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Interview: Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters

Throughout the filming of  his heart-wrenching new film, The Overnighters, director Jesse Moss acted as a sort of cinephilic one man band, shooting the story of Pastor Jay Reinke and the desperate men he’s been helping in the modern oil boom town of Williston, ND all by his lonesome. Over the course of 18 months, off and on, Moss buckled down and lived amongst the weary men sleeping on the floors of Reinke’s church to observe what exactly was taking place in this over-saturated small town. Just after the film’s premiere, yet before it took home the Special Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival, I sat down (in Park City) with Jesse to discuss how he discovered the situation in Williston, if he felt if the rampant fear within the town was justifiable, what it was like shooting all alone in such a vulnerable situation and much more. Our conversation can be found just below:

Jordan M. Smith: How did you end up in this town [Williston, ND]?
Jesse Moss: Well, I knew about the oil boom and I knew there was something happening in North Dakota. I had read a couple stories about this huge oil boom and about Williston being this frontier boom town, which struck me as unusual in 20th century America that we have a frontier boom town. I had to see this for myself. So, in reading about this story, I was reading the local newspaper article online – the Williston Herarld – which is a character in the film, and I read a clergy column that Pastor Jay published, he used to write for the paper –

Smith: Now that’s interesting…
Moss: Isn’t that interesting, knowing where this story goes? And that his kids deliver the paper of course…Bizarre! But, I read this clergy column in which Pastor Jay said, “Let’s not fear the newcomer, let’s welcome him,” and I knew that sentiment was unusual in the community. There had already been some controversy around the influx. So, I called him and Pastor Jay said, “Come and see what’s happening here at this church, come and see, I’ve got these men sleeping on my floor,” and I said “Ok, I’ll come”. I’d say from the moment I set foot in the church and saw these men and how much desperation they had on their faces and the fact that they had just gotten off the bus or a train that day and Jay’s connection to them – it was just a raw, intense place. It’s such a big story, this oil boom, you could come at it from a million angles, but here was this prism if you will, into a larger story, but within the church, and it was immediately apparent that Pastor Jay was really kind of in the middle of these forces of this influx of men looking for work and then the local community which was fearing them. How he was trying to balance those forces – I could tell there was something happening there.

Smith: Was the intention immediately to make a film about this or did you just go out there to see what was going on?
Moss: I wouldn’t ever put the weight of those expectations on me initially when I’m almost just scouting, but I brought a camera intending to do some filming and Jay was very open. Also, for me, I needed a place to stay, I didn’t have a place to stay in Williston because all the hotel rooms are booked by oil companies. So, I asked Jay if I could stay in the church and he said “Sure”. It was just an immediate way into this world. I was only there for maybe a week that first trip, but I knew also that he was a very complicated person. He’s a pastor but he just was very honest with me, and self critical and self aware that struck me and I thought here’s someone who’s really natural in front of the camera and he has this incredible connection with these men – he’s a way into the story for me.

Smith: You said he was ok with being on camera, but he reveals so much throughout the film. How did you get him to open up that way?
Moss: Yeah, the film is really intimate and I think one of the reasons is that I worked by myself. There was no crew, it was just me and I think it’s a very raw and vulnerable place and I felt, because I was by myself and I was able just to be there, I felt vulnerable too. In that environment the connections were strong and you see them between Jay and the men and between me and Jay and between me and the other men I filmed. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else and I could total focus on the people I was with. Because people who come there are so desperate to survive, I mean it’s hard to survive there – you’re lonely, you don’t have much, you’re scared – that vulnerability makes you open up in ways that these tough grown men from all over America would be stoic, here were crying and just open. I think that vulnerability is what drew us all together. When the film took these turns and because more and more intimate in Jay’s life, I felt like we had a foundation that we were working from, that we’d spent a lot of time together. He understood what I was doing and I understood what he was doing and he was prepared to bring me along on that journey.

