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Approaching the end zone

November 18, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

When a big new movie hits the theaters, according to Hollywood custom, the filmmakers spend Friday night cruising around in a rented limo, checking out the opening-night response, a ritual that can inspire either raucous celebration or massive gulping of Prozac. But when Peter Berg's film, "The Rundown," opened this fall, the actor-turned-director spent opening night deep in West Texas, riding on the team bus with the Austin Westlake High School football team.

"It was pretty surreal," he recalls. "I was on the offensive team's bus with all these big guys -- the offensive line are monsters -- and they were all asleep, and I was sitting in the back, on my cellphone, getting the opening-night grosses from my producer."

Berg has spent a big chunk of the last few months in Texas, preparing to make "Friday Night Lights," a film adaptation of H.G. Bissinger's acclaimed 1990 bestseller about the Permian High football team of Odessa, Texas. Production is due to start at the end of January. Chronicling the ups and downs of the Panthers' 1988 football season and Odessa's infatuation with high-school football, the book captured the intoxicating allure of small-town football while also offering a bitter indictment of America's win-at-all-costs sports culture. The book's complex themes have made it a dream movie project. Berg has been campaigning to do the film for six years. Directors have paid their own way to Texas to do research. One writer kept working obsessively on the project even after he'd been fired. But the book's ambitious scope -- it wrestles with such big issues as race relations, celebrity worship, America's failed education system and the country's growing economic inequality -- also made it a nightmare to get off the ground.

In fact, since producer Brian Grazer acquired the project 13 years ago for Imagine Entertainment, Permian football players have seen a stream of filmmakers and Imagine executives at their Friday night games, poking around the locker room, having beers with their coaches, shooting video footage, even going to strip joints with the players after the games.

The project has had six directors, two of whom have died, and nearly as many writers. For Grazer, the low ebb occurred when one director, whom he would not name, returned from Odessa with a home movie he'd shot of the players. "He'd set it to music, this soft Eagles-type rock, and he played it for us at a studio meeting," Grazer recalled, cringing at the memory. "And he started to dance around the room to his own music. That was when I started rolling my eyes and thinking, 'That's the end of this guy!' "

A long odyssey

IN Hollywood, the longer a book sits on a shelf, the longer the odds of its getting made. Just ask the filmmakers involved with the fabled "Confederacy of Dunces," which still is looking for financing after 23 years of false starts. Books with knotty subjects, such as Philip Roth's "The Human Stain," often fall flat on film, derailed by bad casting or muddled scripts.

"I've heard 100 speeches on what directors were going to do with 'Friday Night Lights,' " says Grazer, who recently flew with Berg and Universal Pictures chief Stacey Snider to watch Permian's homecoming game against rival Odessa High. "It seems as if every director who ever played football wanted to make this movie."

The film's odyssey began in 1990 with Alan Pakula, who was friendly with Bissinger and loved the book. A then-Imagine executive, Tova Laiter, had once been Pakula's assistant and got him together with her boss. Grazer pitched the project to Universal, which acquired the book. Pakula teamed up with David Aaron Cohen, who wrote the original script. Pakula never quite committed to the project and after several years Grazer persuaded him to let someone else get involved.

In 1994, a new hot director entered the picture, Brian Levant, who'd just directed a hit movie for Universal, "The Flintstones." Producer David Friendly, then an Imagine executive, recalls going to Odessa with Levant to watch the team. "Brian and I drove down this desolate Texas highway, seeing nothing at all until this enormous stadium rose up on the horizon. It was the perfect image for how important football was to that town. Their school was crumbling, but the team locker room didn't have a speck of dust. It was like an NFL locker room."

Levant spent a year working on the script, but the studio eventually cooled on Levant's version of the film. Next up was Jon Avnet, a respected director-producer who signed on to do the project in 1996. He teamed up with Billy Ray, whom Imagine hired to write a new script.

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