How they capture that 'Friday Night Lights' magic

by Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

12 October 2007


You might not think that actors, accustomed to putting their best features forward under the best possible lighting, would take to being filmed on the run, from angles they can’t possibly anticipate, while occasionally delivering lines that may have popped into their heads only moments before.

But for Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler, two of the more experienced players on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” the series’ documentary-style filmmaking is at least half the fun.

“I love to talk about the style that we use because it’s so unique and as actors it’s been, oh, such a gift,” Britton, who plays guidance counselor (and coach’s wife) Tami Taylor, said in an interview this summer.

“It creates so much freedom for us. We go in, there are four cameras rolling all the time. The cameras are always moving to different locations, always, so the cameras are moving just as much as we are,” she said.

“I call them the snipers, the people holding our cameras,” said Chandler, who plays football coach Eric Taylor, in a separate interview.

“They’re fantastic. They’re off in the corners, so when we come to the set, we don’t necessarily sit down and start rehearsing the scene. We come in there knowing the lines and, boom, we’ll just start up. And there’s an immediacy to the reactions that occurs and that’s what we take the scenes from, right there,” he said.

“You have a complete intimacy you and I talking here,” Chandler said, gesturing to me, “so that camera, all those people, disappear. So we’re able to have these connections that feel so free.”

The show’s editors, he said, refer to some scenes as having “that `Friday Night Lights’ magic,” poignant moments that feel more real than scripted.

“You can have scripts that you know this is what they want. But those moments, oddly enough, on our show come when you don’t expect it,” Chandler said.

“And that’s the freedom that the actors have, not with the lines, not with the dialogue, but the freedom they have and the comfortableness they have on the set, with what’s going on, that those moments pop. And I think it’s a real hook as a viewer. Because you’re seeing something that - it’s a private moment, almost,” he said.

Britton had already experienced that on-the-run filming style when she played the coach’s wife (opposite Billy Bob Thornton) in the feature film of Buzz Bissinger’s book directed by Peter Berg. The actor/director - whose latest film, “The Kingdom,” included roles for both Chandler and “Lights’” Minka Kelly - also developed the show, which is filmed in and around Austin, Texas.

Berg “makes everything so kind of loose and easy and smooth that you’re not really aware that that’s what’s going on ... Pete laid down the groundwork, so all these young actors, even if they hadn’t worked before, they fell in love with that,” Britton said.

“But I have to say, we’ve had guest actors come in, or guest directors come in, and definitely it takes them a while to get used to the idea that this is the way we shoot. Because it’s different, there’s nothing else like it on TV,” she said.

And in a medium where writers generally maintain more control of their words than they do in film, “Friday Night Lights” may stand out for ceding a little of that control back to the actors.

“The key for us is really knowing where our characters are coming from and what our intentions are in the scene, what we have to accomplish. And then we just roll with it. And it’s always surprising what comes out,” Britton said.

Chandler admitted to occasionally ad-libbing from his own marriage (like his character, who became a father for the second time in last week’s season premiere, he has two daughters).

And, yes, his wife notices, sometimes shaking her head at him as they watch together.

“There’s one line I say, when I walk into the kitchen, `You know what I like about myself?’ She’s heard that before,” he said, wryly.

“This show is literally for me it’s like the first day of rehearsal on a play, which is the most exciting day. It’s like that every day. There hasn’t been one day, and I can honestly promise you, that going to work on this show, I’ve not said, `This is gonna be fun today. I’m gonna have a good time,’” Chandler said.

What Britton’s gotten out of “Friday Night Lights,” the TV show, is something that proved elusive in the movie: a fully realized character.

“It’s been an amazingly pleasant surprise,” Britton said. “Because I really had a lot of hesitation about whether I was going to do it, because, you know, on paper, and even in the book, when you read Buzz Bissinger’s book, the role is an interesting role, because she’s an interesting woman, and she has a very important role in that community and in her husband’s life - I’m talking about Sharon Gaines,” the real-life coach’s wife in Bissinger’s non-fiction book.

“But it couldn’t translate to the film, because, you know, very often it’s the women’s roles, especially in something about football, the woman is going to get cut,” she said.

“Pete Berg was really, really committed to making this role great. It’s like he wanted to come back and do everything we weren’t able to do in the movie in the series. And, you know, God love him, I think he did it,” Britton said.

It wasn’t, however, Berg who decided to expand Britton’s role last season by having Tami go to work as a guidance counselor in the school her daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) attends and where her husband coaches football.

It’s a plotline that plunged Britton into the heart of the show, bringing her closer to the action involving the show’s younger players while causing conflict at home.

“I thought that was such a genius idea,” Britton said.

“And you know what’s funny about that is that Pete Berg objected to that idea. I think Jason Katims thought of it really early on, and was, like, you know, this is a great idea, and Pete said, `No, don’t do that.’ But it was such a great way to bring this character into that community and to sort of involve her with all those characters,” she said.

The person Britton probably should be thanking most on “Friday Night Lights” was whoever decided that last season would end with her announcing her pregnancy and this one begin with her giving birth.

“Isn’t that hilarious?” said the actress, who has no children - “yet” - of getting to fast-forward through a pregnancy that might otherwise have been filmed under the hot Texas sun.

“By the way, I was totally game,” she said. “I was like, `All right, fine.’ But you know, yes, it is kind of great.”

//Mixed media