Jared Hess tends to dry heave when he’s at his most nervous. And while making “Napoleon Dynamite,” those moments came semi-regularly.
The filmmaker was pretty young back then. He turned 24 while filming “Napoleon Dynamite” in Preston, Idaho — his childhood hometown — in the summer of 2003. It was the first feature film for Hess and his wife, Jerusha, who co-wrote the script and served as its costume designer. They’d recently graduated from the film program at Brigham Young University in Provo. (Jerusha was also six months pregnant during filming.)
“There was a lot riding on it for us,” Hess told the Deseret News during a recent interview. “We didn’t have any connections to the industry. We’re just some kids in Utah and Idaho trying to make something.”
It paid off. “Napoleon Dynamite” was the breakout hit of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where it was sold to Fox Searchlight for nearly $5 million. That was the most money Hess and the “Napoleon” crew had ever seen, and some Hollywood circles wondered if the price tag was too high for a film as strange as this one. In hindsight, $5 million may have been too low: “Napoleon Dynamite” grossed nearly $45 million at the domestic box office, and more than $130 million in DVD sales. In the years following its release, “Napoleon Dynamite” became a cultural touchstone and aesthetic reference point for numerous films, TV shows and commercials.
“The whole thing is surreal,” Jerusha Hess told the Deseret News. “I feel like the movie isn’t even ours anymore. It’s become this larger beast that belongs to everyone. We have to remind ourselves that it’s our movie, and we created it, because it’s been 15 years, and it’s had a life of its own.”
The 15th anniversary of the film’s national release is this June, but Salt Lake is beginning the festivities a little earlier. On May 3, the “Napoleon Dynamite” cast and crew will be in Salt Lake for a special anniversary screening and Q&A at East High School, hosted by the Utah Film Center.
The Deseret News interviewed the Hesses, as well as numerous members of the film’s cast, crew, and other movie industry folks who helped propel the film from its modest origins. Here's Part 1 of how “Napoleon Dynamite” became one of the most unlikely, undeniable cult classics of its generation.
Click here to read Part 2.
Act 1: Tighty-whities on a clothesline
Before “Napoleon Dynamite,” there was “Peluca,” a nine-minute short film Jared Hess wrote and directed in 2001-2002 while attending film school at Brigham Young University. Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Peluca” is set in Hess’s hometown of Preston, Idaho — a mostly rural community with approximately 5,000 residents — and stars Jon Heder in his first film role. Heder’s character in “Peluca,” Seth, was the first iteration of the Napoleon Dynamite character. “Peluca" was first shown at a film festival at BYU, and later went to the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
Jared Hess (director, co-writer): For a really long time I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer. In film school I was the director of photography on a lot of different student projects. But after I had totally ruined a bunch of people’s films, I decided, “You know what, man? Maybe I’m not cut out to be a cinematographer,” and decided I was more interested in trying to tell my own stories.
Jeremy Coon (editor, producer): I spent school looking around and seeing who I thought would be the person to take a bet on, and I always thought Jared was the one. He was super funny. He also liked to make the movies I liked to make, which were funny. There were other people in film school who made more serious movies, that just weren’t really our thing. The Mormon film movement kind of popped up then, but we didn’t want to make a movie like that, even though they were successful at the time.
Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite): Jared Hess and I took the same directing class. It was a big class, and I just remember thinking, “Oh, this guy’s funny.” I don’t remember when I officially met him. When you’re in film school, everybody works on everybody’s projects. I knew of his stuff, and I guess he knew of mine.
Coon: If you meet Jared, he is very engaging. He can get you laughing very, very quickly. So just from that personality standpoint, he’s someone that you enjoy being around. He’s also creative in a way that was different at the time. His style’s been copied now, but it was very, very fresh and new back then. I don’t want to call it “nerd comedy,” but it was a very specific sense of humor that I don’t think was being utilized, or had been out there that much.
Jared Hess: “Peluca” was the kind of the beginnings of the Napoleon character, that was totally a combination of me and my brothers’ most dorky moments growing up. A lot of the lines he says are a direct transcript of really nerdy moments in our life. The Napoleon character was for sure very autobiographical. And I think Jon Heder probably borrowed a lot from his own upbringing as well. And without question, I’m sure there’s a little bit of a mouth breather in all of us.
