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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Sean Kelly

Interview: Filmmaker Jesse Moss on The Overnighters

JesseMossThe documentary The Overnighters opens this Friday, November 7, 2014 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  The film focuses on the booming oil town of Williston, North Dakota and the local Pastor Jay Reinke, who starts allowing outsiders, who come to the town looking for work, to stay in the church.  The Overnighters is directed by San Francisco-based filmmaker Jesse Moss, whose previous credits include Con Man (2003), Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (2003), and Full Battle Rattle (2008), the latter of which won the Special Jury Prize at SXSW.  Earlier this year, when The Overnighters played as part of the 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, I had the chance to sit down with Jesse Moss and discuss the film.

When discussing what attracted him to the story of The Overnighters, Moss compared the booming oil industry in Williston, North Dakota to a frontier boomtown. “It was this little town in North Dakota where thousands of men were streaming in. It was lawless and there was great fortune to found and I thought that’s an age old American story.”

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Moss first found out about Pastor Jay Reinke through a clergy column Reinke wrote for the Williston Herald newspaper.  He was attracted by Reinke’s sentiment about welcoming newcomers to the town, as opposed to fearing them, which Moss considered somewhat unusual, due to a recent murder that happened in the area.  After getting into contact with Jay Reinke, the Pastor invited Moss to see what was going on at the Concordia Lutheran Church, which was quite far from Moss’ original plans for the film. “I thought ‘Oh, I’m not planning to make a movie in a church, about a Pastor, but OK, I’ll come and see what’s happening.’ And, the moment I set foot in that church, I knew that there was an extraordinary story to be told.”

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Jess Moss’ original goal was to focus The Overnighters more on the individuals that were part of the program, yet he quickly found that Reinke was a much more compelling subject, with Moss realizing that the church provided a prism into a much larger story. “It contained this big story on very human terms and that Jay himself was in the middle of these extraordinary forces; This mass migration of men on one side and this community being ripped apart and reshaped on the other hand and right in the middle of that was Jay, mediating.”

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Despite focusing much of the film on Jay Reinke, Moss still made an effort to incorporate the stories of the individual overnighters, since he felt that it was necessary to see if their story pays off.  In fact, Moss got to experience what it was like for the overnighters first hand, since he stayed in the church for the first six months of shooting, which he found to be an enlightening experience. “I was a part of it and that was the freedom of making this film by myself in the field – shooting and doing sound myself – was that I could be right inside of it. I felt a little scared at times, I felt vulnerable, and I think that’s how many of the men, who came through that church, felt and I could relate to them and I think they could relate to me.”

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One of the issues that comes to light in The Overnighters is the criminal backgrounds of a number of the individuals staying at the church, which ends up putting the overnighters program into jeopardy.  Through it all, Jay Reinke remains supportive of these individuals, even as be begins to receive major backlash from his parishioners and the community at large.  Moss attributes this compassion to Rienke’s Christian faith, which includes the belief in the goodness in people and the desire to help those who are less fortunate.  Moss also felt that there was something inside of Reinke, which was driving his compassion.  “Jay would say that we are all broken in different ways and I think that’s true. He would never hold himself as more virtuous. And, in fact, that’s one of the reasons I liked him from the beginning, was that he was self-critical.”

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In the end, the film that The Overnighters ended up being turned out to be much different than the film Jesse Moss set out to create, even though it is ultimately better for it. “I set out to make a movie that was in some way about the oil business and I’m making a movie about community and faith and compassion and redemption and economic opportunity and sex offenders and how can this film contain all of these ideas, these issues? What does this have to do with what I started to make a film about? Everything and nothing.”

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The Overnighters has been generating Oscar buzz since it was picked up by Drafthouse Films, following its initial premiere at Sundance.  However, Jesse Moss has learned to have tempered expectations about the film and, since The Overnighters has been an extremely hard struggle to produce, Moss is just happy that the film has gone as far as it has.  “You make a film in a vacuum and you don’t know whether reviewers/critics will like it, you don’t know whether audiences will like it, you don’t know if you’ll like it. You just don’t know. And you trust yourself and your instincts and you hope that people will see what you see.”

The Overnighters opens this Friday, November 7, 2014 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).