By Katie Walsh
The Overnighters is one of the best documentaries of the year. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January and was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking, is a modern American tragedy of Biblical scope. Directed by Jesse Moss, it tells a story of the Black Gold Rush currently taking hold of Williston, North Dakota, where men across the country and globe have traveled to find oil jobs. The promise of economic opportunity proves a mighty draw, and the town is overwhelmed by migrant workers with limited housing options.
Some salvation and hospitality for the unfortunate without a roof over their heads comes in the form of Pastor Jay Reinke, who offers shelter in his church to these wayward men. His Christlike embrace of all, despite their checkered pasts and character flaws, is a source of conflict in his congregation and community, and Reinke struggles with the morality and consequences of his decision to welcome this flock into his life. He’s a man who is open and vulnerable and simultaneously a mystery, a figure whose motivations and drive are never fully understood. In his review from Sundance, Christopher Campbell calls the film “a perceptive portrait of the best and worst of human nature.”
I chatted with Moss about his experience making the film, the deep immersion he had in the story, the relationships he had with the subjects, the storytelling decision making and just what a filmmaker should do when confronted with a shotgun-toting local lass. Read our conversation below.
Nonfics: What brought you to North Dakota, and how did the story of Pastor Reinke come to you?
Jesse Moss: The film germinated about three years ago. Around that time there were some national news articles about the North Dakota oil boom, about the fact that this was the bright spot in the American economy where people were migrating, and then there were actually a couple stories about people sleeping in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Williston. I was curious about this reputation Williston was acquiring as this 21st century frontier boomtown and what that looked like up close. I was reading the Williston Herald online and Pastor Jay wrote a clergy column for the paper, in which he called on the community to welcome these newcomers, and I knew that was an unusual sentiment, because at that time, a woman, Sherry Arnold, had been murdered by these two guys who had come up to work, so there was a lot of fear in the community.
I called Jay, I left him a message and he called me back. He’s such an open guy, we had a great conversation on the phone, and he said, “You know there’s people staying in my church. You’ve got to come here and see what’s happening. There are people in the parking lot, people in the pews.” That was the invitation that I needed. I flew up there, alone, and brought my camera, and I went to see Jay. The moment I set foot in the church and met Jay and met some of these guys, it was electrifying, and I just thought there’s something going on here. Clearly Jay was risking a lot. He was pretty open about what was going on. I could see that everyone was sleeping in the church, and he shared with me early on that there was conflict in the congregation about that situation.
It was a very powerful experience to walk into the church and see all these guys sleeping there and seeing Jay interacting with them, the connection he had and what they were searching for. But part of me was like, wait a minute, I came up here to make a movie about the oil boom, and here I am in this Lutheran church rec room with this pastor. This is not where I expected to find myself, and I’m not sure this is where I should be. I had those misgivings or doubts, but what did strike me quickly about Jay was that he was the man in the middle. He had put himself between the community and the influx of guys, and so I could see that he was in this very incredible position, trying to balance these interests.
He seems like an open guy in general, but he’s remarkably candid in the film. Did you have to do any work to get him to trust you, especially with some of the confessions that he makes?
Yeah, that’s an important question. In part, I think it came from that early decision to go alone. I slept in the church for the first six months of production, because I needed a place to stay.
You slept in the church? With everyone?
Yeah. I slept in the storage room, then I slept in the hallway, then I slept on a couch, and that was intense and important and put me right inside the story. It allowed me to get to know Jay and what he was up against. It cemented our relationship, and when I think about the very intimate and personal place the film goes, I think it rests on that foundation and those decisions. I also think Jay felt very isolated in his decision, and he had really lost the support of his congregation pretty early. By virtue of being there and wanting to document what was happening, I think Jay understood intuitively that I believed in what he was doing, and I believed in him, and I do and I did, and I think that he found strength in knowing that I was documenting this. I think we both sensed the kind of ephemeral-ness of the program.
I had never been in a place like that, and these guys were so raw, with so much life force and compassion and community, and I’d come alone, so I drew sustenance and strength from that community, sharing a cigarette or shooting the shit. So Jay drew strength from me, and in my experience people either are open and natural in front of the camera or not, and you can’t talk people into being a certain way. It helps that Jay’s a pastor. He’s a bit of a performer. He’d admit it himself, he’s got an ego, he’s proud of what he’s doing, he wanted his story told, he liked the camera. Some people do and some people don’t. Sometimes, like any documentary subject, he might play to the camera. He’d admit to that. He’d say, “No one has pure motives. I don’t,” and I was like, “Thank you for saying that. I like you better now.”
What did you do on your downtime in North Dakota? It sounds like you were living in that experience and story for a huge amount of time.
