Home Field Advantage
Sure, Austin can become a sustainable center for TV production. Just ask the 'Friday Night Lights' gridiron gang.
The first thing you notice about being a crew member for Friday Night Lights is the need for a good pair of shoes. The day I am invited to pay the set a visit, the location is a former AISD school building that serves as the interiors of Dillon and East Dillon high schools – the latter being the new high school introduced at the end of season three. On this day, it's Dillon High, where high school Principal Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) is dealing with a student. From my vantage point, it's hard to tell exactly what the scene is about, but from the cigarette plucked from the girl's hand and unhappy expressions all around, it's clear that Tami is dealing with a difficult situation – here and, most likely, at home too. When the third season ended, Tami was still at Dillon High, while her husband, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) was drop-kicked to East Dillon High, in a Machiavellian move that was both astonishing and galling at once. Sure, the anchor couple of this series about life, love, and football in small-town Texas is committed to each other, but the sting of that experience can't have worn off. And, yes, work life and home life are two separate worlds, but as this series shows all too well, those worlds often seep into each other, making for some multifaceted drama that critics have no shortage of praise for and that fans adore. If only there were more fans.
Even as rumors swirl that season five, currently shooting in and around Austin, will be the last for Friday Night Lights, other "not so fast" rumors are also spinning. But no one's talking about this on set – mainly because it's out of the crew's hands, and besides, there's no time to mulch the what ifs and maybes when there's so much work to do. When it's time to shoot another scene on the second floor, a crew member pushing a huge cart of equipment that looks very heavy asks no one in particular, "Is there an elevator?" The response is a plain and simple no. The "no" isn't smeared with annoyance. It's simply the exchange of information. No matter. The crew member grabs a buddy and begins hauling the monster cart up the stairs. Good thing they have good shoes – not to mention strong backs and good attitudes. Standing, walking, and hauling, all on a moment's notice and without a lot of fanfare, is a big part of the job. That and waiting, until boom – you're called into action.
As the next shot of the day is set up, I chat up three extras corralled in a nearby foyer. Two are from Austin; the other hails from the Rio Grande Valley. They all have an interest in filmmaking and/or acting and are doing extra work to get a feel for production. Today, they are playing high school girls, carrying prop notebooks and purses; their job is to walk in and out of the restroom where Principal Taylor has the aforementioned cigarette scene with the other student. I ask the extras if there is anything about their experience that surprised them or struck them as curious. They each respond with a "been there, done that" shrug, until 20-year-old Christina Mattox offers this:
"I'm still amazed by how many people that you don't see on TV are needed to shoot one small scene."
It's true. The scene in the restroom ultimately only includes two characters (plus the three extras walking in and out), but outside the restroom in the hall and spilling into the foyer where we're standing, there are at least 50 crew members, and many more are unseen, prowling in and around the building.
I text a good friend – a huge fan of Friday Night Lights – about my whereabouts, and she writes back, "I so want to be you!" I knew she'd get a kick out of knowing where I am – and where I am is mere inches away from Connie Britton's shoes. I fight the urge to shoot a picture of the shoes with my cell phone. The stylish peep-toe wedges complete her character's outfit of a simple skirt and knit top, but the shoes, as Britton announces several times during this and subsequent shoots, are killing her. She slips into blue flip-flops at every possible moment, leaving the offending wedges near the professional-grade, clear vinyl bags created specifically for hair and makeup crews so that brushes, clips, bands, chewing gum, sanitary wipes, and more are all visible and quickly identifiable at a moment's notice.
"B! Tell Connie how much I LOVE her," my friend texts back to me. "And what a great actress she is, and if they need a Chicana Lesbian extra, they should call me. LOL!"
What I don't tell my friend is that I am instructed not to disturb Britton or to take photos of her. No problem; I'm more interested in meeting the crew and seeing how they work, given that all the hoopla around the Texas Film Incentive Program is geared not only to bring more film and TV production to Texas but also to create jobs and boost the overall economy. Nor do I tell my friend that my legs are aching from standing all morning or that the building we are shooting in – still undergoing renovation, although the improvements were promised to be completed by the time the FNL crew rolled in – is not air-conditioned, and it's getting noticeably sticky. And I don't mention the conversation I have with another crew member, explaining why the Chronicle photographer accompanying me is wearing a mask (he's been under the weather, and Nan Bernstein, the producer who invited us on set, asked him to please wear the mask – they can't afford to have a sick cast and crew on their tight production schedule).
"Oh," the crew member quips. "I thought it was because of the asbestos," referencing the renovation.
Mild chuckles all around. No time to fret. The clock is ticking.
Austinite John Cates, the video assistant who has worked on every episode of Friday Night Lights except the pilot, tells me that they will shoot at least four scenes today, and that typically, they shoot around 12 pages a day. An average 54-page script can be shot in as little as eight days. To an outsider, that seems daunting, but the atmosphere on set is calm, the pace crisp and no-nonsense. Oh, there's a bit of tension emanating from the director's chair – understandable, given the breakneck schedule. Director Michael Waxman's hunched shoulders, the fact that he eats lunch on his feet (the entire crew does), and his increasingly furrowed brow as the morning wears on tell me he's hard at work. Everyone is. And while I am told over and over and over again how much everyone loves working on the show by Bernstein and the various production personnel she's directed me to in preparation for this article, I remain skeptical. The soul-killing experience of working for big bureaucratic behemoths is still fresh in my mind. Besides the showbiz sheen, what's the difference here?