Smith: One of the major themes of the film is fear and what is reasonable fear and what is that communal fear about? Was that something you actually felt in the town or was it just something that showed up in the papers and you were able to work it in?
Moss: You know, I did feel fear myself there. It’s a very charged environment. First of all, the oil extraction is a violent industry. There are a lot of men and almost no women. It’s a kind of testosterone fueled environment. There’s a lot of drinking. It feels a little out of control. The town itself is out of control. It’s like the infrastructure can’t keep up – law enforcement, the roads – everything’s kind of ripping apart at the seems and you felt that the societal fabric that binds the town together was ripping. So, there were times when I felt scared. What was amazing about the church and that environment was, like the men, it felt very nurturing and very warm and very safe and a place of community for men who were alone, and where they could share a meal and conversation for a few minutes at the end of a long, tough day. I don’t mean to overstate my own fear, but some of the fear in the community was real. I mean, Sherry Arnold was murdered by two guys who went up there to work and that was almost like an in cold blood killing. I think that really did put fear in the hearts of many people. I think the paper did focus on violent crime to the point that the pastor says was inflammatory. They feel like they’re doing their civic duty reporting on this, but arguably they are stoking fear. But real fear I didn’t really feel until the woman pulled the gun out.

Smith: Yeah, that seemed like the only moment in the film where you might have had some real fear.
Moss: That’s the moment where you’re sort of running complex calculations in your head like, ok, I’ve followed my character down this rabbit hole and it’s really important that I go with him, but what’s the likelihood this crazy bat-shit woman is gonna shoot me? And I’m thinking, well, he’s a pastor, but that might protect him, but it doesn’t protect me and it’s North Dakota and it’s got a justifiable homicide law. You know? You suspend rational thought.

Smith: That scene is kind of confusing because I couldn’t tell…did they just drop the camper off on that land or…?
Moss: It’s a little complicated and we kind of didn’t want to try to spend too much time explaining it, but essentially the camper belonged to a couple that had come to the church and left and they had sold it to Allen, but he never paid for it, and so the pastor sort of repossessed it. It was kind of the churches, but Allen had parked it on that woman’s property so she was like, “You’re on my property. I don’t give a shit who you are, you’re not taking my RV.” But what I love about that moment is just how out of control the pastor’s life is at that point in the film. Someone asked me last night in a screening at The Library, “Why did you include that scene of you getting hit? It’s breaking the forth wall.” And I said, well, you know, first of all there’s no illusion – I’m not trying to hide the fact that there is a camera, ok? I guess his point was that it took him out of the dramatic moment, but I guess also, I felt in the way that it does break the wall it contributes to the destabilization of that whole sequence, which is really about the pastor losing his own sense of direction and kind of over stepping boundaries. So, I felt like if everything kind of comes apart there, that’s ok. That was my directorial decision to include the attack. Maybe it’s my own self aggrandizement, but I just felt like this was crazy. This man’s life is crazy, what’s going on up here is crazy, this woman is crazy, so let’s just let it be crazy. And then 10 minutes later, literally 5 minutes later he jumps out of the car waving at Amtrak. I mean, that man, the polarity of his life can contain those moments.

Smith: He was having a moment…
Moss: He was having a moment. If you could find two moments that sort of sum up the range of his experience, those would be two of them.

