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Meet the Sundance Filmmakers: Jesse Moss, Director/Producer, 'The Overnighters'

By Michael Galinsky

Editor's Note: As the doc world braces for the annual pilgrimage to Park City, we at will be spotlighting some of the films that will be premiering at Sundance and Slamdance. Filmmaker Michael Galinsky, a longtime contributor to Documentary magazine, whose film Who Took Johnny will be screening at Slamdance, has interviewed a plethora of the Park City Class of 2014, and we'll be posting these interviews over the next ten days.

Here 's an interview with Jesse Moss, whose The Overnighters, premieres January 17 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker Jesse Moss has a long history of making subtle but challenging documentaries.  His brings his most recent film, The Overnighters, about a pastor in North Dakota, struggling to shelter an influx of people who have moved to the state, desperate for work. We recently talked about this complex tale of "faith, redemption, community and betrayal."


Photo: Jesse Moss. Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Documentary: How did you come to make this film?

Jesse Moss: I originally went up to North Dakota for a television network. That project fizzled. But the place astounded me. The scale of transformation in the small town of Williston, North Dakota was extraordinary, and I felt like I was touching a live wire that arcs back through American history to mythic American boomtowns like Deadwood and Dodge City. When I met Pastor Jay and some of the men sleeping in the church, I knew I had to start filming, but I had no idea where the story would take me.

D: How long was the production process? How many trips did you take to North Dakota?

JM: I made 16 trips to Williston over two years. Each trip was between five and eight days, so roughly 80 days of production. For the first six months of production, I slept in Pastor Jay's Church, largely out of necessity: All the hotel rooms in town were booked solid by oil companies. I worked alone in the field, as producer, director, cameraman and sound recordist, which accounts for the intimacy of the film.   

D: Did you have a sense of where your film was going as you shot it, or did it start to really come together as you went through the footage?

JM: I had some sense that a story was emerging around Pastor Jay's dedication to helping The Overnighters and the emerging conflict with his congregation, his neighbors and the local newspaper about that decision. But I spent a lot of time filming secondary characters, some of whom are not included in the final film. There were a lot of characters to juggle, and finding the right balance, and allowing Pastor Jay's story to drive the film forward required a lot of experimentation in the edit room. I will say that hugely important themes emerged only very late in the edit, and that scenes and characters I was sure would be in the final film were dropped. Credit goes to my editor, Jeff Gilbert, who brings a sharp eye for story and dramatic construction, a real rigor to his method and a willingness to tolerate my wild and ornery impulses.


Pastor Jay (center), from Jesse Moss' The Overnighters. Photo: Jesse Moss. Courtesy of Sundance Instutute


D: Like any doc, you start to get close to the characters, and you want to treat them with respect.  At a certain point you must have struggled with how to handle the main characters' comfort with the camera and how that perhaps clashed with other people's comfort. As an example, the scene where the pastor talks to his wife must have been a real challenge

JM: I spent a long time building my relationship with Pastor Jay, his family and the other men in the film. Working alone helps in this regard. So there was a strong foundation when the story took unexpected and painful turns.  

D: Have the subjects seen the film? If so, how did that work out?

JM: The pastor has seen the film and I am hoping he will be able to join me at Sundance.

D: What are you hoping to get out of Sundance?

JM: I'm excited to present the film to an audience. There is so much to talk about—faith, redemption, community, betrayal—I know the conversations will be interesting, and the beginning of what I hope will be a long conversation.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premieres January 17 at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.