Before Peter Berg started writing the eighth attempt at turning the best-selling book “Friday Night Lights” into a movie, he got some advice from his cousin, Buzz Bissinger, who happened to be the book’s author.
“Go ahead,” Bissinger told him, shrugging his shoulders. “It’ll never happen.”
Bissinger had long since given up on a film version of his work chronicling the 1988 season of the Odessa Permian High School football team. For more than a decade, he’d seen too many accomplished screenwriters and directors try and fail.
Berg wondered what had gone wrong, so he started by reading all seven rejected scripts. Then he reread the book and realized what everyone had missed.
The core of the story isn’t racial issues, the oil bust or why a community seemed to value football over education. To Berg, it’s about a group of teenagers, and their coach, going through a rite of passage most Americans can relate to: juggling intense pressure to win and huge challenges in their personal lives.
Now that’s Hollywood. Fourteen years after the book was released, “Friday Night Lights” opens Friday, starring Billy Bob Thornton as the coach, Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher”) and Lucas Black (“Sling Blade”) as players and country singer Tim McGraw as a former star struggling to make his son a better player and person.
“To me, (the book) truly was representative of a moment in life that was very special,” said Berg, who also directed the movie. “There’s a scene when a father looks at his kid and says, ’Just don’t miss this.’ That kind of sums it up.”
Focus on the footballBerg was just breaking in as an actor, writer and director when his second cousin, Bissinger, left his job at the Philadelphia Inquirer to examine how and why high school football can dominate a town. He moved his family to Odessa, Texas, and spent a year following the Permian Panthers, known to fans as “Mojo.”
The book was a hit everywhere but Odessa, where locals felt Bissinger betrayed their hospitality by writing about the sociological woes surrounding the team and town.
In Los Angeles, director Alan Pakula (“All the President’s Men,” “Sophie’s Choice”) recommended the book to producer Brian Grazer (“A Beautiful Mind,” “8 Mile”). Grazer acquired the movie rights and gave Pakula first crack at it.
With so many potential topics to explore, writers seemingly tried them all. The project stalled, with Grazer maintaining control. Pakula died in 1998 and it went from director Jon Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”) to Richard Linklater (“Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused”).
Berg had been interested in the movie version since Bissinger gave him a galley copy of the book; he read it in one sitting. He’d lobbied Grazer to give him a chance, then finally got it after directing “The Rundown,” an action movie starring The Rock.
Fans of Bissinger’s book, which has sold about 750,000 copies, will be happy to know that Berg turned to his cousin for advice. Their blood relationship, and their families being close when they were growing up, made it easy for them to talk without the strain that sometimes divides author and screenwriter.
“I called him maybe 10 times,” Berg said. “He would always say, ’It’s in the book.’ And it truly was.”
Berg conveys the themes of race, financial woes and winning-is-everything through subtle images, dialogue and minor scenes. The focus is on the characters and football.
The authenticity of the football scenes, in the locker room and on the field, was so important to Berg, a former player, that last fall he went on a Bissinger-esque quest. He spent several weekends following Permian and Austin’s Westlake High team.
Much of the filming was done in Odessa and at Permian’s home stadium. It’s clear from the opening scene that the story is set amid the vast prairie land and exhausted oil wells of West Texas.
Capturing the spirit of the book
Of course, there were some major changes in turning a 300-page book into a 2-hour movie.
Three players are emphasized, not six. An injury to the star running back is overplayed. The roles of the running back’s uncle and the father portrayed by McGraw are increased. (At least every person comes from the book; there are no composite characters, like the radio announcer added to the movie “Seabiscuit.”)
Berg relied on his familiarity with the events to create fictional yet plausible scenes, such as McGraw’s movie-defining soliloquy. He stretched the truth at times, too, like having Permian reach the state finals instead of the semifinals and making that game higher-scoring. He also changed the game from a cold, wet day at the University of Texas stadium to the climate-controlled Astrodome, which is more prestigious and an easier place to film.
But the gripping ending to the big game wasn’t made up.
And there really was a three-way tie for two playoff spots decided by a coin toss that was carried live on local TV and held at an undisclosed location for security reasons. The twist that settles the coin toss is also true.
With so many interesting incidents and characters, it’s obvious Bissinger was in the right place at the right time. The fact the story holds up so well also proves he captured a timeless, slice-of-life story about the underbelly of Americana.
“There’s a universality to it,” Berg said. “Hockey coaches in Chicago, basketball coaches in Indiana, football coaches in smaller programs in South Dakota can all relate.”
Bissinger gave up control of the movie when he sold the rights. He accepts all the changes, noting that Berg wasn’t making a documentary. He’s so pleased that he took time out from writing a baseball book to join Berg on a promotional tour.
“What’s important to me as a writer is, ’Does it capture the tone and the spirit of the book?”’ he said. “I think it captures it beautifully.”