Heder: I have two younger brothers, and I saw a lot of them in Napoleon. I saw a lot of myself in the character — not just mannerisms per se, but things that this Napoleon character would do, the stuff that he was into, hearkened back to my youthful years. And both Jared and I having grown up in similar households, both being LDS, and going to scout camp, and running for class president, and making home videos and just trying to survive in a world where you’re not handed everything. That was mostly what I really drew inspiration from, was myself, my younger brothers and maybe a small handful of unnamed kids from high school and middle school. Jared and I just immediately started talking creatively, and figuring out the character and having fun. We’d go to the thrift store and look at clothes that he would wear, and we picked out the glasses he would wear.
Coon: I was brought in more on the back end (of “Peluca”). Jared had asked me if I wanted to edit it, and I didn’t know anything about it, other than that I liked Jared and he was a friend. And the first footage I pulled up, everything is super grainy, 16 millimeter black and white — it’s part of its charm, is just how rough-looking it looks — and it’s at the thrift store. There’s a pair of tighty-whities on a hanger, and that’s the first image I remember seeing. And it made me laugh, but I was also like, “What is this?”
Act 2: ‘Nobody knew who we were’
When the Hesses decided to turn “Peluca” into a full-length feature, it was uncharted territory for the young filmmakers. “Napoleon Dynamite” was the duo’s first full-length script.
Jared Hess: I served an LDS mission in Chicago. And one day this old Italian dude stopped me, and I was like, “What’s your name?” And he said, “My name is Napoleon Dynamite!” And it clearly was not his real name. But I thought, “Man, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard” and immediately wrote down in my little planner, “Title of first movie must be ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’”
Me and Jerusha wrote the script together. We had one computer and one chair. We were starving students, and we’d both squeeze half a cheek onto one chair and try to make sense of what we were trying to say. It was our first script. And your first film tends to be the accumulation of life experience up to that point. And for me, having grown up in this rural farming community in southeast Idaho, there was so much material to draw from. My mom’s llama is in the film, we shot in my neighborhood, farmers from my LDS ward were in the film, the chicken farm where my brothers used to work at, the high school where I was student body president — it was a very personal undertaking with a lot absurd, true-to-life moments.
Coon: Jared has a lot of these really random funny ideas, and then Jerusha kind of gives this grounding of which to incorporate those in a story. They work very well together, where they’re both funny and creative, but she’s a very good anchor for Jared. You can have all these funny ideas, but if they’re not strung together or grounded in some sense, it doesn’t work as a movie.
Jared Hess: She’s the smart one. I tend to want to just load everything with fart jokes, but she’s got a lot more taste and class than I do. The Deb character is totally her. Not only did Jerusha write the film with me, but she was also the costume designer. She’s just got such a brilliant mind and eye for character, and being able to make these iconic looks for everybody in the film was something very few people could have done the way that she did. She hit up every single D.I. (Deseret Industries, a popular regional thrift store chain) between Provo and Idaho Falls. That’s how it all came together. Although she did borrow the moon boots from her uncle Wally.
Jerusha Hess: When Jared and I write, we write in costume descriptions, so it was very well-planned in our minds what Napoleon was going to look like. I mean, I think we wrote moon boots into the script, and MC Hammer pants. So then it was just about finding all the original, cool, funny shirts — just making it kind of anthropological to that area of Idaho and Utah.
Sean Covel (producer): The outfits of those characters inform those characters so deeply and so easily, and it let Jared and Jerusha use economy of dialogue, which is rare, especially with a writer-director — they usually want everybody to be talking about everything all the time. Jared was really able to relax into how great those characters were, and how authentic those characters were, partially because they were so well-designed.
Coon: And “Napoleon” didn’t pitch well. It wasn’t like I could pitch the storyline not knowing the context of it. The plot is just a clothesline to hang these funny moments off. We need some structure to get us from A to B, but it’s not a plot-driven movie by any means.
