Documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters” starts as one kind of movie and becomes something else. While Moss focuses on the experiences of various unemployed individuals who travel to Williston, North Dakota to land jobs in the oil business, his story ultimately focuses on Pastor Jay Reinke. At the Concordia Lutheran Church, Reinke runs a service to house numerous workers and counsel them as they attempt to put their lives on track. But as he faces scrutiny from the neighborhood and confronts problems from his own past, Reinke’s good-natured efforts come into question. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Moss’ film has generated discussion about its layered approach to storytelling, which continues to reveal new information all the way through its revelatory final act.
The movie opened in New York on Friday and expands to other markets this week. Moss sat down with Indiewire in New York last week to discuss its provocative themes — as well as his philosophy behind filming some of the film’s more dramatic moments.
How did your expectations for the film evolve?
I’d never been to Sundance as a director in all my years of making documentaries. So just to be there was such a huge achievement for me personally. Just to even show the film then, to do well…
It helps when they like it.
It helps a lot. And you know, it was really a film made in a vacuum, because we didn’t have much institutional support for it. So we just didn’t know how it would play with Jay being there, which was intense.
Was he worried about associating with the film?
He had to make that leap of faith. I said to him, “Jay, I believe the film has this powerful message that’s going to resonate…I want you there, you belong there.” And he did it. He’s a brave guy, you can see that. He’s a risk-taker. I think he’s got vanity, and an ego, and I think for all of those reasons it was important. He said to me, “I’m not sure if Sundance is my crowd,” and I said, “Don’t assume you know what this event’s crowd is.” And it was really affirming for him both to see this film recognized and to see that reception for himself at the lowest point of his life. We’re still very close. We’ve been respectful of him and the place he’s in his life but he feels that he belongs here. And I want him to be a part of the conversation around the film even though there’s a lot that’s still unresolved about him and his life.
Do you see the film more as a personal profile of this man or is the film more about the bigger picture?
It is about him, but his story is powerful and universal. He’s a human being who trusted me and allowed me to make a film about him. I think that relationship doesn’t end when you stop shooting. We made this thing together — I’m the filmmaker and he’s the subject. I just felt like this is something we shared together. My film “Speedo” was not a film that had a political or social message around it. With this film, your entry way in as a viewer is Jay — the emotion, the drama, the investment you make in the story. But it kind of transcends that, so it becomes a story about America and about indoctrination and about faith, because those are the questions that drew me to Jay to begin with. I came with this macro-political perspective and I found them concentrated, and now they’ve kind of blown back out. It’s not like Jay’s purpose ends. I think his place in the conversations helps — even though there’s a kind of hazard there, and it’s like, “Are we just going to talk about Jay and his personal life?,” I see the upside.
Can you elaborate on “the macro-political perspective” you had when you started the project?
I was struck that there was there was this 21st century boom town in modern day America. It was like “Deadwood” made real. It was the bright spot for the American economy that people could find living-wage work in the wake of the recession. But I felt like the conversation missing around energy and oil production was not the environmental dimension but the human dimension. What’s the ground-level reality for people who work in the industry? Now that domestic energy production is the salvation of the American economy, let’s talk about what the means — not just for the environment, but for human beings.
When I came to New York when I was 26, I went to work for Barbara Kopple. “Harlan County, USA” is the high water mater of documentary filmmaking for me. It really takes us inside that extractive industry and finds the human heart of that experience. It’s a very political film. But I felt that when we talk about oil and energy, let’s talk about these people who are looking to it as a salvation. Are these people going to Williston to remake their lives, as people have done — run to the frontier, run to the broom town — for 150 years to remake themselves. Do they find what they’re looking for? We live in a gold rush town, in San Francisco. There was this promise that many of those people who came there sought, and it wasn’t delivered. It was an illusion and I wonder if Williston is an illusion or it a reality. The job is there, but life is much harder.
But you know, I was also a storyteller, interested in this mythology, and I feel like it was the mythology made real — that’s what being in Williston was like for when I first got there. After my first visit, I came back, and I was struggling with a sense for how to make a movie about what I’d seen — about that place, with how much was happening and how quickly it was begin transformed and how that transformation destabilizes that town. It’s like you suddenly understand why desperadoes run to boom towns and why boom towns feel like you could get shot dead in the street. Those aren’t fictions, they’re real.
Did you feel like an outsider?
I did, because the real hangup for me was I was really an outsider in a church. I didn’t grow up around a church, I’m not Christian. I think one of the unusual aspects of my relationship with Jay was that he never tried to preach to me. He really respected that I was an outsider and he appreciated that I was there to tell the story of the overnighters but he didn’t work on me. But I struggled with this idea that I wanted to make a movie about the oil boom in North Dakota. Here I was in a dinky little church with this pastor and what did that actually have to do with the image of the story that I had in my mind?
Was it hard to get him onboard for the project?
