A couple of years ago, a friend turned filmmaker Jared Hess on to the world of biblical archaeology. It didn't take long for the movie director to recognize some humorous elements.
"People that don’t have any legitimate archaeology credentials take the Bible and try to go find Noah’s ark," Hess said. "Over the years in the news, there have been a lot of stories about different Christian groups going out and claiming to find some sensational artifact, but unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of evidence to support it. It’s a funny world for sure."
The idea eventually developed into a film that Hess titled "Don Verdean," a religious comedy that initially was screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and opens exclusively at Megaplex theaters across Utah on Friday, Dec. 4. The film opens nationwide and On Demand on Dec. 11.
"Don Verdean" was one of several topics Hess talked about in a recent interview with the Deseret News. He discussed the continued impact of "Napoleon Dynamite," the film that launched his career. He described his unique brand of movie humor and the blessing of working alongside his creative wife, Jerusha. Hess also touched on the continued influence of his mentor, filmmaker T.C. Christensen, as well as other aspects of his career.
"Don Verdean" tells the story of the title character, a self-proclaimed biblical archaeologist, as he is hired by a small-town pastor to recover Goliath's skull from the Holy Land. The failed quest results in a series of funny events.
The film stars Sam Rockwell as Verdean, along with Amy Ryan, Leslie Bibb, Jermaine Clement, Will Forte and Danny McBride. Hess said the film was shot in Utah in February and March of 2014 when the actors were in town for the Sundance Film Festival.
One memorable experience came while shooting a car chase scene in Tooele with Clement and Forte, Hess said. Although a local police officer was hired as part of the crew to help coordinate a safe chase, off-duty officers thought it was real and became alarmed.
"We got in trouble. They wondered what was going on, and when we explained, they realized, 'Oh, you have one of our officers with you. OK, that's fine,'" Hess said. "But they were kind of freaked out for a little bit."
"Don Verdean" is 96 minutes long and rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive content, some language and brief violence.
More than 10 years after "Napoleon Dynamite" was released, Hess is still commonly identified as that guy who directed it. The film was his "adolescence in a nutshell," he said, and he's happy to be forever linked to it.
The 2004 film about an awkward teen living in small-town Idaho has pulled in more than $44 million in total gross earnings, according to boxofficemojo.com.
"Every director's first film in a way becomes their calling card," Hess said. "For me, 'Napoleon' was a breakout success. It’s easy for people to key into that tone and style and understand the type of filmmaker you are. It never gets old hearing how much people love that film."
"Napoleon Dynamite" and other films such as "Nacho Libre" (2006) and "Don Verdean" come with a certain style of comedy that people either like or they don't like, Hess said. But as long as he can continue to create interesting characters that audiences will pay to see, he'll continue.
"I’m definitely interested in characters that are on the fringe of society. Their stories are fascinating to me," Hess said. "I love the underdog characters that are forgotten in mainstream culture. They live in some kind of a niche world, undiscovered on the big screen. Those characters and worlds are interesting to me."
Hess would not be where he is today without his loyal wife and filmmaking partner, Jerusha Hess, he said.
The couple met as film students while attending Brigham Young University and wrote "Napoleon Dynamite" together. As a writer and producer, Jerusha Hess was instrumental in projects such as "Nacho Libre," "Austenland" and others.
"We feel fortunate that we share the same career. We've been able to work together on just about everything we have done," Jared Hess said. "She is definitely the smarter one between the two of us. She keeps everything on track."
The husband-and-wife team not only produce movies together but also are the parents of four children.
"Once the kids come home from school, we have to stop writing," Hess said. "(Having a family) makes things a little more complicated, but it's been a lot of fun."
Starting at age 14, Hess had shown an interest in film, so Christensen allowed him, who he affectionately called "Jarhead," to tag along on projects he was doing each summer, including feature films, documentaries and commercials. By the time he got to BYU, Hess had gained ample production experience, which he was grateful for, he said.
"If I had to name one mentor that has had a huge impact on my life, it would be T.C. Christensen," Hess said. "I don’t think I’m the only person he has taken under his wing and mentored on some level. I was fortunate to get some real on-hand production experience with him. I probably screwed up a couple of his shots, exposing film he had shot. But he is an amazing guy."
When Hess was in high school, he worked with Christensen on a family comedy called "Bug Off." One day, Christensen asked "Jarhead" to read the movie script and see if he could add more humor. Until then, Hess had only been an extra crew member, but he appreciated the opportunity and went to work, earning his first writing credit, he said.
"I think he had given it out to a number of people. He let me and my younger brother take a stab at doing a comedy punch-up of the script. I was shocked that maybe half of the jokes we had written ended up in the film," Hess said. "It was encouraging to know a couple of things I had written ended up in a feature movie. T.C. was totally cool to give me that first opportunity. As small as it was to him, it was a big deal to me at the time."
One inspiring aspect of Christensen's work that has continued to impress Hess is his ability to produce "magic" with limited resources or a small budget. Hess has tried to follow that example in his own films.
"T.C. is kind of a renaissance man of filmmaking. He is such an amazing cinematographer, he can pull anything off. I was always impressed that no matter what resources he had, he put his heart and soul into everything and was able to make magic out of very little. Not everybody can do that," said Hess, who said he asked Christensen's son Tanner to edit "Don Verdean."
"I loved that about him. That’s something that’s very inspiring to a filmmaker. That’s something that has stayed with me."
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