Of the many crossroads Jesse Moss encountered during the 16 trips he made to Williston, North Dakota over the two years he spent filming “The Overnighters,” it was a mental one he kept coming back to as the story of an oil boom in the region kept twisting and turning in front of his camera.
“I knew economic opportunity was an issue, but then sex offenders became an issue,” says Moss. “Then I thought, ‘Well, how can one movie contain all of this complexity? It’s too many [storylines].’ But this is life. This is this story, and why not?”
Moss had originally traveled up to Williston to create something for television about the black gold rush that brought the richest of petrol executives and the most desperate of the unemployed to town after fracking had loosened the oil. But while those searching for prosperity struggled mightily to find it, the filmmaker may have been the only one to find a real motherlode, the story of Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church, who sees it as part of his calling to provide a home to any and all of those who have come to the region looking for work and can’t afford a roof over their heads. Moss, who also had no place to stay because the oil companies had reserved every hotel in town, eventually spent his nights sleeping alongside the vagabonds in Reinke’s church, where his flock grew to become as skeptical as the community at large about “The Overnighters” he was housing, some unemployed because of a criminal past, and the length of their stay.
As “The Overnighters” tracks Reinke’s crisis of faith when he sees his generosity begin to backfire on him, what’s striking is Moss’ faith in himself and the story he’s telling, unblinking in the field when an upset Williston resident runs towards him and Reinke with a shotgun and equally confident in shifting gears midway through the film from the grand scale meditation on the human toll of having a permanently depressed economic class into a wild yet intimate character study of the pastor who may not be everything he seems at first. That commitment, which included Moss being mostly alone during the production to serve as his own cameraman and sound recordist, has led to one of the most riveting films of recent memory. Before its release this week in theaters, Moss sat down to speak about the influences on “The Overnighters,” the dedication required to following a story wherever it may lead and how telling a smaller story ultimately led to one with broader cultural implications.
There are some breathtaking compositions in the film and you’ve spoken about how important it was to you to actively seek out scenes, even though you’re a fly on the wall. Why was that a priority this time around?
A couple reasons. One is that’s the tradition of filmmaking that inspired me from “Harlan County, USA,” working for Barbara Kopple when I was very young, to being inspired by “The War Room” and “Hoop Dreams” — those are the films that made me want to make documentaries. I made a very observational film when I was in my late twenties called “Speedo,” which I made it in a very similar way [to “The Overnighters”’ — by myself with no funding or support really, embedded in this man’s life and I just followed the story to a really beautiful place.
This film was an attempt to recapture that freedom that came from working by myself in a very observational way with one person who I was deeply connected with and to surrender myself to this glory. I struggle with it in a way because I feel like there’s something of a lost art to cinema verite filmmaking. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but it’s a style of documentary filmmaking that’s been crowded out by reality television and other modes of non-fiction storytelling, and yet it’s what gets me excited. So when I was making [“The Overnighters”], I’d think to myself at times, “This is so deeply unfashionable,” but the project really was to try to tell a story through scenes in the moment, which I knew to be possible. And if I had never made “Speedo,” it would be a folly, but I knew if people could see what the story was, then that risk could be rewarded if you find the right story and the right subject. It was hard to keep going with this film, but I guess I could see past the rejection and know that there was a powerful story there if I could just keep going.
You couldn’t have possibly known where the story would go, but did you know the scope of the project before heading to Williston?
In a way, yes and no. What I was searching for was a way into this enormous story, but at a very human level. I found that accidentally through Jay and the church, which was this prism to look at the monumental transformation of life and Western work that goes on in this town and what changes oil brings to the lives of the people in this community. But in going back to those films that inspired me, I knew that I wanted to look at the reality of people coming there, searching for opportunities, redemption and reinvention because that was the part of the story that I felt like was missing in the big conversation around energy and fracking. We’ve heard a lot about the environmental consequences, but less about the labor side of the equation, like what happens to families and to the individual lives that are caught up in this transformation?
What was immediately apparent to me was the emotional force of it and the connection between Jay and these men and how much they had risked and what he was risking to help them. I could see that as a container for this story, but I struggled with the idea that I was going to locate what I thought would be a story about oil in a church. It just didn’t seem like would people care. But I cared. As someone who wasn’t raised as a Christian in the church, coming to Pastor Jay and seeing what I thought was a very profound moral choice or act of conscience just spoke to me. I felt like this is the beating heart of this film.
It was an unexpected journey for me to spend so much time in this church with Jay and this congregation, and I would say a spiritual journey of sorts. To me, the film provides a powerful Christian message, but it also exposes, I think, a profound debate within the church, not just Jay’s denomination, which is Lutheran, but any congregation about what is the way to live by these principles and how do we help people who are less fortunate? What does it mean to love thy neighbor? Not just to preach it, but to practice it.
