Documentarian Jesse Moss likes to make his films on his own, armed with a camera and a lot of curiosity. His early efforts focused on fascinating characters and topics, from the virtual wars that American soldiers fought before heading to Iraq (Full Battle Rattle) to an up close and personal account of con artist James Arthur Hogue (Con Man).
For his latest film, The Overnighters, Moss spent 18 months in the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota, where he became a close friend of the town’s revered and controversial pastor, Jay Reinke. What began as a modest human-interest story turned into one of the most compelling looks at an American community to come onto the screens in years. The film was one of the hottest documentary titles at Sundance earlier this year, where it won the Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking. It is now playing in limited release across the United States, and you can check out our review right here.
Last week, I landed an exclusive interview with the director and we spoke about finding out the pastor’s secrets, becoming an “overnighter” himself, and how he responded when a citizen threatened him (and Pastor Reinke) with a gun.
Check it out below and enjoy!
WGTC: What drew you into the town of Williston, North Dakota and how did you find this story?
Jesse Moss: What drew me initially was this dawning awareness of the transformation of North Dakota and Williston. Tens of thousands of Americans were making this journey up there, this kind of Dust Bowl immigration to find work. There were some stories that were beginning to talk about the boom and the opportunities. I guess I had a sense that there was a little bit more to the story that I wasn’t reading about, like what the reality of life on the ground was. I was also just curious what this 21st century frontier boomtown of Williston was really like. My knowledge of American boomtowns is kind of limited to history and David Milch’s Deadwood.
I was reading the local paper online, the Williston Herald, online. I read this clergy column that Pastor Jay [Reinke] had written. He called on his neighbors to welcome these people who were coming. I knew that there had been this violent murder in Williston that had really cast a pall of fear over the community. Jay’s sentiments were unusual, and I called him up. He told me, “there are people sleeping in my church and in my parking lot and in the pews. And it’s really quite something – you have to come see it for yourself.” So, that was the invitation I needed to go to Williston. When I met Jay and slept in the church, it was electrifying and I knew I had to start filming. I didn’t know what the film would be, but that was the starting point for me.
WGTC: Many filmmakers could have chosen to put more of an emphasis on the homeless and underprivileged living in the church. Was that the original intention or was Pastor Reinke the first choice to be the film’s protagonist?
Jesse Moss: The idea was to tell the story of the people coming, but I recognized Jay was the man in the middle. He was the man who was shouldering this influx of migrants, and on the other hand, the wrath and the fears of this community and his congregation and his neighbors. I could see that Jay’s position in the middle of this great moral dilemma, this Christian dilemma, certainly is a powerful dramatic framework for this story.
I had to wrestle with the idea. It didn’t strike me immediately because I thought I would come here and make a movie about the oil boom. Suddenly, it was about a Lutheran pastor and a little church. Yet, his struggles really did illuminate the experiences of these men and women that were coming to him to help. He struck me as very complicated, he’s very charismatic and his total commitment to his cause… his passion threw me in. You look for characters whose enthusiasms, whose affections, passions and obsessions come across onscreen and Jay had that. There was a degree of recklessness to his actions that could end dramatically, possibly tragically for him, and so I kind of had an inkling of what was in store for him and the film.
WGTC: You lived on the floor of the Concordia Lutheran Church as you were making the film. Was it just you there or a small crew with you?
Jesse Moss: There was no crew. I went alone and with a camera. It’s how I worked before. It’s a hard way to work but it was the only way to make this work. I didn’t have any institutional funding for the film. It really helped in a way to go alone. I did need a place to stay and I met the same challenges as many of those [overnighters]. All of the hotel rooms, and there were not many of them, were booked by oil companies. Jay said, “pf course, you can stay here… it’s not very comfortable but I can give you a bed.” So I took him up on that.
The film was shot over 18 months, and the first six of those months I slept in Concordia [Lutheran Church]. They were not the most restful nights of sleep but that place was unlike any place I have ever been in my life. Jay and I had the sense that it was ephemeral, that it wouldn’t last, that the stories of these men and what Jay did for them would be lost to history if we didn’t tell the story. That kept me going.
It was a place that fostered a sense of community and of trust, and I benefitted from that. Men who would normally strike me as extremely tough and intimidating would open up. They would cry in my presence. They would show their vulnerability. I’m not a religious person but that felt very powerful for me. It felt like a sacred space.