Jesse Moss was on the hunt for a compelling subject for a documentary. Having recently suffered though "some bad television jobs," he wanted to find something of his own to do as his third feature as a director, and something to love. It was early 2012, and the story of the North Dakota oil boom, specifically in the town of Williston, was beginning to get national attention. There was something about the idea of Williston that appealed to Moss, he remembered over lunch recently. "What was the 21st century boomtown? It seemed kind of anachronistic," he said. "But also, kind of a romantic, seductive mythology — this is where you go to reinvent yourself."
Moss began to read the Williston Herald online. The whole region was experiencing increasingly ugly tensions focused on the flood of newcomers as a result of the murder of Sherry Arnold, a Montana schoolteacher. The suspects — who later pleaded guilty — had come to the area looking for jobs. "That crime, an In Cold Blood killing — a frightening, terrifying crime, a random murder — cast a pall of fear over the entire region," he said.
But Moss noticed that Jay Reinke, a pastor at a local Lutheran Church, used his monthly column in the Herald to "welcome the newcomer" and Moss decided to call Reinke. "He was really open on the phone," Moss said. "He said, 'You know, there are people sleeping in my church. Why don't you come see what's happening?'"
Moss traveled to Williston from San Francisco for the first of what turned out to be many trips. He went to Reinke's church, where he saw the Overnighters program: Reinke's makeshift shelter for men (and very few women) who had arrived in Williston looking for work, but were unable to find jobs or homes.
"When I set foot in the church, it was unbelievable — really electrifying and powerful," Moss said. "Jay was there. Men were crying who had just gotten off the bus and the train, and it was that intellectual, historical construct made real. All the fictions of Deadwood, all the men running from their burdens. Lost men, and desperate men. It was just powerful, and I recognized that. And I didn't think it would be a film. Because I thought, Who gives a shit about this crummy Lutheran church, and this pastor? That's not the story. The story is going to be a guy on an oil rig with a big piece of pipe jamming it into the ground. That's the mental image of oil."
He soon realized, though, that Reinke's story was compelling. "I was like, You're interesting. You're complicated. You're charismatic," Moss said. "He even told me the first week, 'I might lose my job for what I'm doing.'"
Reinke's painful, heroic, self-sabotaging journey became the center of Moss' documentary, The Overnighters. The film premiered (and won a prize) at Sundance, and has been expanding to new cities weekly in its theatrical release. It is one of the best-reviewed documentaries of the year. Whereas many docs tell you Everything You Need to Know about their subjects, The Overnighters leaves you with questions — and a surprise at the end. BuzzFeed News talked to Moss about 10 things to know about his movie, including answers to questions about the events at the end of the film. There will be spoiler alerts when necessary.
1. Because Williston is so strapped for living quarters, which is the basis of The Overnighters, Moss himself stayed in Reinke's church.
"And it wasn't a stunt," Moss said. "The first place he put me was the snorers' room, a segregated room for snorers. There were, like, three guys in there who made more noise sleeping than I'd ever heard. It was a horrible place to be."
He was nervous about being there: both at the church, and in Williston.
"But that place really kind of grew on me, and, like many of those men, I began to feel like it was a home away from home, a community," Moss said. "You could bum a cigarette and have a cup of coffee and shoot the shit. And I did that."
Moss did not have an army of production people staying at the church. In fact, "it was a crew of one — Jesse. 100%. Just me," he said. "That was a hard environment to work that way. Especially when I first started going there, I was a little bit scared."
2. With the chill the Arnold murder had left hovering over the community, Moss saw — and filmed — a Williston that was trying as hard as it could to close its doors. Reinke was on a near-solo mission to fight that impulse.
The local Walmart had banned people from sleeping in their cars in its parking lot, for instance. Williston wanted to try to clamp down on crime, but where were these men to go?
