The Overnighters is an exceptional documentary that I described in my review as a “rare and beautiful thing.” The film follows Jay Reinke, pastor of the Concordia Lutheran Church as he opens his doors to workers descending upon his town of Williston, North Dakota, in search of riches during the local natural gas fracking boom.
I wrote that director Jesse Moss and his team “have done a near miraculous thing, keeping even keeled and probing without ever resorting to bombast or overt advocacy.” The film is “one of those morally complex tales that leaves you churning inside, grasping with the very real-world issues that are brought forth. We see in this film humanity at its best and its worst, but see it for what it is, a gradient on which at any given time man can be judged as doing good or ill.”
Following that review, I had the slightly surreal circumstance where the subject of the documentary reached out to me directly in the comment section of the article. Reinke wanted to chat and sent me an email anxious to start up a conversation. I suggested at the time that it might be better to discuss the film in person and that there might be an opportunity soon.
Following the film’s premiere in January it went on to play Toronto’s Hot Docs last March, and I had the chance then to speak with Reinke and Moss in the Mercer Street offices of the film’s Canadian distributor, Films We Like, a company that fittingly was founded by the award-winning Canadian documentarian Ron Mann.
The film remains one of the most powerful of the year, an extraordinary achievement in nonfiction filmmaking that’s not to be missed.
The following is an edited transcription of two lengthy conversations, the first with Reinke and a follow-up with Moss where we discuss similar themes from a very different perspective.
I began my chat with a now very cautious Reinke about his own changing reactions to the film.
Nonfics: Obviously to you this is not simply a film or a story, it’s life. Could you tell me about your response to it as a film and how your response has changed since its premiere at Sundance?
Jay Reinke: Initially, when I first saw the film, I had a lot of reservations. There was more of me than I had first anticipated, and processing it as a family has been an ongoing process. I’m just going to say that I’m a little scared to talk, Jason, and I’m going to tell you why, because it’s not you, I just don’t know how words will live on. I’ll get back to the question here, so you can edit and do whatever you want with them, okay?
And anything that you say and then regret will not be included.
Okay. I had a terrible experience yesterday, just awful. It’s made me a little bit nervous. All of a sudden now, I’m nervous talking to reporters, when I wasn’t for a long time.
In terms of response to the film, I’ll just give some reflections and let you edit through those. It has obviously been a significant conversation, how I and we relate to this film, since I resigned since it’s come out.
I am encouraged by the audience reaction and how people with whom I would not have much in common, people who are a lot different from me, people who are rich, have come up to me and said how much it has meant to them. It is in a sense giving them an opportunity to admit their own struggles and burdens.
People from whom I have a completely different lifestyle, you discover that — you know what? — we’re a whole lot alike. Not in the same way, but we are all struggling with burdens to sort of how we’re all suffering. We’re all broken. To have permission to say that, to give people the chance to say that to someone, that’s very meaningful to me.
It is my hope that, as I said over and over again to the overnighters, Williston will be difficult, but say these words: Plan B means Plan Blessing. Know that when something’s broken, blessing can come from that.
To be able to begin to say that about the film itself, that this is definitely a plan B.
For me, honestly, the film is itself kind of an overnighter. It showed up on my doorstep. I didn’t ask for this to be part of my life. It was not really welcome. Actually, I didn’t mind Jesse being there and talking and everything. I was just sort of, I was doing a documentary. I didn’t have a problem sharing that, I didn’t have anything to hide. I didn’t really have anything to give, just, yeah, come on, Jesse.
Was it presented that the film was going to be about the men as opposed to about you? I don’t mean that he hid something from you . . .
No, but I think initially, he began to see not only the dynamic of what was going on with the overnighters, which was related to me in some real intense way, but also the story did take on a much more personal dimension than he had anticipated, and so he was a little surprised, too, by how things unfolded.
When Jesse started this film, he was doing a film about a guy who’s living the Christian mission to help people who aren’t being helped by anyone else. To literally give them charity, give them a home, to do every single teaching of Jesus to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that notion of charity is shown throughout. And the most shocking part of the film is that a lot of charity is not shown towards you.
