Jesse Moss on Morality, Desperation, and His Dogged Devotion to Making ‘The Overnighters’

Eric Hynes

Not only is The Overnighters, Jesse Moss’s U.S. Documentary Competition entry at this year’s Festival, a powerful and complexly moving work of cinema verité filmmaking, it’s also a profoundly honest one. One of the great challenges of documentary filmmaking is determining when to set aside the framework of the story you thought you were telling—or the story that you’re expected to be telling—in favor of an unwieldy narrative that’s truly unfolding before your eyes.

By sticking so close to his open and charismatic subject—a Lutheran pastor in the oil boomtown of Williston, North Dakota—Moss was able to transcend a trendy story to weave a more complex and revealing tapestry of a man, a small town, and even the evolution of American morality. “I had the sense that there had been so many of the same kinds of stories told about Williston and the boom—that this was ‘oil = jobs’,” he said in a phone interview in advance of the film’s debut at Sundance. “I felt that there had to be a different ground-level reality.”

To find that reality, Moss spent 18 months shooting in and around Pastor Jay Reinke’s Concordia Lutheran Church, where the clergyman bucked popular preference and opened the doors, floors, and parking lot of the church to accommodate the influx of itinerant workers to suddenly booming, and lodging-deficient Williston. But the story of that initiative, called the Overnighters program, serves as only a starting point for Moss’s empathetic, intimate and indefatigable film.

What brought you to Williston, North Dakota, and why did you decide to stay?

I had been reading about the boom, and was really interested in the idea that in modern-day America there could be a boomtown, a frontier town, and Williston was acquiring this reputation. I was reading the Williston Herald, and I read a clergy column that Pastor Jay Reinke had written, in which he said let’s not fear the newcomers—let’s welcome them. That was an unusual sentiment for a local resident, because of the murder of Sherry Arnold, and the fact that there was a lot of fear in the community.

So I called Jay, and he’s just one of those guys that the moment you get on the phone with him, they open up. He called me back, and we talked, and said come to the church. So I went to Concordia Lutheran Church. And the moment I stepped foot in that place and met some of these guys, I saw how much raw desperation was in their faces, and how much they’d staked personally to get there—I mean these guys got off the bus with a bedroll. And the fact that they found a refuge, a place to sleep and somebody to listen to them, in this moment of profound need, was just electrifying. You’re not used to seeing grown men drop their defenses like that.

I think it’s a survival instinct. You need to connect to other human beings to survive when you’re by yourself in a hostile environment. There was an incredible amount of intense emotional feeling. The way that [Pastor Jay] was connecting with them, his openness and compassion in just talking to them, was striking. I knew pretty quickly that he was fully devoted to this project, the Overnighters program. And I also could see that not everybody in his congregation and community was as supportive of that position.

The thing about Pastor Jay was that he’s in the fulcrum between the influx of newcomers and the local community—he’s like the pinch point. These were not men who’d been working in the oil industry for their entire lives and Haliburton transferred them from Houston to Williston. These were guys who read about Williston in the newspaper, who didn’t have work, and had families at home, and said fuck it, I’m going to get on a bus and go to the one place in America where I can get a living wage job—even if I don’t know where I’m going to sleep when I get off the bus. I saw the program and the church and the pastor as a prism, really, into this much bigger story. I always reference Harlan County, USA: the backdrop is big—energy extraction—but the stories are intimate.

So I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have a place to stay in Williston—everything really was booked up. So I asked Jay if I could sleep there, and he said sure. They put me in the snorers room, which was horrible. Then I slept in the hallway for a while, and then I moved onto a new couch.

Was there something about the energy of that space that felt safe, regardless of where anyone might have been coming from, and regardless of how vulnerable you were, staying in those rooms with strangers?

It felt very safe. There was community, comradeship. The men were open and helpful to each other. In the film, this theme of community is articulated [by Jay] pretty clearly, but we didn’t find that theme so strongly until late in the edit. Its full meaning wasn’t even really totally apparent to me until the very end of the story. He fights so hard for community, he provides community within the church, but he really does want those people to be integrated into the wider community too. A couple of men say basically that this is home, that it’s as close to home they can get in this place that’s pretty scary.

Community becomes really complicated because you have people looking out for their local community, and sometimes looking out for your local community means being less welcoming than you could be.

The community of the congregation is really quite threatened by these men. And I [was attracted to] questions around the Christian ethic—though as a secular person I responded to the choices Jay was making on more of a moral level. When we choose to help people, how do we help them and what is the price we pay for doing that? Loving thy neighbor, that injunction, is simple on some level but extremely complicated on a practical level. There was some support for this [within the congregation] initially, but gradually it eroded. And I thought that schism was not just about how to live a Christian life, but really about how we all make choices about helping one another—particularly people who need help. That was also true for the neighbors and the city of Williston itself. I can’t blame them—a lot of us would be pretty sympathetic if a trailer park erupted across the street from your otherwise very nice home in a nice neighborhood.

