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.”
Jim McNeely’s gusher scene had been delayed for over fifty years. Now fate had postponed it yet again.
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.”