Jesse Moss’s enthralling and emotional documentary, The Overnighters, chronicles events in the small town of Williston, North Dakota when, during the recent recession, thousands of unemployed men and women came in search for jobs generated by a newly discovered oil field. Feeling that he is performing a Christian duty, Pastor Jay Reinke allows many of these transients to sleep in his church through a program he calls the Overnighters. He soon faces resistance from members of his congregation and ultimately from the rest of the town.
Filmmaker Jesse Moss travelled to North Dakota to document the desperate migration of unemployed workers in some way. He even (briefly) joined the ranks of stranded travelers staying at Reinke’s church and soon realized that the Pastor and his flock were the story. For the next 18 months, he followed Jay and the events in Williston, never dreaming how the story would evolve. We talked to Moss about his process, the courage of being kind, and the new American dream.
Tribeca: It’s hard to believe this film was made in this millennium. I couldn’t help but think of the Okie migration during the Depression as I watched these men who had to leave their families and homes and travel to unfamiliar places to find work. How did you come across this story?
Jesse Moss: I think when I heard about Williston, it already had acquired this reputation as a frontier boom town in 21st century America. That struck me as anachronistic, and I was interested by the idea. In the wake of the recession, there seemed to be one bright spot in America where people were going to find work—and that was Williston. That’s what drew me up there.
Before I left, I read online the local paper, The Williston Herald, which is featured in the film, and there was a column that Pastor Jay had written, saying “Let’s not fear these newcomers, let’s welcome them.” I thought that this was an unusual sentiment as this woman had just been murdered up there. So I called Jay, we talked on the phone, and he said, “you have to come to my church and see what’s happening here.” Once I got to the church and met him, I felt so struck by what was going on in that space. All these men—mostly men, some women—had risked their lives to get there in hopes that they would find opportunity or redemption or something they were seeking.
With this kind of immersive documentary work, you can achieve extraordinary intimacy by being unthreatening and flexible. That’s what filmmaking is about – being intuitive and open and having the freedom to follow your hunches.
Tribeca: I can’t remember the last time I watched a documentary with a subject as fascinating as Pastor Jay Reinke. He was incredibly open about his life, even about the more controversial aspects of it. Was it easy to convince him to let you film him, especially as events in his story progressed?
JM: He was very open from the very beginning. I think that he recognized that something very extraordinary was happening in Williston and that he was in the middle of the storm. It was as if this mighty artery of desperation decided to flow through Williston and through his church. He was still trying to get a handle on all of it because of the chaos caused by these people sleeping on the pews and in their cars. I think he realized that history was being written in this town and in this church.
I believe for that reason he was happy that I showed up. He wanted the story to be told. His program had been running 6 months already before I arrived, but even then, I think he knew it was so out of control that it probably wouldn’t last forever. He wanted to document it.
When I first got to Williston, it struck me that, like a lot of people when they first arrived, I didn’t have a place to stay. Oil companies had all the hotels in Williston booked. Jay gave me his storage room where I stayed for the first 6 months of production before I found a couch to crash on. I didn’t have a crew. It was only me.
Tribeca: That must have been quite an experience.
JM: Yeah, but what struck me most was how emotionally vulnerable these people were. They had left their homes, their friends and their families and were alone and scared. They found refuge in the church and compassion in Jay. The connection between the Overnighters and Jay was so palpable. When you make a journey like they did, you get to a place where you have to drop your defenses in order to survive. You need support from another human. Jay was there for them and opened himself up to them as much as they did to him. I didn’t know what the story was going to be at first, but I knew that what was happening was electrifying.
Tribeca: He is one of the most generous people I’ve ever observed.
JM: He’s also a natural in front of the camera. I liked that he’s effortlessly charismatic but also complicated. I didn’t want to make a movie about a martyr or a saint and he never held himself up as either. He’s a man that just found himself in a remarkable situation. A thousand desperate men knocked on his front door, and he opened it.
We filmed for 18 months totally. I would say the foundation of the film and our relationship was established during the initial period of working together when I was sleeping in the church. When the film does become incredibly personal and really intimate because of his personal and family issues, the foundation was there and the relationship was there that allowed me to follow the story to those more difficult places.
Tribeca: Pastor Jay essentially abandons his church community because they are wary of his generosity and openness and turns to this community of Overnighters. His family is incredibly supportive through everything. Can you talk about their participation in the documentary? Did you ever want to include them more in the film?