To Jay, it was the purest expression of the Christian ethic to do this thing, but his congregation didn’t quite feel the same way. I think that’s a valid position, and the way in which the film eliminates that challenge is not unique to that congregation, but to many faiths and many congregations. What I’ve discovered recently is in my own hometown of Palo Alto, California, a very well-to-do, progressive community — in many ways the opposite of Williston, North Dakota — is grappling with a very similar problem around affordable housing, [and an increasing homeless population]. These are not chronically homeless [people], they are temporarily homeless, who in some cases work in the community, but they’ve been priced out of the market. So what kind of community do you want to live in? Palo Alto, which you would think would be very tolerant, actually isn’t.
As anomalous as Williston and Concordia Lutheran Church are, its struggle over how to help the Overnighters is really a conversation that we’re having as a country about this increasingly stratified world that we live in and how do we help people who need a leg up. Like one [of the Overnighters] says in the film, “I’m just looking for a hand up. I’m not looking for a handout. I have a home. I’m just looking to have a better life and a living-wage job.” So this really felt like a journey into this central question of what it means to be a good Christian, but also what it means to be a good person.
When the story veers away from the one you initially set out to tell in such a radical way, is it a difficult decision to follow it? In many nonfiction films I see, a filmmaker will often become so set on one idea, you can actually tell when there might be more interesting avenues that they don’t go down.
It was, but I started with this big canvas, and further into the filming, Jay’s story and the story of the church just emerged very sharply. I did find myself letting go of other stories and other characters that I’d become very attached to. I spent days and days filming at a campground where people were living, and it was hard to let go but it became clear that those were tangential stories. The other thing I struggled with was how many issues came up organically as I was filming Jay’s story. I initially struggled with the fact that this was set in a church. How had I ended up making a movie about Christianity in one part when I set out to make a movie about the transformation of oil in this community?
Does the film in its final form actually unfold as you experienced it?
It’s really true to the chronology. Jay had been running [the Overnighters program] for six months when I came into it, and I followed it for 18 months. When I came into the program, even in the early stages of production, I could tell that Jay had unleashed forces within the church and himself that were uncontrollable and it would end, possibly catastrophically. I couldn’t see the horizon of the film, but I could see that this program wouldn’t possibly last. He had crossed that Rubicon. He’d crossed the line in his own life when he said, “I’m going to open my doors to these men and their unruly lives.” There was no going back for him.
I would never compare myself to the men and women who came through as Overnighters, who were there because it was their last resort, but I guess I could identify with them since I went in not having a place to stay. I asked Jay if I could stay at the church, and he said, “Of course, you can,” so I did sleep there for the first six months of production. When I think about where the film goes, the level of intimacy in my relationship with Jay and the men that I filmed, I feel like the foundation of that is in that initial period where I had no crew to be concerned with, only myself, where I was there all the time.
Thinking about the work that inspired me, one in particular is George Orwell’s reporting in both “The Road to Wigan Pier” and “Down and Out in Paris and London.” His ability to really put himself in those places with the men that he was writing about gives his work both a clarity and a force that was an inspiration to me, so being there never felt to me like a stunt. It felt like just getting close to the story and to these people, and understanding what they were going through. It resulted in some pretty rotten nights of sleep, but it was powerful there. You could feel this kind of electricity in Williston that evoked those great mythic narratives in American history, whether it was people setting out for the frontier or ending up in a boom town or Deadwood.
Again, I’m not a religious person, but it felt like hollowed ground, and I knew that it was transitory. It was so clear within a year or two it would be erased, and there would be no history of it. A kind of despair and beauty and Jay’s sacrifice for these people and all the ways that he overstepped his boundaries, all of that would be lost. I think that’s why Jay was so open, too. He recognized that this was something unique and very special. It didn’t feel big, but it felt important.
The men you speak to who are Overnighters are also very open, which was interesting to me because I would think after losing everything, they might have their guard way up to protect what little they have left or they have so little that they just don’t care who’s around. Were they immediately approachable?
I think that’s right. What I immediately recognized was a letting down of their guard, which you don’t expect to find in big, tough, grown men. So many of them had left their homes and their families and their livelihoods behind, and they had set out on their own, so I think they were vulnerable. They needed help, and a strong survival instinct [kicked in]. We’re pack animals. We need family. We need community, and I think these men needed help to survive, so they wanted to connect with each other, and they wanted to make themselves open. Jay opened himself to them, and they opened themselves to him, and I was able to witness that. That’s not to say everything was on the surface, but I think that there was a willingness to open up that was really quite extraordinary.
The residents of Williston initially are open to the men coming into town and Pastor Reinke’s desire to make them productive members of the community, but they ultimately grow to resent them as there are reports of crimes they may be connected to and their toll on the town’s resources. As someone who was coming in with a camera, did you feel like you were part of the package?