What’s hard is that they kicked everybody out of the church in the morning and then you could come back late at night, and that included me. I didn’t really have a home base, and I spent a lot of time basically living out of my car in Williston when I wasn’t sleeping in the church. I was following some of these other guys, so it was a little bit like taking rounds as a doctor. You’re checking on people and seeing what’s going on. There was a cafe in the courthouse and it was frequented by the locals, and I liked it for that reason. There was the library, it would be me and a bunch of unemployed Overnighters at the library. I was never an Overnighter, but I felt a kind of rootlessness, a kind of search for purpose up there — it was a kinship. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I didn’t know where to find it. I just knew I have a place to hang my hat, and I have this guy I’m interested in, and fortunately he’s really open and letting me into his life.
Over time — the production was 18 months — I did eventually get accommodations elsewhere, but I was constantly trying to hedge my bets and thinking maybe this will go nowhere, maybe no one will care. No one funded it. I got two tiny grants. In a way that helped, because I was like fuck it, I’m just making this movie for myself. I’m going to do what I want. That was liberating. At the same time, I got turned down by a lot of people. It’s a verite film, you don’t know where it’s going, that’s understandable. It’s hard not to take that kind of personally, but you just have to soldier on.
I did have a sense, a hunch with Jay, that he was a very complicated person — that was clear and expressed in subtle ways. There was something beyond what he was doing as a Christian and as a good person. There was something of a mystery. I knew that the program was doomed, that he was going to get fired, or the city was going to close it down. There was going to be an end point probably.
What surprised you when you were filming? There are several shocking moments in the film.
There’s probably four moments in the film where I was like holy shit, this is happening in front of me, I can’t believe it. If you have one or two moments like that in a verite documentary, you’re probably lucky. When the reporter jumped him — I knew the paper was on to him, but I didn’t know he was going to get chased down the street — that was the first moment where I was like, that is just crazy. I just got lucky.
The woman with the gun: he said he had to go pick up this RV, and I’m like okay I’ll just tag along, and suddenly there’s a crazy chick with a gun threatening to shoot him, and I’m like fuck, do I stop filming? Because clearly she’s not happy about me either, but I’m thinking he’s a pastor, he’s got to have some kind of divine protection and hopefully that will cover me as well. That was late in production, and I’d already invested a year and a half of my life — if this guy’s going down, I’m going down with him. I think if that had happened month two of production, I would have just put my camera down and left politely, but at that point, I’m in it, in for a penny, in for a pound, and if he gets shot dead in front of me, well then, so be it.
The storytelling is really interesting, the way you reveal certain key pieces of information. The reveal of the Keith story [a registered sex offender in the Overnighters program, who is eventually revealed to the community in the newspaper] comes from Paul [another Overnighter]. There’s a delicacy to the way you reveal information that’s impactful to the story. How did you put it together?
That particular piece of information was something that we spent a lot of time talking about in the edit room. I knew when Keith moved in that he was a sex offender. But they [Jay and Keith] didn’t talk about it between themselves explicitly. The project of the film was really to film stuff happening. Mostly I wanted the film to be told in scenes. I wanted to shoot dramatic scenes whether they were crazy or not.
There is a calibration of information — you structure the film so the audience has enough information to have their footing and their bearing, maybe not all of their questions answered, but the big question is what is motivating this guy. Who is this man who’s taking this enormous risk? That’s the real question, the real calibration. Once I cut the end of the film, I understood this man in a way that I hadn’t, but now this made a lot of sense to me, all of these things that he said.
We didn’t radically recut the film, but we had cut an assembly when we shot the ending of the film, and so we went back and we just looked at four or five moments where the pastor talks about everybody having burdens, or when he tells the crazy meth head, “You and I are more alike than we are different. Those moments were there in the film, but now we were understanding what every scene means and what the subtext is, and how do we make those moments breathe. That was about trying to prepare the audience for a surprise that will really flatten and floor some people and other people will see coming.
It feels like it unfolds naturally, the way a story would unfold chronologically.
That’s good to hear. I’m sensitive because there is construction, and of course we spent a lot of time in the edit room and cut away a lot of material, and I think it’s true to the thematic experience of what I witnessed. You are having to make a lot of important decisions about how much information should be conveyed.
There are ambiguities and complexities of the film that are not necessarily resolved, about the rightness of his actions to take people in. I had great fears about this. Are people going to accept a character and a story with this much ambiguity and complexity and it doesn’t resolve and tie up neatly? The decisions to end the film where I did and not keep shooting or dig deeper into some aspects of the story — those were hard decisions. People hunger for more, but this guy, he waded into this ambiguous place where men are good and evil, right and wrong. So many of these guys are bad men and good men, Jay included.
The Overnighters opens theatrically in limited release this Friday.