Jesse Moss Reveals His Inspiration And Approach to ‘The Overnighters’
Jesse Moss came to Williston, North Dakota hoping to profile the strange sight of a town prospering in the middle of a nationwide economic crisis. Thanks to fracking, a new and controversial method of extracting oil from the ground, Williston became a huge moneymaker for oil companies. With starting pay in the six-figure range, and unemployment close to zero, people flocked to Williston in the hopes of obtaining a job. The story Moss ended up profiling turned out to be completely different from what he set out to do.
Pastor Jay Reinke opened his doors to new arrivals in need of shelter (due to the oil boom, rent in Williston is actually higher than New York City and Los Angeles), creating a program called “The Overnighters.” Moss primarily follows Reinke as he battles with his congregation members and townspeople, as their weariness of the influx of new people (some of them with dark pasts, as the local media repeatedly points out) causes them to try and shut the program down. Moss also follows several men sleeping in the church; Alan, a reformed criminal helping oversee the program; Keegan, a young father trying to support his girlfriend and son; and Michael, a family man who comes to Williston alone, hoping to earn enough money to send back home to his wife and kids.
The Overnighters is one of the year’s best films, a riveting story about men in search of a new beginning with Reinke as the compelling centre of it all. Watching Reinke stubbornly stick to his virtues, even in the face of losing everything, makes for an intense, devastating experience. To help promote the Canadian release of The Overnighters this weekend in Toronto, Jesse Moss talked to us about his film.
To sure to read our review of The Overnighters, which was awarded our “Must See Indie” badge.
Note: The end of this interview contains important details about the ending of the The Overnighters. There will be a warning beforehand for readers who don’t wish to know the ending.
Your film has a really strong narrative. There are all these different threads going on, and you construct a very cinematic story out of it, especially with Jay Reinke.
I think I realized I had a really strong character with Jay pretty early on. I knew he was really complicated. I could see that he was doing something extraordinary by welcoming these men and running this program, and that it had put him in conflict with people around him pretty quickly. Those pieces were in place from the moment I arrived in Williston. I certainly didn’t know where the personal story would lead me. Even in the early months I think Jay was very honest that it wouldn’t end well for the program. I could see how in the far horizon there would be certainly an ending.
But I knew as a dramatic character, as a protagonist, that Jay was exceptional and very charismatic. He was also self-aware in a way that made me like him more. Even though we come from very different places, I think that I really could connect with his choices as a human being.
While I was watching it I noticed there were some points where it felt like you were editing more for the narrative. There are scenes with Keegan and his girlfriend where it’s clear that you’re stitching moments together from different times. I was curious about how you went about editing and constructing the story you wanted to tell.
One of the things I struggled with was that Jay was the dominant character, but I felt like the portrait of this place and this experience was my initial motivation. [It] was to understand what the ground level reality was like for these men coming here. I wanted to include their stories. The program, and the men who came through the program provided that lens, but balancing their stories with Jay’s story wasn’t a balance I knew that I could necessarily achieve. That was a lot of work. There are really 4 subjects other than Jay, so there was compression in their stories. Of course there were people I followed who didn’t make it into the film, but for the most part those were the people I spent time with. I think it’s something of an accident of fortune that, even though they’re in very compressed stories, they have arcs. And the arc is that, unfortunately, things don’t work out for them. It wasn’t like I picked losers. I thought Keegan was going to win. He’s young, he’s strong…I was in love with all of them and I wanted to tell their stories, but it meant that when we visit them we really had to compress those moments, and to give the audience a kind of concentrated character. That’s why we did some…[Pauses] cheating, I guess, and there are moments that are chronologically distant but have to be put together.
I don’t necessarily think it’s cheating. You’re giving a portrait of them, and through the editing we’re more aware of how you’re doing that.
That’s right. I guess it’s just filmmaking. It’s cinema. To me, this story had poetry, and it had realism. The films I most respond to find a way to make alchemy out of those kinds of conflicting styles or strands. Those were opportunities to have more lyrical moments, whereas scenes with Jay were not lyrical. They’re like dramatic moments in his story, they’re about conflict and intimacy and something else. But with those characters, they’re more montage-driven, at least in the middle section.
There’s a scene early on with one of the congregation members talking to Jay, and she makes a comment about how the new arrivals will “rape, pillage, and burn” the land. The boom in Williston is because of fracking, and fracking has that association of destroying land. Fracking is such a highly political topic, and your film doesn’t really focus on that aspect. I wanted to know if you ever considered involving fracking and the environmental impact on Willison more into your film.
I felt like it was covered really well in documentaries from Gasland to many others. It’s a huge part of what’s happening there, the physical process of oil extraction and what it does to the environment, but what I felt was missing from the conversation was what that industry does to human beings and communities. That labour side of that conversation or equation was, to me, missing from the dialogue. It may be because fracking has kind of absorbed so much of the conversation, and it’s harder to understand what it does to people.
The inspiration, or a touchstone for me as a filmmaker was Harlan County, USA. It’s really about the value of work in their lives, and also the conflict that arises out of the battle for working conditions and health and safety. So I felt like all this coverage of the boom in North Dakota was really missing a sense of what the reality, the longitudinal reality, of these people coming to look for redemption, opportunity and salvation is, and if they find it. You can’t find that in a day or a week going out there as a journalist. You have to spend time there. That’s what I wanted to explore. I did struggle sometimes with the idea of, “Well, I’m not spending as much time at a well site, on a rig. Are we seeing enough of what the business is, what the work is?” But then I just followed my characters.
What was the process like in choosing which subjects to focus on within the program?
