A closely observed drama about boys becoming men, the comforts and frustrations of small-town life, a family's growing pains, and the lessons learned from football, Friday Night Lights will not soon be forgotten. The show wrapped filming of its fifth and final season in July, and on Wednesday, the lights will go down forever on Dillon, Texas. (For those without DirecTV, NBC will re-air the final season beginning April 15 at 8/7c.)
TVGuide.com spoke to stars Kyle Chandler (Eric Taylor), Connie Britton (Tami Taylor), Aimee Teegarden (Julie Taylor), Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins), Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen), Matt Lauria (Luke Cafferty), Michael B. Jordan (Vince Howard), and executive producers Jason Katims and David Nevins about the long road to that final Texas sunset. This is the first in a three-part series.
Before Friday Night Lights became a TV show, it was a movie based on a book. The film's director Peter Berg, however, felt there was more story to tell about a Texas town obsessed with its high school football team and the challenges for an incoming coach and his family.
Nevins: I had read and fallen in love with the book when it came out in 1990. I remember my very first year as an executive, I was 26 years old at NBC, and a show went on the air that was like the poor man's version of this book. It was called Against the Grain, starring a young Ben Affleck as the quarterback. So ... it had been messed up. Then the movie came along, and it really captured Texas and that sense of place and the role football played in that culture. When Pete said he'd be willing to write and direct a pilot, to remake his film as a TV show, it was a no-brainer for me.
Katims: I wasn't initially attracted to the project at first because I'm not really a football fan, and this on its surface was going to be about football. (My sport is baseball.) It wasn't until I watched the pilot that I realized what Pete was trying to do was pretty brilliant, and it was much more about the people in this town. I had only two questions: What happens to Jason Street? This star quarterback who's supposed to lead the Panthers to victory is injured in the first episode, he's paralyzed — how does that affect the team, his girlfriend, his teammates, his town? It seemed like such a great way to start the series, with this one small event that really does ripple out and hit everyone. My only other question was: Could we shoot this in Texas? It seemed to be that it would be a deal breaker if it did not film in Texas.
Kyle Chandler, star of TV's Early Edition would play the Panthers' coach Eric Taylor. To play his wife Tami, Berg turned to Connie Britton, who had played the coach's wife in his film — but she wasn't sold on re-creating the part. Zach Gilford, then fresh out of college, almost didn't get to play the sweetly awkward second-string quarterback Matt Saracen ...
Britton: I was absolutely adamant that this was a terrible idea. I had loved working with Pete and Billy Bob Thornton [who played the Panthers coach in the film] but my character wasn't huge in the movie, and then got cut to smithereens in the editing. So when the TV show came along, I thought it was going to be the same, only the show would be on TV for six years and I'd be the glorified wallflower, you know? The wife of a coach on a football show. No, thank you.
It wasn't until Pete left me a voicemail that, right now, I'm really wishing I kept. He was so enthusiastic. "Connie, you gotta do this. I promise you, we are going to make this woman smart and strong and sexy and f---ed-up and crazy and weak and it's going to be awesome." ... I look back on that now and I'm so honored that he wanted to do that with me, but at the time, I thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life.
Gilford: It was actually the casting director, Linda Lowy, who put me in Friday Night Lights. She got me the job. There was someone else they wanted the whole time, and Pete, because he's used to movies, was like, "No, that guy is the guy I want" and Linda had to tell him, "Well, you need to give the network a couple of choices, so bring Zach. Just bring him." So there I was.
The cast and crew got the sense that they weren't working on your typical high school drama — or even your typical TV show — while filming the pilot. That first episode followed five days leading-up to the first game of the season at Dillon High. Coach Taylor's rally cry? "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!"
Chandler: One of the two things I miss the most are doing those speeches. The emotions would just overwhelm me. You get that little tingle, you know? I'd even get to rework them, and I'd talk to real-life coaches about what they'd say in the locker room. I loved it. It was like we were really going to play a game after them.
Nevins: When I saw the first cut of the pilot, I thought it was just gorgeous film. There was something so emotional about it, and in quite unexpected ways. That's when I figured out that this wasn't going to be your average series ... It felt like an extended tone poem. There was a real sense of poetry to it.
Gilford: I remember calling Pete after seeing the pilot and saying, "Look man, even if this doesn't get picked up to series, thank you. I can't believe what we made."
Kitsch: It was so good because it was so raw. ...I remember doing that "Texas forever" speech like it was yesterday. I had time to work on it, and it just really encompassed Riggins, and his kind of contentedness at that moment.
Taylor Kitsch went with his own instincts in figuring out Tim Riggins, the popular but troubled friend of Jason. Along with the Taylors, Tim would stick around for all five seasons of the series.
