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Aaron Ruell, Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director Jared Hess on the set of "Napoleon Dynamite." A hit at film festivals, the movie opens locally today.

Even Jared Hess wasn't entirely convinced about the commercial prospects for "Napoleon Dynamite," his offbeat, low-key comedy about high school misfits and outcasts, which was very loosely based on his experiences growing up in Idaho.

In fact, while Hess was attending Brigham Young University, he decided to make a short film to simply "get it out of my system."

And he's surprised it went further. "I really thought that would be it, that once I got that done it would the end of this particular story," said the 24-year-old Orem resident. "But clearly it wasn't."

Hess' nine-minute short, "Peluca," took on a life of its own. After it was entered in a student competition, he submitted the film to the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival. To his surprise, it was accepted and "went over well."

"That was when I officially started to believe," Hess said.

"Peluca" was so well-received at Slamdance that his Brigham Young University classmate, Jeremy Coon, convinced Hess to drop out of school and make a feature-length film of the story. Coon even came on board as the film's producer and found a private investor.

The film became "Napoleon Dynamite," which has been playing in some major film markets for a couple of weeks and which opens locally today.

"At first, I was a little mad at him," Hess said of Coon. "Now I'm glad he pushed me. I'm telling everyone that Jeremy is really the one responsible for the movie. This never would have happened without him."

"Napoleon Dynamite" wouldn't have happened without Hess' family, either. Some of the film's characters are "composites" of Hess and his brothers, and Hess' wife Jerusha co-wrote the screenplay, adding emphasis to the female characters. "She is definitely better at knowing how women talk and think," Hess said, adding with a laugh, "Remember, some of the dorkier characters are based a little on me."

For the feature-film version, Hess reunited with former BYU classmate and "Peluca" star Jon Heder, who plays Napoleon Dynamite, a nerdy Idaho high school student. "Yes, it probably would have been a smarter idea, from a commercial aspect, to find someone who actually had a name," Hess said, "but I wrote this character for Jon to play. His performance is really what brought the character to life."

Hess said the name for the character came from someone he encountered while serving an LDS mission — not from dorky musician Elvis Costello, who once went by "Napoleon Dynamite."

More unknowns fill other major roles, including another of Hess' BYU classmates, Aaron Ruell, as Napoleon's older brother Kip. The only recognizable names in the cast are former child star Tina Majorino, comedian Diedrich Bader and Haylie Duff, older sister of Hilary Duff. "That's the best way to keep your costs down and to find people who actually want to be in your movie."

Once production wrapped on the film, Hess and Coon had to scramble to get it finished in time for submission to the Sundance Film Festival. "We thought, 'Hey, we already got a film into one festival, what could it hurt to try for another one?' "

Hess and his wife were preparing to travel from Utah to Idaho for a Thanksgiving break when the call came. "I'm not sure which dropped first — my jaw or my cell phone."

He says he was surprised at how excited Sundance programmers were about the film. One of its strongest supporters was festival director Geoff Gilmore, who described "Napoleon Dynamite" as "a real crowd-pleaser — but with an edge."

After five sold-out screenings at the festival, the distribution rights were picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the independent-film arm of Twentieth Century Fox.

Fox Searchlight later joined with MTV Films and Paramount Pictures for an even bigger push into theaters. (The film has also been spruced up since Sundance, with a new opening-title sequence and soundtrack songs by the White Stripes and other bands.)

Hess "couldn't be happier" about the distribution deal. And Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice said he and other studio officials are pleased by how the film has been received so far, and they're hoping "this will be the first of many projects between Searchlight and (Hess)."

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