Interviews with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, along with Creators Peter Berg and Brian Grazer

On Friday, September 22, I got the chance to participate in an interview with the executive producers, Peter Berg and Brian Grazer, of another new NBC drama, Friday Night Lights. They were also joined by two stars of the show, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. The highlights of the interview are below.

Friday Night Lights is based on the movie and the book by H.G. Bissinger. It centers on the rural town of Dillon, Texas where football is not just a sport, it’s a religion. Football state championship rings are valued as diamonds around here. The pressure is on as first-year coach, Eric Taylor is brought in to lead this team to another championship.

Peter Berg, creator/executive producer of Friday Night Lights, also directed the film version of Friday Night Lights. Other films he has directed include Very Bad Things and The Rundown. He also created the show Wonderland as well.

Brian Grazer, another executive producer of Friday Night Lights, is an Academy Award-winning producer, which he won with A Beautiful Mind. Other films he has produced include Apollo 13, Splash, The Da Vinci Code, The Inside Man, Fun with Dick and Jane, 8 Mile, Blue Crush, Cinderella Man, Backdraft, and many more. He has also produced numerous television shows including 24, Shark, Arrested Development, Felcity, and SportsNight.

Kyle Chandler (Eric Taylor)

Kyle plays Eric Taylor, the new head football coach for Dillon High School. He most recently had a role in Grey’s Anatomy, where he was blown up by a bomb. He also has been in The Lyons Den with Rob Lowe and the lead role in an earlier show called Early Edition.

Connie Britton (Tami Taylor)

Connie plays the wife of Eric Taylor. She protrayed the same character in the film version of Friday Night Lights, opposite Billy Bob Thornton. She has starred in Spin City with Michael J. Fox along with recurring roles in 24 and The West Wing.

Do you feel a sense of hesitation about entering into the genre of TV shows spun 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 Peter Berg who I felt would understood the movie, understood the culture of Texas, understood that it was about boys and girls’ identity in that period, and then thirdly, was about football. I thought he got the culture so well. I had some anxiety as a movie producer about having a movie that then becomes a TV series. I’m very happy with the show and I thought Pete did the most outstanding job with the pilot but, there’s some tension there.

Peter Berg: I think that if there is tension or anxiety about it, it’s recognizing that we really were very happy with the film and again, happy with the pilot and we’ve been very happy with the way the show started to unfold. But we recognize inherent limitations of television production and we’re working really hard to try and maintain a certain level of quality and I think as long as we can continue to do that, we’re very comfortable with the transition from film to television?

Kyle Chandler: From our side, trying to reach that quality is 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, the actors, an immense amount of joy and challenges and responsibilities. But it’s a process of all coming together on and then figuring out. From our side, that quality is reachable and that’s our goal and so we’ve got this tremendous challenge but it’s there, we see the light. 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 then seeing how great the pilot came out, it’s very clear that this is a different TV experience.

Kyle, Eric alternates between friendliness and roughness on his players. How do you feel about this balance? Does this work for him and also you?

Kyle: I’m still experimenting with it. I mean I’ve met with few of the coaches out here and one of the important things that I got early on, regardless of what we were discussing, was their love for the kids — that these are their kids. I mean their love for them is pretty much bound with them. I mean there’s so much give-and-take between them, and a coach is given an essential part of his soul and those kids give in return. I’m comfortable with it and it’s fun to go those places. And again, that process allows us to work like that.

Connie, is Tami thrilled to be working in the same school as Eric and does she have any ulterior motives for taking the job?

Connie: I don’t think she has any ulterior motives. I do think that there’s something kind of great about being able to step into that world and the particular role as counselor. I think it’s kind of a reflection who she is versus who he is and I think it also shows up in their relationship. But I think it’s something that they both appreciate about each other even though it can also cause conflict.

Kyle, what does Eric think about Tami taking on her job at the school?

