"The roads were cracking, the crime rate was rising": What happens when fracking takes over your town

Director Jesse Moss talks to Salon about "The Overnighters," his haunting portrait of a fracking boomtown gone bust

Published September 27, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

North Dakota is sitting on gold. The oil-rich Bakken formation, thanks to the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, produces hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each day; in one month this year, it produced as much oil as it had in all of 2004. And that means easy money, not just for North Dakotans, but for people all over the country in search of work. Welcome to the 21st-century boomtown.

Change this drastic doesn't come without its conflicts and complications, as director Jesse Moss found in Williston, a city in the western part of the state. Since 2008, workers have been streaming into the city, overwhelming its capacity to house them and testing the locals' ability to be welcoming. The stand-out exception to the prevailing "us versus them" attitude is Pastor Jay Reinke, who fills his church -- its pews, its hallways, its parking lot -- with migrants.

Moss's resulting documentary centers around Pastor Jay's efforts to keep his makeshift community running, despite being nearly constantly at odds with the city council, the local newspaper and his neighbors. But it also spends time with the men who seek shelter under his roof, asking important and hard-to-answer questions about the promises that drew them to Williston in the first place, which more often than not seem to stand in stark contrast to how their lives there end up playing out. They come "to find living-wage work, but often just because they're looking for purpose and meaning in their lives," Moss told Salon. "They're looking for redemption and salvation."

"The Overnighters," which premiered this year at Sundance, will be making its theatrical debut on Oct. 10. Salon spoke with Moss about life in a city destabilized by the oil industry and the ambiguities of America's energy explosion. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I was hoping you could first tell me a little bit about the origins of the project -- how did you find Pastor Jay?

I started the project about three years ago. At that time, Williston had attracted some national attention. The oil boom had been happening and this had become the bright spot in the American economy, the place where people who needed work were migrating. The stories were really relentlessly positive and optimistic and I had a sneaking suspicion that the ground-level reality of people coming there and looking for work was a bit harder. At that time, there were people sleeping in the Walmart parking lot in Williston. And also, this woman from Montana had been murdered by these two guys who had come up there to find work. There was actually quite a bit of fear in the community around the changes that were taking place. I guess I had this feeling there had just been a lot of bigger stories about the energy boom in America. Of course, fracking has been a part of the conversation for quite a while now and there have been good documentaries about that and the environmental consequences of energy production. But what seemed to be missing to me were more long-term stories about people working in the industry and how the industry was impacting their lives and changing these communities -- small towns that were suddenly boomtowns.

So here this was playing out in Williston in this fashion of a modern-day Deadwood, and that was a kind of seductive story to me: What does a 21st-century frontier boomtown really look like and feel like? I started reading the Williston Herald online and Pastor Jay used to write a clergy column for the paper. In one, he called on his community to welcome these newcomers. I knew that was an unusual sentiment in Williston, that there was quite a bit of fear in the community about these people. So I called Jay up, I left a message, he called me back. And he was very open on the phone. We had a good conversation. He said, there are people sleeping in my church. They've got nowhere else to sleep. They kicked people out of the Walmart parking lot. They're sleeping here in the pews and in the parking lot. He said, you've got to come see what's happening.

That was the invitation I needed. I went up there by myself, I brought my equipment. I decided to work alone, which is how I like to work as a documentary filmmaker, and I met Jay. I visited the church. I think from the moment I set foot in that place, I knew there was something extraordinary happening there. I didn't know what the story would be. I didn't know if Jay would be the center of the story or not. But for one, it was kind of a prism. A very human prism into the oil boom, which is a big story. The analogy would be the Iraq war. My previous documentary was about the war but through the prism of the Iraq war training simulation. I was looking for a way in. I didn't want to make a macro, big-picture survey kind of socio-political documentary. The films that have moved and inspired me really find the epic in the intimate. So here I found Jay, this one man, and he was in the fulcrum of these tremendous forces -- the migration of Americans to North Dakota -- and then this local community, this classic, small-town America that was being ripped apart and reborn in a very painful way. And Jay was kind of straddling these two mighty forces and trying to contain them in this little church. I thought here's a way in, to contain the story for me as a filmmaker, and here's this complicated, compelling, charismatic pastor who I don't really understand. I didn't grow up in his church. I'm not Christian, yet he's really doing this extraordinary thing of opening his church to this horde of men and a few women. And it struck me, and it was moving. I met some of these men. I met Jay, and I saw his interactions with them, and I felt like there was something happening.

I'd imagine you were staying at the church also, since there really wasn't anywhere else to go? 

That was my reality when I got there as well. I couldn't find a hotel room and I asked Jay if I could stay in the church and he said of course. And he offered to put me up in the snorers room, which was a really terrible place to sleep. Then I moved out into the hallway on an army cot. Then I ended up sleeping on a couch. The film took 18 months to film, and I slept in the church for the first six months of production. They were not the most restful, comfortable nights of sleep, but in terms of insight and life experience and foundational decision for the film, they were some of the most important months of my life. It was jus an incredible place to be, to get to know the men there, and to film sometimes but sometimes just to shoot the shit and smoke a cigarette and have a cup of coffee. More often I was doing that. I felt alone, too, like so many of those guys who had come alone and left their families behind and felt quite scared. It was a place where people found community and compassion and support, and not in a programmatic way but “Hey, here's a friendly face. We can talk and share some local knowledge.” And I benefited from that. I was never an overnighter and I wouldn't describe myself that way, but I really felt close to what was happening there. And I think the intimacy of the film -- it gets more and more intimate -- really rests on the foundations of those decisions, to really be there and to be alone.

