12 Mighty Orphans
by director/co-writer Ty Roberts
Some of my fondest memories from childhood occurred at our neighborhood cinema in Midland, Texas back in the early ’80s. The West Texas summers were hot and when the sand blew we’d try to catch double features like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. It was part of our “thing” growing up out there, just as much as football, but with a lot less sweat.
Football and Texas are synonymous. It lies deep in our culture. Earl Campbell was my childhood hero. Watching him barrel over his opponents created the same excitement as a good battle scene in movies like Red Dawn or Conan the Barbarian. And when I stepped onto the football field ready to run the ball, I envisioned ol’ Earl, and did my best to mimic his grace and power. It was a fleeting dream, but it was my very first memory of visualizing something and trying to recreate it.
Fate had a different plan for me as I cut my football career short and focused on dreaming and scheming. Whether it was buying a 1974 Ford Pinto at the age of 14 to drive friends around, or renting an apartment as highschoolers to throw parties and meet girls, it all started with a vision and finding creative solutions to make hard things happen. This desire to be entertained would ultimately lay the foundation to becoming a storyteller and a filmmaker.
What drew me to 12 Mighty Orphans were its themes wherein lied a code of ethics that I have tried to possess as an adult and a writer/director—persistence, discipline and believing in the impossible. My producer, Houston Hill, and I began to fight tooth and nail to obtain the rights to the book, to create a groundswell of support locally in Texas and to ultimately make the film here. Against all odds and with no real ties to Hollywood, little by little, we chipped away at our dream.
My co-writer, Lane Garrison, and I put our heads down for months to write the script. Jim Dent’s book was a wealth of inspiration and quickly confirmed to us that this film would be much more than just another football movie. The story gushed with lively Texas characters and dramatic beats seldom found in a sports film. With a finished script in hand we struggled for months to cast the role of Rusty Russell. Then one day Lane was able to connect with legendary producer Mike De Luca who recognized and later shared our passion in telling this compelling football drama. Weeks later, Mike came on board to produce which finally gave us Texas boys the street cred we needed to cast the film.
Once Luke Wilson was attached I knew we had something truly special. Here is an actor who not only played high school football, but was quirky, funny and often stoic, just like Rusty Russell. Luke was incredibly well-read, even on coaching and sports, and he was Texan to the bone. His love of sport, children and mentoring, was deeply ingrained in him, just as it was in Coach Russell. And when Luke stepped onto that field to coach and inspire those boys before each scene, he no doubt envisioned and transformed himself into Rusty Russell as he performed like he never has before.
When the movie finally got picked up during the pandemic by the distributor I admired most, Sony Pictures Classics, those all too frequent fleeting dreams finally became a reality. I guess a football field is as good a metaphor as any to sow the seeds of a dream. After all, it wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last.
After a grueling year with so much loss and uncertainty, a year without our beloved cinemas, I hope you will find comfort in watching our film. Dreams begin in these theaters. And I hope what you feel and think about as you watch 12 Mighty Orphans allows you to walk away with optimism and excitement to face, and ultimately conquer, your own wildest dreams.
Posted June 10, 2021