The Making of ‘The Iron Orchard’: Brushes with Fame and Fortune in the West Texas Oil Patch
Can a 1960s novel with a cult following finally become the blockbuster film its fans believe it should be?
This story originally appeared in the January 2018 issue with the headline “The Wildcatters.”
Ninety-five years ago this May, the first commercial oil well drilled in West Texas, known as the Santa Rita No. 1, came roaring to life. The moment was announced by a thunderous rumble as pressure from deep beneath the earth’s surface forced the long-trapped liquid skyward, spewing over the rig’s crown block in an arc that left the red dirt stained black more than two hundred yards away. The gusher signaled the discovery of the most lucrative oil reserve in North America and has fueled the dreams of Permian Basin wildcatters ever since.
That iconic image of the gusher has long been imprinted on Texas’s collective imagination, tied to dreams of wealth, luck, and success but also greed and destruction. Such scenes have become a staple of stories about oil and those who seek it. Think of Jett Rink bathed in crude in Giant or the black liquid bubbling through Daniel Plainview’s derrick in There Will Be Blood. We’ve instinctively come to understand that when oil erupts from the earth, it will suddenly and irrevocably alter the fates of all those in its proximity.
Ty Roberts was seeking his own gusher one sweltering Thursday evening last June. The Midland-born film director stood on the oil-splattered floor of the drilling rig he had commissioned, going over the final details of the scene his crew had started calling “the big spray.” Roberts wore a pearl-snap stretched over a slight beer belly, khaki-colored jeans, roughout Red Wing boots, and a palm-leaf hat. Tufts of brown hair peeked out over his ears. He was in the middle of a pasture ten miles east of Big Spring, surrounded by his cast and crew and an endless sea of scrub brush and mesquite. The gusher scene would be a critical moment in his film, and with a limited budget, he had one chance to get it right.
Roberts and his team had been working twelve-hour days for the previous week, most of that time under the sun in 100 degree heat. With pants muddied from kneeling in the dust and sweat soaking through their shirts, the filmmakers looked as dirty and bronzed as a gang of roustabouts. Despite the director’s best attempts to keep everyone hydrated, two crew members had gone to the hospital on the first day due to the heat. These were not the conditions under which most movies are typically filmed. Then again, this was not your typical movie.
Roberts was making The Iron Orchard, a film based on the novel of the same name that, upon its publication, in 1966, was hailed as “the most authentic fiction treatment of the business of finding and producing oil.” The story follows the life of Jim McNeely, a young Texan desperate to make something of himself, with nowhere to go but the oil fields surrounding Midland and Odessa. Once thought destined to become a classic, the book is now out of print. Though it has faded from the state’s cultural memory, there remains a fraternity of wildcatters who have continued to hold a special reverence for the text. And though the oilmen readily admit they know a lot more about tricone drill bits than they do about movies, they have long been sure that The Iron Orchard would make one hell of a film. Yet after five decades, no one had managed to film a single frame—until June 7 of last year, when Roberts began his grueling 26-day marathon shoot, first in West Texas and later in Austin.
To say that filming the entire movie—a historical epic that spans three decades—in a month was ambitious would be an understatement. It was a plan that bordered on recklessness but was born out of necessity. With no major studio money bankrolling the project, Roberts had spent a good chunk of the past eight years trying to woo financial backers. Most of his investors were oil-money types, and though their pockets and love for the book did run deep, their willingness to shell out for an indie film did not. By the beginning of 2017, he’d finally managed to scrape together enough cash to move forward, but just barely. As one producer, Camille Scioli Chambers, put it, “We’re making Lawrence of Arabia on a Clerks budget.” That meant there was little room for error, especially with something as technically ambitious and narratively important as Jim McNeely’s gusher.
To recreate the gusher scene from the book as accurately as possible, Roberts had enlisted a couple of real-life roughnecks, a father and son duo from Iraan, to use their forties-era cable tool rig to drill an actual well on-site. Standing next to the film’s leading man, Lane Garrison, and his co-stars, who were all costumed in the business attire of the forties, the roughnecks looked authentically haggard in their dust-powdered overalls. Roberts asked the driller to repeat what he would say and how he’d react if the gusher scenario were real.