I wouldn’t say that charity was not shown towards me. I do believe that I’m enduring some appropriate consequences. I do. I don’t think it’s merciless.
I do think I’m being shown charity from my wife, first of all, and by my children and even now by the community and by the Church, and I put them in a very awkward position because they know that things have to change, though in some ways they don’t want them to, but I’ve sort of forced that to happen. So I wouldn’t say that I have not been shown charity.
When you watch the film, are you learning about yourself, about the dynamic of your family, or can see this as a film? Can you actually divorce yourself from events that still make your stomach feel weird? Or is that just impossible?
I’m not sure how to answer that question. I will say this: when I resigned, I just went dark. All of my standard means of communicating, preaching, teaching — I mean, the overnighters, I taught them individual instruction, radio programs every week, clergy calling regularly — just to be able to have license to go into places and talk in public venues; I just always had that license. And then suddenly to go dark…
It’s not that even if people were ashamed and didn’t know what to say, I put them in the spot of not knowing what to say, not knowing how to comfort my wife, not knowing what to say. I created a great deal of discomfort for a lot of people, and a lot of pain.
Back to your question about the film, once everything went dark, and it happened almost simultaneously with the end of The Overnighters, I found myself thinking, did this really happen? All of a sudden, it’s a world away, how could the world change so quickly? And it’s just not my world anymore.
Now that the film is there, my old world is back in a little way. Even though the film is kind of in itself like an unwelcome overnighter, it has forced me and my family to work through our crisis against the backdrop of millions of people seeing me and what I’ve done, what I’ve done wrong.
And, of course, what you’ve done right…
Well, I know, but . . .
Because what you’ve done right is in some ways more memorable
I’m not just trying to do the martyr complex. In a sense this film has been an unwelcome guest in our personal life because it’s forced us to have to ask, “What do we do with this?” My wife and I have not always been on the same page there, and we’re really getting there, that she can actually even maybe find hope in the film because she’s discovering that people are finding comfort in this film. So that’s helping her.
I don’t want to overstate that, but it’s now laced with a little bit of hope for her.
The film has been kind of like, oh, it really did happen, so it’s been helpful for me to sort of say okay, that really was history, that happened, it wasn’t my imagination. I’ve been able to welcome it, because to have been able to have participated in those lives, it’s just holy to be able to, with all of the frustrations of it all, to so engage lives.
My relationship with the film is kind of complex. Like everything else in the film, it’s complex; it’s not cut and dry.
How has your relationship with your own faith been changed by the film?
You know what’s interesting? I’m always surprised to hear that question. That’s been asked of me several times and that shocks me.
And I don’t mean your faith in God or Jesus or however you want to put it, but your faith in the institution of Christianity.
Well, I would say the difficulty is that it’s hard for me to now be on the recipient side of the ministry. To not be able to do the teaching, to not be able to do that and just sort of sit back and be, have someone else do that. That has been hard.
In terms of the institution, I still believe what I believe, and I still want to be its advocate and a teacher of it. I’m just not sure what venues can be available to me now. Perhaps writing, I don’t know, but it’s very hard because I just so enjoy relating to people. I just so enjoy the freedom I had to engage people at very significant levels of communication.
That’s not really open to me now, although those conversations still happen.
Is it not open in your community, or is it not open full stop?
It’s not open in my denomination. So individually, I’m able to communicate with people and share things, but it’s still kind of a marginalized — that’s not the right word, but it’s still kind of an auxiliary conversation.
I can encourage people to go to church, I can’t invite them to come to church. And that’s sad for me. That is sad.
But it is, I think, it’s notable. I think a number of people have asked what’s my relationship with God like, and I don’t know why that startles me, but it does, and maybe because in my life I have so preached Plan B is Plan Blessing, for my own survival. I’m the first person to ask, I have to preach that to myself.