Kitsch: I think it's so boring to watch that partier, that loud, obnoxious guy who drinks too much. He'd get boring. The actors that I admire are the ones who do so much by saying so little, and on this show, we had the power to try things. With Riggs, I just felt his lack of words was intrinsic. ... He's been jaded so many times, it's just a means of energy-saving, saving yourself from being jaded even more.
Unlike other network dramas, Friday Night Lights was not high on gloss. Hand-held cameras made for an extra-gritty feel. Actors were encouraged to improvise and try things off-script.
Teegarden: It was very much left up to us as to how things were going to go in a scene, how the action would play out. I was 15 when we started and it took a little getting used to. We didn't have any set marks. But it all comes off very organic when you watch.
Gilford: The scripts were almost something just to show the network, and then we'd just do whatever we wanted.
Chandler: You could find emotions and humor and even anger in places you wouldn't have expected. You'd use your surroundings and your dialogue in ways that weren't necessarily on the page. ... I had never done a show or a film that was open that way except for in college when you're experimenting. I think all of the cast pretty much closed their eyes and jumped off the cliff together, and all that trust went with it and it was so much fun.
... But not everyone was OK with the show's fluid format.
Britton: We definitely had some actors come on to the show who were a little freaked-out by it. We just tried to make them feel comfortable and let them know, "Hey, no, no, no, trust me. This actually isn't scary. In fact, you get to do what you want to do." ... For people who weren't used to it, it was very uncomfortable.
Chandler: I always thought of it like back before the USSR fell, and you'd have a defector come to the United States and he'd stand in a grocery store with all of these thousands of products and he'd freeze. I think our show was like that for some actors and even some directors early on. There were just no guidelines.
For me, it's why the show was exciting. You know when you get to set, you're going to throw all the preconceived ideas out the window. It really is like rehearsing a play for the first time. I've felt that way for five years, and I loved going to work because of it. I even loved driving to work, the anticipation of it.
On Oct. 3, 2006, the show premiered to spectacular reviews and not-so-spectacular viewership. It didn't help that it debuted against ratings giant Dancing with the Stars. But the show managed a full-season pickup (and eventually a Season 2 renewal), and the crew kept chugging along.
Gilford: You know, at first, it hurt. I had thought, "I'm on this amazing show. It's going to be huge. Everyone's going to love it." And then it just wasn't. But once we were renewed for our second season, and then thereafter, it was like, "Whatever, we're still here. We're still doing it. We're still loving it" — which is to say, we got over it pretty quick.
Britton: It's funny, because we were shooting in Austin and we were so in our little bubble of Dillon, it was almost like that ratings stuff never seemed that important to us. Ignorance is bliss, basically. ... I do remember how great that first season felt. It was a real time of discovery. We'd shoot things and go, "Oh wow! Cool! Look what we found. Look what we learned about Tami. Or Julie." We were creating a world, and that was very satisfying.
Kitsch: If we were going to get picked up or not, I just love that we never truly waivered. We never tried to become some soapy, mainstream thing to get ratings.
Nevins: I always knew it was an oddball, but I would say there was some degree of disappointment. You don't realize as you're shooting it, but looking back, there were a lot of commercial challenges to the show.
Friday Night Lights was initially marketed to boys and football fans, which made it difficult thereafter to sell what, essentially, was a character drama to women.
Nevins: Here's the thing: It's a show about football, but it's primarily for women. It's a show about teenagers, but it's primarily for adults. It's a show about the economically disadvantaged by it's got some real upscale appeal. So there were a lot of contradictions built in.
Kitsch: I think they didn't how to market it. It was tough. There's not a specific tone to it where they could just label it something easy to sell.
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If nothing else, the first season established that Friday Night Lights was anchored not by the players, but by the Taylors, a husband-wife, best-friend pairing unlike anything else on TV.
Teegarden: Nobody's relationship is perfect, and that was always the good thing with the Taylors. Every time a script came out, Connie and Kyle would go through it together. They'd say things like, "Our relationship is solid at the end of the day." It was really admirable.
Britton: We just got really lucky. That first day, we were kind of cracking jokes and making each other laugh at the goofiest, dorkiest things, which we then proceeded to do for the next five years. We just kind of instantly got each other and sort of shared the same values about how we wanted to play that marriage and who we each wanted to be in it.
Chandler: I think throughout most of the show, it always ended up that Eric's wife was right in the long run. [Laughs.] What I liked were the scenes that they shared silence, where they were feeling the other out or discussing the family moving or money or loss, and they do their talking by just looking at one another. There aren't many shows that I've done that allow you that silence on screen, and it wound up being so powerful. These are two people with history. They know each other that well.
Katims: The ongoing theme of the show has been about family and, especially, surrogate families. Eric and Tami have nurturing relationships with the teens in the school and on the team, and it's all rooted in the strength of their own marriage. The compromises, the friendship, the love.