Our look at realscreen‘s 2014 Trailblazers continues with Jesse Moss, director of The Overnighters.
At a screening of the documentary The Overnighters at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, a film programmer approached director Jesse Moss and said plainly, “Surely it was all a re-enactment. It couldn’t possibly be real.”
It’s become a common reaction to Moss’s film, which is set in Williston, North Dakota, a town that sees countless workers arrive in search of employment in the oil fields, only to be priced out of affordable accommodation.
In order to provide shelter for the predominantly male workers, local pastor Jay Reinke started the “Overnighters” program – in which his church became a temporary shelter – but encountered great resentment from community members concerned about the men’s rough backgrounds.
During a time in documentary when hybrid and scripted approaches to non-fiction aim to confound audiences eager for innovation, Moss’s film – which he funded almost entirely out of pocket – rings even stranger than fiction due to a surprising revelation about its protagonist. But if you’re waiting for genres to be bent and boundaries to be crossed, you won’t find such techniques in The Overnighters. Moss’s party trick is the strictly vérité approach of sticking around, and much to the director’s own surprise – “I think I underestimated the audience,” he’s fond of saying – it worked.
Since its world premiere at Sundance, The Overnighters has garnered critical acclaim, earned nods on countless year-end lists and was shortlisted for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar (in the end, it didn’t make the final cut for nominations). What sets Moss apart as a director is a classic, back-to basics approach to filmmaking – inspired by docs such as Hoop Dreams and Harlan County USA – accompanied by the pursuit of a singular vision. Unable to get funders on board ahead of filming, Moss paid his own way for the 18 trips between California and North Dakota and shot everything alone. The resulting documentary is a modern story about a boomtown told in what Moss describes as a “very old-fashioned” way – simply by being there, all the time, over 18 months.
What was your proudest moment from the year?
It’s being able to share the film with Jay on stage – to have made that journey with him, and to tell his story but also to have him make that leap of faith with the film. Of all the achievements that I’m proudest of, I think that’s the one that’s most meaningful for me. I think the film is really intense and intimate and it’s always been important that the people I collaborate with to make these films can be a part of that journey even though the film might be tough.
Do you think there needs to be more early-stage funding for filmmakers?
I would love to see more early-stage, risky support for these kinds of films. I don’t know what format that would take. Yet, I’m really optimistic, because I do think that where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you need to tell the story, you find a way to tell it with the means at your disposal… To me, the lesson of my very first film Speedo – which was made in a very similar fashion – was it was a film that only found an audience when it was finished.
And every year there are films that just had to be made that way and had to be finished before people could say, ‘Oh yeah, now I get it, I understand it.’ And so for me, having made a film like that when I was younger helped me understand that I shouldn’t see a lack of support as a reflection on the work but more as the mechanisms of the industry.
Will you apply the same filmmaking principles – of being a one-man band – to your next project?
I’m just starting a project that’s a TV-financed doc, and it’s actually more archive-based. I’m excited about it but it’s very different from The Overnighters. Looking ahead I feel like it’s so important to find a project that takes me to that place. I’m not sure how to get there… I do believe just working is good, but I also believe that, with the lesson of The Overnighters, the best work is the riskiest work, for me.
What lessons from The Overnighters will you take going forward?
This is the first time I’ve had a film released theatrically by a distributor and gone into the commercial marketplace in that way. That’s been enlightening, and it’s a reminder that as much as I think I know, I don’t know much. I feel like I know quite a bit about documentary storytelling but less than I thought I knew about the industry of docs and the commercial realm. It’s always a mistake to imagine your film as a commercial proposition and yet we’re forced to do that from the moment we set foot in a pitch forum. I guess that’s the tension, and maybe it’s not a bad tension.