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The game of life

An Unyielding Intensity Marks Both Texas High School Football And Peter Berg's Determination To Make 'Friday Night Lights.'

September 12, 2004|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

When Peter Berg talks about making "Friday Night Lights," the Odessa, Texas-based saga of Permian High School's 1988 football season , he gets a strange gleam in his eye, the evangelical gleam of a true believer. "I went to 20 football games in Texas last year, and after about two games it becomes an addiction," says Berg, who was such a zealot that the actor-turned-director skipped the opening night of his film "The Rundown" last fall to ride the bus with a football team from Austin, where he shot much of the film. Standing on the sidelines, Berg saw firsthand the singular fury of unhappy coaches and steely determination of eager young players.

"There's a glow around these kids playing their senior year of football," he says. "I've been to U2 concerts, I've seen great theater on Broadway, but nothing comes close to a real good Texas high school football game. I thought I'd become too cynical to ever say this, but on a ridiculously small level, it made me understand what it's like to be proud to be an American."

He quickly fixes me with a probing stare, alert for any hint of scoffing. "For any eye-rollers, I'd say go down and watch a Texas high school football game, and after you see these kids' dedication and courage, tell me if you don't feel the same thing."

Berg traces his transformation to a playoff game he filmed last November in Austin. Late in the game, David Edwards, a defensive back playing for San Antonio's Madison High, delivered a crushing tackle to an opposing receiver. The receiver dropped the ball, but Edwards never got up. The impact of the tackle had snapped the fourth vertebra in the 16-year-old's neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

As Berg tells the story, he digs a dog-eared photo out of his wallet. It shows Edwards flashing a beatific grin, looking like he could run 40-yard sprints in the sweltering Texas sun forever. Berg can't get the moment out of his head -- seeing the crumpled body on the field as an ominous hush swept the crowded stadium. "The tears just poured out of my eyes, watching the way people came together and prayed," he recalls. "It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to come and there was 20 minutes of silence, except for the sound of David's mother screaming."

Afterward, Berg felt like a man on a mission, his mission being to capture the rough justice of high school football, where, as it's played in an economically fragile town like Odessa, winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing. "There was something about that injury that really seared me," says Berg. "In this world, football isn't a hobby. It's perhaps the most real thing in people's lives. And I knew I didn't want to clown it up in any way. From that moment on, it was all business."

"Friday Night Lights," due in theaters Oct. 8, is adapted from H.G. (Buzz) Bissinger's acclaimed 1990 book that focuses on Odessa and its often disturbing obsession with high school football. The book set off a storm of controversy with its frank portrayal of a community's casual racism and skewed values. The book pointed out, for example, that the local school district budgeted more money for the Permian football team's medical supplies than it did for teaching materials for the school English Department.

Time had not healed all wounds. Before Berg could get permission to film at Permian's stadium, he had to write to the Odessa school board, promising he wouldn't portray the town in a racist or stereotypical manner. At one of the Permian games he attended last fall, as Berg listened to the crowd's trademark chant, "Mojo! Mojo!," an angry woman appeared, wagging a finger in his face. "She said, 'Are you gonna make us look like monsters like that guy did in that book?' " Berg recalls. "Almost 15 years later, people were still enraged."

Berg knows the "guy" behind the book all too well. Bissinger is his cousin. As Berg puts it, "He's as close to a big brother as I've ever had." In Hollywood, it's the rare filmmaker who loses sleep worrying about pleasing the author of the book he's adapting. But when the author is your cousin and, as Berg puts it, "a tough nut -- the hardest guy to please that I know," his concerns are not so easy to dismiss. "The movie became a big family matter," says Berg. "But early on I told Buzzie, 'I know the integrity you bring to your work, but you gotta let me go and do my movie.' "

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