I guess I felt like I took Jay’s side. I found Jay’s embrace of these men and some women to be heroic, and I had tremendous sympathy and respect for the risks that he was taking in his life. I went as a filmmaker, but also a human being with my own open heart, and I couldn’t have made the movie if I didn’t like Jay and respect Jay. That’s not to say we agreed about everything because we certainly don’t, and it’s interesting that as much as we connected, and I feel like we still have a really strong relationship, there was a lot that we didn’t talk about. as well. This understanding allowed our relationship to endure over that period of time and going through some of those experiences with him would bind us closer together. Jay did feel isolated. He felt like he was backed into a corner, whether it was from his congregation or his neighbors or the city of Williston and sometimes, frankly, the men that he had conflict with within the program. [Sometimes] he felt like I was maybe not on his side, but sympathetic to what he was trying to do, which I was.
You start the film off literally looking over Pastor Reinke’s shoulder and hearing his voiceover. How much of the film did you want from his perspective versus the third person?
One of the big questions in the edit room was to what extent was it Jay’s story, and to what extent does it belong to the men who came through there. You really needed to understand something about who they were, and the film waits till about maybe 15 [minutes in] to introduce the first overnighter. It’s Keegan [Edwards] cleaning pipe, but I felt like somehow there would be some delicate calibration where we could track those stories. That was the painful during the editing process to figure out what was the bare minimum of those stories that we or the audience needed to understand both the experience of men in North Dakota, but also Jay’s investment in them and the fact that so many of them are broken, are destined to not succeed. Jay’s the spine of the movie, but it couldn’t just be his story.
Well, if you could see some of the rough cuts … There were some real disastrous screenings and harebrained schemes, as there inevitably are. I love and hate that process. I was fortunate to have some really strong collaborative voices in the edit room with me to fight it out, which is the tension that I think the film benefited from. I wanted this to have the shape of a drama, but it’s not like I bent it into that shape. This had it, so it was more about finding it.
I teach now, and sometimes I talk to my students about a movie having the rhythm of music. Maybe if you’re brilliant, it just comes out of the top of your head, but it was an arduous process of cutting it. There was a cut where we cut out all the interviews and all the exposition, but I needed to know —what do I have in these scenes? What was communicated, what information and what character insight? What emotion is present, without the apparatus [of a narrative]? The one thing we discovered is Jay has so much going on inside of him, we needed to be brought into that interior deliberation or struggle a little bit because it’s so important in terms of where the film goes.
This was the big challenge, because I shot the ending in the middle of September, and Jay [called and said], “I’m going to lose my job. Here’s why.” I filmed this ending, and I thought, “Oh, my God. Now what?” So we had to quickly go back because the cut was due and look at every scene in the movie and say, “Now, we understand so much more about this journey that he’s on and who he is.” It wasn’t like throwing the structure out. It was about calibration. It was about drawing out a moment to make it land because the audience will always be floored, but there’s a way in which I think when I have the rug pulled out from under me in a movie, it’s both inevitable and surprising at the same time. That typically is constructed from a screenplay, which I didn’t have the benefit of, but it’s how close can we get to preparing an audience for this remarkable ending.
Since I’ve heard you’ve been interested in making a fictional film, were you toying around with techniques that might be more associated with that than nonfiction?
I’m interested in fiction. I’ve written a screenplay based on true material, which is important for me, but it’s a reciprocal relationship and when I make non-fiction documentary work, my reference points are as much works of fiction, [such as the] work of [Robert] Altman and that kind of contained world [where] the humanity spills over the boundaries in kind of messy, interesting ways. I feel like that’s the constant conversation, and it’s not a rigid separation for me. When I thought about the structure of [“The Overnighters”] and I was dealing with the canvas of 90 or 100 minutes, [I thought] what can I learn from fiction about structuring a story? Maybe this is more of a literary device, but you referenced the opening [earlier], and giving the film a frame felt like a gesture to help prepare ourselves for the journey to come about this enormously complicated person and allows the audience to have a complete experience, if that makes sense.
I have tremendous admiration for Jay. He’s brave to come to Sundance and to share the film with audiences and engage them. It is the most personal thing. He watched the film privately with me, so he knew what the movie was and we spent a lot of time talking about it before the premiere, but I said to Jay, “I know where you are now in your life is not where you want to be, but there was a powerful message in this program about what it means to truly love your neighbor and it will move people.” I said, “I cannot guarantee you, but if you walk through this door, I think it’ll be a positive and an affirmative experience for you, and you will see that,” and he did. He made that leap of faith. That was true at Sundance, and it’s been true when we went to New York and to Toronto. He’s a complicated hero, but I think people respect that.