As it turns out, a big one. This machine actually works. Each crew member is a valuable and necessary link in a long chain that depends on every link to get the work done.
It's work, no doubt about it, but it's work everyone loves – from the security detail who greeted me when I set foot on the premises to the set decorator to the hair dresser to the prop master. Everyone loves working on Friday Night Lights, and it shows.
"Each episode is like its own movie," says Todd McMullen. He's worked on the series from the beginning, first as a camera operator and now as director of photography. He cites the city of Austin as a major contributor to his positive experience.
"When we go into neighborhoods and into the streets, they're letting us do it. They're not jaded," he said. "In L.A., they might be honking and cursing at us, but here, people are willing to make it happen. And that just makes our job easier."
Football coordinator Justin Riemer agrees. It's his job to make sure football shoots capture the enthusiasm and intensity of a Texas high school football game. One of the few non-Texans on staff, he learned very quickly the centrality of football in Texas; now in-the-know, Riemer makes it his mission to re-create that football culture.
"It's an underdog story on and off the screen," he said, referring to the ongoing battle to keep Friday Night Lights on the air and in production. "Beloved [by fans] as it is, we weren't getting the [ratings]. Then having thousands of dollars trimmed from your budget leaves you with passion to make it work."
Friday Night Lights has been nominated for a whole raft of awards, from the People's Choice Awards to the Television Critics Association Awards – although, curiously, three of its four Emmy nominations have been for casting, with none for the higher-profile acting, writing, or drama categories. The series received the prestigious Humanitas Prize in 2009, has a George Foster Peabody Award on its mantle (awarded in 2006), and is consistently included in Top 10 lists by Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and the American Film Institute. Critics and a small but devoted fan base love the show, but it's never netted the broader audience it deserves.
According to various sources, the series generally draws about 6 million viewers – nothing to sneeze at, but small numbers by NBC standards. Yet Friday Night Lights continues, thanks in part to fan support (manifest in thousands of miniature footballs sent to NBC in 2008), but more significantly due to an unusual deal made with satellite provider DirecTV to share the production cost of Friday Night Lights in exchange for first window rights (which is why your friends with DirecTV have already seen season four of Friday Night Lights, while the rest of us are awaiting its airing May 7 on NBC).
"It's marketed in the worst way possible," a fan was overheard pontificating to his friends while standing in line to see a sneak peek of the season four opener at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar last Sunday. "Girls think it's about football. Guys think it's a chick show."
"Well, what is it about?" asks the woman he is with. She confesses to have never heard of the show.
"It's about football in Texas," he says. He goes on to tell his captive audience the show "was dead to me" when it took a turn in season two he thought was wrong. But after returning to the series on DVD, he's back. He just can't quit Friday Night Lights.
"It's really underappreciated," says Deborah Vargas, an assistant professor of Chicano and Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine. A Texan who was living in Austin until last fall, she and a small group of friends gathered weekly to watch Friday Night Lights and discuss it. Fervently.
"For those of us who grew up in Texas, it strikes a chord," Vargas says. "[It] uses something that's so central and familiar to the Texas imaginary – football. And not just here, but across the South and the Midwest.
"But in the end, it's not really just about football. That's what I really love about it, as someone who grew up surrounded and overburdened by the sport," she says, speaking of the state's undeniable football culture. "It takes up so much space in daily life, but yet there's something else going on that pulls me in. ... There are stories behind the game. For those of us disgusted with the amount of money and time put into the game, [Friday Night Lights] still brings it back to the human element and in the end allows us to re-experience our stories."
"Friday Night Lights is really the little engine that could," says Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, the Central Texas representative for the Texas Motion Picture Alliance. The all-volunteer organization is made up of professionals in the film, TV, commercial, and video game industries who advocate and lobby for maintaining and improving incentive programs to bring more work to Texas. "That the show is able to survive and be one of the most cost-effective shows on TV and get renewed even before we were able to pass a competitive incentive program is remarkable," he says.
"Big-picture-wise, Austin's been blessed to be considered a center for film and especially independent film in Texas. But now we have to think about how to build a sustainable industry," Alvarado-Dykstra says. "Friday Night Lights is our big breakthrough experience. We've had some wonderful TV experiences, like Austin Stories on MTV, but to have a network, hourlong drama series – that's the holy grail if you're going to be a center for TV production, and to have one of the best shows on TV here is just the icing on the cake." That's all fine and good, but when it comes down to dollars and cents – which, of course, is what opponents to a film incentive program are most concerned with – how does Friday Night Lights measure up?
"It's harder to access in Austin than it is in smaller cities," Texas Film Commission Director Bob Hudgins says by cell phone on his way to Houston. He says that new, big-picture, hard numbers assessing the economic impact should be available from the comptroller's office as early as this year. "What I can tell you is that about 14,000 people received a check from Friday Night Lights. Many of those were extras, but that also includes 500 regular crew members. And I can tell you that the series has at least 40 business accounts – not just one-time transactions, but ongoing business," he says.
But the true icing on the cake may come from ancillary spending by the cast and crew. The difference between being unemployed and making a living wage is that happy, healthy workers will buy houses, shop for clothing, buy food, get haircuts, go to the dentist, buy medicine, get cars repaired, enjoy a night on the town, and, yes, invest in that good pair of shoes.
The fourth season of Friday Night Lights premieres Friday, May 7, 7pm, on NBC.