Smith: You mentioned that you filmed alone the whole time, did you run into any problems doing it that way?
Moss: I love doing it that way. The problems I had doing it that way were more….I mean, I couldn’t have it done it any other way because I didn’t have the money to pay anybody and at a certain point I felt like the connection I had with my subjects was such that I didn’t want other people around to have to worry about in that environment. And I had absolute freedom to do what I wanted and to trust my own intuition and no one would question me and that’s not always right. I’ve co-directed and I loved it, and I love working with crews and having a talented DP, but I like shooting and I like looking at the world through the camera. I really had a specific objective with this film, which was, besides to follow the story wherever it took me, I was interested in, and I think it’s become a sort of rarity in documentary, I was interested in shooting more cinéma vérité. I wanted to film scenes. I don’t want to do interviews with people and shoot immaculate B-roll on a remote dolly, I just wanted to be in the moment. I felt like that’s the dominate mode of storytelling now, which looks immaculate, maybe was shot on the 5D, shallow depth of field, but to me it’s kind of static. I wanted to be in a position to film dramatic scenes in the lives of these people as they happen in front of me and hopefully tell the story that way. There are interviews, it helps us access these characters, these subjects, these people, but I think being by myself allowed for that. I think the challenge was that it was so much time away from home for me personally, and also the emotion of the experience was hard some times, and the loneliness for me, not having peers. Jay and I were very close, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t….after 6 months I was staying somewhere else. It’s hard not having someone else to share the weight of the film and of production. But I think, weighing the two, the benefits of just being one person outweigh the disadvantages for me.

Smith: You filmed off and on for how long?
Moss: I’d say for about 18 to 20 months.

Smith: There’s only a few moments in the film where it seems like that much time has gone by. Is that something you were aiming to do in the edit or was it just kind of worked out?
Moss: You know, it would have been nice to try to maintain some seasonal continuity. I think the film kind of shifts… Frankly I didn’t spend a lot of time there in the winter because it’s really, really fucking cold and it’s really hard to work there. There’s a scene where he puts Tod, the crazy kind of meth-head on the bus home. It’s a beautiful scene, a lovely scene in downtown Williston, but I was shooting with fingerless gloves and I shot the scene, it was only about 10 minutes shooting, but I went back to the car and my fingers were just frozen solid. It’s just so hard to work up there, so I was mostly there in the other seasons. It was about a year and a half, but it’s hard to track it.

Smith: How did you decide which characters you were going to zero in on, because there are so many people coming in and out?
Moss: Yeah, and there were some that I dropped, people that I spent a lot of time with. There was another location where I actually spent a great deal of time, but some people’s stories, like, there was a guy I really quite liked who was staying in the church named Clemen, a Jamaican guy from Michigan, a very charismatic guy, I did a lot of filming with him. But one day I got back there and he was just gone, which is interesting, but it was kind of hard for the film because there was no ending. Michael and Keegan, Keegan being the young kid from Wisconsin, and Michael being the electrician from Georgia. I don’t know. Keegan doesn’t say much, but he’s so youthful and handsome. If anyone’s going to succeed it’s Keegan, he’s the hero, right? The big, strong farm-boy and I just loved how he looked and he was really sweet. I don’t know, there is something about him, his look I think. And then Michael, he’s got so much heart I felt. Michael kind of broke my heart too. So, because I was spending a lot of my time in the church and meeting a lot of them, having casual conversations, some of them just grabbed me for whatever reason, whatever personal reasons had brought them there or emotion they had on their faces when they talked to me, how available to the camera. That’s part of it too. One of the things I wanted to do was to make room for not just the Keith and the Keegan and the Michaels of the story, but also the Todds, the meth-head from Phoenix, whose… I mean, just having that monologue – that’s crazy. That has to be in the movie. He’s not a character, but this is what the pastor is balancing in his life. I was thinking, why can’t I make a film that can contain these moments. Surely this could work. Also, there’s an older black man who shows up at one point, it’s a very brief scene. He’s from Mississippi and he’s standing with the pastor outside the church and he says, “I come up here to look for some work,” and the pastor says, “You’re too old.” That just broke my heart and I just needed that moment. So, knew I always wanted to have a kind of gallery of faces and moments with some of these other men. I’d say almost any day or night in that church there was a moment like that, sometimes late at night or sometimes kind of accidentally kind of have to be there. There would be some kind of interaction between the pastor and these men where…[Moss gestures a sort of bodily shock]

