It was the film that encompassed everything we wished our high school football careers could have been. It didn't have clear eyes or a full heart, but it did have a 500-pound Billy Bob, a pig named Bacon and a Tweeder end zone dance. "Varsity Blues" introduced audiences to whipped cream bikinis, the Oopty Oop and a backup quarterback named Mox played by a guy known as Dawson. Football was a way of life in West Canaan, Texas, and the tale about the teenage bonds of friendship and triumph over the tyranny of a dictator-in-coach made the film one of the most iconic sports films ever made.
Not to mention the impact it's had on the NFL. Aaron Rodgers tweeted about watching it before the 2013 regular season. It's Warren Sapp's favorite movie. And players will reference it all the time.
"Varsity Blues" opened in January 1999 debuting No. 1 at the box office and becoming a surprise hit for MTV Films grossing more than $50 million on a $16 million budget. The unknown cast became stars overnight and the filmmakers would become mega producers and directors.
The story of how "Varsity Blues" was made and how it became a pop-culture phenomenon is fascinating. Fifteen years later, the cast, crew and creators for "Varsity Blues" sat down with NFL.com to chat about how it all happened: the script that was stuck in bankruptcy, the epic race with "Friday Night Lights" to get to the theaters first, the auditions, the on-set shenanigans, the injuries and the tales only the making of a Hollywood film can provide. As Billy Bob says, it's "a 10... a 10... a * 10!" - Amar Shah
"Friday Night Lights" is a drama, this is a comedy. Tova Laiter (Producer)
PETER ILIFF (WRITER)
("Varsity Blues") was the third screenplay I would ever come to write. In 1984, I.C.M. gave me an article on high school football in Odessa, Texas. It outlined the real pressure of these kids to perform at football and how it defined the rest of their lives. So, then I read this article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jerry Rice (who played) for a school called Mississippi Valley State, in an offense that was scoring 77 points a game, running the oopty oop offense. So, I completely ripped that off for "Varsity Blues."
TOVA LAITER (PRODUCER)
When I was president of production at Imagine Entertainment, somebody approached me with that script. I read it, and I loved it, but six months before, I optioned another book that was quite similar, which was called "Friday Night Lights." And so I said to that person -- 'I love your script, I think it's even more fun to do it in comedy, but I'm already committed because I bought "Friday Night Lights.'"
At that time, "Friday Night Lights" hadn't come out. I did read it, and it's a fabulous book. But I decided to take more of a comical approach. Because I didn't wanna be basically ripping off that book. So, I would have to say it was a great influence on me. But I went a different direction. I really wanted to make a dramedy as they say in the business.
When I left Imagine, I had a meeting with Peter about another project, and I said to him, 'What happened to your script, "Varsity Blues?" I really liked it.' And he said, 'Oh, somebody else optioned it.'
It got optioned six different times.
Two years passed, and I saw him again, and I said, 'What's happening with your script?' He said the person who had the script went into bankruptcy and it's in bankruptcy court. And I said, 'Let's get it out.' So we did. It took about a year, and after that we took it out. Most people passed.
She had gone to four different executives and gotten all "nos." But then she realized that Paramount executive Don Granger was my executive when I did the film "Patriot Games." Over his desk is a picture of him playing offensive guard on his high school football team. She goes, 'Don will buy this.'
Just so you know how fun the movie business is, I gave it to Paramount two or three times before and they passed.
And, well, what do you know, Don buys it. They bring in Daniel Stern, the actor, to direct this thing. And we had a moment where we're in John Goldwyn's office, the president of the studio, and he says the words I have never heard before, and I'll probably never hear again. He goes, 'I love this script. Don't change a single word of it.' Well, sitting next to me, Stern's having a heart attack 'cause he wants a page-one rewrite. A month later, he's fired. A month after that, I'm fired. I was told by Paramount executives that, 'We need a fresh voice on "Varsity Blues."'
BRIAN ROBBINS (DIRECTOR)
I had made my first movie at Paramount based on a show that we produced for Nickelodeon called "Good Burger." And Paramount sent the script to us for "Varsity Blues" -- the original "Varsity Blues" script, which was nothing like the movie that we made -- to see if we were interested in doing it. My partner Mike Tollin was not, but sent me the script. And I was like, 'Well, this script is not great. But there's a great story here and a great movie here.'
MIKE TOLLIN (PRODUCER)
It's a big moment when a studio reaches out to you as young filmmakers and offers you material that they're interested in making. The first instinct is to say, 'Yeah, let's go make it.' The second of course is to sit down, read it and really evaluate it. So when we got this script it wasn't the version that we wanted to tell. Brian and I decided to go back to Paramount and say, 'We're interested in the project but we think we wanna go another direction.' They were very open to the idea of finding a new writer with a new take.
So there's a writer named John Gatins who really is the guy that wrote "Varsity Blues." I mean, Peter Iliff is the credited writer, and he wrote the original script, and he is responsible for the original idea. But John was a young writer who hadn't really written anything at the time.
JOHN GATINS (WRITER)
I had written a spec screenplay called "Smells Like Teen Suicide," and met with David Gale and Elysa Koplovitz at MTV Films. They liked that script a lot, and they asked me to take a look at this script that they had called "Varsity Blues." So I read it and they then put me in a room with Brian Robbins and Michael Tollin to talk about how I would potentially rewrite that script.
John and I met, and I was looking for someone to rewrite the script and make it more dramatic. And he pitched me the idea of the younger brother with all the crazy religions. He pitched me the whipped cream bikini, and I think that was it. And I was like, 'I'm in. Like, I gotta work with this guy to write this movie.' So it was John's idea. He really is the guy that took that movie from the original script to what it became.
In the script that I read, Tweeder, the Scott Caan character, actually committed suicide. It was this incredibly kind of sad thing that happened towards the end of the second act. I said, 'Look, what if it's not Tweeder, but what if it's Billy Bob who has a suicidal thought and a really rough night. And that our hero Mox comes to his side and kind of inspires him to kind of redirect his life.' That's where that scene of blowing up the trophies came from which is one of my little favorite moments in the movie.
The turning point was the studio's willingness and actual enthusiasm for us going another direction. As was working through MTV Films, which had been recently set up under the aegis of Paramount Pictures.
We gave the studio the script on Friday. Monday morning we had a meeting with John Goldwyn, and he basically said, 'I wanna make this movie. But it's not going to be the second movie of that genre.' Now that put me a very strange position where I was competing against my former project at Imagine, you know, two football movies that I'm in effect responsible for. And we looked like the underdog. Our script was a 10-year-old script. We had a director at the time that was not in the same league as Richard Linklater. I was not Imagine, and the odds were that they were gonna go first. They tried to stop us in a certain way.
I remember getting a call from Brian Grazer, who was the producer of "Friday Night Lights," trying to talk me out of making "Varsity Blues" because we were sort of getting ahead of them. I didn't listen to him.
In the end, we were the first out of the gate.