Reinke, Moss said, did not see the criminal element when he welcomed people into the Overnighters program (to a fault, you could say). A lot of the men did have criminal pasts, and the church did do background checks. "But they were all there for one reason, and that was to find work and meaning in their lives," Moss said. "I think Jay's belief that despite the bad they had done, there was good in them — I found that very compelling. I knew that this was the backdrop, that there was a climate of fear and the town was concerned with violence."
It was, in fact, a violent place. Moss said: "The place felt combustible to me, and I'm sure to them. There were car accidents every day. People got killed. The physical transformation of the place was destabilizing. The industry itself is a violent industry; it's extractive and, as you know, kind of rips up the land. The whole culture felt somewhat scary and physical."
3. Moss knew that the Reinke he was filming for The Overnighters was not going to be a portrait of a saint — that he was more complicated than that.
"It was maybe on that first shoot, we were just talking, and he said, 'Jesse, no one has pure motives.' And when I heard him say that, I just thought, Thank you," Moss said. "I do not want to make a movie about some guy who holds himself up as, like, Saint... I don't know, I just never believe it. Jay had this level of self-awareness and self-reflection that made me like him more, which is critical."
Keegan Edwards, left; Todd.
4. The Overnighters also follows a number of men who've come to Williston for work, with varied success. How did Moss choose them?
"Who do you connect with, who's got a good face, who's able to be themselves in front of you, who's got something at stake?" Moss answered.
They all told him a different story. When he met Michael Batten, "he was at the lowest moment," Moss said. "Kids at home, lonely, crying. He just moved me." Keegan Edwards represented another modern American problem: "The Buddy Holly glasses, and the beautiful face. And you thought, this is not about a criminal record. This is about a kid who's been put on the bus by his parents and told, 'There's no work here, son. Go make something of yourself.' He's a boy in a man's body about to go work in this industry. I was drawn to his face and his innocence."
And Todd, the man who spills everything to Reinke, and who appears to be struggling with addiction on camera? "He doesn't play a pivotal role in the story," Moss said. "But that encounter, and Jay's decision to put him on the bus home, that pair of scenes, was really important to me. Williston attracts these guys who are lost. It's like a pulsating beacon of redemption and salvation. He was in search of some meaning in his life. Here's Jay to receive him, to bear his pain, to say, 'I love you,' and then to say, 'Go home, because you're not going to make it here.'"
5. And then there's Keith Graves, the registered sex offender in the Overnighters program whose presence causes Reinke to make an extreme, and most would say unwise, choice.
The Herald had caught on to the possibility that there were sex offenders coming through the church. "The congregation was not happy. And this was threatening to bring the whole program down," said Moss. "And that's when Jay said, 'I'm going to move Keith into my house.' I said, 'I'm on the next flight there.'"
Moss continued: "I think, like most people who come to this story, you think, Oh my god! But here's Jay being faced with this ultimate test: OK, you sheltered the men in the church, but now the choice is, 'Do I cast out this one man who I believe is a good man?' He brings him into his home," where he had a wife, Andrea, and their children.
"I recognized that this was a dramatic turning point in the film that I didn't expect to end well. As you see in the film, he was concealing it in the church leadership. Then I shot that crazy scene, when the reporter chases him down the street. I sometimes have to remind people it's unscripted."
6. Without spoiling how things unspool for Reinke — those answers begin after this item — Moss addressed his ethical dilemmas in forming the movie's narrative.
"It extracted a high soul tax," he said. "Not just the struggles of making an independent documentary that no one wants to fund, but really a story that unleashed these powerful, intimate scenes. And emotions not just for Jay and his family, but for me. Blowing back into my own relationship, and struggling through this with my wife. How do we navigate these challenging ethical questions? It was hard. I feel like the film engages those questions, and I think that's good for documentary. The approach is cinema verité, but that's not to say there's an objective camera. It's me. And it's my camera. And it's my relationship. And I think it's OK to talk about."
Here is where the spoilers begin.