Smith: At the end of the film, I felt that a lot of the same things keep occurring, I mean, in that situation it’s bound to happen, but in all of those situations different ideas start to come out and it creates this feeling of a reciprocal situation where they come in, they find work or they don’t, and they leave, often worse of than before, and at the end it comes full circle with Jay. Was that something you were thinking of as you were making it or is it something that came out in the end?
Moss: It did become clear to me that this could bring him down. It was clear that he had lost the support within his congregation, that his family’s patience was tested, that the neighbors and the community were done with this, and I could see him, and I tried to represent this in the film visually, but him increasingly being isolated as a man. I could sense the program was going to close and that he…he said to me, “You know, I could lose my job over this.” I also sensed that his compassion for these broken men was theological, his expression of the Christian ethic and what it meant to love thy neighbor, but I also knew there was something more to him as a man, inside of him that was driving him, I guess a kind of mystery to his person, his humanity. I didn’t know that the film would ever arrive at a place of understanding about that. Certainly that’s just the accident of fate I guess. But, I think the reason why the film needed to take the story to the place that it takes it, for me it unlocks something profound about his compassion and about how he sees himself in the image of these men and beyond simply the theological, in a way that spoke to me as a secular person, his humaness, as he says, his own brokenness. And you say, well, that’s just religious language, but that’s really who he is too.

Smith: With the last sequence, did he call you or something, about what might happen?
Moss: Well, you know what happened, it was really chance because I showed up to film the closing of the program and he said, this is in mid-September, the program closed on, I think, September 12th and I got there on September 11th and he said, “I’m about to lose my job.” And I said, why? And he said, “This is why…” So, those events really transpired concurrently. It wasn’t like the program closed and then everything else happened, it all happened at the same time. That’s what was so remarkable. After he told me that and I filmed the closing of the program I made one more trip to Williston in which he made his confession. That was the final shoot.

Smith: Did you ask him if he would do that, or did he want it to be in the film?
Moss: I asked him. In fact, I wanted to, I have to be careful because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I wasn’t able to….I asked him and he told me what his confession was going to be. I wasn’t able to film his confession to the congregation because at that point they had basically thrown me out of the church. I couldn’t film in there and he was losing his job, so I said, Jay, will you read your confession to me? And he said he would. In a way I found the images of the empty church to summon something more evocative. I mean, I was in the church when he did confess and what was so powerful to me about that moment, which I unfortunately couldn’t film, and it’s hard to talk about moments I couldn’t film, but his congregation basically watched him confess and he walked out of the room and he was embraced by the overnighters. He was not embraced by his congregation, those were the men that stood by him. He literally walked about of the sanctuary of the church and into the hallway. There were about 4 overnighters there and they embraced him. I thought, there is the journey he has made. This is his congregation now, these men.

Smith: Well, it certainly makes for a powerful ending.
Moss: So, you didn’t see it coming.

Smith: I didn’t. In retrospect there are things you hint at, but there’s only so much you can guess and I’m not one who likes to guess.
Moss: Of course that was a surprise for use, and we had already spent quite a lot of time editing the film at that point. We said, ok, well this is head-spinning. Let’s go back and look at every scene of the film. How does what we know about where the story goes change how we think about the scenes and can we make any adjustments? I think great movie surprises have a sense of, well, surprise, but also inevitability in some way. Had you known where to look, the signs where there. Were you to go back and watch the film again, you would see them, but if you don’t know where to look, it’s that feeling of, [shudders] but yes! It makes some certain amount of sense, I hope. That’s for the audience to decide how they feel.

Smith: You open with the closing scene. What was the decision there?
Moss: That was related to that decision to go back and look at the whole film in the context of the ending, and I guess I saw it as, that was a big debate in the edit room, I saw it as a kind of frame to the film that establishes that this man, as he admits, is not perfect. This is a story of pain, so that’s to begin to lay the groundwork for the audience that this is a mortal man and not a saint, not a martyr.

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