Note: This interview originally ran back in October during the theatrical premiere of The Overnighters (T/F 2014) NYC. We are sharing it again as The Overnighters is returning Columbia today at Ragtag Cinema for a short pre-T/F 2015 run.
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.
The Overnighters is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. In the coming months, it will travel to other cities across the United States via Drafthouse Films. A day before its theatrical opening, I interviewed Moss via Skype.
Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.
True/False: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.
Jesse Moss: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.
It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.
T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?
JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.
The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”
Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.
T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?
JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.
For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.
In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.
Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.
I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.
T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?
JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.
Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.
Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters.
T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.
JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.
In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.
I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.
You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.
T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?
JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.
T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?
JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.
There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”
T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?
JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.
T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.
JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.
T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?
JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.
It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.
What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.