The Overnighters

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

Filmmaker Interview

Filmmaker Jesse Mosss discusses the making of the film, The Overnighters.

POV: The Overnighters among almost universal praise has been called Steinbeckian, sort of a modern day Grapes of Wrath. Can you tell us a little bit about the film for someone who hasn't seen it?

Jesse Moss: The Overnighters is about Americans, men and women, who have flocked to the North Dakota oil fields to find work and opportunity and redemption, a Lutheran pastor in the oil boomtown of Williston, North Dakota who opens his church to help and to house these many desperate people, and the complications that ensue when he welcomes them.

POV: Now, how did you, Jesse Moss, end up in the oil fields of North Dakota? How did you find this story?

Jesse Moss: I was fascinated by the North Dakota oil boom. This echoes of the Dust Bowl migration, these many Americans who were coming to North Dakota in the wake of the recession to find work. And I was fascinated by Williston, North Dakota, this boomtown, like a modern day Deadwood. And from this big story of the North Dakota oil boom in which there are an infinite number of small stories, I was looking for a way in. A way to tell this larger story but on intimate terms. That's the kind of story that I look for as a documentary filmmaker. And I was reading the local newspaper, the Williston Herald online. Pastor Jay, who's the main character of The Overnighters, used to write a clergy column for the Williston Herald. And in the column that I read he called on his community to welcome these immigrants, these Americans who are coming to Williston.

And this was an unusual sentiment in Williston. There was a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety about this influx of people and how they were changing life in this small town. So I called Jay up when I read his clergy column and we spoke on the phone. And in that conversation he told me that there were men and women sleeping in his church, who had nowhere to stay in Williston. They couldn't afford a place to live; they couldn't find a place. And in the absence of any alternative, they had come to him and he had opened his doors. And so when he told me that, I thought, I've got to go and see what this is like. This is an extraordinary story. And that was my invitation, and I went to Williston by myself with my own equipment, prepared to see what I would find. And that was the beginning of the film.

POV: So give me the broader landscape, the larger picture of this oil boom. What is it that's happening? Is this oil? Is it natural gas? Is it fracking? What's happening in this region?

Jesse Moss: What's happened is that there's an enormous ocean of oil under western North Dakota and eastern Montana. It's called the Bakken Shale region. And fracking has unlocked the potential of this deep, deep oil field. And as a result, in the last five, six, seven years, drilling has exploded in North Dakota. And it's become a boom. North Dakota is the second largest oil producing state in the United States now. It's driven a huge amount of job growth, because there wasn't a lot in North Dakota to begin with. There wasn't a lot of infrastructure. It is an agricultural state – or was an agricultural state. And suddenly there's this gusher of oil and living wage jobs. And in the wake of the recession, this was a rarity in America. And so people who'd lost their jobs in housing, or tradesmen, people from all walks of life who suddenly needed to work and had lost their jobs, they went to the one place in America that was the bright spot. And that was North Dakota, and Williston was the place you arrived when you got there.

Of course many people were drawn in the hope that they would find a job on a drilling rig, which pays great money if you can get it. But many people are not qualified for that job. I live in San Francisco, a gold rush boomtown and we know the story of the gold rush: many people who came looking for a gold strike found nothing. And what drew them was an illusion. And the question for me was, we've been told North Dakota is the salvation of the American economy, that oil production and natural gas production driven by fracking is the salvation of the American economy.

Are these people finding what they're seeking?

POV: It's funny, having just watched the film again last night, I see Jay as representative of perhaps what Williston wants to be. But the reality of the situation is different. There are pressures that are put on a community that is ill-prepared for an influx of outsiders.

Jesse Moss: So Williston is a kind of classic American small town, with beauty pageants and parades down Main Street and a small town way of life that it really values. And here comes big oil, and it really rips the town apart in good and bad ways. I mean it brings a lot of opportunity and wealth, and yet it's utterly transformed life in Williston. And you can feel it. I mean, the truck traffic and the roads are coming apart. And the schools are bursting at the seams. And the crime rate is soaring. And suddenly Williston feels out of control. And, so the locals, people who have grown up there and raised their families there, looked around and thought what's happened to the old Williston? When we talk about oil and energy in America, we talk about fracking, we talk about the environmental consequences, which are important, but I felt like here is a story about the human toll of this energy boom and the human consequences, and how it disrupts and changes life in these small towns. Because oil and energy, they go where the resources are. Could be a big town, could be a small town. In the case of North Dakota, there were small towns that have become big towns. And that transformation and how it impacts these human lives was something that I was interested in exploring. And I felt like hasn't been part of the bigger conversation around the energy boom in America.

POV: Part of how Williston reacts is represented by the press, by the Williston Herald and how people are reacting to this influx of overnighters.

Jesse Moss: Yeah, so as a result of the booms, crime in Williston had spiked. And, and there had been one particular violent crime, a murder, that had really cast a pall of fear over the community. And this was the climate that Jay inherited – or confronted. And so when many people in the community, including the newspaper, looked at this population of people sleeping in his church, they saw only that fear.

And that begins to create complications for Jay that he never imagined. And of course he's faced with a really profound test when the paper discovers that one of the men sleeping in the church is a registered sex offender. And Jay's choice is, "Do I cast this person out because the stigma of that crime is so polarizing and scary?" And if the newspaper publishes that information, it's going to jeopardize the entire program. The role of the paper in both reporting on, and sometimes inflaming, the fears of the community was really interesting to me. And it affects Jay's life and jeopardized the existence of the program, which not only attracted the paper's scrutiny, but as a result, the scrutiny of the Williston city government.

