Jesse Moss is a Sundance Award-winning American documentary filmmaker and cinematographer known for his cinéma vérité style. His 2014 film, The Overnighters, was shortlisted for best documentary feature at the Oscars. Moss has directed four independent, feature-length films and three television documentaries and has produced 15 documentaries. Moss teaches filmmaking at San Francisco State University and lives in the Bay Area with his wife and frequent collaborator Amanda McBaine and their two children.
Life and career
Moss was born and raised in Palo Alto, California. Though Moss never had any childhood aspirations toward filmmaking, his parents valued journalism. While he was growing up in his father’s house, a frequent guest was the renowned photojournalist Richard Boyle, who was famously depicted as a conflict-prone character dealing with substance abuse problems in Oliver Stone’s 1986 movie Salvador. Boyle came to stay in the Moss’ home and regaled the young Jesse Moss and his brother with stories of his adventures overseas. “In a way, that was inspiring,” Moss told David Poland in 2014.
Moss graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 1993. He didn’t go to university intending to study film. He was interested in American history. Following graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked with Congressman Vic Fazio for three years, eventually moving up the ranks to become a policy assistant and speechwriter.
Although he enjoyed his work in politics, he felt creatively frustrated. When he was 26, he met Christine Choy, a documentary filmmaker who was showing her film Who Killed Vincent Chin? He was struck that documentary film could be journalistic, political and artistic. He decided to try filmmaking. He quit his job, moved to New York in 1996 and began working for Christine Choy.
Later, he worked as an in-house producer at Cabin Creek Films for acclaimed documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who had made Harlan County, USA (1976) and American Dream (1990).
"Harlan County, USA is the high water mater of documentary filmmaking for me,” Moss told IndieWire. “It really takes us inside that extractive industry and finds the human heart of that experience.” The film won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
As of Spring 2015, Moss is currently working on “Reality Party,” a new short film about a group of Southern California teenagers who throw a “fake” party, according to Moss’ website.
Moss’ first feature-length documentary was Con Man (2002), which explores the life of James Arthur Hogue, a skilled imposter who fabricated a spectacular series of fictional identities for himself and successfully conned his way into Princeton University. Moss was director and producer.
In 2004, Moss made Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story, which he wrote, produced and directed. Speedo follows the promising racing career and troubled family life of Ed “Speedo” Jager, one of the nation’s top demolition derby drivers.
In 2008, Moss made Full Battle Rattle with co-director Tony Gerber. The film is the story of “a real war and a fake town,” specifically, the Iraq Simulation that the US Army has built in the Mojave Desert, which it uses to help train its army units before they deploy to Iraq. Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber were granted permission to live inside the simulation for the duration of a three-week training rotation. Moss and Gerber filmed on both sides of the “war”: Gerber lived with the Army Brigade in training and Moss lived in Medina West.
New York Magazine called the film “an indelible vision of modern war” and The New York Times wrote: “Remarkably thorough and detailed. The film emphasizes the strangeness and complexity of the conflict.”
Moss is best known for his 2014 film The Overnighters, which Eric Kohn of Indiewire called “one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time” and The Los Angeles Times called “Exceptional…a film of disquieting moral complexity.”
The Overnighters follows the story of Pastor Jay Reinke, a Lutheran minister in Williston, North Dakota, where the oil boom has attracted desperate men looking for work while also causing a severe housing shortage in the area. Reinke opens his church to the men, undermining his place in the eyes of several members his congregation.
The Overnighters was shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars and was named best documentary of 2014 by Indiewire’s “The Playlist”, Paste and Toronto Film Critics Association.
- Con Man (2002)
- Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (2004)
- Rated "R": Republicans in Hollywood (2004)
- Full Battle Rattle (2008)
- Extreme Civil War Reenactors (2012)
- The Overnighters (2014)
- "Con Man - Jesse Moss Films". jessemoss.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story - Jesse Moss Films". jessemoss.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "Full Battle Rattle". fullbattlerattlemovie.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "Full Battle Rattle - Hellboy II: The Golden Army - Journey to the Center of the Earth - The Wackness -- New York Magazine Movie Review". NYMag.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- Scott, A.O. (July 9, 2008). "Movie review -Full Battle Rattle (2007)". New York Times. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
- Eric Kohn (18 January 2014). "Sundance Review: Stirring Documentary 'The Overnighters' - Indiewire". Indiewire. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- Los Angeles Times (30 October 2014). "Review: 'Overnighters' an intimate chronicle of boomtown job seekers - LA Times". latimes.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
Moss is most inspired by cinéma vérité (observational filmmaking), and in the case of The Overnighters, he wanted to try to film a movie without voiceover or extensive interviews, but film dramatic scenes as they happened.
Jeanette Catsoulis of The New York Times praised Moss for his “observational, near-invisible presence” in The Overnighters.
Moss is also known for working with a small or nonexistent crew, partially because of budget constraints and partially because of the increased mobility a one-man crew allows for. Moss shot the entirety of The Overnighters by himself on location in North Dakota from 2012-2013
Awards and nominations
- Winner, Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking (Sundance Film Festival)
- Nomination, Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary (Directors Guild of America)
- Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature
- Best Documentary Film of 2014 (Toronto Film Critics Association)
- Nominations, Best Documentary Feature and Best Director (Cinema Eye)
- Voted Best Documentary of 2014 (Nonfics)
- Top Documentary of 2014 (Indiewire's "The Playlist")
- The Best Documentary of 2014 (Paste)
Full Battle Rattle
- Winner, Special Jury Prize, 2008 SXSW Film Festival
Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story
- Winner, Grand Jury Prize, Boston Independent Film Festival
- Winner, Audience Award, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
- Winner, Jury Prize, Newport International Film Festival
- "The Overnighters - Jesse Moss Films". jessemoss.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "DGA Announces Nominees for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Television, Commercials and Documentary for 2014". dga.org. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "15 DOCUMENTARY FEATURES ADVANCE IN 2014 OSCAR RACE". Oscars.org - Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "» And The Winners Are… - Toronto Film Critics Association". torontofilmcritics.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking". cinemaeyehonors.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "2014 Nonfics Poll of the Best Documentaries of the Year". Nonfics. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- The Playlist Staff (18 December 2014). "The 22 Best Documentaries Of 2014". The Playlist. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "The 12 Best Documentaries of 2014". pastemagazine.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- "Full Battle Rattle - Jesse Moss Films". jessemoss.com. Retrieved 25 May 2015.