LA Film Fest Spotlight: How the Overnighters Got Made
The Overnighters is part of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival Summer Showcase and we couldn’t be happier. The award-winning documentary from filmmaker Jesse Moss starts off by exploring how a small North Dakota boomtown copes with an overflow of unemployed men looking for work in the energy business. But the film takes several unexpected turns as it follows Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke’s one-man crusade to help these men in need by offering them shelter and counsel at his community church.
How did you first discover pastor Jay Reinke?
I was interested in the story of what was happening in Williston, North Dakota–this Wild West frontier boomtown in modern-day 21st century America. I was reading The Williston Herald, which is a character in the film, and on their website Pastor Jay used to write a clergy column for the paper once a month. I read his column and he said, “let’s not fear the newcomer, let’s welcome him.” I knew that was a really unusual sentiment in the community, so I called him and we talked and he said, “come and see what’s happening here. Come and see the church.” And so I said, “okay.” The moment I set foot in the church and met him and I met some of the men who were sleeping in the church, it was powerfully emotional and electrifying to be in that little, tiny place and to see these men who were just raw and desperate and crying and to see the Pastor’s connection to them. So, I just started filming.
Once you realized that you had something, did you start assembling your crew?
I worked by myself. There was no crew. And that was largely out of necessity, because it was a no-budget production. I went there by myself. I actually really like to work that way. I like to shoot and I didn’t have any money to pay anybody. And it’s a really hard environment to work in because I couldn’t even get a hotel room and I ended up sleeping in the church. When I got there, I asked Pastor Jay if he could put me up with the men and he said he would. So, for the first six months of production, when I was going back and forth from California, I slept in the church. And it was just such an intense environment. I think being by myself like the men who had come there allowed for a much deeper, stronger emotional connection and a relationship of trust that I think is kind of the foundation of the film. When both the pastor’s story and the stories of the men progressed and got increasingly intense, there was a foundation to allow me to be there for painful and difficult moments in their journeys in North Dakota.
Do you have any advice for documentary filmmakers who are trying to do what you did – go out on their own and shoot on a limited budget?
I think it’s really good to own the means of production yourself and to have a camera. It doesn’t have to be a particularly fancy camera. And don’t let the fact that you think you don’t know how to shoot stop you from shooting because I learned to shoot by making a film and I think that’s how you learn to shoot. The strength and possibility of documentary is: can you get close to the story? Sure, technique counts, but I think being able to see the world through the camera is a necessity for a documentary director. If you’re the one actually shooting, it allows you to work without relying on a crew and needing money, and I think that’s really important.
I think filmmaking is so interesting because it’s the balance of the hyper rational – all the mechanical and technical aspects and the business side and then the extremely intuitive side – what interests me? What is my connection emotionally to these people and this story? Follow your instincts and surrender yourself to your instincts, whether they’re just more intellectual and about what interests you, or they’re about your connection to people.
How long did you shoot?
We shot for about 18-20 months. And that was about 16 trips to Williston and each trip was somewhere between five to seven days.
Once you finished shooting what was your experience like applying for grants and raising money for The Overnighters?
It was really, really difficult to raise any money for the film. I got so many rejections making this film. And it’s not like it was my first film. I’ve made a lot of work for television and two feature documentaries. I had so many people come and kick the tires and pass. And I had to pay my editor and it was really frustrating. That rejection is really hard. It’s hard to keep going and it’s hard to believe in your film.
I got a grant from Sundance, which was really helpful. The money was modest but the boost of confidence it gives you when you get into the documentary program is really important. I recognize it’s hard sometimes to convince people to back a story and a film where they don’t know how it ends. They don’t know where the story goes. That’s hard. The first film I made, also no one would support. And I think of it as–I’m so proud of that film and I think it was really successful. Just because people can’t see the potential when you’re making it doesn’t mean it won’t be a great film or a good film or a film that will find a home in the world. It just means that it’s really hard for people to see it.
Do you have any tips for filmmakers who are trying to raise funding for their documentaries?
I think one of the most important things is not to see the rejection as judgment of your work or the potential of the film. The funding mechanisms in the documentary world have constraints that make it hard for them to fund certain kinds of films. So, the fact that you cannot raise money for your film and the fact that you get rejected by nine funders doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be a good film.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned from making this film?
To me, the lesson of this experience is that your risk can be rewarded and that often the best work comes from the riskiest place and from a place of no funding or no support. And that’s because you’re doing something that isn’t familiar and doesn’t fit a model. And the fact is that when your film is finished and you show it to people, they will respond to that, if you’re willing to take that risk. And that’s been my experience. The work that I’ve made that’s been more formulaic or more conservative–well, you know, fine. But the best work, the work that stands out, is the work where I think you’re willing to take the biggest creative, personal and financial risk. And I wish it wasn’t true, but it is true. To some extent, this business is about your tolerance to accept that risk. And I think that’s why it’s important to be able to work by yourself or with limited resources to know how to do that effectively. To work, to shoot, to edit. I think having ownership over the means of production and the confidence to use those tools, which are not expensive, is indispensible if you’re an independent filmmaker.
Check out the The Overnighters at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.
Lee Jameson / Film Education Coordinator