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A Roof over Their Heads: Jesse Moss on The Overnighters

Keegan Edwards in The Overnighters (Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films)

When Jesse Moss headed to North Dakota to make The Overnighters, it was truly a one-man endeavor. He took no crew with him. He was on his way to meet Pastor Jay Reinke, who had been giving shelter to the many men who uprooted themselves and made their way to Williston, N. D., in hopes of finding work in the town’s booming oil industry. With so many desperate souls appearing in Williston, resources to feed and house them were quickly drying up. Soon, the offices, floor space and pews of Reinke’s church were filled with itinerant workers, and town residents were becoming uneasy with the wave of unknowns touching their lives. Some of the new visitors had criminal records, and not all of Williston’s residents were welcoming. In Moss’s film, Reinke’s own psychological journey takes center stage as the pastor is forced to defend his charity while wrestling with his own personal truths.

Moss’s previous films include Full Battle Rattle, which embeds itself with the army in Iraq prewar simulation training; Speedo, about the racing career of Ed Jager; and Con Man, about an imposter who got himself accepted to Princeton University. The films all look keenly at personal identity, community, and one’s struggle and desire to be part of something bigger than oneself. By approaching his subjects with respect and granting them their dignity, Moss consistently brings intimate and piercing portraits to his audience.

It was, I believe, Moss’s willingness to migrate to Williston by himself and spend six months living under Pastor Reinke’s roof (and an additional year returning frequently) that resulted in such an exposed story of altruism, redemption and, ultimately, of America today. The Overnighters is a complex story that forces us to examine our own motivations and limitations and to question, when times are difficult, how closely related “what we hope we would do” is to “what we ultimately do.”

No character here is painted in broad strokes. When I spoke with Moss, I wanted to know what he, as an outsider who became (somewhat) of an insider, saw. I was also interested in the idea, brought up in the film, of kindness perceived as a “radical” act. Here’s what he had to say. The Overnighters will be released this fall by Drafthouse Films.

When you pick a subject, you have to be prepared to spend the next several years of your life committed to that subject. How did you select these subjects both the town of Williston, and then Pastor Jay? In the wake of the recession, North Dakota had become the one bright spot in the American economy, and there were [news] stories about what was happening up there. People were migrating to western North Dakota and Williston, which had turned into this frontier boomtown. That idea of a 21st-century American boomtown interested me. I felt like the story I was reading about opportunity and these high-wage jobs was relentlessly positive, almost like something the Williston Chamber of Commerce would’ve put out. Of course, we all know the story of the gold rush in California — it was an illusion for most people. So that intrigued me. What were the experiences of people making this journey to Williston? Were they finding what they were looking for?

And then I read a story about people living in the Wal-Mart parking lot, so I knew things were actually maybe a little rougher. I was reading the Williston Herald online, a clergy column that Pastor Jay had written. Jay called on his fellow townspeople to welcome these newcomers, and I knew even then that that was an unusual sentiment. I called Jay, and he was really very open with me on the phone. He said, “There are people staying at my church. You’ve got to come and see what’s happening here.” And that was the kernel of inspiration: talking to Jay on the phone, his openness and his invitation. I took him up on that.

The film is an intimate story that tells a much bigger story. Is that something you generally try to find in your films? Definitely. I was fascinated by the oil industry, and — to compare it to my last film, about the Iraq War — by its enormity and complexity. I knew nothing about it until I came to Williston, and I was astonished by its scale, the way in which it is sort of this leviathan that moved to North Dakota and transformed life there. There were so many moving parts, but I knew my interest was, what are people there experiencing on the ground? As a filmmaker, my touchstones were, of course, Harlan County, USA and also the journalism of George Orwell, particularly Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. I was inspired by the way in which Harlan County balances the epic and the intimate and finds the human heart in this story of energy extraction. And how the filmmaker embedded herself in that experience and [within] that story.

But I knew that I needed a way in, and I found it, fortunately, very quickly with Jay. It was clear to me from the beginning that Jay was kind of this fulcrum [between] these tremendous forces — this massive influx of immigrants and the town’s reaction to change. Here was this man who was caught in the middle and had to make a choice. He presented himself as immediately someone with one foot in either story, and I don’t know that there were many people who were [similarly in] both.

