The American spirit to build better lives when the opportunity presents itself has been ingrained in us for generations, especially by those who have fallen on hard times. And living in San Francisco, filmmaker Jesse Moss can’t hide from this creed. It’s a city that blossomed out of the California Gold Rush in the 1800s, where men flocked from all over in the hopes of becoming instantly rich. Two-hundred-plus years later, we’re seeing a new boom. Because of discovered oil fields in North Dakota the last eight years, the Roughrider State has become a destination where any well-bodied individual who doesn’t mind getting his or her hands dirty can become hugely wealthy. Rumors of six-figure jobs within hours of getting into the state have run rampant, and for many Americans struggling since the economic collapse, this glimmer of hope has become their one saving grace. Now hundreds of thousands of people travel to sleepy towns like Williston, North Dakota, to make their fortune. But like the Gold Rush, many have shown up only to find disappointment.
In his latest documentary, The Overnighters (opening Friday), Moss sets his camera on one of the most compelling places in Williston, the Concordia Lutheran Church. There, Pastor Jay Reinke has opened his doors to men who have come to town with only the clothes on their backs and hoping to find gold at the end of the rainbow. Called The Overnighters program, some sleep in the church, some sleep in their cars in the parking lot, but for the townspeople they are an unwelcomed nuisance.
What makes The Overnighters interesting is though Moss could have focused mainly on these men and their struggles (he does highlight a few), it’s Reinke’s burdens that grabbed him the most—a man with skeletons in his closet and a town against him. Most of his congregation has abandoned him because of his program, he’s battling with the town to keep it running and then there’s the shocking third-act twist that we will not give away.
We recently talked to Moss about his one-man-gang effort to make the film, why Reinke is the most challenging subject he’s ever encountered and the reasons he has distaste for the term “poverty porn.”
Paste: Was the North Dakota oil boom of interest to you and then it came down to an interesting story to tell?
Jesse Moss: Yeah, I guess in a way I was interested in the oil boom, broadly speaking. And interested particularly of this boomtown of Williston, this frontier boomtown. The way in which it had become this bright spot in the American economy and people were flocking there in this dust bowl migration. I was curious to know what a 21st-century boomtown looked like and felt like. Who were coming to this town and were they finding what they were looking for? Were they finding these miracle jobs that were going to save them and save their family?
Paste: The similarities of what you show in your film and that Gold Rush mentality is a fascinating draw.
Moss: It was really hard to find any reporting that really dug beneath the surface. And one of the challenges is you really have to follow people for a little while to figure out what happened to them. So kind of all of that was swirling around for me. One of the first things I did was read the Williston Herald online, just poking around from afar, and Pastor Jay used to write a clergy column for the Williston Herald and he had this column calling out the community to welcome these newcomers and I knew just from doing some reading that this was pretty unusual. At that point, they had already kicked people out of the Walmart parking lot, which had become an encampment, and the woman mentioned in the film, Sherry Arnold, had been murdered. So here was Jay, this local, calling on people to welcome them. I read this and called Jay up, and he actually called me back and was quite open and we talked for a little while. I flew out there and went right to the church. I met Jay and I think it was an evening and men were coming in and I just observed. It was electrifying to be in that little church and meet some of these people who had made this journey. They really were like Oakies, they had everything they owned on their back; it was like guys who stepped out of a Jack Kerouac novel who had staked their fortunes to get to Williston.
Paste: At that point in your mind, are you doing an internal checklist on if Jay and the church would be a compelling documentary?
Moss: Definitely. At that point, I’m having some cognitive dissidence because I’m thinking here is this guy who seems quite charismatic and complicated and interesting who is doing this thing to help these people. On the other hand, I’m thinking, what does this have to do with the oil boom? This Lutheran pastor, can he be the subject of a documentary? What’s the story here? What is he really doing here? When you picture the oil boom, you picture a bunch of guys on a drilling rig jamming a piece of pipe into the ground. That’s the iconic image that’s kind of exciting my instincts. But here is something in front of me that seems important. As a filmmaker, I was searching for a little way in with a big story like this. So here was this little window into the boom. I did grasp hold of it immediately. I went alone, I was just a one-man band and I needed a place to stay, so I asked Jay if I could stay in the church.