Kyle: She’s taking on a job that’s pretty close to home. I don’t think Eric Taylor suspected that it would be like that. But one thing that I think Connie and I are trying to work with our characters on the show is that we work together as a team. It’s a very close relationship that can’t be broken. I think we’re both well-aware of that. And, you know, we work with each other. I certainly don’t want her coming home and giving me any guidance counseling. That won’t happen in the show. If it does, there’s going to be a lot of problems.

Connie: But that’s really fun for us because we can stumble over that all the time and at the end of the day we always go back this inherent partnership that we have.

The series feels more real than a lot of what’s out there this fall. Can you talk a little bit about the steps you guys took to kind of up the authenticity?

Peter: It’s all about casting and camera angles.

Connie: It’s all about an amazing camera crew that’s for sure. There’s never a camera that’s on – that’s still. They move around all the time. The cameras tell the story.

Brian: The one thing that I don’t know if Peter wants to say, but I think that Peter had a extremely unique cinematic and filmic point of view as to how he was going particleize the environment of Odessa, Texas. I think he brought that to the TV series and his sensibility along with it and that’s created the format for what are the subsequent episodes.

Connie: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. And we’ve been sort of doing the Pete Berg mantra down here, trying to maintain the sense of reality and almost improvisation of these scenes and everybody is committed to that. It’s like these camera people are improvising every shot we do and it really creates a unique show.

MTV’s got the reality series, Two-A-Days now. The movie Gridiron Gang is running ads everywhere, using your promo music. How do you feel about other high school football shows or movies like Gridiron Gang and Two-a-Days? Do you wish you were the only kind of show out there or does it help you that there are others like you?

Peter: The only thing I have to literally respond to is that I did not appreciate when Gridiron Gang stole our music.

Brian: Yeah. It’s just uncool, and I just think it’s kind of silly distraction. I don’t think it any way undermines us or even has any negative or positive effect on us.

Peter: I think that Two-A-Days looks like an interesting experience in television. Obviously, it’s a reality show. I can’t speak to whether it’s positive or negative in terms of whether it’s going over-expose or just add more exposure to something. I do think that what we’re able to do in a television series weekly is unique — something that we couldn’t do in a film, we can spend more time on things and it’s certainly something that a reality show can’t do. So I think there’s room for quality and as long as we maintain our level of quality, I think we’re fine.

Brian: I’m one of the executive producers of 24 and that had a really, really rough start. I mean the first year was so dicey. And of course, they have some cinematic similarities in that they’re very unconventional formats and they’re sort of serialized. I think if people actually tuned in to our show, I think they’ll absolutely stay with it and its interest will accelerate. It’s just our fingers are crossed hoping that, you know, that they’ll tune in.

How important was it to get fresh faces for the kids and not pick kids that were already “stars” on other shows or movies?

Peter: As Brian says I had a mantra when I was making the film revision. One of the components of that vision is when Brian kind of looked at me right before we started shooting and said hey, don’t “clown up” this world and that stuck with me — it really registered. And it was simple advice but it was actually very helpful. I think that not “clowning” up the culture of the world has been sort of a mantra that I’ve used to help influence every decision I made, and casting was certainly one of them. One of the great things about having a relationship like I have with Imagine, they trust me and they don’t pressure me to do things that other people might feel pressured to do like cast the third or the fourth lead in certain shows and they let me cast who really work best and most were fresh for the roles. So it was important and we were fortunate to be able to do it.

Does production shut down early enough in the afternoon for you guys to attend real Friday night Texas High School football games?

Kyle: Well, the schedule goes back and forth, but we’ve had plenty of time to get out and see different games and do such. We’ve got a pretty good schedule down here the way it’s working. As far as the first year of the show going, I’ve never done a series where you aren’t doing 12, 14, 17 hours a day, everyone’s trying to get their groove. This one, we’ve settled into really nicely, really quickly and that all just goes to Pete Berg and the way he set the show up. I mean I cannot express enough the influence that he has when he worked on the pilot with us. He gave us absolutely all the ability to use everything we had and to feel free to use it and that has lasted us through these next five episodes. I mean we feel that energy. We’re just gearing to go and it’s infectious.

