The Overnighters

PBS Premiere: June 29, 2015Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

"My sweetheart and my parents / I left in my old hometown / I'm out to do the best I can / As I go ramblin' round." — "Ramblin' Round," Woody Guthrie

The themes of re-invention and self-invention in American life have long interested me and inspired my film work, from Con Man (the story of an Ivy League impostor) to Full Battle Rattle (the Iraq war seen through the prism of role-play). The lure of the boomtown and its powerful place in the American imagination stem from its seductive promise of redemption and fortune for the brave and the desperate. It is this theme — played out in stark, raw terms in North Dakota and viewed through the prism of Pastor Jay Reinke's church — that drew me to this story.

As a student of American history, I was fascinated by the idea that a boomtown existed in modern-day America. Stories about Williston, North Dakota, suggested an intoxicating and possibly combustible mixture of oil, men, money, opportunity and crime.

How did the reality of Williston square with our understanding of historical boomtowns like Deadwood, Dodge City and Gold Rush-era San Francisco? The history of those places is now inseparable from their mythology, and like most people, I'd only read about them in books or seen them depicted in Hollywood Westerns. I was curious to see the real Williston up close and measure it against those iconic locales, at least as they existed in the popular imagination.

The story of modern-day Williston and the mass migration of Americans in search of work also recalls the Dust-Bowl migration of the 1930s, a movement depicted in John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath and the folk ballads of Woody Guthrie. These echoes convinced me that this was a deeply, uniquely American story worth pursuing.

I also suspected that the flood of relentlessly positive stories about easy opportunity and high wages in Williston and the economic promise of energy and oil concealed a darker, ground-level truth.

My introduction to Pastor Jay came through a clergy column that he published in the Williston Herald, in which he urged townspeople to welcome outsiders. The sincerity of his sentiment struck a chord in me, and I called him. He spokewarmly and passionately, and he invited me to visit him at Concordia Lutheran Church.

When I arrived at the church shortly after our conversation, there were about 50 people sleeping there. I met tradesmen from Southern and Western states hard hit by the housing bust, African immigrants, kids from rural communities with no employment prospects, broken men, ex-cons, guys with PhD's and even a middle-aged Filipina nurse from my hometown, San Francisco, hoping to land a job as a flight attendant. Pastor Jay told me, "The world has arrived on my doorstep." And he was right.

The church was a raw, emotional place. Desperation forces people to drop their usual defenses. Men cried as they showed me pictures of their children. They told me about their dreams of lucrative jobs on the oil rigs that checkered the prairie landscape. I decided to stay and film. I was determined to make an observational documentary. I had no idea how the story would turn out, but I found a path to follow and someone to lead me down it.

For the first six months of production, I slept in the church, among the men. This was largely out of necessity. All the hotels and man-camps were booked solid by oil companies. The sleeping conditions, while not ideal, yielded a greater understanding of what the community inside and outside the church was like and helped me forge a strong relationship with both Pastor Jay and the men I chose to follow.

There were times, during production, that I felt like an "overnighter." Perhaps the forces that drew me to Williston — a search for opportunity, work and meaning in my life — were not far different from those that compelled the men I met. It was enormously difficult to find support for the film, which made the journey seem closer to folly or failure at times.

I'd like to think I emerged unscathed, but it was an intensely emotional and occasionally lonely experience. Two men I met and filmed — but only briefly — killed themselves in Williston. I had a gun pulled on me in nearby Wheelock and was attacked by a broomstick-wielding woman. I cried with Pastor Jay — several times. And I stumbled onto scenes of sublime beauty. I was lucky to be present for some extraordinary and intimate moments in the lives of these men. I've done my best to return the trust they offered me by making a compassionate, truthful and, I hope, lasting film.

Jesse Moss, Director/Producer