The current issue of California goes to the movies with a special issue devoted to film. My favorite piece was written as a journal by documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss. It narrates the making of a film, The Overnighters, that documents the lives of men and women drawn to the oil fields of North Dakota by the promise of work in that empty but burgeoning state. Moss begins on Day 425 with a confrontation:
“Get off my property or I’ll shoot you.”
I’m in Wheelock, a tiny, crumbling town in Western North Dakota, making a documentary film about broken, desperate men chasing opportunity and redemption in the booming oil fields here.
It’s not an idle threat. The woman making it is brandishing a bolt-action rifle with a scope, and says that North Dakota law is on her side. It’s the first time I’ve had a gun pulled on me. I’m not sure what to do. I’m holding a camera, pointed at my main character, a local Pastor, whose involvement in the lives of some of these men has triggered the current standoff. I keep rolling and wait for a gunshot. Hopefully she’ll fire a warning. That’s what people do, right?
Moss then wheels back to Day 1, and explains the chance nature of his project. He originally traveled to North Dakota on the dime of a television network that needed to cast a documentary series. After the network kills the project—”too soulful” in the words of a TV executive—Moss’ wife challenges him to go back and shoot his own film. (Now that’s a wife.) So he does.
Moss is a smart, literate, capable storyteller. I love his introduction to the town of Williston:
Frederick Jackson Turner famously described the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” It’s an apt description for Williston, once a small town of 16,000 that has tripped in size in just two years, becoming the fastest-growing small town in America. The roads are crumbling from truck traffic, and gruesome car accidents are a daily occurrence. The saloons and strip clubs are packed. Local law enforcement is outmatched. The cold-blooded murder of a local woman by two drugged-out men who’d travelled to North Dakota to find work has stirred fear and suspicion of outsiders. One church member, a long-time resident, tells the Pastor she fears these men are here to “rape, pillage, and burn.”
Good stuff. Moss describes spending nights in a local church along with other workers who have nowhere else to sleep, forking over $15 to take a shower in a laundromat, and scrounging for money to keep filming.
Home in San Francisco, where the summer air is clear and cold, I’ve edited a few scenes together and applied for a grant. I need the money. Shooting a film is a constant, low-grade cash hemorrhage, like owning a sailboat. Might as well just tear up hundred-dollar bills.
I do my best to outline the potential of the film, grandiosely invoking Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which, in truth, I’ve never read. I only have a few roughly sketched characters, and the barest contours of a story.
Moss pretty much goes broke, but carries on, filming people more desperate than himself.
The men I’m following here are having a very hard time. They are unable to outrun their demons, their pathologies, their criminal records, and their plain bad luck.
One of my film subjects—Keegan, a big, handsome nineteen-year-old kid with Buddy Holly glasses—breaks his neck in an accident. He was one of the ones who was supposed to succeed. Keegan’s parents come from Antigo, Wisconsin, to pick up their broken boy and take him home.
There are no dead spots in Moss’ story. Go read it.