JM: It was always apparent that his family was behind this effort, but the congregation, the neighbors, and the Town were less behind it. His wife and children helped at the church, along with volunteers within the Overnighters community. I knew that Jay was balancing his commitments to his family – he has three kids at home and one in college— with his commitment to this other family, the congregation of the Overnighters. He struggled to balance those commitments, which he often talked openly about.
Jay made a profound moral choice, which is to help people who need help. It wasn’t an easy choice; he didn’t have an inexhaustible amount of goodwill, energy and compassion. He had other people who needed him, and there was always that conflict between the different parts of his life. You could say that Jay is someone who has trouble drawing clear boundaries, but that’s what makes him extremely compelling as a subject.
Tribeca: Pastor Jay says, “To be human is to serve and learn from your neighbor.” It’s incredibly ironic that this mantra complicated his life in ways he’d never imagined. What do you think he learned over the course of this documentary?
JM: He’s such a tragic subject or character because his compassion is what ultimately drove him to do what he did. That’s extraordinary. Most of us wouldn’t defy everybody in our life to help people. However, that compassion and the risks he felt compelled to take led to his eventual downfall. In the documentary, he says something like “let your neighbor change your life,” but I don’t think he ever expected that things would end the way they did. He opened his heart to people in need, and his life will never be the same. I feel fortunate that I was there at this moment in that small Town to witness this story.
I didn’t want to make a movie about a martyr or a saint and Jay never held himself up as either. He’s a man that just found himself in a remarkable situation.
Tribeca: Looking back, would he have done anything differently?
JM: I can’t really answer that question. The experience changed him in so many profound ways. He cannot go back to who he was or what he was. He’s a man of huge contradictions, and these events really unlocked all of these dimensions within him. When I screen the film, people always want to know what Jay is doing. I like to say that he’s on a journey.
You listen to what he says about letting a neighbor change your life, and that sounds great on the surface, but the issues involved are deceptively complex. To me, the compelling questions raised by the film are about what it means to help people and what price we should be willing to pay for others’ sake. Jay saw compelling evidence of social inequality in America, of the great disparities between rich and poor. He is not a wealthy person, but he happened to have floor space, which he gave willingly. Ultimately, we have to ask what it means to be a human being.
Tribeca: One of the most shocking moments in the documentary occurs when, after a particularly frightening/frustrating encounter, Pastor Jay stops everything to wave at a passing Amtrak train. Can you talk about that sequence? Were you surprised by his actions?
JM: There’s something really crazy about that whole sequence. Just about 10 minutes before he jumped out of his car to wave at a train, a woman had pulled a gun on him when he was asking her to return his trailer. This occurred at a point in his life, and in the film, when things were beginning to destabilize. The wheels were coming off the bus, both for him personally and for the program. It was one of those great documentary moments when I was grateful to be there with a camera. How can 10 minutes of a man’s life contain these two wildly divergent experiences? How can he go from being held at gunpoint to waving at a train? I think that’s Jay in a nutshell.
I wanted to make a film where life just happened in front of the camera because that’s the kind of storytelling that interests me. I really like cinema verite. Jay was living this experience so fully and intensely that I think he was also a little bit manic and a little bit out of his mind.
Tribeca: From the documentary, it’s clear that you and Pastor Jay developed a friendship over the course of filmmaking. Should there be a line drawn between the documentarian and the subject? How do you determine where that line is?
JM: That’s a question that cuts to the heart of the difficult scenes in the film, but also cuts to the heart of what documentary is. As I mentioned, I worked alone and was able to build a very close relationship with Jay. All I could do when things got difficult was to be honest with Jay and say “this is part of the story and I want to film it.” Jay and I were on this journey, and we had gotten to a place of understanding. When the film was finished, I showed it to him. He came in and watched it with me privately, and we talked about it. He really respected and appreciated how honest the film was. It’s a hard story, but he’s a brave person. He also said to me, “I understand that this is your version of events,” which it is.
I’m a filmmaker. I’m being selective about what scenes that I want to include in this film. I said to Jay: “You’re right, but this is the film and it’s very important for me, going forward, that you participate in the conversation around the film. The film is only a reduction of my construction of these events and I want you to be part of this conversation.” Given what he had gone through, I wasn’t sure that he was willing to make that leap, and it’s been very gratifying to know that he’s been willing to do that.
