Jack Black, right, stars with Hector Jimenez in the comedy "Nacho Libre."
Daniel Daza
Jared Hess made his name with "Napoleon Dynamite."
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
In his new film, actor Jack Black plays a Mexican priest.
Daniel Daza
In his new film, actor Jack Black plays a Mexican wrestler.
Daniel Daza

Like Napoleon Dynamite, his famous cinematic creation, Jared Hess feels no urge to be famous or popular.

In fact, despite his early success, the 26-year-old filmmaker still lives in Sugar House with his screenwriter wife, Jerusha, and their two young children (their daughter Greta was born two months ago).

"I suppose I could have moved out to Hollywood like everyone else, but I really wanted to stay close to home, to my family and the people I love," he said, explaining that his parents still live in Preston, Idaho, where "Napoleon Dynamite" was set.

That's one of the reasons Hess says he's fortunate to be a director rather than an actor, for whom a move to La La Land would be a must. "It means I'm free to work on whatever I want, whenever I want, and it helps me remain grounded."

Hess added that staying close to his roots also helps him keep his ideas fresh. "I'm inspired by Utah and the whole area. Everyone in Hollywood seems to write about Hollywood, and I'm interested in writing about everywhere else. Especially where I'm from. You know, you've got to keep it real in the 801 (area code)."

But he also acknowledges that his Hollywood connections have helped him further his career.

Hess met actor Jack Black at the 2004 Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, which is where the germ of "Nacho Libre" sprouted. "As it turns out, Jack was a big fan of 'Napoleon,' and, of course, I'm a big fan of Jack's. We immediately knew we wanted to work together."

Black also introduced Hess to screenwriter Mike White ("The School of Rock"), whom Hess calls "a fountain with great ideas pouring out of him."

So Hess, his wife and White sat down to start writing a comedy about a priest named Ignacio, or "Nacho," who moonlights as a professional wrestler. "It was one of those ideas that's just crazy enough to work."

But the subject matter is not as out there as you might think. The film is actually based on a true story.

And Hess says he's a big fan of Lucha Libre, that is, Mexican wrestling, which he discovered by watching the popular "Santo" series of movies released in the 1960s and '70s. "(Lucha Libre) is something you just have to experience for yourself. Everyone there is a fan of it — children, grandmothers, businessmen, you name it. And everyone has a favorite. It's a great way for them to vent all their frustrations, by yelling at the ones they really hate."

Black wound up training with real wrestlers for his physically demanding role, while Hess immersed himself in Mexican wrestling. "I was prepared to make that sacrifice," he said with a laugh.

Hess said he has no expectations regarding the possible success of his new film, though he was as surprised as anyone when "Napoleon Dynamite" wound up becoming such a huge hit. "When we were working on the film, we were sure we would be the only ones who saw it — or wanted to see it."

Instead, of course, the feature wound up getting into the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. "That was the thrill of a lifetime for me, but the movie had a life of its own and just kept getting bigger. I'm a little surprised it isn't still going." (Ironically, an earlier, shorter version titled "Peluca" played at the competing Slamdance Film Festival in 2003.)

A fan of classic underdog stories, Hess calls himself a devotee of the Coen brothers, especially their 1987 comedy "Raising Arizona." He also says he hopes to make either a Western or a science-fiction film someday.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com