“You wouldn’t run, would ya?” Roberts asked.
The driller nodded. “I’d step pretty lively, yeah.”
Once he had their dialogue confirmed, Roberts went to confer with his special-effects coordinator, Brandon Noack. While the rig and the roughnecks were real, the oil that was soon to be spraying through the derrick was not. The volunteer fire chief from Big Spring had let Roberts use one of the department’s trucks. Earlier in the afternoon, Noack had filled the truck’s reservoir with “oil,” a substance he had concocted by mixing water with vegetable oil and food dye. He had then run a hose from the tank to the rig and carefully buried the line so it wouldn’t be detected on camera. The line had already been pressurized. All Noack needed was the word from Roberts, and with the turn of a valve, he could shoot a thick stream of fluid high into the air. At least, that was the plan. Noack hadn’t had a chance to test his system. They didn’t have the time or the money. Besides, it would have left the entire set drenched in faux petroleum.
At last they were ready. But as Roberts and Noack went over the final details with the director of photography, the crew’s walkie-talkies began to crackle with updates about an approaching storm. All day the sun had burned overhead, but moments earlier ash-colored clouds, announced by a low rumble of thunder, had appeared to the north. Roberts pulled out his phone and watched as a red-colored storm cell began to spread like a bloodstain on the radar. He knew if he was going to film the scene today, he’d need to move quickly.
“Get the actors in here,” Roberts said into the walkie-talkie attached to his lapel.
The leads hurried to take their positions near the rig.
“Storm’s a-brewing!” Garrison hollered.
The mood on set, which had been buoyant all day despite the heat, had become palpably tense. The entire crew was standing by, anxious to see the big spray.
Roberts gave one last bit of direction to the actors. “Remember, guys, this is your dream.”
There was a strong smell of rain and red dirt on the wind. The set went quiet. Thunder rolled again, this time louder. The camera moved into place. And then it all ended.
“We’re going to have to push the scene!” an assistant director yelled. Webs of lightning split the sky, too close to the set. Garrison and the cast were ordered to take shelter in one of the waiting vans and were driven to the safety of a nearby barn. The crew scattered. Some rushed to get the most expensive equipment into the trailers, while others scrambled to move the antique trucks, which were on loan, under some form of cover. A light rain fell. Then it began to hail.
Seated beneath one of the pop-up tents used for shade, Roberts looked like a wildcatter who’d just learned that a promising well had turned up dry. He watched the frenetic display of electrons dancing across the sky and the ice bouncing like popcorn as it struck the ground. Jim McNeely’s gusher scene had been delayed for over fifty years. Now fate had postponed it yet again.
“A man could get killed writing a book like this.” So claimed the ads touting The Iron Orchard in newspapers across the country at the time of its release, in the mid-sixties, an allusion to the dangers of the oil field. Adding to the novel’s machismo mystique was the fact that the author had used a pen name, Tom Pendleton, and the publisher had cryptically characterized him on the dust jacket as “an old roustabout type.” There was no question that whoever had authored this tale had an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the West Texas oil fields. Writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Maxine Baxter didn’t venture to guess any names, but she did declare, “My woman’s intuition tells me that this [story] is autobiographical.”
Baxter was right—mostly. The author’s real name was Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr., and he had lived through many of the experiences described in his book. But there was a major difference between the fictional Jim McNeely and Van Zandt. While the story’s protagonist begins his life in poverty, the author was born on June 30, 1916, into one of Fort Worth’s most prominent families. Van Zandt’s grandfather had famously helped establish the city, and his predecessors were architects of the Texas Republic. Much like his cousin, the songwriter Townes Van Zandt, would do years later, Edmund rejected his family’s fortune in order to forge his own destiny.
“My dad grew up in the shadow of having to be a Van Zandt,” Edmund’s son, the actor Ned Van Zandt, told me. (Ned plays a prominent role in Roberts’s adaptation of the book.) “My grandfather wanted him to work in the family bank, but like Jim McNeely, my dad struck out on his own and went to work in the West Texas oil fields.”