Even on a shoestring budget, movies aren’t cheap. And for a strange script like “Napoleon Dynamite,” which had no proven talent and defied all kinds of storytelling norms, it wasn’t an easy sell. Jeremy Coon’s brother, Jonathan, agreed to fund “Napoleon Dynamite,” and an initial budget of $200,000 was set. Once a budget was secured, the audition/casting process could begin in full. They quickly learned how tricky it is to balance big ambitions, investor expectations and Hollywood realities.
Aaron Ruell (Kip): I remember being on the Fox lot in this small room — the casting director had scored a room that was the size of a large janitor’s closet — with Jared and Jeremy.
Coon: Jon and Aaron (Ruell), who played Napoleon and Kip, were already cast. So we needed Tina, Uncle Rico and Pedro. We had trouble getting casting directors, because people would read the script and say, “I don’t know what to make of this.” They just didn’t want to be associated with it. Our whole budget at the time was 200 grand, and these casting directors wanted a full rate. And you can’t pay $20,000 to someone to do casting with that budget.
Covel: When we were getting it together, we wanted to elevate the production every place we could — to really stretch out and try to get top casting directors. And we got a few great responses from incredible casting directors. One of them was one of the top casting directors in town. We got on the phone with him, and he’s like, “Listen guys, I love your vibe, I love what you guys are doing, the script is fantastic, I love what the director’s got going on — but I’ve got to tell you, this Jon Heder guy in the short film, I don’t think I could watch him for an hour and a half straight.” He suggested Jake Gyllenhaal for the role. He said, “Jake’s really looking for something indie, off the wall. I’ve got a good relationship with Jake.”
Jared Hess: To me, that was, creatively, a dealbreaker. It was a role Jon was born to play — you could just believe that this guy is for real, you know? It didn’t feel like an actor or a parody. There was such an authenticity to how Jon was bringing the character to life. Casting a known actor that already had a history and a relationship with audiences, you wouldn’t buy it as much. But Jon being a first-time actor, it’s like you instantly believe that “Wow, this Napoleon guy is for real.” That was really important to me to protect that. And I just knew nobody else would be able to do it in the way Jon was pulling it off.
Coon: Initially, we were trying to go after a Jack Black kind of star (for Uncle Rico). We had an offer out to Jason Lee, I think. And it got to the point where I was like, “We can’t give these people enough money to make it matter to them.”
Jared Hess: We’d been pressured into trying to find another really, really big name to be Uncle Rico. And again, nobody knew who we were, we didn’t have any money we could offer anyone.
Covel: We had Brad Garrett read for the role of Rex. And he said, “This is a great movie, it’s a great script, I love it — I don’t know if I love it enough to go live in Idaho for a month.” But Diedrich Bader couldn’t have been better as Rex.
Jared Hess: And we didn’t have a lot of time to cast, by the way. We had to move pretty quickly, and didn’t have a lot of money. We were just really blessed with the people that came in for the roles, and got so lucky with everybody. Jon Gries as Uncle Rico was amazing. I was such a big fan of Gries’ work, and we just synced up so quickly as to what that character was supposed to be.
Coon: Efren (Ramirez) came in for Pedro, and we were like, “That’s our guy.” I don’t remember even considering anyone else.
Efren Ramirez (Pedro): When I read the script, I related it to “Midnight Cowboy.” Jon Voight leaves his hometown, he goes to a completely different place. And in the unfamiliarity he finds a friend, Dustin Hoffman. And in that friendship, they help each other’s dreams come true. That’s exactly like Pedro and Napoleon.
Act 3: Some like it hot
In July 2003, the Heders and their “Napoleon Dynamite” counterparts returned to Preston to shoot the feature film. Over three weeks of 100-degree weather, they filmed the entire movie (minus the opening credits and post-credits scene, which were filmed after the film was purchased). For the cast and crew, these three weeks became as memorable as the film itself. They even made the front page of Preston’s weekly paper, the Preston Citizen, for three of that month’s four weeks. (According to producer Doc Wyatt, the other week was dedicated to a grandma who saved her kittens from a cougar by smacking it with a skillet.)