Did you find your own moral sense challenged and reoriented on a week-to-week basis, or did you have a pretty clear sense of how you thought things should go?

I was always on the Pastor’s side, because he was risking so much to do what he believed was right. That’s why I wanted to keep filming with him. What became clear, further in the story, was how far out there he was in making those choices. In willing to accept people into the church who had criminal records, then to accept someone with a criminal record into his home to protect the program, then to go to that man’s employer to fight for his job. Then gradually he began to cross the line and lose his bearings.

What I liked about Jay was that even from the beginning he was very self-aware about his own misjudgments and failings. One of the first things he ever said to me was that no one has pure motives. I don’t like films about martyrs, because I feel like there’s more to this story and I’m not getting it, and this guy wasn’t martyring himself—he was admitting that he was a human being. Of course, he kept saying to these men that we’re all broken, and I did wonder what [he meant]. Is this just theological or is there more? Through the course of our relationship it became clear to me that there was. That he wasn’t just saying it, he felt it. There was some degree of mystery to his motivations.

There’s a turn late in the film that I’m not going to give away, but I wonder if you were surprised or felt betrayed by the revelations?

The way that a surprise in a film is often both shocking and inevitable at the same time, is kind of how I felt personally about what happened. The signs were all there if you knew where to look for them, but you didn’t necessarily. The deeper theme of the film is: can you really outrun who you are? Even in a place that would seem to promise the most opportunity for reinvention—a boomtown—you can’t. Whether you’re an overnighter with a criminal record, or you’re Pastor Jay, you can’t run.

You were staying there for a week per month?

About a week per month for 16 months. For 6 months I slept in the church, and then I met somebody in town who had a spare room and put me up. Many film subjects are not good communicators, but Jay was a really good communicator. So we were in touch when I wasn’t there, and he would say, well, this is happening. And I would say hold the phone, I have to get on an airplane—that’s really important and I want to film that. And every shoot I was there by myself. It felt a little stubbornly old-fashioned to make a verité film. But I was just really interested in seeing if I could film dramatic scenes between people. Did I have it in me, and would the story provide a way to tell itself that way?

Other verité films do get made, but I think it’s very rare these days for them to get made with just one person. They may look very intimate, but there’s usually at least a sound person in addition to a cameraman. What advantage do you think it gave you to be there by yourself? Did you have more intimate access because of that?

I think so. There’s a real transparency when you’re just one person. It’s much easier to connect to people. You don’t become a “them,” you’re a “you.” Yes there’s a camera there, but there are no other people. I think it’s possible to make amazing verité films [with multiple people], but I guess it allowed me to be more available and present in those relationships. For people to feel that I was just a person like them, and not some organization or institution or group. And really importantly for me, I could be flexible with my time. It was such a hard environment to work in—it was hard to find a place to sleep, and you always had to be patient and wait, and I don’t think I could have asked anybody to do that. It allowed me to make more intuitive decisions. I just liked not having to be responsible for anybody else, and to be totally emotionally available for the people I was working with.

I would say I’m a pretty guarded person—I like to be behind the camera. But the environment and the vulnerability of that place definitely had an emotional effect on me. The pastor and that connection [to him], and the fact that I was staying there, I felt a certain amount of vulnerability. And I was taking a risk with the film, creatively and financially. I don’t want to oversell the notion that I felt like an Overnighter, but it’s the middle of nowhere and you’re just out there. That really allowed me to enter that world in an honest way, and that was important.

As a viewer, I loved how little of a sense I had of where this was going. That as events unfolded, it was hard to get a clear sense of where this could go, and of how the characters would respond to how the situation was evolving, and I found that thrilling.

I knew that I didn’t know where the story was going to take me. But I had some sense of where the program was headed. You’re asking an audience to come along for that ride, which if it works out, hopefully will be thrilling. But in the edit we were asking ourselves, is the audience still with us here? We know it’s going to pay off, but we have to keep them in the story.

As specific as the story is to Williston and these characters, the film also echoes out to other communities elsewhere, and how these issues are constantly being negotiated around America.

It’s about social inequality too. These are not guys looking for handouts—these are guys who just need to work. As anomalous as Williston is, energy is such a big industry and there are a lot of towns like Williston getting turned upside down. There’s the narrative of the town that’s dried up and blown away, but there’s also the narrative of the town that’s booming. There is a bigger theme that relates to this conversation of social inequality that seems to be percolating. This wide gulf between people who have something and people who need something.

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