I am not by nature an optimist. I’m by nature a pessimist. I see the black lining. I am tempted always to despair. So, to say those words, “Plan B means Plan Blessing,” that’s a sermon first of all to me, and so just saying the words helps me.
This film and the losses I’ve endured, to keep pounding the drum, Plan B means Plan Blessing, and I say that by the way, as I’ve told some audiences. I believe I’m a Christian. God did his greatest work with his Plan B being broken for us, his brokenness on the cross is how he takes our brokenness and connects it to his brokenness and that’s how he brings forth the blessing.
So rather than a perfect God, we have a broken instantiation.
Well, he is a perfect God but he took on humanity, he took on sin. And he took on my sin, so he did wring a blessing from it.
What has surprised you the most about the response? You talk a little bit about the faith question — has the community had a chance to approach this as a film?
No, the community has not. I can answer that question. Somebody asked about that the other night, and I had to admit I always preach against serving fear, but I have to admit to you that I am afraid.
I’m afraid because so often, even though I admit that I don’t always know what my motives are, it’s not always so loving. I don’t always want to care for some people. They frustrate me. I wish they weren’t on my doorstep, you know?
Nevertheless, it’s very hard for me when somebody continually assigns, assumes that my motives are always selfish and aggrandizing, I want to just make a name for myself.
My fear is that if it ever plays in Williston or North Dakota it will be seen as “See, he did this all just for his own sake.” That’s my fear.
I’m trying not to serve that fear, but it is a little hard.
That’s my greatest reluctance, is that it would be seen as me, people would see it as evidence that my motives always were about serving myself. And that’s a little hard to take, but I’ll take it.
When you shoot a documentary, you’re looking through a camera lens — it can see here, it can’t see here. What in this documentary was outside the frame of the lens that you think, not through the fault of the filmmaker, just the very notion of . . .
I appreciate that question. There are two things that when I first saw it with Jesse, there were some things that I challenged him with, although when I saw it a second time, my opinions moderated somewhat.
One was I did a lot of teaching with these guys. I would schedule events and I would invite them to come in early and I would go through, I would teach them lessons about creation, about Jesus. I would come up with a lesson and we would have — not all of them came, but some of them did — we would have some great conversations. That really wasn’t part of the film.
The other part that I do wish the film could have included is that there were many people in the church who liked the overnighters, some who initially were against them and they did a lot of hating. And you would not know that having seen the film. The problem is that sometimes those people were not very vocal advocates, but yet it was genuine. At the very least, there were many who said, “You know what, it’s not something I want to get involved with, but I’m okay with this.”
There was a learning curve I had to learn. For example, in one scene there’s a man sleeping on the floor of the sanctuary where we would worship, and some members of the church, especially older members, said, “We don’t really want people sleeping in the sanctuary itself.” I said, “Okay, they’re out of there. We’ll move them out.” Different things like that.
I would say I wish it could have included that people really did have a change of heart. Many of them did. They moved from just apprehension to real endorsement.
I’ve said that to audiences time and again, and I regret that I won’t be able to say that because I do believe that it is true. There was some significant opposition, but there was also some significant encouragement and endorsement. There really was.
The other thing that made it difficult is we got to where the guys could only come in at nine o’clock at night. Most volunteers can’t come in late, or some of them got jobs elsewhere, working, so people who had been kind of a standard supporter just couldn’t be there. That just had its own impact too.
Oh, and something else, you know I’ve not said this to the audience, but I keep intending to say this: part of some of the opposition, or maybe not even opposition but hesitancy, was not just that the men were there but that I wasn’t really doing my pastoral job to the fullest that I should. I really was. I was displacing a lot of my time and energy, and I really tried to moderate that, but it was really hard. So people were kind of lost. That saddened them, and they saw that failure or inability on my part, and that made it hard for them to be as supportive or as enthusiastic as they otherwise might have been. It’s very hard to balance all of that.
