DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Tonight, NBC presents the final episode of "Friday Night Lights," which premiered in 2006. Two years earlier, there was a movie of the same name starring Billy Bob Thornton as the coach of a Texas high school football team.
(Soundbite of film, "Friday Night Lights")
Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (Actor): (As Coach Gary Gaines) It's a good day, gentlemen. It's a good day to think about responsibility. It's a good today to ask yourself if, on a personal level, you're willing to accept that, if you're willing to accept the responsibility that you have to protect this team and this school and this town.
And make no mistake about it, gentlemen. We are in the business of protecting this town. We're in the business of winning. The expectations couldn't be any higher.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. THORNTON: (As Gaines) We will win state.
BIANCULLI: In 2007, FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Peter Berg, the executive producer of the movie and TV versions of "Friday Night Lights." Both adaptations were based on the nonfiction book by Buzz Bissinger.
Mr. PETER BERG (Executive Producer, "Friday Night Lights"): What Bissinger did so successfully was he used high school football as a backdrop to explore, you know, very legitimate social issues: racism, education, family values, religion.
This was really the heart of "Friday Night Lights," particularly issues like racism and education. Those were two huge issues in the book. And I decided not to try and tackle racism as a theme in the film.
I didn't think that we'd be able to service it and give it the respect and treat it with the complexity that it warrants. So we dealt with it in a much more subtle manner and decided to focus primarily on the concept of football, the concept of that one special moment in a life in which everything really seems to make sense, which is certainly a theme that Bissinger hit in his book.
And, you know, for all the criticism that "Friday Night Lights" the book took when it came out, particularly in Odessa, Texas, where Bissinger received death threats after the book was published because they felt that they were being portrayed as overly fanatic and racist and people who had their academic priorities, you know, completely backwards, Bissinger really first and foremost presented a world in which sport was a beautiful and magical experience. And Bissinger believed that. And that was what I chose to focus on primarily in the film and let these other issues percolate but certainly not dominate.
DAVE DAVIES: Now, you spent time in Texas sort of getting into the frame of mind to portray Texas high school football. But the series itself is actually shot in Austin. Now, I'm sure this could have been done on soundstages in Los Angeles. What did doing it in Texas bring to the series?
Mr. BERG: Well, I mean, it was a deal-breaker for us. We had to shoot the show in Texas. It's just too unique of a culture, and the network was very supportive of it. We didn't want to build any sets, and we haven't. Actually, that's not true. We built a locker room, but other than that, we shoot the show entirely in real locations with, you know, as many Texas actors as we can.
We wanted to avoid bad Southern accents wherever possible, and I think that putting the show in Texas was and is a critical aspect to why this show, you know, is working creatively.
DAVIES: You know, I was going to ask you about this. There was a DJ from a Houston radio station who said about the series: If you already have this impression of Texas as a bunch of Podunk hicks in the country, and all we care about is football and having sex on washing machines, this series totally supports that.
I actually don't agree. I mean, I think one of the things I like about this is that it's not one-dimensional, and it does show the complexity of a culture that is rooted in a real place with real traditions and accents.
Mr. BERG: I mean, yeah. I'm not clear on where that gentleman is coming from or what his point of view is. I mean, I think that you know, I think there's certainly an inherent sensitivity to how any culture is portrayed, and Texas is obviously a very, very proud and, you know, culturally oriented state. It's one of the things that I love about Texas.
And, you know, it doesn't surprise me that anytime someone - especially, you know, outsiders come and sort of set up camp in that state, there's going to be a response, and there's going to be an inherent skepticism.
You know, I remember when I was up in Odessa researching the making of the film. I was at a high school football game in Permian, at Ratliff Stadium, and 20,000 people on a Friday night watching this football game.
And I was standing up in the top of the stadium looking down, and there was a long stairway that went all the way from the top to the field, I mean real long, couple of hundred yards. And I was up at the very top, and I was looking down, and a woman was kind of coming up the steps towards me from the bottom, very purposefully. And she had a baby in one arm and a big thing of popcorn, I remember, in the other arm.
And she was just chugging up those steps, and I was watching her. And I was, you know, noting that she seemed to be coming straight at me with purpose. And she got right up to me, and she pointed a finger in my eye, and she said: Are you here to make a movie about "Friday Night Lights?"
And I said: Well, yes, I am. And she looked at me. And she's just glaring at me. And she had this baby in her arm, and the baby was looking at me. And she said, are you going to make us look like monsters?
And it really hit me, and I said: No, ma'am, I don't - no, I'm not going to -no.
And she looked at me. She said: Let me tell you something. We are not monsters. And she turned around and walked down those steps. And I was, you know, stunned and thought about that for a long time and, you know, thought about it as I was making the film very day and thought about it as I was writing the pilot for the television series.
