It's fourth and long for the critically acclaimed football drama, as ''Friday Night Lights'' battles to stay both on the field and on the air
It’s a perfect twilight evening in Del Valle, a quiet stretch on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The glowing dark blue sky is illuminated by the lighting of the impeccable green football stadium — a field recently refurbished from a sagging, waist-high weed trap near a dingy trailer park. Here the actors, directors, producers, and crew of Friday Night Lights are living out the story of their own TV show: Every week, a hardy band of headstrong youngsters and stressed adults comes together in this small Texas town to face down the competition.
In the NBC drama, based on H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction book and director Peter Berg’s 2004 film, it’s the Dillon Panthers, led by football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), and featuring underdog quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford); a flashy, mouthy running back who’s shooting up steroids, Smash Williams (Gaius Charles); and the loose-cannon longhair fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who’s as likely to punch an opponent as to block him.
In real life, Lights is the underdog series that a rah-rah cult audience and critics love, but one that can’t find even a modest victory in the ratings. It consistently finished third in its original Tuesday-at-8 p.m. time period, and isn’t doing much better in its new Wednesday-at-8 p.m. slot, still averaging around 6 million viewers. Indeed, the drama of whether NBC will commit to a second season of this gridiron soap opera is as awkward and tense as whether the wheelchair-bound former star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) will break up with his devoted but conflicted cheerleader girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly). NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly professes love for the show but also cites ”the biggest disconnect” he’s ever experienced: ”People talk and write to me to say they love it, but not enough people watch. It’s a sports show, but it’s a relationship show; it’s a soap, but it’s got social issues. What makes it great makes it hard to market.”
On this, yes, Friday night in Texas, coexecutive producer Jeffrey Reiner is directing a scene in which the Panthers are getting off the team bus, returning home from a game. As usual, the shot hasn’t been rehearsed, there are three cameras capturing the action on the fly (”Find Saracen!” barks Reiner into his microphone to the camera operator), and the script is more an outline than a blueprint. When one player reports to Kitsch’s Riggins that a rival player said he ”got a few licks in” on the Panthers’ quarterback, Riggins’ retort doesn’t quite have the snap Reiner wants, so he suggests a comeback: ”Say, ‘Tell him to come into the shower room and I’ll give him a few licks.”’ Director and actor snicker over the line, and Kitsch works it into the next take. A few minutes later, Coach Taylor’s daughter, Julie, played by Aimee Teegarden, meets Gilford’s Matt at the bus (the two have a fumbling romance going). Matt leans over to give Julie a sweet little kiss, and Reiner wants another take — but not before a request for some breath mints goes out to a production assistant. Who needs them? The PA confides wryly, ”Aimee was like, ‘Zach — really! Whew!”’
Fresh breath is in greater supply, though, when it comes to filming Lights. Reiner describes the unorthodox, intimate shooting style as ”no rehearsals, no blocking, just three cameras and we shoot.” ”This [show] is a perfect way to begin as an actor,” says Chandler (who broke through as a twentysomething heartthrob in the 1991-93 WWII-era series Homefront) of the young cast. ”They don’t have to hit marks and be locked into where to stand for a certain camera angle. They just do it and the camera finds them.”
That approach stems from the Peter Berg Mantra — the combination pep talk and manifesto the feisty director (The Rundown) gave after he’d shot the pilot for the series and was heading back to Los Angeles to work on other projects. Everyone you talk to on the Friday Night Lights set wants to tell you his or her version of the speech. Gilford says Berg told the cast, ”’Look, guys, this is your show. Don’t let directors come down here and push you around. You know how the show works and that’s how you have to do it.”’ Connie Britton, who plays Kyle Chandler’s wife and the high school’s guidance counselor, recalls Berg saying, ”’You guys, don’t ever let [the show] be static, always change it up.”’ Charles says Berg’s catchphrase is ”’Nobody pushes us around.”’ And according to Chandler, ”He gave us rules: Know your character 110 percent, know your dialogue when you come to the set, and then be prepared to throw it all out. That’s what makes this show what it is. He said to me and Jeffrey [Reiner], ‘You guys, f— with [the directors] — poke ’em and prod ’em.’ So it set the precedent that we were all on an even level, which is really cool.”
Berg, speaking from L.A., where he’s editing his upcoming feature The Kingdom, laughs when told of his varied words of wisdom. ”I hope I didn’t put it that harshly, but I may have. My message was, This is good material: Protect it.”
NEXT PAGE: What’s in the game plan to save Friday Night Lights