I justified it by saying this is kind of like an emergency. Here’s the person who has no place to sleep, I can’t wait. They need it, it’s rather pressing. And so, well, listen, it’s just been a constant state of emergency and so nothing can really function. If we’re going to accommodate this influx, nothing can function as it normally has. And we sort of have to allow boundaries and expectations to adjust and to shift so that we can deal with this.
Now here is the second part of the interview, with director Jesse Moss on some of the very same subjects:
Nonfics: Without giving too much away to audiences, I’ve been comparing The Overnighters favorably to the films of Errol Morris. One of the delights of a Morris documentary are the surprise twists, where we think the film is about one thing and then it shifts to another topic entirely as we learn about the subject. The difference for me is that Morris knows this going in. He knows in Mr. Death that this guy who builds electric chairs is also a Holocaust denier. For your film, the shift seems to occur in real-time as you were capturing the story. How much of the story did you know at the beginning, and how surprised were you about the way that it went?
Jesse Moss: What I knew early on was that Jay was complicated. I knew that in ways that he told me that there was more about him than might be necessarily clear on the surface, but not enough for me to really know what that was.
I also knew that beyond what this choice was for him, this choice to welcome these men and how he saw that as an act of Christian charity and an expression of his faith was something very personal.
I certainly came home and, in the edit room with my editor and my wife, who is my producer, we talked about him and thought about what that might be and if that mystery might ever reveal itself or unravel in the film. What was also clear to me pretty early on was he was on a trajectory with the program and possibly with himself professionally that might end badly. He was just taking risks. That was dramatically interesting, and it was clear to me that this could be cataclysmic — not personally, I thought, but professionally. The congregation would fire him. He told me that.
I was committed to see the program through to the end, and I thought the difficult outcome dramatically would be the program just keeps going. That could be the outcome here — he gets permission — but I really never anticipated that. I felt that there was something deep within him personally that was driving him, and the ways that we would articulate to these men, or sometimes to me, like you and I are more alike than we are different, or all of us are carrying burdens, this language which spoke to something inside of him which I thought was more than theological.
When I showed up to film the program closing, that weekend is when he told me, “I’m going to lose my job,” and he said, “But I can’t talk about it.” But he said, “I’m going to go get my hair cut in this town that’s about four hours away,” and I said, “Well, let’s go. I’ll go with you, and we talked and he told me.”
Off camera. I had the camera, but I didn’t film. We were just talking.
And we talked.
He told me what was happening in his life. We talked on the drive back why I thought it was important as a part of the story that I had been telling and that it had a lot to do with the choices he had made to help men for his compassion for broken men. Plus, the fact that he was now going to lose his job and that there was going to be enormous consequences in his personal life. These were things that I thought were profoundly related to everything that had come before in the story that I was telling.
I don’t know if you read the blurb that they created for Sundance, it was incredibly bland and banal. I thought, I’m going to go see another deadly dull film about fracking, so in some ways my expectations about what the film was going to be about completely shaped my positive reaction to it
You didn’t really know anything, or you just saw that what you got was not what you expected?
The narrative took me in ways I was not expecting. Obviously, it was done with a sensitivity and dexterity of storytelling which I was not expecting from what I assumed was just going to be one of the thousands of docs that simply are on a specific cause. Further, it may well have become more tabloid-y, even if it was this dramatic shift. In retrospect, now, my concern as a critic is that too many people will latch on to the last half of the film and ignore the power of the first part.
That was a great concern for Jay and for me, and I felt an obligation and really a responsibility to take this story where it led me, but guide it by belief that it wasn’t just gratuitous. This is a portrait of Jay and the price he pays in his life and who he is as a result of the help that he gives these men.
But did it start as a portrait of Jay or as a portrait of his mission?
It didn’t start as a portrait of Jay. It really started as a portrait of the overnighters, but I saw Jay in the fulcrum of these forces mediating between these men and the community. The position he was in and his charisma made him so evidently the main character of the story.
I struggled with that initially, because I thought, I did not set out to make a movie about a church and a pastor and what does this have to do with the oil boom in North Dakota.
But it has everything to do with it . . .
It has everything.
