New film shows West Texas oil roots

Growing up in Midland, Ty Roberts would hear stories from his father and his grandfather, who both broke into the oil industry in the early days.

His grandfather began back in the ‘30s when he rode the train down from Oklahoma to begin working as a roughneck in the oilfields, and his father followed in his footsteps, working for Shell in the ‘50s.

“Growing up out there, I always wanted to write a story based on the independent oil man,” Roberts, a filmmaker, said. “And I had incorporated that type of character into other stories before, but never had a full-fledged West Texas wildcatter sort of story.”

It wasn’t until around 2009, when he read the book “The Iron Orchard,” that Roberts found his West Texas wildcatter story. And on May 5, his film adaptation of the book will be premiering at the Dallas International Film Festival.

“The Iron Orchard” is a fictional 1966 book by Tom Pendleton telling the story of Jim McNeely, who is thrust into the West Texas oilfields in the late ‘30s and becomes a formidable wildcatter, a driller of oil wells.

Roberts said the book reminded him of the story of his grandfather, and saw it as an opportunity to tell people about the prolific effects the Permian Basin oil fields have had, as he said many aren’t aware of what the area has done for Texas and the world.

“From a personal level, I think it’s really fascinating,” he said.

Roberts has been trying to get the movie made since around 2010 or 2011, he said, and began raising money around 2013. All of his financial partners involved in the funding of the movie were either involved in the oil business or had relatives in the field, which caused the movie to get put on the backburner for a while following the 2014 oil crash.

The film stays authentic to its story as well, as the movie was filmed in the Permian Basin, mainly in Big Spring and also some scenes in Midland. Roberts said they had some local help from local oil rig companies who allowed them to shoot on their rigs for a couple days at no cost.

“That doesn’t happen anywhere else,” Roberts said. “Everybody shared a real strong sense of ‘let’s tell our story.’ ”

Roberts said that at some point in the future he plans to have screenings of the film at locations in West Texas.

“The Iron Orchard” will be joining a long legacy of films either filmed in or set in West Texas, including movies such as “Giant” and “Friday Night Lights,” and films which, while weren’t filmed here, were set in the region, such as “No Country for Old Men” and “Hell or High Water.”

“West Texas has a very enigmatic and sort of mythic scale to it that really no other place does,” Roberts said. “I just couldn’t do it any other way. I wanted this to be an authentic account of how the roustabouts and wildcatters lived and drilled and loved and spent their days and lives.”

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