Connie: And it actually makes the shoot go faster too.

Kyle: Yeah. What I really like about the show and I think why it’s different is because the show’s got these different rhythms in it and the rhythms that occur within the episode, it’s not just you get to view the episodes but you get to contemplate the characters. You’re given time. The way we’re able to do it, there’s a factor that you’re able to really sit down with these people, and we feel that when we’re doing the work because we’re able to go places with material — it’s just so exciting as an actor and it’s really amazing. I think there’s some way to say that with a lot fewer words, but…

A lot of sports movies it’s a problem that the sport doesn’t look genuine. That wasn’t a problem for you all in the movie. It isn’t a problem in the show. What’s involved in making the sports look authentic?

Peter: I think it’s first and foremost a commitment to being authentic. That has to come from, you know, whoeve’s directing, whoeve’s shooting it, and whoeve’s editing it in particular. And I think that once that commitment’s there then it’s just perhaps spending a couple of hours longer in an editing room or the football field with cameras shooting than you might like to or you might think that you need to. But everyone involved is a real fan of the sport and has that commitment to working extra hard to capture the reality of it.

Why was it important to set the show back in Texas? I mean since a lot of things are changed, you changed talents and so forth, why stick with Texas instead of some place else for instance?

Peter: 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 felt that to shoot that somewhere else where maybe it’s a little bit cheaper or even Los Angeles would hurt our ability to maintain authenticity.

How much talking with Texas football coaches, high school coaches did you do and how was that important to the way the show was made — the feel of the show?

Peter: Well, it’s extremely important. Obviously high school football and football in general are so beloved not only in Texas but in the country, it’s pretty obvious to us that if we don’t do it right, we’re going to hear about it pretty quickly and it’s going to be embarrassing for all of us. So our goal is to not embarrass ourselves, and talking to coaches, and players, and parents, and principals, and teachers, and everyone that makes up that culture is something that we do as much as we can and our writers as much as they can.

There have been a lot of positive reviews for this show. Do you have a gut sense of how this anticipation for the show going to translate? Do you think this is going to be an immediate hit or a slow-rising hit or what’s your gut tell you?

Peter: 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. That show was canceled after two episodes, though. 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: I’m actually cautiously optimistic because I actually think that the show may have a slow start but I really believe it’ll work. I actually believe viewers will get hooked, so I’m quite cautious.

Peter: 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, it’s what will make this show work if it is to work. And because of how much I enjoy watching them, I feel cautiously optimistic.

Is the second episode a little more indicative of how the rest of the series is going to progress where you’re not necessarily in game action every week?

Peter: Yes. We’re not going to have football game action every week. We don’t want to hang this show on football. We will certainly present football throughout the season, but to us it’s a character-driven show more than a football game-driven show.

The town of Dillon, can you give a sense of how big this town is?

Peter: It’s probably somewhat similar to Odessa. It’s probably a town around 100,000 or maybe more. It’s a good medium-sized Texas city and it’s very important for us to not present this as a small dusty, rural Texas town that no one knows where it is. It’s a contemporary city with kids who are plugged into issues that are certainly not unique to Texas. This is a modern city — maybe not an upper class city, but certainly a modern functioning American city.

When the book came out, the people of Odessa were not necessarily pleased and raised some issues about racism and too much pressure, are you going to be looking at kind of the dark underbelly of this Texas obsession?

Peter: 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 in the book. He never presented – 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 very fair and balanced look at sociology. And that is definitely something we want to do in the show and one of the reasons why we wanted to do the show so we could do what we couldn’t do in the movie which Bissinger could do in the book which was 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 and if that means at times there’s a darkness or negativity surrounding certain issues, we’re going to go at that.