I went there somehow expecting the film to kind of broaden out in this panoramic look at what was going on, and it sort of just kept burrowing deeper into this inner space.
I have described it as “emotional fracking”.
Yeah! I actually hadn’t heard that. I think also fundamentally related to what the original conception of the film was, which was to understand the human toll of this transformation, how it affects families and individual lives and communities. That was the conversation that was missing for me in all of the rhetoric and coverage of that story. Certainly the science and the environmental aspects had been well covered, but just the human cost.
It’s again the whole metaphor of fracking: you pour stuff down in order to force other stuff up. This is why I saw this as this incredibly beautiful metaphor. Inadvertent, perhaps, but with a documentarian sensitive enough to see it and shoot it.
To be honest, you frame it in terms that I had not considered, but you’re absolutely right.
I did recognize that what is going on in all of their lives is kind of emotional fracking. It rips all of their families apart. It leaves them all broken and the community itself, not just literally ripped apart, roads and infrastructure, but emotionally, psychologically. So it’s shocking and I think the great concern and conversation with Jay and with my collaborators was is this going to wipe out the story that has just gone before it.
People are going to have to struggle and reconcile this transformation. How can you prepare them for it?
The question was: do you continue to follow the story? Is that just the midpoint of what the film becomes? These were all decisions we had to make quickly. We didn’t have to make them quickly, but they were made in a kind of intense [way] because of what was happening in his life, the conversation around the fallout, the presence of the camera and what the film would be, trying to finish the film.
I think it does leave for the audience room for some people to make connections and other people struggle with those connections. Somebody always asks me, “I don’t understand, why is this in the film, what does this have to do with that?” And to me, of course it’s clear, and I see it clearly.
One of my favorite shots is that truck with the sign against socialism parked in a church that’s giving away space for charity. That’s a real tragedy of any orthodoxy, when it’s non-self-reflexive, unaware of the inherent irony of its circumstance that it can become dangerous.
We were talking about hypocrisy, and I hesitate to characterize it that was within the church. I think the church had really legitimate reasons to fear these men and to be unhappy with the way this was changing the way they had existed as a congregation.
On the other hand, as Jay liked to point out, if they were asked to donate money for a mission in Africa, they wouldn’t hesitate. When the mission arrived on their doorstep, they turned their backs and that’s not funny, that’s just something else.
I also think that there was a kind of raw and ruthless capitalism. This was part of the initial motivation too, back to the idea of what’s the impact of this experience on human beings, this industry and this transformation. What does it do to people? We know what it does to the environment, but what does it do to people? The machine in the marketplace is unforgiving and basically the attitude in Williston was that the market will correct eventually. It’s not our responsibility.
What’s funny is that I’m from Palo Alto, and right now Palo Alto is grappling with a very similar problem, and it’s like the last place in the United States you expect to have a homeless problem. There’s a church that opened its doors, the community got upset, there’s been litigation. In a way, Williston is this freakish anomaly, but it’s not.
The reason Palo Alto is the economic center of California now is that it’s already had its crash, post World War II. It has rebuilt up again and is now starting to see its fruits bloom. Fascinating! Well, at least you have the grounds for a sequel!
How was your conversation with Jay?
Emotional. I asked him the fundamental question, the same one I asked you. When you watch it as a film, obviously you’re living this too. As a documentarian, you obviously have a great emotional connection to your subject and want to see his story told in one way and not another. Are you closer to this subject than perhaps other subjects that you’ve shot before?
Well, I’ve never made a documentary, a feature documentary where I couldn’t share the film with my subject with an audience. Some filmmakers have and do and maybe someday I will make a film like that, but it was so important that Jay not just be a part of the filmmaking because of the sheer amount of trust and personal life that he opened.
He opened his life to me, and I felt like, not that I needed to make a film to make him happy, but that I needed to make a film that was honest and truthful and that he could believe in.
