Approaching the end zone

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.

"What Jon brought to the material was a quasi-documentary feel," recalls Ray, director of "Shattered Glass," a current film based on a Bissinger magazine piece about disgraced New Republic journalist Stephen Glass. "We created a character who was a Permian student, who taped interviews with the players and townspeople, as a way of both exposing the extremes of what went on, but also to show how you could get wrapped up in the drama yourself."

Ray did only one draft and then was let go. Soon Avnet was off the project too. "We had casting issues and, more importantly, budget issues," recalls Grazer. "Universal let Jon and I take the movie elsewhere, but the budget was always $4 million more than anyone wanted to pay." Each time the project fell apart, Grazer, in particular, would suffer pangs of discouragement. "I'd tell agents, 'Don't call me about this -- I'm too worn out,' " he says. "But whenever a director would drop out, a new director would call, saying 'I want to do it.' "

In 1997, Richard Linklater, a native Texan, persuaded Grazer that he was the right filmmaker for the project. The director of the cool youth-culture films "Slackers" and "Dazed and Confused," Linklater was considered a rising star and a magnet for young actors.

Linklater worked on a new script with "Miami Rhapsody" director David Frankel, retaining many of the book's sociological observations; one version of the script quotes fellow Texan Larry McMurtry's description of Odessa as "the worst town on Earth."

"A lot of stars wanted to work with Richard, but he turned in a script that was very long and lacked a certain pace," Grazer recalls. "It made me anxious, because pace is really important for a movie. When it didn't work out, Frankel, who was really smart, pitched himself as the director, which I thought long and hard about too before moving on."

'It's meant to be'

BY 1999, Grazer faced a new obstacle: another high-school football movie, "Varsity Blues," was a surprise hit at MTV Films. "It was a bump which stopped us for a while," Grazer says.

However, the producer soon had another director pitching him: Ted Demme, who'd just done "Life" at Imagine. Demme went off to do another project, saying he would return to work on "Lights," but he died suddenly in 2001, leaving the project high and dry again.

Not long afterward, Berg entered the picture. Berg was Bissinger's cousin and had read the book in galleys before it was published. Of equal importance, Berg was a fair-haired boy among Universal's executives, who were high on "The Rundown" and eager to find another project for him to do at the studio. Berg also had a big supporter in Jim Whittaker, the Imagine executive who's overseen "Lights" in recent years.

"I told Jim, if you can get Peter on record with Universal, saying this is his next movie, I'll do it," recalls Grazer. "And Peter not only turned out to be the right person, but he's actually Buzz's cousin, so these days I find myself thinking, 'It's meant to be.' "

The project still has a few stumbling blocks. Berg still is wrestling with the script. Casting still is an issue, with Grazer and Berg leaning toward relative unknowns as the football players, while angling for a bigger name -- one possibility is Billy Bob Thornton -- for the team coach.

Berg has been flying to Texas every weekend, shooting football footage with a four-camera NFL Films camera crew. After Berg brought everyone down to watch Permian win a nail-biter on homecoming weekend, the plane carrying Berg, Grazer and the studio brass encountered equipment trouble when heading back to Los Angeles. The pilot managed to fix the problem in flight.

So perhaps "Friday Night Lights" is meant to be, spurred by Grazer's refusal to throw in the towel despite years of false starts. "It always comes down to something personal, something that you really relate to," he explains. "I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and yet I felt what these kids went through in Odessa wasn't so different from my experience. This is a story about a period in boys' lives where everything is being formed. And in Odessa, on a football team, it's just intensified. It's a highly theatrical version of what every kid goes through."

The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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