Van Zandt first found employment as a roustabout, spending long days digging trenches for flowlines and connecting miles and miles of heavy pipe. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Gulf Oil Company to landman, a position that negotiates deals between oil producers and landowners. Throughout his time in the oil patch, Van Zandt entertained notions of becoming a professional writer, a desire he’d harbored since his undergraduate days at the University of Texas. Before he could act on these literary inclinations, war broke out in Europe and soon reached American soil.
During World War II, Van Zandt served as a captain in the Marine Corps and was deployed overseas as an intelligence officer in the Pacific Marine Air Wing. Following Japan’s surrender, he continued his service as secretary of the naval air mission in Lima, Peru. He came back to the U.S. to study law at Southern Methodist University, where he became the editor in chief of the school’s law review. Van Zandt graduated with honors in 1949 but soon realized he had no love for the tedium of courtrooms and went back to work for Gulf. This time the company tasked him with brokering foreign oil leases, a role that would send him and his family—which by the fifties included his wife, two sons, and a daughter—to such far-flung places as Venezuela, Somalia, and London.
In 1952, Van Zandt finally realized his dream of becoming a published writer when he sold a story to Collier’s magazine for $8,500. “Deep Test” was printed as a two-part serial, released over consecutive weeks in March 1953. The first half ran alongside a short piece by a budding novelist named Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The narrative bones that make up “Deep Test” are largely the same ones that give The Iron Orchard its shape. The short story chronicles an aging lease hound who gambles his entire life’s work to drill one final well. Sure enough, Hollywood came calling. MGM snatched up the rights to the story, but nothing ever came of it.
Selling his first story to a prestigious publication for such a hefty price tag was sort of the writerly equivalent of a wildcatter discovering oil on his first well. It was a stroke of luck, but it was tempered by a long dry spell that followed. After spending much of his adult life living abroad, far from the family’s name and the expectations of being a Van Zandt, the 46-year-old decided it was time to come home. In 1963, Van Zandt fulfilled the wishes of his deceased father by taking a position at the family’s Fort Worth National Bank.
But every evening, after completing his obligations at the bank, Van Zandt would retreat to his home office with a few carefully measured fingers of Jack Daniels and his pack of smokes, sit down at his typewriter, and write. It was over the course of these evenings that the vague ideas that had been swirling in Van Zandt’s mind since his early days in the oil patch were harnessed into pages of prose.
By any measure, The Iron Orchard is an epic Texas novel. The book begins in the thirties with Jim McNeely heading on foot from his hometown of Winfield (a thinly veiled screen for Fort Worth) to begin a new life as a roustabout in the Permian Basin. He’s not quite twenty, already orphaned, and has little more than the threadbare suit on his back.
When McNeely arrives at the Dead Lake man camp, he is subjected to the violent, brutal reality of the occupation. With the help of a Shakespeare-quoting office worker named Dent Paxton, McNeely eventually acclimates to his harsh new environment and vanquishes the bullies who torment him. But McNeely doesn’t intend to just survive paycheck to paycheck like his oil patch brethren. After several years of laying pipe in the roustabout gang, he leaves the camp to become a partner in an oil field servicing company in Odessa. This time he doesn’t make the journey alone.
Lee Montgomery is an intelligent and comely schoolteacher who leaves her insipid engineer husband to marry the aspirational McNeely. Together the newlyweds slowly grow their small independent business. Though their company is making money, McNeely desperately wants to drill his own wells. He puts everything he and Lee have worked for on the line to come up with enough cash to start drilling. McNeely lucks out and strikes oil on his first wildcat, but the modest success only makes him hungrier. He believes that “somewhere hidden deep within the laminated crust of the earth, unknown as yet to all but God there was a great, tumescent oil field, waiting for him.”
In the two decades that follow that first big gusher, the insatiable desire to find his own oil field drives McNeely to contort his conscience in his quest to gain as much money and stature as he can. Without revealing too many details of the book’s final act, suffice it to say that McNeely’s fate is not so different from Captain Ahab’s. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Melville’s classic as a sort of spiritual prequel to Van Zandt’s cautionary wildcatting tale.
Perhaps that’s what one reviewer was trying to invoke when he exclaimed that The Iron Orchard was “a whale of a story.” Other critics echoed the praise. Lon Tinkle opined in the Dallas Morning News, “It deserves to rank on any list of the most distinguished novels of this century.” In newspapers in Arizona, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere, others heralded the book as “a fine piece of writing,” “magnificent and memorable reading,” and “a regional novel of stature . . . with authenticity oozing out in every page.”
