by Jean-Louis Schuller

Sean and I first discussed working on a project together around Christmas 2011. Whilst looking for subjects, Sean had come across an article in the New Times comparing the North Dakota shale oil boom to the gold rush. Emerging from a recession that had started in 2008 and with many people still struggling financially and job markets that hadn’t yet recovered, the news of job openings in North Dakota spread fast amongst US citizens. It was news that also sold well in the media since everyone likes to read or hear about the possibilities of getting rich quick. The headlines were that commercial truck drivers were making $100,000 to $150,000 a year, and seemed an amazing opportunity for the blue-collar worker to make a good living for himself and his family.

Very quickly thousands of people looking for a way to make a better living or get rich quick travelled to western North Dakota from all over the United States, from places as far away as Florida and California – over three days drive away – a distance comparable to travelling from Moscow to Paris. And so did Sean and I, looking for our own opportunity to find a great story in this exciting part of the country: a place in flux that before the boom was not widely known for anything more than its blue skies and freezing cold winters.

Everybody is homeless

At the time of our first trip to North Dakota in March 2012, hotel rooms were already booked up as far as a year in advance by oil companies looking to house their employees. There was no infrastructure, company housing or even a good restaurant where a warm meal could be had. So, like many other people coming from miles around in their trailer or old car, we decided to borrow Sean’s aunts horse trailer that had a double bed and a kitchenette in the front part and we took our first 30 hour road trip from Kentucky to North Dakota. At this point, we felt that this was the only way to figure out this place and find our story.

Upon arriving in western North Dakota, we quickly realised how spread out and unpopulated the area was. In many ways, this was the perfect place for an oil boom to happen using controversial techniques. Our first impression was of desolation: a place where nobody wants to live that had been turned into a huge industrial zone. We were being overtaken by huge trucks and machinery on the tiny and sometimes muddy roads and we soon realised that the oil business runs against the clock in order to secure its valuable mineral (oil) leases. We imagined that a war zone with its heavy trucks and tanks and no law and order might look very similar to this.

A place in transition

Our first real encounter with a resident of western North Dakota was with one of our main characters, John Heiser. Ahead of our first trip, I had come across a few articles that he had written in the local newspaper to try and raise awareness of his (and that of other locals) livelihood being threatened. He really sounded like he could be a potential subject for our film with his back story and also the strength of his character: there were not many people at that time talking so frankly about their own situation. We contacted him and he kindly agreed to let us stay in our trailer on his land the first time we arrived to research the area. This already gave us a destination and really helped us arriving and making plans in an unknown place, rather than just meandering around. From here it was a solid base from which to venture further out and into the area and our subject matter.

As a character, John initially struck us as having a hard and almost impenetrable shell with his stiff cowboy composure. But the more we got to know him, we quickly realised that he also has a very real fragility that he is trying to hide. His home with its piles and piles of stacked up mail and possessions already told us part of this story. There seemed to be many memories and events that happened in the past that he was not at all ready to let go of. Part of the complexity of his character seemed to be that in order to move forward, he must deal with the past.

We also wanted to find a character that was seeking the opportunity to make a better living from the oil boom and, since John seemed to be a person affected by the boom, we continued our journey searching for the person who would help to direct the story we wanted to tell. We met many people that helped us inform and better understand what was going on but none of them were quite the character we were looking for. North Dakotans in general can have quite a plain and dry outlook on life: in many ways reflecting the areas geographic qualities.

It quickly became apparent to us that the best place to meet newcomers to this frontier was the local job centre, the first place where people travelling into town stop before finding a quiet space to park their car and sleep. One day, a grey beaten up car with a metal toolbox on the roof entered the car park and a man and his dog stepped out of it. The man was unshaved and looked like he had a few rough days behind him. Straight away we were presented with a highly cinematic image: this looked just like a scene out of an American road movie.

We approached him and he kindly introduced himself as Doug Wenner. Straightaway, he accepted the idea of having a coffee with us and wanted to tell us about himself and where he came from. We were immediately moved by his tale of having just lost his house before coming out to work in the oil fields in an attempt to start from scratch. This, along with his charm and wit, appealed to us and we quickly realised that we wanted Doug to be a main character in our film.

We wanted to tell the story of a place in transition and after finding two interesting characters and an exciting back-drop, we came up with the concept to let the story unfold through the lives of these two main characters. One part of this story was to document Doug’s personal journey from being a broken man who had just lost his home and family to building a new future for himself. The other part, in parallel, tells the story of John, a man who is caught up in a situation where his way of living is threatened, who can only escape by leaving his life and memories behind and moving somewhere new.

We strongly believe that the stories portrayed in Black Harvest are universal and that many people can identify or connect with these themes of livelihood, family, migration, memory and forgiveness.


  • Encounters