Berg’s Eyes Are on Texas for ‘Lights’

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Peter Berg comes to the new NBC series “Friday Night Lights” with intimate knowledge of the property.

The director and co-writer of the 2004 Universal Pictures high school football feature “Friday Night Lights,” Mr. Berg adapted the film this past development season into a television series for Universal’s sister company, NBC. The film itself was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, which was written by Mr. Berg’s cousin, H.G. Bissinger.

Best known to TV audiences as a series regular on CBS’s medical drama “Chicago Hope” and his guest spots on ABC’s “Alias,” Mr. Berg not only is an actor but a film director (“Very Bad Things”) who also created, wrote and directed the short-lived Fox drama “Wonderland.”

TelevisionWeek Senior Reporter Christopher Lisotta spoke to Mr. Berg over beers at the Television Critics Association summer press tour last week, where he discussed the process of adapting a film for the small screen, how to attract a female audience to a sports-themed show, and why shooting in Texas is important to the success of the series.

TelevisionWeek: What do you think makes “Friday Night Lights” a good television series?

Peter Berg: To me it really goes back to what Buzz Bissinger was able to do in the book. He did the leg work. He’s a great journalist, and lived in Texas for two years.

He was able to take something that exists, this cultural phenomenon, and he’s such an intense researcher, he makes it so complicated. He captured the nuance of it.

You’ve got the opportunity then in film and then in television to go deep. Football’s obviously got such universal appeal, but he was able to go much farther than football, which together to me adds up to something with potential. If someone spent two years at an ASPCA dog shelter, and really did that much reporting, you could film a television show about that too.

TVWeek: What will be expanded on television? Are there specific areas you will be exploring?

Mr. Berg: First we will look at the themes, which is what Buzz did in the book. Education as a theme, race as a theme, celebrity as a theme, athletics as a theme. These are the pieces we want to flirt with. And obviously it’s just all about going deeper into these characters.

TVWeek: Where will you be shooting the show?

Mr. Berg: All over Austin [Texas]. No sets, all practical locations.

TVWeek: Why is it important to be in Texas? Could you have shot someplace just east of Los Angeles?

Mr. Berg: It just felt like authenticity is first and foremost. We wanted to make it as flat out real as possible. To leave Texas felt like a huge step in the wrong direction. We were looking for accuracy.

TVWeek: NFL football is going to be on NBC in prime time on Sundays. Have they talked to you about that?

Mr. Berg: It’s a great promotional opportunity for us, to know that you are going to have X amount of millions of eyeballs plugged in to NFL programming when you’re trying to market.

We also have a great relationship with the NFL, so there are kinds of cross-promotional ideas that we have. We’re very user friendly for the NFL. They like the show. Pro football players love talking about their high school experiences. Hopefully we can figure out appropriate ways of working with the NFL to further promote.

In today’s competitive-to put it lightly-environment, any advantage you have is good. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

TVWeek: How do you bring women into the show? Especially women who are not fans of football?

Mr. Berg: You can’t lead solely with football. It’s got to be a character story. There’s got to be certain melodramatic components to it, and I say that in the best, classiest sense of that.

Girls go to high school, and our show is full of girls. Girls like boys, and our show is full of boys.

[Series regulars] Minka Kelly and Aimee Teegarten, these are well-realized, all-American girls. And we are certainly going to be very aggressive about how we present their lives in the show.

TVWeek: Will the season be a year in these kids’ lives?

Mr. Berg: We see the first season being the season of football, starting with the first game of the year, which is the pilot, to how ever far they end up going. Obviously they are going to go pretty far. And then the plan would be to recycle for another season, maybe to explore some of the off-season between [television] season one and two, but hang the show on a season of football.

TVWeek: What was the development process for the show?

Mr. Berg: They were so supportive. [NBC Entertainment President] Kevin Reilly was very trusting and a big fan of the film, and basically said, “Do what you want to do.”

I started thinking about the show and how I wanted to respect the film, but I had to set out the characters in the movie in new directions.

For me the big issue was about halfway through the writing process I came up with the idea to hurt the quarterback, and that was something I felt I had to run by them. That’s a fairly substantial plot device. We had an hour discussion about it. I felt like it would work, and be very compelling, and help us spin the show, to raise a lot of questions.

They were a little nervous at first. The issue was whether it would be too depressing and whether you could recover from it. I think we figured out a way to recover.

That was the only issue that was ever discussed. There was never any bullying or heavy muscle that was going on.

TVWeek: NBC has talked a lot about digital platforms and getting shows online. Have you thought about how to do that with this show?

Mr. Berg: We’re going to do it through the coach’s daughter, through NBCGarden, a sort of video diary, a video journal of her experience at school.

I know that’s not a novel idea, but in theory if it works, you create little vignettes and sub-stories that have to do with fringe characters that sometimes intersect with our [on-air] episodes.

If it’s posted on YouTube once a week, these sort of behind-the-scenes looks at fringe characters that are going to have their own writers and own directors, they are going to be produced as a satellite to the main show.

I love the idea of introducing characters online who are almost virtually ignored or in the background in the episode, so that if you’re watching both you’ve got an inside secret. And then every once in a while have those characters explode out and take on more prominent roles in the episode.

TVWeek: Your pilot looked like a feature. Did you get a larger budget than maybe you would have had for a different pilot?

Mr. Berg: We were probably the lightest budget of any of the new [NBC] shows-“Studio 60,” “Kidnapped,” certainly “Heroes.”

That look is not necessarily an expensive look. It’s more a series of decisions, an approach to how you film.

We shot all hand-held. We shot with three cameras. We shot on Super 16-millimeter film, which gives it a certain grittiness.

It looks more cinemagraphic, but it’s not more expensive. We don’t have digital effects in our show. Because we had done the film, we kind of knew how to do it, so the learning curve was much shorter.

We actually finished three days under schedule, which buys a lot of goodwill with the network when they think they can go to a city like Austin and make a show for a cost.