am now retired, so this is an easy one: I enjoy writing more than practicing law.
What was it like to work with Bob Hinkle on Call Me Lucky: A Texan in Hollywood? What would you say is the most important thing you learned from that experience?
I have said many times that working with Bob on Call Me Lucky was probably the most fun I ever had as a writer. I sometimes found myself so caught up in his stories that I would forget to take notes. I knew a lot of the movies and people he talked about, so it was easy to get caught up in it all.
What is Bob like as a person?
He’s exactly what you’d expect a West Texas good-ol’-boy to be like: dry wit with a great sense of humor, leisurely Texas drawl, and fascinating storyteller. Not only that, but I found him to be a “straight shooter” and imminently reliable. We actually finished the book quicker than I expected because I could always count on him to answer my questions and provide the information I needed in a timely fashion. He was a dream to work with.
Are there any interesting stories you have from your time spent working with him on that project?
The way we approached the book was this: I had Bob prepare a list of “events” from his life, which I then organized into a structure for the book. I broke the “events” down with questions, which I emailed to him. He then dictated answers to my questions on a cassette tape. Then we would meet at the McDonald’s in Forney, just east of Dallas, where he would deliver the tape and then talk for an hour or two about what was on the tape, and answer my questions. I would then take the tape, transcribe it, and write a chapter. I would leave blanks in the chapter with questions I would put in bold type, then I would send the chapter to him. He would dictate answers, we would meet, and the so on. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent listening to his voice on the tapes, then listening to him in person as we talked further. By the time all was said and done, I had his voice ingrained in my mind – it was almost as if I could hear him speaking as I wrote, and then as I rewrote. One of the biggest compliments I have received over the years is numerous people who know Bob and who told me it sounded as if Bob, himself, had done the writing.
Why do you think it is important to preserve for future generations the memories held by those who came before in writing, while they are still here? Do you ever worry a lot of wisdom is being lost with the passing of time?
I very much believe it is important to preserve stories for future generations. As I said before, I worked on a master’s degree in American History, and I strongly believe in the power of history to shape our futures, and in the importance of storytelling to preserve our culture. I do worry that much wisdom is being lost by the passage of time, as icons of our history pass away. I have heard about several projects in which writers or documentarians are making a point of speaking to World War II veterans to preserve their stories for posterity. I applaud those efforts.
How did your newest book Fifty Shades of Black and White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon come to be? What can your readers expect from this particular title?
This was one of the most interesting cases I ever worked on, not just because of the subject matter being related to a publishing blockbuster, but the underlying facts were also fascinating. There was worldwide attention paid to the case, primarily because of the subject matter, but also because of its own particular story. My client and co-writer is Jenny Pedroza. As I’m writing this, I did a Google search using “jenny pedroza fifty shades of grey lawsuit” and came up with 2,100,000 hits.
The lawsuit was about a group of women, working as a partnership, who originally published the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey,Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed) with their company, The Writer’s Coffee Shop. But when it came time to sell the publishing rights to Random House, one of the women (Amanda Hayward, who lives in Australia) took the position that The Writer’s Coffee Shop was not a partnership but was, rather, solely her company. The deal with Random House ultimately paid approximately $43 million to Amanda Hayward, who did not share it with her partners. I represented Jenny Pedroza, and we filed suit in Fort Worth, Texas, and asked the court to declare that The Writer’s Coffee Shop was a partnership and that Jenny was a partner entitled to her share of the profits. After a jury trial the end result was a judgment in Jenny’s favor that totaled (including prejudgment interest and attorney’s fees) in excess of $13.2 million.
Fifty Shades of Black and White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon is exactly what the title suggests. It tells the story of what happened behind the scenes with The Writer’s Coffee Shop as well as what happened in the lawsuit. It is written in the form of two “stories”: Jenny’s and mine, with each of us telling things from our own perspective.
What projects are you currently working on? Do you have a dream project you’d most like to accomplish before your time is up?
I have another book coming out in June, called Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga. This is true crime from Hawaii, and tells the tragic story of the abduction and murder of the 10-year-old son of an executive of the Hawaiian Trust Company in 1928 Honolulu. In the pipeline are a novel about a serial killer and another non-fiction book from Hawaii, involving the world of Hotel Street, which was the red light district in World War II Honolulu, and the criminal trial of a notorious prostitute during that era.
Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
I appreciate your thoughtful questions. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your world.