And, you know, there is certainly a responsibility. We aspire to honor what Buzz Bissinger did and the respect that he had for those players.
BIANCULLI: Peter Berg, executive producer of "Friday Night Lights," speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2007. We'll have more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of our tribute to "Friday Night Lights," which presents its final episode tonight on NBC. The show and its two leading stars were just nominated for Emmy awards.
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with "Friday Night Lights" executive producer Peter Berg in 2007.
DAVIES: I want to talk just a bit about the production. You know, I mean TV series typically are done on tight schedules and scenes are carefully blocked out and camera angles have been...
Mr. BERG: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...carefully considered to get exactly the lighting and the angles that they want. Your technique here is very different. Describe how you do this?
Mr. BERG: Right. Well, we generally walk into a location that's a real location, so if we're shooting in a restaurant, we just take a regular restaurant the way it is. We'll generally, you know, approach the restaurant a day before and tell them if they have regular clientele that come and want to, you know, hang out for a day and be part of a show, that they should just come.
We hire the - we use the local cooks, the local waitresses. We bring the actors in with a minimal amount of equipment, you know: grip equipment, rigging and lighting. We let them kind of walk around rehearsing the scene. We encourage them to improvise and make the dialogue their own, change things. We don't call them scripts. We tend to call them vague guidelines.
And then we come in with a bunch of handheld cameras, and we tell everyone to just sort of go, and it's over very quickly. And for people that aren't used to it, it's somewhat traumatic and they wonder kind of what happened when we say, okay, we got it, and we move on to the next location.
DAVIES: You know, we had one more cut maybe I thought we would play. And this is a quieter moment, a moment in the hospital where Jason Street, who began the season as the star quarterback, lies at this point possibly paralyzed. And his coach is talking to him. And Street asks the coach how his replacement, a probably underprepared quarterback name Matt Saracen's doing. Let's listen.
Mr. BERG: Mm-hmm.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Friday Night Lights")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SCOTT PORTER (Actor): (as Jason Street) How's Saracen doing?
Mr. KYLE CHANDLER (Actor): (as Coach Eric Taylor) Sure. He's doing fine. He's throwing like a girl, but he's doing fine. He's doing fine. It'll take some time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PORTER: (as Jason Street) You know, I was, I was kind of like that kid, you know? He's a lot different than me. Yeah. He doesnt need a roadmap like I do. Kind of creative, you know, listens to Bob Dylan and draws pictures and stuff. I dont know, he's a good kid. I think you free him up a little bit out there on that field he'll make some things happen for you.
Mr. CHANDLER: (as Coach Eric Taylor) Youre a good man. Youre a good man. Youre what makes guys like me want to coach. Youre a good man.
DAVIES: Any thoughts about that scene, Peter? Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. BERG: That's a - I mean I have to say I find that very emotional. I - when we were filming the movie, we spent a lot of time filming real playoff games and we use that footage in the film. We'd shoot real high school playoff games and then cut that into the film. And we were filming a playoff game at Austin, Westlake High School in Austin, and it was a game between the Westlake Chaparrals and a school out of San Antonio, Texas. And in the fourth quarter there was a big, very violent collision and a 16-year-old boy named David Edwards who played cornerback for San Antonio broke his neck. And in that moment was - went from being a, you know, beautiful extremely athletic young teenage boy to being in instant quadriplegic and lost all the movement in his body from his neck down. And that was an obviously a very, very emotional and profound experience for me and for all of the crew and for everyone in that stadium that experienced that and went through that.
And the storyline of Jason Street hurting himself and trying to, you know, reclaim his identity after such a traumatic incident was inspired by David Edwards.
DAVIES: Youve been around television for a long time. And this series has gotten a lot of critical acclaim and has a very devoted audience but not a huge audience. Why do you think it struggled to find the big numbers that the networks want?
Mr. BERG: I think there were, there's two reasons that we're struggling with the ratings. I think one was a preconceived idea that the show was going to be exclusively about high school football. And that was off-putting to a lot of people, and it was off-putting to women, it was off-putting to high school football players who were concerned that it wouldn't be realistic. It was off-putting to sports fans who were, you know, getting their fill of football. Getting over the initial hurdle of football was a big problem.
And the second, you know, problem which was - is equally significant for us is, you know, a question of time slot. First we were opposite this television show "Dancing with the Stars," which was hugely successful. And now we're up against "American Idol," and these shows are just, you know, beating us up regularly and we can't win that way.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Berg, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BERG: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.
BIANCULLI: "Friday Night Lights" executive producer Peter Berg speaking with Dave Davies in 2007.
David Edwards, the paralyzed young athlete Peter Berg spoke about and who inspired the Jason Street character and storyline in the TV series, died the following year at age 20.
Coming up, "Friday Night Lights" co-star Connie Britton.
This is FRESH AIR.
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