Ty Roberts was initially skeptical about a film adaptation of 12 Mighty Orphans. He feared that the story of the 1930s football powerhouse at the Masonic Home in Fort Worth would be victimized by the usual sports underdog cliches.
Others had tried to bring Dallas author Jim Dent’s acclaimed 2007 novel to the big screen. About a decade ago, a project spearheaded by the grandson of legendary coach Rusty Russell — who led a ragtag team of orphans to gridiron prominence — never got off the ground. Likewise, Roberts saw too many logistical and budgetary red flags.
“I feel like typical sports films tend to follow very similar lines, and it’s virtually unavoidable,” Roberts said. “There were a lot of challenges, in my opinion.”
Yet his producing partner, Houston Hill, urged the Austin filmmaker to reconsider. Roberts read the original screenplay, written by the father-and-son team of Mike and Matt Barr, the former an ex-assistant coach at SMU.
“That script gave me a really solid CliffsNotes of what I was going to expect in the book, what kind of character Rusty Russell was, and what the orphanage meant. I was immediately engaged,” Roberts said. “I saw enough in there to know it was a deeper story than just a football movie.”
Roberts (The Iron Orchard) saw the chance to combine the allure of Texas high school football with a period drama about American resilience near the end of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, when orphaned children reached record numbers nationwide.
The resulting version of 12 Mighty Orphans, which Roberts directed and wrote alongside Dallas actor Lane Garrison, opens in Texas theaters this week.
Russell (Luke Wilson) was a World War I veteran who left a successful program in Temple, Texas, to take over the undersized and outmanned squad at the Masonic Home. Although it embellishes some details, the story charts the 1938 season for the Mighty Mites, who used offensive innovations to engineer a deep playoff run against large-school opponents that captivated fans around the country.
The supporting cast includes Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Vinessa Shaw, and an abundance of Texas talent.
Cameras rolled in the Fort Worth area in fall 2019, with the Texas Pythian Home in Weatherford standing in for the Masonic orphanage, which had been modernized prior to closing in 2005.
Although many of the interior locations were existing, the filmmakers had to construct their own football stadium to 1930s period specifications.
“Being as authentic as possible was of the utmost importance, especially when the story was so beloved,” Roberts said. “Everybody was just open-arms excited for the movie, to bring this story to life. There was a lot of community support.”
Wilson became involved after wrapping the first season of the superhero series “Stargirl” in Atlanta. He said the opportunity to film in North Texas appealed to him.
“I was looking forward to a little break and instead wound up going right into this,” said Wilson, who attended St. Mark’s along with his two older brothers, Owen and Andrew. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I felt lucky that it fell into my lap.”
After reading the screenplay and Dent’s book, Wilson prepared for the role by watching archival footage of Russell, who later coached Doak Walker at both Highland Park and SMU.
“He was such a decent person — kind of stoic and laconic — and not a person that in many ways sought the spotlight,” Wilson said. “When you’re playing a character, you want them to be dynamic or funny or fun to watch. It was kind of a struggle playing somebody so quiet.”
Nevertheless, the actor formed a bond with his young co-stars as a coach would with his players. Nine out of the 12 “players” were cast from the Fort Worth area, and most of them had limited or no football experience, which made them an appropriate fit.
“They called me Coach,” Wilson said. “They were such good kids, attentive and focused. I wanted the boys who hadn’t been on camera before to feel comfortable. They were helping me, too. I loved hanging around those guys. You really are part of a team on a picture like this.”
In addition to a two-week football camp prior to shooting, the actors rehearsed with a pigskin period expert who consulted on play design and other action during the games. The eight-day football portion of the shoot came at the end, in chilly fall temperatures.
“We had to be careful not to shoot it like Friday Night Lights, or something more modern. We had to keep it simpler and within the realm of that era,” Roberts said. “If you watch a game from pre-1950 compared to today, there’s a stark difference in the way you carry the ball and the aggressiveness. There was a very upright, almost proper way to run that almost looked silly.”
The project also attracted the attention of Wilson’s mother, famed Preston Hollow photographer Laura Wilson, whose behind-the-scenes photos will be exhibited at Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum this summer.
When they wrapped production, of course, the filmmakers had no idea a pandemic would precede the film’s release. But the circumstances could add a layer of relevance to the 83-year-old story.
“It specifically resonates today, coming out of such a difficult time. In the movie, there’s a similar sense of uncertainty,” Roberts said. “I think there’s going to be a great ability to connect to that, just sitting back and watching the youth of America inspire us.”