Paste: You slept there?
Moss: Yeah. I shot the film over 18 months and that was flying back and forth from California. But for the first six months of production, I slept in the church.
Paste: Didn’t you feel you would need time to step away and assess what you’re shooting? Staying there, you were basically in the story 24/7.
Moss: That’s a hazard, but one thing I was doing to protect myself was I did have some other locations and other characters that I was exploring. I spent a huge amount of time filming at a campground in Williston where many people ended up—it was like a little community unto itself. And ultimately that fell away [as a focus in the film] because it just wasn’t interesting; there was no story. There was also a story from the perspective of the haves, if you will, from the have-nots of The Overnighters. It was a local businessman who was making a fortune, and he was interesting. I kept filming both of these things for close to a year into production, but they tapered off as Jay’s story really emerged. I had that nagging doubt as most filmmakers do, thinking, ‘Is anyone going to care about this guy?’
Paste: But it also seemed from reading other interviews you’ve done that you were rooting for this guy. You believed in what Jay was doing.
Moss: I thought what Jay was doing was really brave and an act of moral conscious. For him, it was very much an act of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. I didn’t see it through that prism. It interested me in that it put him into conflict with his congregation, which interested me dramatically. And it wasn’t like I said, “Jay, I believe in you and I believe this program.” I think just by virtue of being there and telling the story, he drew some strength from me and my decision to document what he was doing.
Paste: Tight shots were prevalent in your camerawork for this film, especially in the council meeting scenes. Why did you shoot that way? In a public setting like that, what was the reaction from people witnessing it?
Moss: One of the first powerful scenes I witnessed were one-on-one interactions with him and men who had come in. There’s a scene like that in the first five minutes or so of the film. He would call them “intakes,” when someone arrived he’d ask where they’re from and here are the rules. Those scenes were often very emotional and very powerful, and because I think I worked alone and didn’t have a soundman I needed to shoot them close for technical necessity. Also, so much of the film is conversations between Jay and another man—to me, those were scenes that demanded to be shot close.
Now it’s something else when you’re shooting a scene like at the city council and you have to decide: Am I going to do what most news crews do, which is sit back and have the camera on a tripod, or am I making a movie and get right up in his face? There were times when they told me to move, but it’s always surprising what you can get away with. You just act like you’re supposed to be doing it. And Jay was pretty natural, though often he was quite aware of the camera and sometimes in a funny way.
Paste: What do you mean?
Moss: Well, because Jay is something of a performer, there was a degree of self-consciousness. In a way, that’s just him, but you’re always asking yourself, is it a degree of performance? And that’s for all people when the camera is present. It’s not to say performance or self-consciousness is a bad thing on camera, but you have to recognize it in the edit room. Jay is a very expressive person, that’s why he connects with people; he lets it out. He cries. And he cries a lot. I’m not a crier, but I cried with him several times making the film because it’s an emotional experience. But sometimes Jay would cry and I would think, ‘Well, that’s crocodile tears.’ It’s performance; I’m not buying it. When I was cutting the film, I felt that when Jay cries in this movie, you have to feel it. We were very judicious in identifying what I felt was the real and the powerful moment for him is when he says goodbye to the men at the end of the program. It’s not a sobbing mess, but he cries and you feel it.
Paste: Do you think Jay was the most challenging subject you’ve covered in your films so far?
Moss: I would say I was presented with the most challenging questions as a filmmaker dealing with this film and Jay and his family, for sure. And the level of intimacy in the film presented some really hard questions for me that I was familiar with from some documentary work but not in such an acute way.
Paste: Questions you had to address while you were shooting or in the edit room?
Moss: Both. There were discussions sometimes about filming some scenes. Some scenes were off limits. Pastors give counsel, and sometimes people were open to me filming and sometimes they wanted it to be private. So it was always a discussion with him on if it was appropriate to film or not. And of course, scenes with his family and his wife were progressively more intimate in the film. There were discussions in some cases before shooting took place because he’d say something like, “We’re going to move this guy into our home; he’s a sex offender.” And I would say, “That’s really important, I would like to film that.” It was kind of a series of conversations to make sure we could do that. But more so were the conversations of what took place after I had filmed his confession and the turn of events at the end. What he was going through. What his family was dealing with. Whether or not this moment had a place in the film and if so, how they felt about that and the impact that would have on their lives. That was a long four-month conversation because I filmed it very quickly. It all happened right around the time that the program closed. It’s quite chronological in the film, but it happened so quickly that there was no time to process what happened for all of us and for him and his family. The film in a way was an afterthought. But it was still there. That was a long time to consider.
