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"Friday Night Lights" Author H.G. Bissinger Shares His Thoughts on the Movie

From the World Premiere of "Friday Night Lights"

By

HG Bissinger Friday Night Lights

H.G. Bissinger at the World Premiere of "Friday Night Lights"

© Rebecca Murray
H.G. 'Buzz' Bissinger spent a year getting to know the people of Odessa, Texas. During that time he spoke with Permian Panthers football players, their families, and Odessa citizens in his quest to write a book that accurately told the story of how one team of 16, 17, and 18 kids could so enthrall an entire town. The resulting novel was the best-seller "Friday Night Lights," which now gets the Hollywood treatment at the hands of writer/director Peter Berg and producer Brian Grazer.

Here's what the author had to say about the big screen treatment of his film and his surprising connection to the movie's director:

INTERVIEW WITH H.G. BISSINGER:

How do you feel about Hollywood making your book into a movie?
This project lingered for 14 years and I think the problem was the scripts weren’t right. They were either clowning it up or making it silly. This was a serious book about a very serious phenomenon in America: high school football. About a year and a half ago Pete Berg became involved. He’s my cousin…but I was still nervous. I saw the film about two months ago for the first time and I was absolutely blown away. It’s totally faithful to the spirit and integrity of the book. It’s about these kids. It’s about their nobility, their heroism, the sacrifice they make to play football for the honor of their team and their town, of their community. It is gritty. It is shot documentary style. It’s very authentic and the acting doesn’t feel like acting. I feel very, very blessed. I think it’s a great American film. Not just a great sports film, but a great American film.

How closely does the movie follow the book?
There are certain things left out of the movie. The book was very sociological. The book focused a lot on racial issues and displaced educational priorities. That’s touched upon in the film but it’s not the focal point of the film. But I would say that 80-90% of what’s in the book is in the film. In the intensity, in the pressure, in the way these kids are, it really captures the great phenomenon of Friday night lights. The very special, wonderful phenomenon of American football. But it’s not clowned up, there are no gratuitous scenes or anything like that. It’s really a wonderful film. I’m very proud of it.

What kind of advice did you give Peter Berg about bringing your book to the screen?
Peter and I talked a lot. My role is always unofficial but because he’s my cousin, he at least had to return my phone calls. We talked a lot about what was important to me. There were a couple of things. I didn’t want the kids made into West Texas wahoos. They were complex people. They had complex lives. I didn’t want them clowned up because that’s a tendency in a lot of movies, particularly with Texas. The ending to me was crucial. It was crucial that the ending be like the book. And I did say to him, “If you change the ending – not just how the game ends but that last scene in which [spoiler deleted] – if you change that, don’t do it. Don’t do it because you’re not making ‘Friday Night Lights.’” That ending to me makes what they go through that much more poignant and haunting and special. And Pete said, “Listen. I’m a director, it’s a Hollywood film, I have to make the movie I want to make.” But he really stuck to the book in big ways and small ways.

Did he capture the feeling from your book that football is like war?
He did even more than the book. When I wrote the book I felt football was like war. These young, noble gladiators going off, in a sense, to an early death and knowing it. The football scenes are shot like combat. They are almost disorienting. The hits – the way it’s edited, which I think is spectacular and I know that was his intention.

What’s the reception been like in Texas for your book and now for this movie?
Well, the reception for the book has always sort of sucked. I mean, it was really controversial when it came out. They felt a sense of betrayal. They didn’t like the portrait. I recently did go back in June to do a piece for Sports Illustrated. The town has changed. The town is much more enlightened about issues of race, issues of education, and they now admit, “You know, we didn’t like the book. Reluctantly we had to read it and we had to admit that there was a lot that was true and it forced us to change.” And the only area in which the town and I universally agree on is that we both like the film. They do like it. Some school board members have seen it and they’re not jumping up and down, but they say it’s fair and it’s accurate.

Did you ever consider writing the screenplay?
Not really. I think I was too close to it. The real kids are like brothers to me and so I never tried it. There were a lot of scripts kicking around but Pete took pieces of all of them and really rewrote it from top to bottom, and was the first to really return to the core of the book.

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