For Daily Variety, executive producer Jason Katims recollects the tumultuous process of turning the pilot of NBC’s critical hit “Friday Night Lights” into a full-blown series.
“I don’t know anything about football.”
That’s me talking to Peter Berg, who had just written and directed the pilot for “Friday Night Lights.” I was interviewing for the job of showrunner, the person who would be responsible for taking on the somewhat Herculean task of expanding Pete’s vision to series. During the rest of our meeting I told Pete I’d never set foot in Texas, never lived in a small town and had little connection to the strong Christian values so central to Pete’s film about a small-town in Texas obsessed with its high school football team.
As fate would have it, I got the job. Before I had time to explain to my wife and children that I would be working late every night, most weekends and would be watching a whole lot more football than usual, I was on a plane to New York for NBC’s upfront presentation, stopping on my way at Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of “Football for Dummies.”
The upfronts was my first opportunity to meet many of the NBC executives. They generally smiled at me, looked me in the eye and wondered how bad I was going to screw this up. One executive literally pulled me aside for some private face time and drilled me with questions to see if I was up to the task. Another later confided that he fully expected me to fail. I felt a lot like (the show’s) Coach Taylor — an unknown quantity showing to coach the town’s beloved team. They were poised to either love me or tar and feather me. This feeling was the inspiration for “Eyes Wide Open,” the first episode I would write, where the town openly wondered whether Coach Taylor would be able to succeed following the loss of star quarterback Jason Street.
The legacy of “Friday Night Lights” is intensive research. Pete spent months in Texas when he was preparing to direct the movie, and Buzz Bissinger moved to Odessa to research the book. I got the TV dinner version — a weekend tour through Texas with Berg, where we ate barbecue in the airport, toured a high school football facility, met a couple of coaches and then I was back on a plane to Los Angeles to put together a writing staff.
I saw “Friday Night Lights” as a true ensemble and I wanted the writing staff to reflect that. The show had an incredible cast, but in a 42-minute pilot we barely got to scratch underneath the surface to see who these characters were. I felt this called for an eclectic staff that would represent every point of view. On the staff are three ex-high school football players, three women (to help remind the guys that the show is about more than football) and a native Texan with endless insight into the ever-fascinating Lone Star mind.
While the writers and I started to break stories in L.A., director-producer Jeff Reiner was in Austin setting up the production. We decided we would shoot with three cameras and not build a set. Plus, 90% of the camera work would be handheld, and there would be no camera or blocking rehearsals. We would just shoot.
I knew the show would be different but it wasn’t until we started production that I realized just how different. The shooting style was run and gun, seemingly chaotic, and with three cameras running all the time the editors would usually receive four to five hours of dailies per day. And when we were shooting a football sequence we would have up to eight cameras running at once.
I wanted to be everywhere, but with writers and editors halfway across the country, this would be difficult. I bounced back and forth between the writer’s room and editing bays while taking quick trips to Austin to maintain a presence with the production. Sometimes I would fly to Texas and back to L.A. on the same day — while making script changes on the airplane coming home.
Over time a trust developed out of necessity. Writers had to trust our actors to deliver the essence of each scene even if they weren’t saying every written word. Directors had to trust the camera operators to give them what they asked for, even as they were running around chasing actors in scenes. Producers had to trust that the sound mixer recorded all the dialogue when we were simultaneously recording four different conversations on a given take. And, all the while, everyone had to trust the writers’ overarching storytelling.
The big question on everyone’s mind was would it all work? Would we be able to, on an ongoing basis, pull off the look and feel of what Pete delivered in the pilot? From my very first day on the job, I remained positive and painted a rosy picture. That, of course, was my job. But the truth was I had no idea if it would all work. So when Reiner and I watched the first cut of the first episode following the pilot, I was fairly terrified.
Screening Peter Ellis’ editor’s cut was a remarkable experience. Almost everything I was seeing on the screen surpassed what I imagined while writing it. Sure, there was work to be done. The cut was 62 minutes (20 minutes too long) and a tremendous fourth act out left us with virtually no fifth act.
But I knew from that first cut that this process was going to work. And I also sensed that over the next nine months, I would be spending an inordinate amount of time with editors. It was also dawning on me that this show was to be a true collaborative effort. The writers, actors, directors, camera operators, sound designers, music supervisor and editors were all to share ownership of the material. And from the looks of things, the sum of us would most certainly be greater than our parts.