POV: You're part of the media as well. Tell me a little bit about your process as a filmmaker. No matter what, if you enter into a situation with a camera it's an intrusion. What do you say to people who are in front of your camera? How do you convince them that this is a good idea?

Jesse Moss: I think people have to want the camera present. I mean, I think that the audience feels that in the film. They can feel the relationship between the camera and the filmmaker and the subjects – that trust, that openness. Sometimes there's resistance and you have to work through it and explain to people what are your motivations, what is the story you're telling. And there were a lot of frank and honest conversations. And sometimes I would say, "Look, I don't know, I just know that I want to tell the story about these Americans who've come here that are looking for work. And Jay, who's helping you. And I'm not sure what it will be, but I think it's important." And people really respond to honesty. They respond to you as a human being. I wasn't a network. I wasn't an institution. I was just Jesse.

What I liked about Jay was that he never held himself up to me as a saint, a perfect person. He said to me at one point, "Jesse, no one has pure motives." And I thought, thanks Jay, for saying that, because I like you more for being self-aware, self-critical. He really was. He questioned his vanity. He would say, "This film shouldn't be about me, it should be about them." And I would say, "I know Jay, but you're the one who's risking a lot to help them, so it's going to be about you too."

But there was a lot that we didn't talk about. For as much as we did talk about (and we talked about a lot), there were some things that we didn't. We had a kind of safe space and he never tried to press his faith upon me and I never pushed into some places that I felt were very personal to him. And I think that was a part of the foundation of our relationship. And yet when life came apart for him, I think that he did trust that I was there for the right reasons and he was willing to share that with me. And Jay's a really brave person. I admire that about him.

POV: In that sense, there's a turn in the film in which Jay and his family reveal things they may have never expected would be revealed. Did that pose ethical questions or questions of the trust that you had built with Jay in terms of how you were going to portray him?

Jesse Moss: I was presented with some challenging questions about how to proceed. And it has always been important to me as a filmmaker that the films that I made with my subjects, in which they share so much with me, that they can stand behind them. Even if they don't agree a 100% with every decision that I've made or everything that I've put into the film, that they feel like there's a kind of fundamental commitment to truth and honesty and compassion in the film. And that is my guiding principle as a filmmaker, and I really wanted to make a film that was honest but that Jay and his family and that the men in the film could stand behind. And yet this was a story that took some hard, unexpected, painful turns. And that was part of what people were going through, and I felt like the film needed to represent that in a truthful and compassionate way. And so when Jay's life did come apart and I was present for some of those very painful moments, that was a very long conversation, a very open conversation.

I think that's really the only way to proceed: to sit down and say, "Look, this is what I think the film is or should be. I want to share it with you. More than anything I can say, I want to show you the film." And that was what we did, is I showed Jay the film as a work in progress to say, "This is why I believe these very personal things belong in this story, because I think they're fundamental to what this movie is about. Your compassion for broken and burdened men, your identification with them, your willingness to fight so hard on their behalf, to see them included in the community – that comes from a very true place within you." And when Jay saw the film, I think he came to understand that as well, and to support that. And again, to his bravery, he was willing to say, "I can be honest about myself." And he trusted me.

POV: You've left Williston but time goes on. Let's talk about from the day you left Williston, what's happening? This oil boom is not going away any time soon, is it?

Jesse Moss: The interesting thing about documentary is that when you're done filming people's lives continue and take subsequent dramatic turns and life goes on. And that has been true very much in dramatic ways for the people in this film, and for Williston. Jay himself remains in Williston, working in the oil field, indirectly for a company that provides oil pipe supplies. That's been very hard for him. And it's been very hard, actually, to keep up with some of the men in the film. And these were many people without safety nets or resources, and this was like a last opportunity for some of them. You see that in the film. And when they didn't find what they were seeking, some of them disappeared.

But I've been fortunate to get back in touch recently with a few of them and life has been hard for them. Life has also been hard and good for Williston. It has continued to prosper. The boom has continued. But the price of oil has fluctuated and currently it's down quite significantly. And so industry in North Dakota, the oil industry is beginning to scale back. And this is something that they lived in fear of. And they've lived through before as a boomtown. Williston was a boomtown before. And one of the reasons they didn't initially build a lot of housing was that they didn't want to be stuck with it when the boom contracted and people left.

POV: Are there kinds of solutions other than men sleeping in their cars that Williston or other towns in North Dakota have used to deal with this influx of out-of-state migrant workers?

Jesse Moss: I mean people ask, were there alternatives? And the answer is really no. When the program closed, there were no alternatives provided. There has been a very short-term, temporary solution provided during the winter months, but it's very different than the overnighters program. The town really didn't step forward to provide a long-term, stable housing solution, other than to invite developers to come and build more housing. And ultimately I think there was a belief and a faith in the correction of the market so that people would be able to find affordable places to live. But it just takes time to build those units and for the market to correct. I think there was a kind of ruthless faith, in the marketplace that I think is reflective of the American mindset, if you will.

POV: Has Jay seen the final film?

Jesse Moss: Jay has. Jay saw the film before it was finished and then he came to the film's world premiere at Sundance. And he's been a very big and important part of the film's public life.

To his credit, he's made that leap of faith to stand behind the film and to support it, and to see that it has resonated deeply with people has been meaningful to him. I think that there's been a lot of pain and difficulty in his life as a result of what's happened, documented in the film. Losing his job, and the other changes in his life. But I think he's come to see and recognize that the film connects with people. You know, there's a lot of people in Williston who would just as soon erase or forget the overnighters program and what Jay did. But the story lives on through the film and I think what Jay's seen is that there are an awful lot of people outside of Williston who have embraced that story and seen the power of the program and what Jay was willing to do for those people.