The motion picture 12 Mighty Orphans, the story of the Depression-era football team of society’s castoffs that captured the heart of America, has nearly called it a wrap in North Texas. It’s got star power to spare: Martin Sheen. Luke Wilson. Robert Duval.
There’s another star that’s going to get plenty of time in the spotlight, too: Fort Worth, both in front of and behind the camera.
Producer Brinton Bryan of Greenbelt Films and executive producer, oilman George M. Young Jr., took the stage on Nov. 22 at the Downtown Rotary Club of Fort Worth to talk about the film.
Both are from the area – Bryan grew up in Granbury and Young in Fort Worth. Both are part of the team currently filming 12 Mighty Orphans in Fort Worth and the area, the movie version of a book that – if you’ve read it – you probably wonder why it has taken so long to get to the screen.
And both are plenty happy that they are making the film where the events described in the book happened: Fort Worth.
The movie, based on the book, by sportswriter Jim Dent, is directed by Ty Roberts, another Texas native. Michael De Luca Productions, Santa Rita Film Co. and Greenbelt Films are producing the film. Young and Rhett Bennett are executive producing the film.
The book is the true story of the Mighty Mites football team that played in the 1930s and 1940s at the Masonic Home and School of Texas in Fort Worth at the intersection of U.S. 287 and Berry Street.
That is now the site of Renaissance Square, the retail and housing project that is remaking the face of Southeast Fort Worth.
The Masonic Home was built to house and educate the orphans of Texas Freemasons.
The team would often play and defeat teams with much bigger players (hence the nickname Mites). They became the pride of Fort Worth – and the country – in the dark days of the Depression, when inspiration and hope were harder to scrape together than two nickels.
With the help of Coach H.N. “Rusty” Russell, to be played by Wilson, they became one of the greatest football teams to thunder out of Texas. Many games were played in Farrington Field.
Bryan noted that the film has already had an economic impact on Fort Worth.
“Our crew is about 150 people. I would say 130 of those are local Texas residents. That doesn’t include several hundred extras. It’s also about 50 speaking part actors as well as all the food that we’re feeding our crew and our extras every day, sourcing props and set dressing and wardrobe,” he said.
“Everyone that’s here gets their paycheck every week and they’re going out into the community and they’re spending it on groceries and gas and going to the movies and going bowling and supporting local restaurants. So, it’s really a chain reaction that is huge for the local economy,” he said.
City officials, who waived permit fees for the film, estimate the economic impact of the film to be around $11.7 million, including the value of media coverage, local hiring, hotel room nights, and support of local businesses.
Having support from the city and the Visit Fort Worth film office was key, because the film was almost made in Oklahoma, lured by economic incentives from across the Red River.
“Texas unfortunately, isn’t really competitive when it comes to the tax incentives and that’s a legislative thing,” Bryan said. “Keep that in mind when you’re voting that you have the power to bring more film projects to the state of Texas.”
Bryan noted that most of the money to finance the film was raised locally.
“All of the money that we raised on 12 Mighty Orphans was raised right here in Fort Worth and in Dallas,” he said. “And these investors are coming out to the set and bringing their friends and family.
“There are people who have never invested in a movie before in their lives, just normal businesspeople that are really just kind of, you know, they’ve never seen anything like it. And I like that. I like that we get to go to places where this isn’t the norm. And I think that’s Texas,” he said.
Young noted that when first read the book, he tried to buy the movie rights even though he had never been involved in film production before.
“Those of you have read the 12 Mighty Orphans by Jim Dent. I think you’ll agree with me, it’s a quick read. It’s dynamic, it’s powerful,” he said.
“It created a passion in me that, in 2008, I actually tried to buy the movie rights and I’m thinking, this has got to be made into a good movie. Somebody’s got to do this. And then I got distracted. I had a lot of business going on at the time,” he said.
He later met Bryan at a wedding and they began talking about making some movies, eventually finding a way to get involved with 12 Mighty Orphans.
“Great stories that are not full of sex and violence that resonate with families. How do you not love a story about young men and women who are essentially discarded by society and put into an environment where they are destined to fail?,” Young said. “And a couple of men, Doc and Rusty come in, and it’s like, ‘Nah, we’re going to help these young men and women. We’re going to teach them skills, we’re going to teach them the life lessons from football that help them excel in life.’ For me it was a passion play, but as a general rule on a movie-type situation, for me it was trusting the people that brought me the project.”
The Fort Worth Film Commission and Visit Fort Worth began working with producers in early 2018 pitching and scouting locations throughout Fort Worth and Weatherford.
“This is an important Fort Worth story and a fantastic opportunity for the local industry. We will be working with them throughout the process to assist with locations, permits and anything else that may be needed during filming,” Jessica Christopherson, AVP of Marketing and Film Commissioner of Visit Fort Worth, said when the film was announced.
While much of the film was shot in Fort Worth, some key scenes were shot in Weatherford, where the Texas Pythian Home, which opened in 1909, retains the look and feel of the former Masonic Home in Fort Worth.
Wilson plays Russell, a World War I veteran with a troubled past; his mother left him to an orphanage when he was a child.
Haunted by his failures, Rusty is determined to go down swinging, and accepts a job as at a Texas orphanage and high school in southeast Fort Worth. He was supposed to just be a teacher, but the school wanted a football team.
That, despite the fact that, at the beginning, they didn’t even have a football. Eventually Russell turned a scrawny band of 12 underdogs into a fearsome team that left their better-equipped opponents bewildered and battered – and more importantly – beaten.
According to a book called Sports Champions of Fort Worth, the Masonic Home team was voted into District 7 with Fort Worth city high schools in 1932 and took no prisoners. All in all, Russell’s Masonic Home teams produced a 127-30-12 record and, as the book says, “eight of the most exciting teams in the history of Fort Worth.”
How did he do it? Well, have you heard of the spread offense popularized most recently by former Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach?
Russell is considered to be the grandfather of the spread offense.
Because his teams were so often undersized compared to the competition, he would deploy a spread offense to make up for that critical size differential. Obviously, if you look at his record, it often worked.
Director Roberts co-wrote the script with actor and director Lane Garrison.
Garrison, who is best known for his role as David “Tweener” Apolskis on the Fox series Prison Break, also starred as the troubled chaser of oil dreams, Jim McNeely, in Santa Rita’s film The Iron Orchard, 2018.
That film also has plenty of Fort Worth connections. It is based on the book of the same name about the oil industry written by Tom Pendleton, the pseudonym of Fort Worth oilman Edmund Van Zandt Jr.
Also appearing in the 12 Might Orphans are actors Duvall as Mason Hawk and Sheen as Doc Hall.
Hall was a country doctor who served at the orphanage for more than 30 years without ever taking a paycheck. The film reunites the two veteran actors who last starred together in the classic Apocalypse Now, a film with a different vibe from 12 Mighty Orphans.
Bryan said he hopes to have the film ready for Thanksgiving 2020 and Young promised the premiere will be in Fort Worth.
“No way we premiere anywhere else,” said Young.