Iron Orchard Gets Its Day on Screen
Austin Film Festival shows the film adaptation of the classic Texas novel
Standing in the shade opposite the historic John Bremond Jr. House at Seventh and Guadalupe, Lew Temple is under a tree, dodging the August sun in a 1950s-style suit, with a crumpled dark brown fedora soaking up the sweat. But there are no complaints from the Walking Dead star, who is part of a movie that is a genuine passion project for him: the long-awaited adaptation of Tom Pendleton's 1966 novel, The Iron Orchard. Temple said, "I find it so serendipitous that I'm involved."
In this tale of the rise and fall of a Texas wildcatter, he plays Ort Cooley, who he described as "the salt-of-the-earth moral compass" for the protagonist, Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison, From Dusk Till Dawn). He's the better angel of McNeely's nature, a character torn straight from the novel. And in this adaptation everything comes back to the book. "It's like our bible," said Austin Nichols, who plays McNeely's consigliere and sometime counterbalance to Cooley's loyalty, Dent Paxton. "Every night before we do a scene, I'll go and read the scene in the book, and sometimes we'll throw in lines from the book that aren't in the script."
Homework aside, it's been a tough shoot, working on real oil wells and digging trenches in 114-degree heat in West Texas, but there's a sadness about Temple's last day on set. He has been bound to the part of Ort for over a decade, but back then, he was part of a team that had the film rights to the novel, "and we just couldn't get a script written."
Call it the other great multigenerational Texas oil novel. It only took four years for Edna Ferber's 1952 epic Giant to be adapted for the big screen; however, while the book by Pendleton (né Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt – yes, of those van Zandts) won instant acclaim and split the 1967 Texas Institute of Letters award with another screen-bound work, Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show, it's been a tough time plucking the fruit of The Iron Orchard. Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, were all at one point connected with adaptations, but no one could wrangle the 373-page tome. Temple said, "Mr. Van Zandt wrote about so many hot-topic subjects at that time – racism, homosexuality, adultery. ... The novel is so weighty and with so many layers. There's so many directions and so many rabbit holes to follow, we just never got the right tone."
Time moves on, rights lapse, and Temple moved on to other projects. Then last year he saw a photo of his friend Garrison holding a copy of The Iron Orchard, and an announcement that he had been cast as the lead. "I had reached out to congratulate him. He immediately phoned me and said, 'Where are you?'" Garrison and Roberts wanted him to join the production as Cooley, the part he had tried and failed to perfect 10 years earlier.
When Temple was working on his version, he said, "We got hung up on the front of our hero's life as a child, and why he had a chip on his shoulder to be so driven." That's why he's so effusive about Gerry De Leon, who wrote the final shooting script and worked with Pendleton's son Ned Van Zandt (who also appears in the film) to explore his father's writing process. Temple said, "[De Leon] was able to land smaller pieces of [the novel] that made it cinematic."
The Iron Orchard plays at the Galaxy Highland on Sat., Oct. 27, at 4pm, and at the Stateside Theatre on Tue., Oct. 30, at 7:15pm.