It’s a cinematic love letter of sorts to 20th century life in the West Texas oil fields, but for filmmaker Ty Roberts, The Iron Orchard is much more personal.
Roberts grew up in Midland as the son of an independent oilman and the grandson of a roughneck who earned a hardscrabble living on rigs throughout the Permian Basin.
Meanwhile, the film — and the book that inspired it — charts the rise and fall of roustabout wildcatter Jim McNeely, who likewise navigates small-town life filled with economic uncertainty on the heels of the Great Depression.
“[My grandfather] built up his life step by step, saving every penny he could — a very similar trajectory to Jim McNeely,” Roberts said. “I really connected with that. It felt very honest.”
For Roberts, the project presented an opportunity to pay tribute to his father and grandfather, and others like them.
“Like the price of oil, I watched my father’s demeanor go up and down my whole life,” he said. “It’s bust or boom. If you’re dependent on a commodity, that’s just how life is. I was really exposed to that.”
The story spans three decades in telling about McNeely (Lane Garrison), who moves west from Fort Worth trying to get rich in the oil trade. Just as he learns the harsh realities of the business and meets a woman (Ali Cobrin) eager to share his passion, a fresh round of obstacles threatens his newfound success.
The film is based on a 1966 novel by Edmund Van Zandt, who hails from a prominent Fort Worth banking family. Written under the pseudonym Tom Pendleton, the semiautobiographical book was considered at the time to be somewhat scandalous in its tell-all depiction of romantic escapades and shady corporate dealings.
It received plenty of acclaim upon publication, sharing the Texas Institute of Letters award with The Last Picture Show, and later developed a cult following.
The Iron Orchard seemed like a natural fit for Hollywood, especially coming just a decade after the massive success of Giant. At various stages, the project was linked to stars such as Paul Newman and George Peppard. But it never got off the ground, and the book later fell out of print.
It wasn’t until decades later that Roberts was handed a copy by a friend of his father who had since acquired the rights. The Austin-based filmmaker was living in Argentina at the time, working on other projects.
“On Page 1, it was Jim McNeely standing out on the old Andrews Highway, north of Odessa. I knew exactly where it was because my granddad had an equipment company right near there,” Roberts said. “I didn’t put it down for three or four days.”
Roberts moved back to Texas in 2011 and hired a friend, Gerry De Leon, to write the screenplay while he tried to secure funding. A downturn in the domestic oil market threatened the financial stability of the project, but Roberts managed to stretch the development money.
By 2017, the market rallied and Roberts had raised the rest of the modest budget to begin filming on location, with Austin substituting for the urban sequences set in Fort Worth.
“I don’t know a whole lot that you would do differently from a huge-budget film to what we did, other than major stars,” Roberts said. “It’s a tough book to adapt. It’s extremely ambitious when you’ve only got a million dollars. It’s an independent film, but it’s epic.”
Roberts, 45, acknowledged the assistance of the West Texas community, citing the donations of several oil rigs and period cars. Dallas entrepreneur Brint Ryan allowed Roberts to film in the historic Hotel Settles in Big Spring.
The cast has some local flavor, too. Garrison was raised in Richardson, and veteran character actor Ned Van Zandt, the son of the Fort Worth author, plays a supporting role.
Roberts’ father died in 2016, before production began. But all along, the director — whose next project is an adaptation of Jim Dent’s Twelve Mighty Orphans — has wanted Texas moviegoers to see it first.
The film’s world premiere was at last year’s Dallas International Film Festival, and it subsequently screened at festivals in Austin and Fort Worth. Likewise, The Iron Orchard will open in 40 theaters in Texas this weekend, before expanding to other markets around the country.
“It was very important to me to make a story that’s honest to the history and to the book. It’s an honest representation of how life is out there,” Roberts said. “It’s a Texas story to its core.”