Spurred by the effusive critical praise, the novel became the text of choice for monthly book clubs across Van Zandt’s home state. And in his hometown of Fort Worth, a group called Women of the West threw an Iron
Orchard–themed party with “derricks and tin drillers’ hats” serving as the decor. Though Van Zandt had published using Tom Pen-dle-ton as an alias, because of the previous success of “Deep Test” (which he had authored under his real name), the writer’s true identity soon became the worst-kept secret in town.
“I started out with a firm resolve to be anonymous, for the reason that I would like very much to keep my author’s and my bread-and-butter business hats separate,” he anonymously told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It hasn’t worked out that way, because practically every barber and beauty parlor operator in town can tell you who Tom Pendleton is.”
The year following its publication, The Iron Orchard was unanimously voted the co-winner of the Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters. The other honoree was Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. The $1,000 prize was split between the authors, but because Van Zandt wanted to keep his name out of the papers, he asked his editor at McGraw-Hill, the Trinity-born writer William Goyen, to accept on his behalf. The $500 check was hand-delivered to Van Zandt by another legendary Texas scribe, John Graves.
Van Zandt had reached the pinnacle of Texas letters. And yet the acceptance letter he sent to the TIL reveals a man besieged by self-doubt. “I must say that in my innermost heart I feel quite a bit like an impostor, because I can’t really believe that I am deserving of the award you bestow upon me tonight. This is not false modesty.” He goes on to say that The Iron Orchard was such a “good piece of meat” that no cook could have ruined it. “I almost wish the assignment had been given to a truly gifted writer.”
There is a significant difference between the prose of “Deep Test” and the debut novel. The language of the latter feels mature and elevated. Those familiar with the enigmatic works of Goyen, the book’s editor, will sense the influence of the East Texas writer’s distinctive style, especially in the novel’s most soaring, lyrical passages.
Certain aspects of the book haven’t aged well. Readers today will detect whiffs of homophobia, misogyny, and racism. But despite these shortcomings and Van Zandt’s own feelings of authorial inadequacy, The Iron Orchard contains some fine writing. For those who grew up in the oil field, there’s an immediate connection to the people and places depicted in the book. Van Zandt pinpoints the unique miseries of living in the Permian Basin—the sand that constantly sifts under doors and collects on windowsills, the mind-numbing flatness, the long drives and all the emptiness in between. But he also knew where to look to find beauty:
Here in these desiccated plains, when the wind is quiet, the early light falls across the land with a serenity of colors that flow imperceptibly from a star-speckled blue-black just before dawn into pale spreading yellows and melon pinks, and then the whole sky seems to open up into a depthless shimmering light that makes a man feel he can breathe better.
He also understood the unique cultural traits of the oil patch. He wrote knowingly of the paradox of a brand-new vehicle parked out front of a roughneck’s run-down shack. (“They returned from their daily labor mud-spattered and oil-stained . . . but they rode in the carriages of bankers and tycoons.”) He detailed the vicious weekly cycle that continues to haunt many young workers to this day: “All the money he had sweated for since Monday morning went down the drains of pleasure on Saturday night.” And he captured the roughnecks’ dark humor. “ ‘Did you all hear about that derrick man over at Hobbs fell outa the derrick?’ ” one of the characters asks. To which another replies, “ ‘I don’t worry none about the fallin’ part. It’s them last two feet. That’s what kills you.’ ”
For those not from the region, it may be impossible to fully comprehend the role oil plays in the Permian Basin. Though the local economies have diversified a bit in recent years, the simple truth is that without oil, there would be little cause for people to live there. It is the lifeblood that fuels the careers of everyone from the football coach to the diner waitress to the car salesman to the mayor and the Baptist preacher. In Andrews, the schools aren’t named after astronauts or war heroes but rather the oil-bearing rock formations that give the town a reason to be.
The Iron Orchard captures this sentiment extraordinarily well. Van Zandt takes on what should be the most boring subject ever—the millennia-spanning process of organic matter breaking down into hydrocarbons—and pens it in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching a dreamy time-lapse sequence in a Terrence Malick film.