I certainly didn’t go in with a pre-conceived notion of…First of all, I didn’t even know who was coming through the Church. I slept in the Church for the first 6 months of the film because I needed a place to stay, and all the hotel rooms were booked by oil companies. I was there so much, and saw so many men come through. There were so many casual conversations that I think it’s hard to say what I was precisely looking for. But I was kind of looking for an availability to me and an honesty on camera. A charisma, a sense of what’s at stake personally for them was really important. For Keegan, who’s a boy out to prove his manhood. For Michael, who’s trying to save his family. For Alan, who’s been in prison for 15 years looking at a second chance. So many of them are looking for a second chance. I guess I found men that I could connect with. I thought there’s something here I see, and let’s see were this takes us.
It’s a very masculine film. There’s a moment where Jay mentions that women are in the Church as well, but you don’t show that. Why did you choose to keep the focus on the men staying in the Church?
I did follow a woman at first who was sleeping at a camp, and not the church. I spent a lot of time at a campground in Williston, and there was an assortment of characters who had similar but different circumstances. That was just something that, the further into the film I got, the clearer it became that it was about Jay’s story and the overnighters. The program was, like, 99.5% men, and you do see women, and Jay mentions women sleep in the library. The project is not demographic diversity. The project is to tell the story that I guess I find on camera and choose to tell. I think the experience of women in oil boom towns, like fracking, is another film. This film is about men who go to Williston to work looking for redemption and opportunity, and about the man who helps them. That’s what this film became about for me. I actually argued with my wife about this. There’s a shot where Jay is saying goodbye to the men, and there’s a woman in the [shot]. It’s just a reminder that there’s a woman here, and I wanted to include that shot. My wife, who’s my producer, said it’s kind of confusing. I said that’s okay, you can see [there are] women there. You know who’s coming through this Church? It’s humanity, it’s America. You see men with PhDs, and you see men that dropped out of high school at 15, and [you see] women. There were these African immigrants that came through, and I thought there’s a movie to be made about African immigrants coming to Williston, like 25 of them living in a house. That can be an amazing film. How many films can I make? [Laughs] I can make one!
Has anyone in Williston seen the film? Have you gotten any reactions from people in the city?
I’ve talked to Drafthouse and Jay about screening the film in Williston, and we’d all like to. The question is when would be the right time to do that. I would like nothing more than to have a screening, and have the editor of the paper, the mayor, and the congregation there. This film creates and provokes an incredible dialogue. It doesn’t provide prescriptive answers. That’s the space the film creates. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s surprising, it’s shocking. But so is life in Williston. We should absolutely screen it there. It’s just a matter of when Jay and his family say it’s the right time.
WARNING: The following contains details about the film’s ending.
I have to bring up the revelation by Jay Reinke of his homosexuality at the end of the film. I felt like it redefined everything that came before it. When did this revelation come into your filming, and did it change your view in putting the final cut together?
That final turn came in the way it’s represented chronologically in the film. I arrived to film the closure of the program in [September 2013]. I got there and Jay said “I’m gonna lose my job,” and he told me why. I thought, “This is not the film I set out to make.” But on the other hand, this is profoundly related to the story that I’ve been telling about the risks this man has taken, who he is as a human being and what’s inside of him. I knew that, for Jay, this was an expression of his faith, what it really means to love thy neighbour, but I also knew that came from a personal place from him. This is something he hints at or articulates to some of these men, that they’re more alike than they are different, that everybody carries burdens.
I know Jay is a very complicated person. I don’t know that I will ever understand what’s deep inside of him, or that I’ll ever need to. When it became clear that this was happening, and his life was unravelling, there was a deeper level of understanding that he was sharing with me about himself. It really put into perspective his decisions to help men who are broken, who have a stigma, who feel like communities won’t accept them. All of those choices that he made, I think they relate to how he saw himself. I think that’s the clarity I came to, and the reason I believe that was an important part of the story.
And at the end of the movie he finds himself in the very place these men are when they come to him. That’s just an astonishing a reversal of fortune that you couldn’t script. You’d think it was preposterous. But I think to me it’s the understanding of character, of true brokenness in himself. That’s not a theological expression, that’s really how he feels. That’s the clarity I got.
And, to expand on the ending a bit, the scene where Jay tells Andrea about his affair with another man. I was surprised watching it because you must have known what Jay was going to do, and Andrea clearly did not. How did you feel about filming that very personal moment between them?
I will say, and as you know from watching the film, I worked alone. I was very intimate in the process of filmmaking with them. I spent a lot of time in their house filming other hard moments. There was a real understanding of the level of intimacy we were working with. Jay didn’t intend to say as much as what was said in that conversation. The project for me was to make a movie in which people don’t talk about things that happen off camera. It’s cinema vérité, and frankly Jay didn’t know what he was going to say when he sat down. He certainly didn’t plan to talk about what was happening with him personally, only to say “We need to have a conversation in private.” Jay told me that, and I said I completely understand. It’s very personal, and not something that I need to be present for, but that was in a sense the prologue to that subsequent conversation in which he didn’t plan to be as candid as he was. It ends up being a very intimate conversation. Not what he anticipated, not what I anticipated, certainly not what Andrea anticipated. That is this film, where things don’t happen in the way you think they’re going to happen.
And it was very, very intimate. Yet I think it’s profoundly related to what this film is about. Everybody in that scene had agreed to participate in the film, and no one asked me to turn the camera off. It’s my job as a filmmaker to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth is hard and painful. It’s something Jay, Andrea and myself talked a lot about for months and months after that. While there are some very painful scenes, [including] Jay’s confession, the powerful message of the movie is not obscured by that pain, but in fact all the more resonant for it.