Paste: So you struggled with how the movie should end?
Moss: I did anticipate that the film would end with the closing of the program and whatever form that would take. But the second ending—I had to really think about what it meant and if it had a place in the film. It’s a conversation I had with myself and with Jay and his family. For me, and this is something Jay and I talked about and the reason why it’s in the film, there was always with Jay this mystery. Clearly, he had found a cause and a calling in helping these men, but what was deep down inside of him? What was driving him to have this superhuman compassion for these men who were hard to love? They’re the roughest members of society. Was that a pure act of Christian charity or was there something inside of Jay? And that was a mystery that I was never sure the film would unravel or if there was an answer to that. But based on some things that Jay shared with me along the way both on and off camera, I had a sense that there was something in his past or in him that would explain his compassion. It was a question that loomed over him for me, so when he reveals that he has this burden that he’s carried with him, I think it explains his profound identification and compassion for men with these burdens. He is, as he says in the film, “more alike than he is different” from these men. So I felt this was absolutely central to the film and what the film is about. The film resolves in a way that explains Jay but left other questions unresolved and seemed entirely appropriate.
Paste: Has Jay seen the film?
Moss: Yes. We had been talking about things for a few months and at one point I just said, “You need to see it because I can no longer tell you what it is. You have to understand it for yourself and decide how you feel about it.” His great fear was it would all be about his downfall. So he came to my house in San Francisco and he watched it and we spent a weekend talking about it and he went back and talked to his family. He then had more deliberation and, after talking to his wife, he decided to come to Sundance for the premiere. He was there for a number of the screenings and to me that was a real act of bravery on his part because he didn’t know how the film would be received. But I think the film has a positive message and that people would support him and he found affirmation from being there and from audiences.
Paste: How do you feel about the term “Poverty Porn”?
Moss: I haven’t heard that term put on my film—
Paste: I haven’t seen it in any reviews of your film, but The Overnighters has been lumped in with, say, a film like Rich Hill as being stories that look at the lives of people who are economically challenged.
Moss: I think this is where my instincts drew me because I felt there was a story that needed to be told. I think it involves a spectrum of people. But your question is estheticizing their experiences and I, to be honest, didn’t think about that. I thought about George Orwell and Harlan County, USA when I was making the film and I think these are films that are incredibly clear-eyed works of journalism and made with compassion and are powerful stories. For me, a big part of this film was getting back to the way I made films in may 20s—kind of ignorant and not knowing any better and just wanting to make a verite film. I was interested if I could make a film like that today and find a story that would develop in front of me. Was that possible? I mean the term is so loaded. It’s sensational.
Paste: I agree with you. And I think it catches fire because we live in a culture that loves to use eye-catching, sexy terms (torture porn, food porn, etc.). I was just curious what you thought of it.
Moss: The question that it seeks to engage is not new. Historically documentary work has found these stories on the margins, not necessarily of only poverty, but what the term implies is that there is a right way and a wrong way to tell stories about impoverished people. Because pornography is clearly wrong, so we’re saying this is an obscenity and this is offensive and is treating people—
Paste: An exploitation of their current state.
Moss: Yeah. So then my question is why don’t we focus on that question?
Paste: How do you focus on a subject who is not well off and not exploit their situation?
Moss: Yeah. I mean I never lit any shots for this movie. Not once. I didn’t bring a light to Williston once. It’s all natural light. But are you guilty if you said, “The light is better over here, can we do your interview over here?” Is that a suspect decision because your impoverished subject should be shot in poor light? It’s an interesting question.
Jason Guerrasio is a New York-based film journalist. He writes for VanityFair.com, Esquire.com, RollingStone.com, The Dissolve and BlackBook, among others. Follow him on Twitter.