He was strikingly open on one level because at that point, even early in the program, he felt like he didn’t have many friends or supporters. I think he drew strength from having me there documenting everything. I think he felt like something important was happening in that church, even though it wasn’t very romantic. I recognized that when I walked in there. It was electrifying to see so much emotion and intensity — and Jay’s connections to these men and women who were coming there. He let me in and he let me stay there. I slept in the church for six months. But it wasn’t just like he opened himself up. When I first said, “Well I want to come home with you,” he was like, “Why do you want to come home with me?” And he was a pastor constantly struggling with his own vanity and asking himself how much of this was about his own ego. Why not focus on the other men? And so Jay and I kind of wrestled with that and I said, “Jay, you’re the embodiment of this program. You’re living these actions. I know you don’t want this to be all about you, but it’s all about you.”
Did you ever feel like you were too close to your subject?
This film — more than any film I’ve ever made — really forced me to confront those boundaries and to try to define the lines. They’re never exactly clear and they’re always shifting in both relationships and the film itself and what constitutes right and ethical behavior. When are you close enough and when is it too close? First of all, Jay struck me immediately as a complicated person. There’s the surface Jay and there’s the Jay in his heart. That was a kind of mystery that kept me going, not that I ever felt I could answer it, but it was all the contradictions of Jay’s character, the kind of self destructiveness of his behavior and the superhuman compassion. I just thought this man, his self-awareness, his contradictions, the turmoil beneath him — the film reflects the natural progression of the story in that it became more intense and his turmoil became more surfaced. His world, like Williston itself, began to feel destabilized. I knew almost from the beginning that the program couldn’t survive. That was the natural end point of the story that I was telling. I just didn’t know that it would break open in such a dramatic way.
There’s one dramatic scene late in the film that gets everyone talking. It involves Jay’s big revelation about his past. What was it like to capture that moment?
From the beginning, for me, the project was to make a cinéma vérité film, like the films that inspired me to make documentary work. It’s not the only kind of documentary work I like to do, but I wanted to to see if I could make a movie like “Speedo,” which I made 15 years ago when I was young and ignorant and just had the freedom that comes with youth.
In Jay, I found somebody who was in a dramatic point in his life, who was willing to allow me into his life to film it. There was a progression of intimacy. When I went home with him, I filmed scenes with his family as things became more complicated for him. That scene that falls at the end of the film and it’s the most intimate. But it’s not like I filmed it in the first two months of our relationship. I filmed it at the very end of the 18 months we spent filming together. There was, an understanding at the point in his life and his family’s life that I might be present as the program was being shut down and this would be a very emotional experience and Jay’s career was on the line. So it wasn’t unprecedented that I’d be with his family. People have to be reminded that this is unscripted. I don’t know what people are going to say or do. I knew that things were coming apart for Jay personally, but I didn’t expect for him and Andrea to have this conversation in a public place with me present. But they were used to the camera. For me, the basic rule I’ll operate with is: if you tell me to turn the camera off, I’ll turn it off. There’s no hidden camera. I’m a pretty big guy and the camera is pretty big on my shoulder. They went to have coffee in a supermarket and suddenly Jay was making this confession to her. I’ve shot maybe only one other scene like that in my life, in “Speedo” — and it actually involves his relationship with his wife, coincidentally. But maybe that’s because it goes off in the most intimate moments in people’s lives, around their relationships, the people they love.
What happened next?
I didn’t shut off all feeling when I was shooting it. I’m not very emotionally expressive, I don’t cry — but I cried making the movie, I cried with Jay. That scene was extremely emotional to shoot and I did question whether I should be there, whether the camera should be present. But I also know from my experience that it’s the moments you’re compelled to question that tend to be the most powerful.
If he had decided he didn’t want that scene in the film, would you have included it?
When I showed him the film I was in a position to potentially change the film to reflect his concerns and certainly decisions I made about how to construct the end reflected my sensitivity to him and his family’s concerns. And the one thing that was very important to me and to him that he said about the film and about Andrea, that very personal confession, is that it dignified their pain. It didn’t treat him in an undignified way. I think as a filmmaker I felt that I had to look that reality in the face, which is to say you like to think for your film, you can make a film in which the interests of your subjects align with your interests as a filmmaker and artist and storyteller. But the truth is that in many films there are points of divergence and then you have to ask yourself what is the line and where do my responsibilities to my subject and my obligations to my work as an artist begin. That line isn’t fixed, it isn’t in a manual that I got when I started my career as a documentary filmmaker. It really rests on the relationship you have with your subjects.
What sort of a toll did the experience take on you?
Films like this extract a very high soul tax. In a way, the problem is that this is how I want to make films. But it has definitely left me gun-shy about jumping into another serious documentary project. Actually, I was approached about one with a very complicated subject, it was really interesting, and funding was in place — but I looked at this and thought, “I can’t do this right now.” I mean, this almost blew my relationship to my wife apart. Jay is not an actor. These are real people. And yet, on this film, because I had no support I could do everything I wanted. Because I worked alone, I could make all these decisions in the field. So maybe it takes me five years to make each feature because if I’m going to make a feature, I’m going to make it with freedom and independence. And I want it to be meaningful. But that means it’s also going to also be really fucking hard.
READ MORE: How I Shot That: Confronting Dangerous Townspeople While Shooting Sundance Documentary ‘The Overnighters