That was really important to me, and when he had to make the decision to come to Sundance, I really wanted him to be there. I said, “Jay, I really want you to trust me, and I believe that when people see this film that they will be moved and inspired and provoked and they will see you compassionately, as you saw those men and in all your humanness. But I don’t know that for sure but I believe that will happen.”
He trusted me and he made that journey with the consent of his wife. He did get affirmation and that was it would have been very hard for me to share this film without him because of how much he’s given me and how close we became.
That was because of the nature of what happened. It was of course very hard for him and his family and how much attention this film brings to a difficult period in his life, the concern that it would overshadow the program or cast a light on the program that would make it hard to or obscure the deep profound message of his actions.
Is there a concern that there are those perhaps differing from him politically that see his actions and behavior within a different context? It’s easy to see how the right-wing will attack some parts of this film, but it’s also easy to see how perhaps the left-wing will overemphasize the conclusion without recognizing Jay’s continuing struggles.
I think of course that’s possible. I was really concerned about that and it hasn’t proven to be the case. I think one of the reasons is that the film is pretty raw. I don’t think it strikes people as a film that’s really trying to put one over on people.
It’s not a film with a prescriptive set of answers. It’s a film about complicated people who are good and sometimes bad.
I think that there are people here who want Jay to be this, and there are people here who suspect that. Often I get a question from the audience about where are you at now in your life? Jay’s on a journey, and the film and the program were part of the journey that he’s on. But he’s on a journey, and that desire for clarity, resolution, the film can’t offer that.
Again, what I thoroughly responded to was the lack of, for lack of a better word, the messiness of humanity and the lack of precision and being able to compartmentalize him in notions in terms of faith or sexuality.
That’s right. What’s been great is that smart critics have recognized and embraced the complexity of the film. That doesn’t mean that people down the road won’t want to probe and poke and look for answers that may not be there or that I may not be able to provide, and I have to accept that.
I think there’s a reductive reading of his actions that I think is, I know and believe to be erroneous, that it’s cynical. I think it’s so much more. It’s reductive. It’s clear that the program fulfilled a profound need for him to find meaning in his life, for him to express his faith in a way that felt true and pure to his heart, but those connections with the men and women he met in that program were profound.
Something I’ve talked about with my wife before is that there is something called emotional infidelity. It’s not necessarily sexual infidelity, it’s emotional infidelity. When you share too much intimacy with someone, someone who really needs something from you, it can feel to other people like you’ve given too much of yourself.
Did Jay give too much of himself to people who came through that church who needed help? Certainly, his congregation felt that he did.
I was there for two years, and I saw a thousand people come through there, and I saw him give help to all of them, that I see things that people who come to a film can’t see. But I think that what I did my best to do was to express that in the film, to show. I don’t think you take those risks if that’s a calculation that you have.
In terms of filmmaking, was there ever a cut where you connected the dots much more explicitly and much earlier in the film, to say this is the guy he’s having an affair with?
No. Because that person’s not in the film. I didn’t film that person.
I bring that up because a lot of the discussions at Sundance was that it was the guy from New York that we see in the film.
Right, and I could see why that is. I think that what you see in almost all of his relationships with those men is that — and I felt it too — that was a place of profound connection.
My connection with Jay, Jay’s connection with those men and my connection with some of those men, it doesn’t mean anything other than that was a place in which men risked their lives to come. They brought nothing, they left their families and their homes behind and that’s a place where you feel vulnerable.
I think that, and you feel like you find a community and a connection that helps you survive. There’s no question that Jay sacrificed for the overnighters. It was costly in his professional and his personal life. He just gave too much to people.
It’s probably a little too “meta”, but just as filmmaking, again, I’ve found a tendency of some with films like this to try to retroactively solve the whodunit.
And the answer there is categorically, to be clear, no, that’s not . . .
Did you leave the guy out on purpose?
No, never filmed him. Don’t know him. So, then, what is my obligation, is it to put a card at the end of the film to clarify this question for people?
Yes, scrolling yellow text like with Star Wars!