Did you worry that choosing Jay as a subject would shrink the scope of the movie away from the expanse of the oil fields and the men working there? I struggled with that initially because I thought, this is, in a way, a very small setting. It’s this tiny church in this tiny town with a bunch of guys sleeping on the floor. Can I make a movie here? I didn’t know. I mean, I knew that Jay was complicated and interesting and that he seemed to contain some of these questions and some of the narrative that interested me. But I struggled with the idea initially that this would be a movie about a pastor in a church. Which of course, it’s not entirely, but that is the main through line of the film. But when I set foot in Concordia Lutheran Church, it was electrifying. These men and women would just walk in the door, and they’d have a bedroll and sit down and talk to Jay about why they’d come. His connection with them was really powerful, and they were very raw and open and clearly risking a lot. I immediately saw that powerful connection, and I immediately recognized — because he made it pretty clear to me, he wasn’t hiding it — that the decision to embrace these people, the overnighters, had put him in conflict with his community and his congregation.

You had made the decision to go with no crew. It was just you on these shoots, right? Yeah, I just went by myself. You know, my first film, Speedo, I made it when I was in my late 20s. It was a very free, kind of liberating experience in which I met somebody who I found really compelling, and I worked alone, for the most part. When I set out to make [The Overnighters], I think I was trying to see if I could recapture some of that freedom, to see if, 14 years later, I could still make a film that way. Cinéma vérité, or observational filmmaking, is maybe a bit old fashioned, but those are the movies that continue to inspire me. I wanted to see if I could make a movie like that now in my life, if I could really film dramatic scenes as they happened and not tell a story through interviews. So, I came alone with a camera, and I asked Jay if I could sleep in the church out of necessity. He said yes, and I moved in. It was hard but very liberating, and I think that decision accounts for the intimacy of the film.

I feel like there are pros and cons to that approach, and the intimacy certainly seems like one of the pros. Since youve done both kinds of films, what do you see as the challenges of this approach versus doing the film with more of a crew and a real production apparatus around you? Well, [my approach] was partly out of necessity. I had no money. It was just an idea. No one was supporting it initially, and I couldn’t afford a crew, even if I wanted to work with one. It was a difficult environment to work in, and I wasn’t sure I could enlist people to collaborate with me. It was pretty grueling and sometimes lonely, but I think that what it provided me with made up for the limitations. I really could be totally present for the people I met, for Jay and for the men I ended up following. It was just a very emotional environment, and I think that if I had to worry about other people who were working with me, about their creative contributions to the story and what their practical needs were, it would have deflected a lot of my own energy.

For the subjects, speaking to one person, getting to know one person, is very different from having a crew around. Yes. I wasn’t a unit, you know? I was just a guy, a person, another human being. I came like all of them, alone. I mean, occasionally, you would get a couple, but really, mostly, they were men, and mostly, they came alone. And I wouldn’t oversell my own position. I was never an overnighter. I didn’t give up what these people gave up, and I didn’t need what they needed in their lives. But I felt kinship in that I was taking risks in my own way, in my own life. I really benefitted from that collegial, communal space. I think it allowed me to come to see Jay in a more profound way than if I was going back to a hotel room at the end of the day, or having to worry about whether my d.p. was interested in what I was filming. I mean, I love my collaborations, which have typically been in television work. It’s not that I don’t like working with cinematographers or crews. But when I think about the very intimate places the film goes, I think there’s a kind of bedrock of trust in those relationships that comes from that initial decision to come alone, to really be in that environment.

I wanted to ask you if its okay what your relationship is to organized religion? I wasn’t raised in the church. I don’t even have a good religious education. I’m a secular Jewish filmmaker.

Me too. [Laughs] [Laughs] Probably like many. So, I didn’t know really anything about the workings of a Lutheran congregation, and I both found it fascinating and totally foreign. I guess I recognized in Jay’s decision what I thought was, I think, a very universal moral choice. What makes it profound is that it’s not easy. It’s never easy. You know, you take away from your children. You take away from your wife. You take away from your congregation. I could relate to that choice as a non-Christian, and I thought other people wouldn’t need to be a Christian to enter this story. But that was part of my initial struggle: like, is anybody really going to care? That’s always the question you’re asking yourself.

