The Iron Orchard
Texas Monthly story on the film
Hey there Texans,
Here’s a book for you
I’m a member of a select club and I’m hoping that it’s not a select one sometime soon.
I’m a member of The Iron Orchard Club. We’re a group of people who have read, absorbed and are somewhat obsessed with the novel The Iron Orchard, written by Tom Pendleton.
To the surprise of many club members the book, originally published in 1966 and long out of print, has been made into a film.
What you may ask is The Iron Orchard? I certainly didn’t know, though I had grown up in Fort Worth and considered myself reasonably literate in matters of local authors and such.
It was when I was covering the Barnett Shale boom of the early 2000s that I was first asked, “Have you read The Iron Orchard?” Obviously, I wasn’t a member then.
Iron, I was told, was a book written by Pendleton about oil and Texas – and life. It was no Giant, a book about Texas written by a dilettante. This, I was informed, was the real deal. Pendleton was a pseudonym. He was actually Edmund Van Zandt of the storied Van Zandt family and he had a bit of oil – as well as Fort Worth – in his blood. The term Iron Orchard obviously refers to drilling rigs and it’s a great term with layers of meanings.
I borrowed the book and was hooked, eventually finding a copy for myself at a Half Price Books in Austin. I got it for $15 (with a dust cover!) but nowadays a decent copy can be several hundred bucks, if you can find it. Good news, though – with the film hitting theaters in February, TCU Press is publishing a new version for about $30.
The book tells the story of Jim McNeely, a young Texan in the late 1930s who heads to the oil fields of the Permian Basin to make his fortune. He finds it and, like all in the oil patch, he loses it and finds misfortune as well. Over and over again. Meanwhile, he falls ass over tea kettle for Lee Montgomery, a married woman who eventually becomes his wife.
He also meets an assortment of people who are likely based on people Van Zandt knew, including Dent Paxton, a Shakespeare-quoting oil man that most actors would kill to play.
In the book, Fort Worth goes by the name Winfield for some reason, but it hardly matters. If you’ve changed planes at DFW Airport, you wouldn’t mistake it for anyplace else.
The film played at the recent Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth, where it took a Best of the Fest award, not the only award it’s received. I couldn’t make the showing, but I got a chance to catch up to the director, Ty Roberts, who happens to hail from West Texas himself and, unsurprisingly, has some oil patch connections.
The film arrives on movie screens just as the Permian Basin, where much of the action takes place, is again the center of oil production. It stars Dallas-born Lane Garrision as McNeely, Ali Cobrin as Lee Montgomery and Austin Nichols (Spencer on The Walking Dead so maybe he did kill to get the part?) as the aforementioned Paxton.
Roberts told me The Iron Orchard literally changed the life of a friend of his.
“I have a buddy and we both went to the University of Texas. He went out to Midland, probably 2000 to 2002 and he was having too much fun. When he read The Iron Orchard he literally quit drinking after that, hunkered down and focused on his business. He's now doing great,” Roberts said.
I told you, you can get obsessed with the book.
Still, Roberts, who had been doing a variety of work in the film business, hadn’t read the book until he received a call from a family friend in the oil business.
The friend said he had the rights to the book and wanted to make a film, a familiar story to Roberts.
Still, Roberts respected the man’s passion, so he picked up the book.
“From page one, I was hooked,” he said. “That description of Jim McNeely out on the old Andrews Highway in North Odessa, waiting to be picked up, was something I hadn't experienced. It's just so well written. It's very poetic, very beautifully written. I just couldn't put it down. I blazed through 380 pages really quickly, just my head popping, not really knowing how you could potentially even make a film that's two hours long.”
The book begins: Out on the old Andrews road, where it passed the Gulf station that in those days was the last outpost on the north edge of town, the young man stood with his back to the norther, rigid and shivering, his bony shoulders bunched against the driving wind.
Taken up with a passion similar to his family friend, Roberts got a script together and eventually got some help from the Van Zandt family who “let me take a crack at doing the story as an independent film.”
It was tough, though; with a period piece and old oil rigs as key components of the story, it wasn’t going to be easy or cheap. But he got some help along the way, not just with funding.
“What really tipped the scale for us, I think, was the Hotel Settles in Big Spring,” he said. The filmmakers partnered with the owner of the Settles, Brint Ryan of Dallas. The Hotel Settles is a near replica of the former Scharbauer Hotel in Midland where much of the action takes place and where McNeely “learned the ropes of brokering and leasing and was taken in by another character.” The cast and crew were able to stay there and use the hotel for many scenes in the film.
For Roberts, it all represented the “can-do” spirit of Texas and the story itself.
“We ended up raising our money there locally – 90 percent was probably from Texas,” he said.
People donated rigs and props from the Petroleum Museum in Midland all in a “Let’s put on a show” manner.
“Cars were a very, very important aspect of this film,” he said. “I think we paid for one or two cars in the whole film and we probably had over 100 cars we used. The cars we paid for were in Boston, if you can believe that. This goes to show you that Texas mentality and their incredibly giving and very open, supportive nature, just that super friendly nature.
“I don’t think we could have done this anywhere but Texas,” he said.
And Roberts isn’t through with Fort Worth, either. His next project is a film of Twelve Mighty Orphans, based on the Jim Dent book of the same name about the Masonic Home Mighty Mites, a football team that was the pride of Fort Worth in the dark days of the depression.
The Iron Orchard will open in Fort Worth in February. Join the club.