He was at Tribeca and was eager to engage the profound questions raised by the film with audiences. I think this is a film that provokes a lot of conversations and questions. I can let Jay speak for himself in those situations. These choices he made had serious repercussions in his personal life. Jay doesn’t shy from conflict, and he recognizes that there are people who won’t like what he was doing. That is always going to be part of the story.
Tribeca: You made this film almost entirely by yourself. What were the advantages/challenges of being on your own as an indie documentarian?
JM: It’s partly by necessity that I did that. I had very little financial support to make it. I love working with really talented DPs when I have the resources, but in this case I didn’t, and I do like to shoot. I find that with this kind of work, it’s nice to have the freedom and the flexibility and the intimacy that comes from working by yourself. You don’t have to deal with a crew or be responsible for taking care of people in a difficult environment, which Williston was.
When I had this whole church full of needy people, it was liberating for me to just be totally available to the circumstances. If I wanted to work for 18 hours, I would. If I wanted to sit in Jay’s office for three hours and talk to him, I could do that. I didn’t ever have to worry about taking care of anybody else, and I think that people respond to your availability. When you’re not a unit or a crew, you’re just you. Now I have my camera, it’s a big camera, it’s on my shoulder there, and I’m always the filmmaker, but I am still just me. With this kind of immersive documentary work, you can achieve extraordinary intimacy by being unthreatening and flexible. I was always available in the moment, and that’s what's filmmaking is about – being intuitive and open and having the freedom to follow your hunches.
Tribeca: It is unusual for a documentary to keep you on the edge of your seat the way that The Overnighters was able to do. Can you discuss working with your editor, Jeff Gilbert, about structuring and pacing the documentary in the editing room?
Jesse Moss: That was a lot of hard work and it was important. I was by myself in the field, and I think I got a little delirious. It was really useful to have a couple of collaborators backing me up, looking at the footage with more detachment. For me, those people were my producer/wife Amanda and Jeff. With this kind of documentary work, we were really writing in the edit room. The story had its own chronological narrative, and I knew where it started and where it ended. In between, we had to balance the different characters in the film with the exposition and dramatic structure. We had to build tension and release information carefully to keep the audience interested and empathetic. All these calibrations involved a lot of trial and error. I was fortunate to have a really talented editor who challenged me.
I should say that I had a really hard time with some sequences in the film, especially the climax. When I was almost finished filming, all this dramatic stuff happened. I anticipated that the end of the film would be the closure of the program, but the crisis in Jay’s life provided the real ending. With this changed outcome, we had to go back and look at every scene that we cut in the film and ask, “Okay, now knowing what we know, how do we…?” We had to make adjustments to earlier scenes to make Jay’s dramatic reversal seem surprising and inevitable at the same time. We had a very short amount of time to do that.
To me, the compelling questions raised by the film are about what it means to help people and what price we should be willing to pay for others’ sake.
Tribeca: Pastor Jay also says, “Hopeless should never win. Hopeless is a lie.” Do you think that there is hope for the town of Williston?
JM: I think there’s hope. Williston has been ripped apart and it is now being remade. The process has been incredibly painful. They are now this huge oil boom town with five times as many people, considerably more money, and lots of crime.
Ultimately, though, I think Williston will do just fine.
Tribeca: Do you have hope for Pastor Jay?
JM: Despite his setbacks and the unexpected turns his life has taken recently, he’s an optimist. To me, just seeing his willingness to go out into the world and to continue to talk to people about The Overnighters and the choices he made is a testament to his optimism. He was and is the kind of guy who was made to clean the bathroom because nobody else would. There’s something special about Jay. He’s got his faults and he’ll admit them. He certainly is not in a position now to really help people in the way that he used to be.
I said to Jay when we premiered the film at Sundance, “Jay, take the call.” That’s an expression in the church. Traditionally, the pastor takes the call to the church, and I said, “okay you can’t do that anymore, but make this movie the call and be part of this conversation. It’s not a church and it’s not a congregation, but you can talk to an audience – a room full of people who are going to ask you tough questions.” Answering tough questions is what he’s been doing his entire professional life, and he’s going to continue doing it. I told him, “It’s a big country out there, and let’s go talk about The Overnighters.”