There’s an amazing arc to the pastors story. I dont want to reveal what happens in the film, but theres often a panic when making a documentary when you ask yourself, how do I know when this film is done? Did you ever question whether you were going to find an ending? Or, how would you have ended the film if you didnt have the ending you ended up with? Well, it was pretty clear to me early on that Jay had put himself on a path that I thought had potentially devastating consequences for him. And he understood that, too, even early on. He didn’t say it explicitly, but it was clear he had crossed a threshold in his life to embrace these people and that he couldn’t go back. I could see that. He couldn’t go back to his congregation; he couldn’t go back, potentially, in his personal life because he was making such enormous sacrifices.

And did you know early on that he was going to share that with you? I think he said, “Well, I might lose my job.” It was clear that the program [of housing the overnighters] couldn’t run indefinitely, that either the congregation would shut it down, Jay would be fired, or the town would shut it. It seemed like a limited set of possibilities. There would be some conclusion to the program, and I suspected that would be the end of the film. Jay was extremely honest with me. What I liked about him when I first got to know him was how self-aware and self-critical he was about his own choices. The number one thing he told me was, “No one has pure motives.” He struggled with how much he was the driving force, the single person behind this program. He questioned that, and he questioned how much the film focused on him. I understood his concerns as a pastor, this question of vanity and how much was about serving his own ego and how much was about really serving the overnighters. He externalized these questions to me, sometimes on camera and sometimes not. I liked that about him. He never held himself up as some superhuman saint.

Im assuming that you dont want to talk about some of the actual details of what happens in the film, but were you yourself surprised by the turn the story takes? I’ll say one thing. It was clear to me from relatively early on when I met Jay that this [program] was a way for him to be a good Christian and a compassionate human being. Jay’s acceptance of and belief in these people who had stigma, who had criminal records, seemed to come from a very deep, personal place within him, and that was the mystery that continued to draw me through this experience. But I didn’t know where it came from in him, and I didn’t know the film would unlock that. Some of those things he says on camera, he said to me in private as well, about really identifying with these people. I wondered, “Where is this coming from? Maybe I’ll never know, and maybe Jay’s not even sure.” I think that was the mystery that is unlocked in the film.

It is, very much so. That’s why it’s important that it’s in the film. Some people, when they immediately have to process the ending of the film, they sort of struggle to put the two together. But for me, it really unlocked Jay.

You do this thing during the very end credits, where we see people introducing themselves. I thought it effectively shows Americas diversity, but Im not sure if that was the intention. That was important to me because the story really ends with the surprise of Jay’s turn of events. I wanted to try to return the film, in a way, to the men who are the overnighters, because I think what Jay does for them, and who they are as well, is the heart and soul of the film. I didn’t want the final note of the film — as somehow appropriate as it is — to be Jay left where he is. I wanted people to be reminded of these men, and the fact that they’re still migrating to North Dakota

There is this line Jay says that I thought was interesting: It does amaze me that giving people floor space is provocative. Maybe it’s a little bit of faux naïveté. I mean, some of these guys had criminal records, and this was a nice middle-class neighborhood. Suddenly there are 50 of them sleeping in the church, and there are cars in the parking lot. I think we can all identify with the neighbors, who looked across the street and are like, “What the hell is going on over there?”

Are you in touch with Jay now? How is he doing? He’s been a big part of the film’s public life. He came to the premiere at Sundance, and he’s traveled with the film. He’s resilient and optimistic. We can see that in the film. He really is. But he’s struggling. I think he’s had a succession of jobs that are oil-field related, and that’s not what he’s good at. It’s not what he loves to do. Maybe he feels like [it’s] a kind of a penance, but it’s been really hard. I think that this has had an enormous impact on his family, as you see in the film.

How many hours of footage did you shoot? It was 18 months of production and around 80 shoot days. About 18 trips, and I think about 300-plus hours.

So, thats a big editing monster. I was filming other people who got cut. Some of them got dropped in production, but some of them I held onto until very late in the edit. There is that struggle of chipping away at this monstrous mound of footage and discovering what that movie is really about. And, of course, continuing to shoot while cutting. The most dramatic scenes were shot very late in the edit. And then, having to kind of go back into the cut and thinking, “This doesn’t change everything, it just changes how I see everything.” There was a process of calibration and recalibration. We were making discoveries up until the very last minute of the edit. And there was this struggle: We were shooting in a really observational form, and we wanted to respect those scenes. There was a cut that was like pure vérité, and it kind of kept people at arm’s length. I had a rough-cut screening and a couple of my toughest, brightest filmmaker friends beat up on me. There were like, “You need to drop your rigid [vérité] position, and do what’s best for the film and this story.” So, the film opens out, in a way. There are interviews in the film and some interior monologue. [The whole process] was a very emotional experience.

