Behind the Scenes of Friday Night Lights

The Film vs the Series

Many movies have been even more successful as television series. Take the long running MASH or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer for example. Of course, there are plenty of others like Ferris Bueller or Dangerous Minds that disappeared into obscurity. Friday Night Lights has a shot at making the transition though. The film’s director, Peter Berg, is producing the series with Brian Grazer, and directed the show’s pilot.

The filmmaking duo, along with actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, gave a conference call to talk about bringing the film to the weekly series world.

Do you have a sense of hesitation with a TV spin-off from a movie?
Brian Grazer: “I produced the movie and worked on the movie for about 13 years and struggled through five different directors until I got together with Pete Berg who I felt would, in order of priority, understood the movie, understood the culture of Texas, understood that it was about boys and girls’ identity in that period and thirdly was about football. He really got the culture so well, and I have some anxiety as a movie producer about having a movie then become a TV series. I’m very happy with the shows and I thought Pete did the most outstanding job with the pilot, but there’s some tension on that.”

Peter Berg: “I think Brian, if there is tension or anxiety about it, it’s recognizing that we really were very happy with the film and happy with the pilot, and we’ve been very happy with the way the show started to unfold but we recognize the inherent limitations of television production.

We’re working really hard to try and maintain a certain level of quality. I think as long as we can continue to do that, we’re very comfortable with the transition from film to television.”

Kyle Chandler: “With both of what Brian and Peter said from our side, trying to reach that quality of the optimum job that we’re looking to do as well though we’ve got a certain process that’s allowing us to try to capture that which is giving us as the actors an immense amount of joy and challenges and responsibilities, but it’s a process of all coming together and figuring out from our side that quality is reachable.

That’s our goal so we’ve got this tremendous challenge, but it’s there. We see the light so for our side, it’s just amazing. It’s an amazing challenge.”

Connie Britton: “And having worked in a lot of television for me in the past, and now working on this show, the process is so substantially different. And also having worked on the movie Friday Night Lights and having seen how great the pilot came out in comparison to the movie, which was also amazing, it’s very clear that this is a different TV experience.”

The movie was set in Texas as is the show, however the name of the town’s been changed. Why?
Peter Berg: “I think even though we did change the setting from Odessa to a fictitious town, and we did update the show so it’s not set in 1988, at its core, it is a show that certainly has high school football as a big component and Texas as a big component. We thought that to shoot that somewhere else, say Vancouver where maybe it’s a little bit cheaper, even Los Angeles, would hurt our ability to maintain authenticity.”

Did the state make it more attractive to film there?
Peter Berg: “The city of Austin has been very cooperative. One doesn’t get the feeling that they need [TV] production but they certainly welcome it.

They don’t have the tax breaks that other states like Louisiana and Arizona have now but in terms of cooperating, the city has been very cooperative and the high school football program has been very cooperative also. And I think that that’s as much a reflection of their love of the book and the film as it is their need to have a film crew clogging up traffic five days a week in their town.”

How big is the fictional town?
Peter Berg: “It’s probably similar to Odessa. It’s probably a town of, I don't know what the population of Odessa is. It’s somewhere around 100,000, maybe more. It’s a good medium-sized Texas city. It’s very important to not present this in any kind of - this is not a small dusty, rural, Texas town that’s so far off the track that no one knows where it is. This is a contemporary city that gets into issues that certainly are not unique to Texas.

This is a modern city. Maybe not an upper-class city but certainly a modern, functioning American city.”

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Do you have a sense of how the anticipation for this show will translate into its success?
Peter Berg: “I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience in the television business. I did a short-lived show called Wonderland, that I did with Brian also, which didn’t get quite the reviews that this show’s getting but it got very good reviews and it was about a darker subject, about mental illness.

And that show was cancelled after two episodes. And so I remain cautiously pessimistic about the whole process. I hope our show finds an audience. I hope it’s a big hit. I’m proud of the show. Obviously television is a very complex and competitive environment right now so we’re going to just keep our fingers crossed.”

Brian Grazer: “Pete and I haven’t talked about it. I’m actually cautiously optimistic. I actually think that people - it may have a slow start but I really believe it’ll work. I actually in my heart actually believe that people will, viewers will get hooked. So I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Peter Berg: “I was kidding when I said cautiously pessimistic. I’m glad you said that though because I hate to admit that I am cautiously pessimistic about this show. I believe in the show. I think that these actors are extremely compelling and fun to watch and that’s more important than football is what will make this show work if it is to work.

Because of how much I enjoy watching them, I feel cautiously optimistic.”

Will you look at the dark underbelly of Texas obsession like the original book and parts of the movie did?
Peter Berg: “I think what the book did was present a very fair and complex look at culture and racism was certainly an aspect of that presentation.

It’s something we did a bit in the film. We weren’t able to get into it as much as Bissinger was able to get into it in the book. He never led with racism. In other words, it was never a book intended to be about the dark underbelly. It was intended to be a book that was a very fair and balanced look at sociology and that is definitely something we wanted to do in the show and one of the reason why we wanted to do the show is so we could do what we couldn’t do in the movie, which Bissinger couldn’t do in the book which is to explore these issues. Not just racism but family issues, competition, educational issues and we want to be able to present them in a very fair way. If that means at times there’s a darkness or negativity surrounding certain issues, we’re going to go at that.”

Is that an advantage of doing it as a TV series?
Peter Berg: “I think so. I think Brian and I both felt after the movie came out and in comparison to the book that there was a lot left on the table. We just weren’t able to - it’s hard in a film to make a left turn and service issues like academic grade manipulation for example, which was a big aspect of the book and some people wanted to put in the film. It’s a very complicated issue.

We couldn’t do it in the movie but we can take two or three episodes and really explore it in a television environment.”

How are you balancing directing films with working on the show?
Peter Berg: “It’s been going really well. We’ve got really talented people when the show started and it all comes from a guy named Jason Katims who’s kind of put the writers together and put together a really good staff of writers. And that makes it much easier for people like Brian and myself to do other things and come in. And something I’ve learned from Brian is sometimes it’s good to have perspective and be able to not be so close and to be able to come in and look at things on a really large macro level and offer advice and suggestions that perhaps if you were so deep into it you wouldn’t see. That works well if you’ve got foot soldiers and people who are out there really doing the work and we’re lucky to have that.”