7. Reinke was forced to close the program, and to resign.
And Moss knew it was likely to happen from pretty early in filming.
"No one can give that much — that much love, that much time, that much energy, that much compassion — to people outside your family, without it becoming a problem," Moss said. "I thought, Clearly, the program is going to end — not well — and he may lose his job. But will he lose more than that? That loomed out there as a possibility for me. I knew further into the journey with him that his life was becoming more unstable."
Moss came to Williston specifically to film Reinke packing up. "I think he would have very much liked to have remained a pastor of that church," Moss said. "He was born to do that. He loves it. They forced him to resign. His conduct, he would admit, was not becoming of a pastor."
"But the church treated him, I thought, badly," Moss said. "The way they forced him out. They literally stood over him while he packed his bags. I was there. And it was very painful."
8. Reinke eventually spilled that he has unsuccessfully fought his attraction to men, and that he was being blackmailed by a man with whom he'd had a sexual relationship. And then he told his wife that: on camera, in front of Moss.
Surely it was a surprise to Moss that Reinke said that to Andrea, his wife, on camera.
"It was very surprising to me," Moss said. "My understanding was he was going to tell her in a private place without me present. Which I thought to be entirely appropriate."
But that is not how it unfolded. "I think it got away from Jay in a way he didn't plan for it to happen," Moss said. "I don't think either of them thought about the fact that I was there, and then suddenly, they were having part of this conversation in this grocery store with me there. It was actually a very short conversation, in which he told her what he tells her. Never once did they look at me and ask me to turn the camera off. I would have done that."
And, no, the blackmailer had not been inadvertently filmed by Moss. To his relief. "Had this been something that I had filmed, or someone I had known, or that relationship had in some way been captured on film, I think I would have been confronted with another set of choices," Moss said. "But this is not a film in which I filmed people telling me what happened off-camera in the past. It was a real-time experience, and that's what I captured."
9. Had Moss realized that Reinke was struggling with his attraction to men, and consequent infidelity?
"I didn't know that," Moss said. "I considered a number of possibilities. Jay made clear to me in subtle ways that he was carrying burdens. He didn't tell me what they were. He said to me, 'I've done things in my life.' Maybe in your experience and the audience's experience, there's both a sense of surprise and yet kind of a retrospective inevitability. It's there if you know where to look. And that's how I felt. I saw those indications. He told me in so many ways."
"He never held himself up as better than those men," Moss added. "Because he wasn't."
Reinke made confession to his congregation as one of his last acts. Moss was there, but wasn't allowed to film it.
10. Since he was fired, Reinke has stayed in Williston, and had a number of oil-related jobs.
None of which, in Reinke's and Moss' estimation, he has been particularly good at. Moss said Reinke would like to teach, or work at a social services organization. "He's a very, very bright man. He's a very loving man. And I think he could do a lot more than sell oil cleaning products," Moss said.
It would obviously be easier for Reinke to move somewhere else — a place where people don't resent him — but perhaps that would be out of character for him. "Jay has challenged the community to accept him," Moss said. "And I think that's consistent with what he fought for. In the same way turning Keith out would have betrayed his principles, turning himself out from the community would have betrayed his principles. You can call that defiant. You can read it charitably or uncharitably. But I think Jay is like, You know who I am now. Community of Williston, will you receive me, will you take me? Or will you cast me out?"
Reinke was already taking risks in his life and career. Being filmed doing those things was surely even more unwise. Moss thinks that was purposeful on Reinke's part.
"Because he drew strength from my desire to tell his story, and meaning from my presence and our friendship. But there's a degree of recklessness in his wholehearted embrace of the program and of me that I think reflects a desire to change his life," Moss said. "I think that I unconsciously recognized that. I mean, I felt it when I met him. His openness — most people don't give you that much. And why do they give it to you in any film? They give it to you because they need to give it to you. The camera receives it, and you receive it."
Moss added, "I think that's Jay's journey."