Who are you using as your football players? Are these actual high school players? Are they college players?

Peter: We put together a group of players that are mainly college graduates. They either played Division II or III football divisions or in some cases, guys who just graduated high school and have not gone to college. There are actually some guys with pro experience as well.

How is sports as the subject of a TV show good? What types of issues does it allow you to deal with?

Brian: I think with sports, the stakes are so high and particularly, with this series and through the book is that the stakes in this case are so magnified because they are the entire identity of the town. I guess if it can work, you’ve got multiple lives. You’ve got the life of an athlete which if one gets engaged, it can be on the highest level of stakes.

Connie: I also think sports is a great vehicle for seeing how people relate to each other because the stakes are so high. So it’s literally football is just a vehicle and then we just see how everybody reacts within that.

Connie, you said recently that you were really eager to play a Southern woman that is not a cliché of a Southern woman. Tami is a modern Southern woman. Why were you so eager to do that and how do you see the type of person you’re trying to present to America?

Connie: That’s why I was so eager to do it and I feel so fortunate about it because I grew up in the South and I grew up with these women that I’ve always been just fascinated by. Since I’ve sort of done a study on various female roles. But the real Southern woman, the one that I know as opposed to the more sort of stereotypical one, has always been the most feisty and interesting and strong-willed and yet also accessible and lovable and traditional. So there’s so much to mine there, which I feel really lucky to be able to do in this show.

Obviously this is a show about a football team and it’s debuting in fall which is in football season. But down the line, when it’s not football season will the show still be having like the big game every night or will it focus more on the off-season work that a high school coach does — things like recruiting

Peter: We definitely are not going to hang the series on football games and we’re cognizant of the fact that as appealing as football games are, there’s perhaps a limit to the patience of viewers and because of that we will expose all of those things, spend as much time away from the season and away from the games as we’re doing it and hope to hang the success of the show on the likeability of these lead characters, people like Kyle and Connie and not on the ballgame.

My understanding is that Texas’ Mack Brown has a cameo in the first episode. Kyle, did you get to talk to him about coaches at all or did he provide input there?

Kyle: It was great because Mack comes in and we’re doing the scene where he’s actually playing one of the boosters. What’s great about it is here you’ve got this fella and he starts – he’s going in on me and he just starts sharing experiences over his career. Every five seconds, he’s presenting a picture of another experience. It was just great because he just threw this litany of experiences that explained so much about being a football coach just right there. But, yeah, he was very gracious and we talked for a little while and he was more than open in sharing experiences. And then, also seeing on the set the relationship between he and his wife, it was very protective relationship, a very close relationship — very sweet people. They’ve been through a lot together. From what I’ve talked with the football coaches when football season starts, a marriage is somewhat put on hold or at least it’s dressed up in a different set of rules. It’s very interesting. And Connie and I love playing that because it gives us a chance to be so many different characters within the show. We’re parents, we’re also married to my job, we’re not married to her job, we’re married to the school, etc.

Connie: We’re leaders in the community as well, which just adds a whole other element to it. There are a lot of roles we get to play.

Peter, High school football has fundamentally changed in recent years because you now get high schools playing top high schools from other states. They’re on ESPN too. They’re on local television. You’ve been – between the film and the TV series, you’ve been sort of in touch with high school football, do you think it’s fundamentally changed?

Peter: I think that athletics as a whole on all levels, whether you’re talking about peewee, high school, collegiate level, or certainly professional level — all sports are getting bigger, stronger, faster. There’s more attention to the sports programs. There’s more pressure on the kids. It’s the American way. We tend to grow things. And high school football is going through the same growth spurts that every other aspect of American athletics is going through.

Friday Night Lights will premiere in the United States on NBC on Tuesday, October 3 at 8 p.m. PT/ET.

Friday Night Lights will premiere in Canada on the Global network on Tuesday, October 3 at 8 p.m. PT/ET.

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