Toward the novel’s conclusion he writes, “The great compound organism of the drilling rig, trembling with deep and deafening power, spiraled its slender wand farther and farther into the cockles of the earth, like the galeae of a butterfly probing for the deep-seated nectars of a flower.” With sentences like that running rampant through the book, it’s no wonder that some oilmen have rechristened it “the wildcatter’s bible.”
The phrase has a nice ring to it, but it also carries some meaningful heft. Veterans of the oil patch, especially around Midland, will give the novel to hungry youngsters entering the industry. Inside on a blank page, there’s often a hand-scrawled note. One such inscription from a senior geologist to a boll weevil reads, “The key for you, as it was for all of us, is to succeed without taking the shortcuts, because those shortcuts lead to destruction.” The geologist also tacked on a verse from the actual Bible—just in case.
Of the long history of unsuccessful attempts to commit The Iron Orchard to film, the initial effort, in the mid-sixties, was the most sustained. Billy Mahan was the first would-be producer and later chronicled his foibles in the movie industry in a syndicated column. A former child actor, Mahan was working as an assistant film editor in L.A. when he read the book and, sure he had a blockbuster on his hands, borrowed some cash and hopped on a plane to Fort Worth. (This wasn’t the first time Mahan had flown across the country to acquire the rights to a novel. He once traveled all the way to New Hampshire in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade J. D. Salinger to let him make The Catcher in the Rye.) In Cowtown, Mahan arranged a lunch with Van Zandt and a dozen or so potential investors. The ballsy, quick-talking Mahan somehow wrangled $150,000 to develop a script.
With a screenplay soon in hand, Mahan attracted some big names to the project. Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, David Janssen, George Peppard, Glen Ford, and Elvis Presley were all reportedly interested in the role of McNeely, while Natalie Wood and Samantha Eggar were discussed as possibilities for Lee Montgomery. But the timing could not have been worse. Hollywood was in the middle of scaling down, favoring gritty independent films over the big-budget epics that had once reigned at the box office. A sprawling West Texas oil movie wasn’t to be.
There were other efforts over the years. Ned Van Zandt has a hard time recalling all of them now. Some were by big-time studio names like Robert Redford, some were by nobodies—fans of the book or producer wannabes trying to break into the movies. In the aughts, Lew Temple added his name to the roster of Iron Orchard hopefuls. Raised in Texas, Temple had worked in the Houston Astros’ front office before he found a second career as an actor. He too managed to bang out a script, with a writing buddy in Los Angeles, but once again, the option expired. (In 2017 Temple received a call from Lane Garrison. Garrison said he had recently taken the starring role in an oil field movie set in Texas and was wondering if Temple might be interested in playing a part. Temple could hardly believe what he was hearing. A decade after his own dreams for producing the film had dried up, he would end up helping to make The Iron Orchard after all.)
In the decades that have followed the novel’s release, its fame has faded. The book went out of print, and with no adaptation gracing cinema screens, The Iron Orchard all but disappeared from the state’s cultural tapestry. Part of the problem is that it became nearly impossible to find a copy of the novel. It’s not uncommon in the Permian Basin to see an estate sale ad list the book by name, but even there the hardback edition has been selling for $250 since the eighties. Today, copies hawked online can fetch double that—when you can find them. At that price, the novel isn’t going to garner many new fans. But a film version made by oil money could give the story a second life.
In 2009, Ty Roberts received an email from his father telling him that a family friend had acquired the rights to an oil field book and wanted to make a movie. At the time, Roberts was living in Argentina and working on a documentary about the spectacled bear (the only native bear species found in South America). Roberts had originally ventured from his hometown of Midland to Argentina in his early twenties to pursue an offer at an oil exploration company. The plan was to follow in his father’s, grandfather’s, and great-grandfather’s footsteps and begin a career in the oil and gas industry. But Roberts soon realized his passions lay elsewhere—specifically, behind a camera.