There was a report that came out last year about fracking boomtowns that made it sound like it was real hell living there. It said they had high rates of rape, drug use, STDs. How would you describe the culture you saw?

I found it to be a really destabilized place. It was this classic small town with parades and beauty pageants and high school football games, but then kind of wrapped around it was this Leviathan of this enormous industry. The roads were cracking. The truck traffic was frightening. The crime rate was rising. It created a destabilized environment in which I initially felt quite fearful, actually. It's an aggressive, violent industry. Not that the people who work in that industry are necessarily violent, but it's just... I felt that it's palpable. You felt the hostility of the community to its transformation and the inability of the community to contain these forces, the infrastructure impacts. They just couldn't keep up with growth. And that's what makes it such a remarkable petri dish.

Coming to the boomtown knowing only its mythology, really, and the barest fragments of its true history... it's like I instantly came to understand the basis in reality that the mythology trades on, which is people go to these places to find work and redemption because they're the places in America where people don't care where you've come from or what you've done or if you've been to prison; they care if you can do the job. The demands for workers are so intense, for bodies to fill the seats -- that's what you would be led to believe, in a way. But I think what I discovered was that people coming there, they come for a variety of reasons, mostly to find living-wage work, but often just because they're looking for purpose and meaning in their lives. They're looking for redemption and salvation. And it's hard to really leave those burdens behind you. Many men in the church, these were the guys who had been to prison and who didn't have any other options and didn't have a lot of money and didn't have connections, didn't have a job lined up for them. That's where I felt like, for me, the story was. They seemed the people who had the most to lose.

It also doesn't seem like there were nearly as many jobs as people were expecting. A lot of the people you talked to never ended up finding work.

Well I think it's a little bit like the Gold Rush. People come up looking for, if not the gold strike, then the job on the rig that pays $50 an hour plus overtime. In fact, most people are not qualified for that job, or young enough and strong enough to do it. So they find jobs that pay maybe a pretty good wage, $20 an hour, $25 an hour, in support services jobs or something else. The problem is, the cost of living is so high up there. It has the highest market rent in America, comparable to San Francisco and New York. So even if you make that much money, you just can't afford a place to live, and what happens when the town population goes from 10,000 or 15,000 to 50,000 in a few years? There's just not enough housing for people. That's why people were sleeping in the church. That's why people can't survive. That's what people don't realize when they make the decision to go. You can find a job. There is a huge oil boom up there and there are a lot of jobs -- and good jobs -- but surviving is a whole other matter. And that was much, much, much harder than I expected it to be and what people realized.

One of the things you don't show as much in the documentary is the nature of the work itself. You hint at it a little bit -- Keegan talks about how the chemicals irritated the skin -- but could you talk more about what it was like?

I think that was a question I always asked myself as I was filming, too. We think of oil work in a very particular way: guys on a drilling platform. That's the iconic imagery but, in fact, it encompasses many different kinds of work and it was really important for me, with some of the men I was filming, to show what the work was and how important it was for them. With Keegan, who's a young kid who works in that factory, who's working around the toxic solvent -- on one hand, that is quite dangerous and harmful work; on the other hand, it's a good job, it's a good living-wage job and it makes you proud. That was true of Michael as well. They really took pride in their work as much as their work might be hard and painful and potentially dangerous. So I'd like to think we see just enough of it to understand that it's important to them.

I didn't want to make a treatise about oilfield work but to represent the duality. Keegan is very proud of his job but it also makes his skin feel shitty. That's the duality of it. And it's a film of dualities and ambiguities, I think, with regard to oilfield work. I think the truth is, we have a more complicated relationship to oil and energy extraction than we might necessarily want to consider, which is that we all -- almost all of us -- rely on it and its byproducts in our lives in important ways.

I feel like that's not as much a part of the conversation that we had been having about the great salvation of domestic energy production. We really have talked about fracking and what its environmental consequences are, which are significant, but less about the industry that really consumes human beings and what it does to them and to their lives and to their families and to their communities. That's not to say this or that, it's to show it in the film. To let people see how those experiences are lived out with these people I met. To draw larger conclusions.

I'd like to take more about the "us vs. them" mentality in Williston. You had one local talking about how these people were coming in to destroy their land and put them in danger at the same time. Is there any way to reconcile that? Was the community getting any benefits at all from the industry coming in?

The state of North Dakota is prospering. That's, again, one of the complexities of the story. It's got the fastest growing economy in the United States. The state is making billions of dollars on oil royalties. The city of Williston has built itself a $70 million recreation center based on property taxes. So there's a lot of wealth creation. There's a lot of money being made, not just by locals but by newcomers, and yet the way of life has been utterly transformed. For those who valued that more agricultural way of life of western North Dakota, that's been obliterated. That's hard, really hard.

Many people have left Williston. Maybe that's what makes Williston different than, let's say Deadwood, is that there was a town here before, a town of 10,000 or 15,000 people with a very particular way of life. So that's vanished. I think there's a lot of mourning. Andrea, Jay's wife, said that in the film. That desire to go back to the way it used to be. But for everyone who mourns that, there were 10 people who have come in. They don't care. They just see, “Here's a place where you find work. Here's a place I'm going to build my life.” And if that displaces somebody, if there's more traffic or more crime or what have you... That's just progress, I don't know.

By Lindsay Abrams

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