[Laughs] You know, it’s a film in which I put, let’s be honest, almost everything in. I realize that that’s a pretty heavy piece of information that people are going to try to process and make sense of, but in a way I think the film presents a composite understanding of a way in which a transgression could happen with anybody.
People have asked me that question, about the gentleman from New York, and the answer is I didn’t know the person. I didn’t film the person, the person is not in the movie.
This gets back to something that I was discussing with Jay earlier, talking about all those things that take place just outside the frame of the lens, and whether he thought that the film might have, not through malice, simply not been able to capture in the spectrum.
Well, I can tell you what he told me. There wasn’t enough Word in the film. That was the first time he watched the film.
He described it differently. I guess it would be the same thing, that he felt that his teaching of these men . . .
Yeah, and I don’t know what he said about this but the first time he watched the film, he told me that and I said, “Jay, watch the film again.” He watched it again and he said, “You know what, Jesse, there’s more Word than I thought, not as much as I would have liked, but there’s more than I thought.” There is, not enough to make Jay totally satisfied.
That’s a better way of describing it. I thought the same thing, actually, there’s a lot of pedagogy in this thing.
There was nuance to some of the… I mean there was one neighbor who we filmed who was actually quite sympathetic in a way, scared but sympathetic. There was complexity there that I thought inevitably things are simplified for purposes of condensing the story, and that’s hard, but I wish there was.
There was an incredible debate within the congregation, the congregation-wide debate about this program and this decision. I thought they refused to see a civic virtue in allowing that conversation to happen in front of my camera. They thought that was church business, and I can kind of understand that. I also thought this is a profound debate that people would like to see. We can all relate to it, both your perspective and Jay’s perspective. This is it.
This is about how we help people and what price we pay to do it, and I wish I could have shown more of that.
We have two really critical and important scenes in the film. One with Shelley, who is the congregant who comes to him and whom I love and who is just really smart and sort of articulates a lot of what we’re all feeling: “You’re making a mess. You’re destroying the environment. These people aren’t going to survive.” She names it all, and she doesn’t look like a whacko, right? She’s a really nice person and a really smart person.
Then the scene with Terry Forkey, who is the district president who comes to mediate that conversation in which Jay’s feeling abandoned and cornered and questioned. It’s not my best-shot scene in the film, but it’s a really important scene because you just see that they’re fed up. That was hard for me to keep, to not have more of that. On the other hand, it allowed me to make room for some of the other overnighters who were really important in the film.
You shot the whole film with a single camera?
Yeah, almost all hand-held. I brought lights, but…
And you shot?
I shot it, yeah, no crew. No lights. Radio mic and a shotgun on the camera, pretty short, on a Sony F3 with a pretty short zoom lens but no lighting ever and a tripod for some of the establishing material in Williston, but all hand-held and single camera coverage, all of it.
I felt like when I was making the movie, this is so old-fashioned. No one does this, and not in a good way. People do not want to see verité films anymore. They don’t. I just seems old-fashioned.
You do not become a character in your film.
Except there’s one moment when we break the fourth wall and my editor’s like, “Cut it out,” and I was like, “You know what, this is a crazy sequence. I’m going to put it in there.” I’m not pretending there’s no filmmaker here, and in fact the scene in which Jay talks to his wife, there’s the presence of the camera.
They think about their own presence, and that’s a really hard moment and I get asked a lot about that too. I think it’s a question that cuts to the heart of documentary and what the presence of the camera means and what we see and how intimate a film should be, and I think those are intellectual questions and really the question for me was what is this about for this man in his life in this moment and what’s happening here.
That’s excellent, thank you so much.
Thank you. You definitely hit on something that I know we’re going to be talking about with people and critics. It’s a conversation we’re having too about Jay and I, and I’m talking to journalists. It’s so interesting to see how, particularly when people write the catalogue copy for the film, the suggestion they’re making when they interpret the film or not. Really, everybody draws their own conclusions.
I expected GasLand 3. I did not get GasLand 3.
Yeah, there was no way I was doing that.
The Overnighters is currently playing around the U.S. and opens in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 7th.