Roberts eventually made contact with the friend, a man named Steve Massey, who had moved to Midland in the eighties to work as a roughneck and had later grown his own business as a pipe salesman. Massey had no real concept of moviemaking, but he was passionate about The Iron Orchard. Over the next couple of years Roberts helped him develop a plan. In 2011 they had a script written and began shopping it around without much success. Eventually Massey told Roberts that his option on The Iron Orchard was about to expire and that he did not plan to renew it. Roberts felt as if two years of work and a dream had just vanished. Then he had a screwball notion. He contacted the Van Zandt children and pitched them his idea: sell him an eighteen-month option for $1, and he would use his Midland connections to raise the millions needed to cover the production costs. The Van Zandts were skeptical, but they agreed to the deal.
As Roberts went back to work looking for patrons, he decided that if he was going to spend this much time and effort on the project, he would direct the movie himself. “It would be my calling card,” he said.
But the oilmen Roberts was certain would line up to throw money at the project proved to be less than surefire bets. Though he quickly covered his development costs, the rest of the process proved slow-going. The option expired again. This time Roberts had to pay in full. Then, in 2015, the price of oil crashed, and the already slim pickings shrunk to almost none. Roberts realized that if he were going to make this film, he’d have to do it with far less money than he had originally hoped.
With a significantly trimmed bottom line, he moved forward once again and finally made some progress. A casting director put him in touch with Lane Garrison. The Dallas native is not the typical Hollywood leading man. He’s built like a bull rider and his lip is often fat with a wad of Skoal. His personal history includes both tragedy and a remarkable display of bootstrap ambition that tracks in an eerily similar way to the character he portrays in the film. After a few conversations with Garrison, Roberts knew he had found his Jim McNeely. (Despite his Texas bona fides, Garrison received some good-natured ribbing for his pronunciation of “oil” from some Big Spring locals visiting the set. “Oy-yell,” they howled. “It’s uhl!”)
In 2016, Roberts and producer Houston Hill managed to put together enough financing to set a date for production. Two weeks away from the first scheduled shoot day and still underfunded, Roberts connected with Greg McCabe, of the Wildcatters Network, an online investment platform. McCabe proved to be the angel Roberts had been hoping would appear to help cover the remaining deficit. “We took a big leap of faith, and it paid off,” Roberts said. It seemed The Iron Orchard movie was going to be made at last.
There’s a scene in the book where Jim McNeely, having tasted mild success from his first gusher but not yet curdled by the glut of excessive wealth, drives out to Scurry County to inspect a block of leases for sale. The area is unproven, and the geological features aren’t overly promising of any oil underfoot. Still, McNeely has a good feeling. It’s the only time he prays, not to God but to Saint Rita, the patroness of impossible dreams, whose name has been invoked by oilmen since Frank Pickrell drilled that first successful well in West Texas.
There are multiple accounts of how Pickrell’s Santa Rita No. 1 came to be. The version you’ll hear most often from the old-timers hanging around oil patch cafes is that Pickrell’s success was blind luck. In 1919, the wildcatter had come into some oil and gas permits on a stretch of drought-ridden sheep range west of San Angelo. Few believed that the land or what lay beneath it was worth anything, but Pickrell was determined, and after two years he managed to raise the funds to start drilling. The story goes that the transport hauling his rig broke down before it reached its intended location. The eighteen-month drilling permit was set to expire at midnight, so Pickrell unloaded the rig off the wagons and started drilling right there on the spot.
Progress proved slow. Pickrell was using an old cable-tool rig run by crews that knew more about cowboying than they did oil wells. Several times the money ran out and operations came to a halt. At one of these low points, Pickrell climbed the derrick and released a handful of rose petals he’d been given by a group of Catholic investors. He decided then to name the well after the patron saint of the impossible.
Twenty-one months after drilling first began, the Santa Rita No. 1 gushed into being. People from as far away as Fort Worth came to witness the oil spraying, which continued to spew for a month until the casing arrived and a packer was set. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this discovery to the region and the state. Pickrell had found the Permian Basin oil reserve, which would yield years of production, and because much of the region is state university land, the riches that have since flowed from those wells have filled the coffers of the Permanent University Fund, to the tune of $17 billion. The real kicker, as the old-timers will tell you, is that soon after, another well was spudded where the first one was meant to be drilled, and it turned out to be “as dry as popcorn.”
