Referred to as The Wildcatter’s Bible, The Iron Orchard was a classic Texas novel. It spans three decades of the life and inner workings of the oil industry in the Permian. Written in 1967 by Edmund Van Zandt under the pseudonym of Tom Pendleton. The Van Zandt’s were a prominent Fort Worth family and fearful of his tell-all story, he wrote under the alias so he could remain unknown and not under that shadow.
Van Zandt started out as a roustabout and worked hard in the tough conditions of the industry on which he based the book. He wanted to be a writer, but before he had the opportunity, World War II broke out and he was deployed overseas. Upon his return, he attended law school at Southern Methodist University, but realized courtrooms were not his passion and returned to the oil field.
For years, this incredible literary piece of work was thought to make it to the big screen. Time passed, life happened and even Hollywood had adapted it at one time, but nothing ever came of it. Fast forward to 2014, in comes director and Midland, Texas native, Ty Richards. I had the pleasure of interviewing Richards the week after The Iron Orchard’s first big premiere weekend.
Richards was initially captivated by The Iron Orchard because it captured the history of the independent oil man in a really honest way. It was a sign of the times in post-war America. The West Texas oil man is that mythic figure that has been noted in other books and films, but it has never been a central figure. “It was my hope to be able to adapt that in an effective way to the screen. I wanted to be the one to tell that story. It was important to me because my grandfather worked the oil field in the 1930s and followed the similar trajectory to the main character of this book. The whole post-great depression era was in my grandfather’s story too. It was inspirational to me to tell that side of it and honor that in a way,” says Richards.
Richards partnered with the children of Van Zandt, optioned the rights to the book and bought the movie rights, on the handshake deal that he would honor the book to the best of his ability. Aside from one big blowout scene with a budgetary constraint situation, it’s really close. “I feel like we’ve done a really strong adaptation that follows the book and its trajectory. What is carved out of the book is pretty accurate,” says Richards.
The film was totally financed and accomplished through industry contacts and independents in the industry. This is a movie of the people and by the people. Richards thought this was a wonderful story, which was put in an interesting light back then and currently, today. Looking back and forward, at any given time, oil has been and will continue to be a controversial topic. Back in 2013, when Richards went to his contacts in West Texas for financing, he was reminded that this book was beloved and to accurately follow it, would result in the budget climbing quickly. It took several years to obtain financing and money was a challenge. It became easy to see why independent movie makers did not take on projects of this caliber.
The biggest challenge was that there was always a race against time and money. In terms of drilling a well, every day out there turning that pipe, is costing money. “With our low budget, our daily operational cost was very minimal. To try and rush through the number of scenes we had on a daily basis was often times staggering in 110 degree heat. We also had drilling sites that were an hour and a half away and that cuts into your day when you’re shooting,” says Richards. The ability to work with the actors, rehearse, do stunts, etc. was brutal at times. Although extremely rewarding, they were always battling time.
Period films also present their own challenges. If it’s supposed to be 1946, everywhere the camera is pointed has to look like 1946. “If a modern car is parked in the street or there is a car driving by that doesn’t fit the time period, it had to be removed. It was always a battle of time and resources to make sure everything looked accurate, but I think we nailed it for the most part,” says Richards.
The main partners of the film are an organization called The Wildcatter’s Network. They are a group of people that have a company where they invest in non-oil and gas related things, such as the arts. A week or two before shooting started, they had just kicked off their network and offered to be executive producers. “That was a turning point for us to be able to actually shoot. The really cool thing about them is that we are constantly coming back and talking about how the film business is really similar to drilling and wildcatting a well. You have the different people involved in putting together a well, a land man, an engineer, a geologist, etc. In the film industry, you have a book or an intellectual property right that is similar to a lease or the mineral rights. Then you have a director or producer that comes in, which is similar to someone like a land man or potentially an engineer, if they are someone who is pushing the deal. Whoever has the vision of it all. Then you have the operator who comes in to actually drill, which is like the production team that comes in to make a film happen,” says Richards. With both, you have incredible risks. At one point, it was one in ten wells made money and in the Indie film world, it was one in 13 films made money. The appetite and willingness for risk is very similar. It is not by mistake that this film began and was completed with the help of wildcatters and oilmen. It truly couldn’t have been done any other way and it’s something the oil and gas community can really relate to.
To see this incredible film, you do not have to live in Texas. It is beneficial if you do, however, in the very near future, they plan to hit Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and other states where oil is like-minded. “It’s a working man’s, old school classic story and we want it to go where it will be received well,” says Richards.
The film only opened in Texas as of the date of this interview, but the reviews have been positive across the board. The film was not only praised, but also admired and respected by people and their families who have been in this industry for generations. “The most exciting this is to have an older audience member come up and thank me and say it reminded them of their youth or one of their family members. That’s a testament to this and I feel good about it,” says Richards. To Richards, who set out to depict a real working-class, oil man story and honor Van Zandt and his literary masterpiece, the respect and validation by these individuals means much more to him than the praise of a critic and that speaks volumes for character.