Outside of just getting the film out into the world, do you have ideas about it as an educational piece? Are you working with organizations? What is your hope for its distribution? Well, I’m really excited that I’ve been able to partner with Drafthouse, because they are brave and bold distributors. I think they really see the potential of the film, and they really value the film as a film, first and foremost. I think they also feel like this film is a way to engage so many questions of affordable housing, compassion and redemption. They are building a campaign to return some percentage of the box office proceeds to support programs around affordable housing. You know, Williston is this anomalous, crazy, wild oil boomtown, and my hometown of Palo Alto couldn’t be more different. But it’s struggling within its own [problems]. The working poor of America are sleeping in their cars in Palo Alto. Cleaning offices of high technology companies and driving Uber cars. I think that there’s a way in which this story does reflect back on a lot of other communities in America. New York City is dealing with a homeless shelter in Queens. There’s been a huge community uproar around that decision.

So, I think that there is a way to position the film as a part of a bigger conversation. I never conceived of it as an advocacy tool, but a lot of people who I wouldn’t necessarily expect to have really responded to its complex portrait of the life we live now. This story of energy [production] in America, let’s talk about its benefits, but let’s also have a pretty frank conversation about how this kind of a transformation disrupts individual lives and families and communities. I think there’s a way to put the film into that conversation. And I think it can hopefully reach the faith community, which seems to hunger for complex portraits of these questions.

Are you working on other projects while the film is out in theaters? Well, I’m mostly catching my breath. [The film] really wrung me out, as you could imagine. It’s a really hard film to make. I couldn’t raise money for it, and psychically, it extracted a toll. It happened so quickly and so intensely, and my relationship with Jay is so deep, in a way. I’m still, I guess, in recovery from that.

Im interested in this subject myself. When you do this kind of work, if you dont take that break, or if youre not paying attention to your own ability to absorb that kind of energy for that amount of time, you can become depleted. I think thats a worthwhile thing for documentary filmmakers to talk about, especially if their subject involves pain and suffering and difficulty. I do wonder if I can ever make a film like this again. Maybe talk to me in five years. I mean, I’m not someone who can bang them out, you know? It’s tough because it’s so much the kind of film that I want to make, and yet, it’s so hard to make. And there’s a lot of blowback in my life that I’m still dealing with, financial and otherwise. And so, yeah, I guess at this point in my filmmaking career, I know that I need time and that’s okay.

Are there other kinds of lighter projects that youre attracted to when youre taking that time? Or do you just need to not work? It’s actually the most helpful thing, to have other [projects]. I have been working on a screenplay that I just finished. Fiction has interested me over the years, and there’s a particular story that’s based on factual material that I’m inspired by. I’d like to figure out how to move forward.

The writing experience is so different from the directing experience. It was something I explored when I needed to step away a little bit from The Overnighters in my own head. Now that the film is finished, I’ve come back to that. And so, yeah, I’m interested in exploring fiction. I sort of have an ambivalent relationship to television documentary. I’ve done a lot over the years, and it’s been rewarding creatively and financially, but I feel like the very good opportunities in nonfiction television are harder to come by.

I agree. And so I swore it off about three years ago.

Everything we swear off, we come back to. I know. And I do some work for some NGOs, and that keeps me busy, too. I’m going to the West Bank, actually, in two weeks, to do a project for the World Health Organization.

Oh, so thats your relaxing, lighter break that youre taking? [Laughs] Yeah, right?

Just some relaxation on the West Bank. [Laughs] Yeah, it’ll totally take my head out of this, and I’ll come back, and the film will open theatrically.

Whats the project about? I’ve been doing it for about three years, actually, kind of off and on. It’s a project about disability, part of a worldwide program that the WHO is supporting called community-based rehabilitation. It’s about the integration of people with cognitive and physical disabilities into their local communities. In a way, it’s oddly related to The Overnighters in that the theme is very much about accepting people in your community who might be ostracized. That’s not by design, but they are thematically related projects.

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