McNeely isn’t so lucky. In the novel he goes against his gut feeling in Scurry County and decides not to buy the leases. The decision haunts him for the rest of his life. Someone else took the chance, and soon, “glinting silver in the sun like a well-tended orchard of iron, were fifty-six of the finest oil wells ever drilled in America.”
There’s a line in Van Zandt’s book that his son, Ned, delivers in the film. “There’s an element of luck in all business,” he says, “but in the oil business, luck is the queen of destiny.” The idiom is certainly true for wildcatters, but surely Van Zandt knew that luck plays an equally monarchical role in the business of creating art that endures.
Back when The Iron Orchard was still the focus of editorials, the Star-Telegram wrote that the novel “shows every sign of a long life as a dependable producer . . . A Hollywood offset is already spudded in with excellent prospects.” For all of his brushes with success, Edmund Van Zandt did not live to see this proverbial well come in. He published two more novels—neither of which earned the attention of his debut—before he died on July 22, 1972, at the age of 56. The year before he passed, the cinematic adaptation of The Last Picture Show premiered to critical acclaim and went on to win two of its eight Oscar nominations.
Half a century later, the other co-winner of the 1966 TIL fiction award will at long last have its day at the movies. Given the trials and tribulations that have plagued its path to the theaters, it’s no coincidence that Ty Roberts named his production company Santa Rita Pictures. As of this writing, Roberts was still a few weeks away from finally finishing the film. He hadn’t yet sold it to a major distribution studio and was still waiting to hear if it had been accepted to any of the major festivals. But like Pickrell and McNeely, Roberts was hoping that against seemingly impossible odds, sooner or later, his effort might strike it big.
The day after the hailstorm, Roberts and his crew returned to the pasture outside Big Spring. This time there were no clouds. There wasn’t much breeze either, and the temperature soared to 105 degrees. (The next day it hit 109, tying the city’s record.) The call sheet, which provides a detailed list of the day’s activities, reminded everyone to “Be kind. It’s too hot not to be.” It also reiterated the need to drink water.
Almost all of the crew members had bandannas soaked in cold water fanning out from under their hats to shield their necks from the sun. One of the makeup artists had strategically placed ice packs inside her bra to keep cool. “It’s legitimately dangerous out here,” production designer Mars Feehery said, as she grabbed a water bottle. “I can see why people don’t make movies in West Texas.”
They had spent the day filming scenes in different parts of the field while Roberts waited for “the golden hour.” As soon as the sun began to slink toward the western horizon, around seven that evening, the director radioed the PAs at the rig to start preparing for the big spray.
The atmosphere had been lethargic since the heat had taken hold early that morning, but now a hum of excitement electrified the set. One of the roughnecks started singing Buck Owens: “They’re gonna put me in the movies.”
Roberts, the special-effects coordinator, and the director of photography convened with the driller on the rig floor one final time. There were a lot of uncertainties, like how many takes they would be able to shoot, how high the spray would go, and where exactly the faux oil would rain down.
The driller turned to the director of photography, who would be operating the camera close to the rig throughout the scene. “If it gits all over you, then that’s part of the job,” he said. “Exactly,” the cameraman said, in a French accent that stuck out like a mesquite thorn against the roughneck’s West Texas drawl. Then he lit a cigarette and announced, “Let’s do it, guys.”
The actors were called into positions. Lane Garrison and Lew Temple received some last-minute touch-ups from the makeup artists to keep the beads of sweat at bay. Ali Cobrin, who plays Lee Montgomery, looked genuinely scared as she stared at the nearby wellbore, which would soon be flooded with thousands of pounds of pressurized fluid.
“We clear?” Roberts asked into his walkie-talkie.
The set quieted. There was a stillness in the air. Then Roberts shouted, “Action!”
The fire truck’s engine revved loudly as it sent a thick stream of “oil” high into the air. It worked. Catching the last rays of daylight, the mist looked like black diamonds glistening in the sun. One of the producers began to cry. A few of the locals cheered. Garrison didn’t have to pretend to be overjoyed by the sight of the gusher. He and his co-stars danced around and hoisted martinis in a celebratory toast, just as McNeely and his confidants had done in the novel.
Basking in his newfound fortune and oblivious to the ways this moment would transmute his future, McNeely’s face was awash with contentment. He sighed. “We’re in the oil business now, sugar.”