Documentaries accepted into the Sundance Film Festival often hold an air of prestige, but the actual shoots are seldom as beautiful as the footage appears on screen. Few of the Sundance 2014 cinematographers can claim such a difficult production as Jesse Moss, whose past work includes “Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story” and “Full Battle Rattle” and who now comes to Sundance with the controversy-bound “The Overnighters,” a provocative documentary surrounding a recent oil boom in small-town North Dakota that has its residents battling with the local pastor. Moss not only shot the feature documentary, but he also directed.
Which camera and lens did you use? I shot “The Overnighters” on a Sony F3 with the Red 17-50 and – when I had a little more cash – the Fujinon 19-90.
What was the most difficult shot on your movie, and how did you pull it off? I was filming my main subject, Pastor Jay Reinke, in a fly-speck town called Wheelock in the North Dakota oil field when a woman pulled out a rifle and threatened to shoot us both if we didn’t leave. I kept filming and wondering if she was going to shoot us, hoping that his position as pastor would provide some form of divine protection. As we were leaving, and still rolling, she attacked me with a metal broomstick. The shot is in the film. I pulled it off by ignoring that rational voice in my head that said “run like hell!”
What’s the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? For me there was no film school. I borrowed my girlfriend’s camera (a Sony VX1000) and started shooting Speedo at the Riverhead Raceway on Long Island. I’d recommend that approach. But now that I’ve started teaching filmmaking and cinematography, I’ve realized how little I actually know. Maybe ignorance is a good thing. It forces you to rely more on intuition, which is helpful.
Do you think the shift from digital is good or bad? The transition to 35mm sensor digital cameras that accept PL Zooms has forced me to learn some fundamentals of cinematography that I could ignore when shooting smaller format digital cameras. Overall, digital has been liberating for me because I had no technical training, and the barrier to entry was so low. I’m actually teaching 16mm Bolex production, which is both maddening and perversely pleasurable for me, but my students can’t stand it.
What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? As a documentary filmmaker, it’s been invaluable to shoot my own films. I worked alone in the field shooting and directing “The Overnighters,” and that freedom was liberating. I think that the best work comes from the biggest risk. I would encourage cinematographers to think about taking those risks creatively, collaboratively and financially.
What’s the best career advice you received? I was deciding between graduate film school and working for one of my heroes in documentary. I was advised to take the job and I did. I’ve never regretted that choice.
And the worst advice? A good friend told me to abandon my first film. I ignored him. Without that film, I wouldn’t have a career as a filmmaker. It’s good to listen to your friends, and good to ignore them sometimes.
Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at Canon Craft Services on Main Street.