Covel: We couldn’t have picked a better place to shoot than Preston. Jared knew everybody. He was a celebrity there before he ever made a movie, and that helped us immeasurably.
Jared Hess: I’d shot a lot of student films when I was in high school, just silly little things on a video camera. So by the time I’d actually filmed “Napoleon,” it just seemed like I was back at it again, doing another film that would never see the light of day.
Doc Wyatt (producer): We were shooting the scene where Lyle shoots the cow in front of a bunch of students — which is based on something that happened to one of Jared’s brothers. But the cow doesn’t show up. So at a loss for what to do, Sean (Covel) picked up the phone and dials the Preston area code, then the three-digit prefix — which in Preston is the same prefix for everyone — and then hits four random numbers. The person who answers says, “Hello?” and Sean says, “Hi, I’m from the movie.” And the guy’s like, “Yeah, I know,” because in town everybody knew us. And Sean asks, “Do you have access to a cow that’s good around people?” The person said, “Oh yes, absolutely. I have a 4-H show cow, she’s great with people.” And then five minutes later, there was a random cow on our set.
Jared Hess: Having the limited resources and money that we had to make the film, there was really no other way we could have done it. We couldn’t pay money for location fees. It all just had to come from the goodwill of the people in Preston. The landscape is so beautiful, you’re in the northern end of Cache Valley. I knew what that environment looked like in the summertime when we were going to shoot, and just how important it was — it was a character in the film.
Ramirez: I was able to run from one end of the town to the other end. It really isn’t that big. I live in Los Angeles, and Preston was the only place I’d been where I was able to lay down in the main road, and look up and see the stars, and it was beautiful. All the grasshoppers would hop all over me.
Coon: It was like the hottest summer Preston had in years. It was over 100, it was just scorching.
Jared Hess: One of our actresses fainted — Haylie Duff, the girl that plays Summer — one day while we were shooting, because it was just way too hot.
Covel: I think the person who paid most for how hot it was was Aaron Ruell, who played Kip, because he had to walk around holding an umbrella the whole time, to make sure that he never got sunlight directly on him. We needed to make sure he was as pasty white as he could possibly be.
Jared Hess: You’ve got to keep Kip pasty. He spends a lot of time online.
Coon: Aaron Ruell’s brother, I thought, was the inspiration for at least some of the character.
Ruell: My brother was spending a lot of time in chat rooms with Russian women who were trying to get him to proofread their school assignments. He used it as the perfect “in” to chat with babes. He also had purchased a time machine from a man in Florida. The time machine scene in “Napoleon Dynamite” is basically what occurred in real life. He didn’t see the connection to him in real life, although he loved the time machine portion of the film.
Jared Hess: We got Aaron braces, and also had him grow a mustache. And my dad’s friend is a dentist, and he did some braces for free. We thought they were just going to be loose ones, but they actually started to move his teeth, which was very worrisome. Aaron’s a really cool, kind of groovy dude, and I think this was a low moment for him, to have braces and a mustache.
Ruell: The dentist did it in exchange for tickets to the premiere. The next thing I know, I’m walking out of the dentist office with him telling me, “You’re not going to be able to eat anything hard for a few days. Just take some Advil for the pain.”
Covel: If you’ve ever had braces, your teeth hurt for like three days, and you can’t eat. It’s just awful, and terribly uncomfortable. Aaron was skinny enough as is, but then he was dropping weight because he can’t eat, and we’re keeping him shaded so he can’t get a tan.
Ruell: Getting them removed was a more startling process. The dentist uses wire cutters to jerk them off my teeth. It was good that I hadn’t had braces as a kid, because if I had that reference point, I’m not sure I would have gone through it a second time.
Shondrella Avery (Lafawnduh): To be very frank, I believe I was the most popular person there, because from the Salt Lake airport all the way to Preston, Idaho, I had never been ogled so much in all of my life. People were just staring. And at first I thought, “What is going on with the stares? Maybe because I’m so tall.” I later found out that really, there were no black people that lived in Preston. I didn’t feel off-put at all, because my parents have been foster parents and had children of all colors. But folks were coming around, people were dipping around trees to take a little peek at me from the moment I landed. Everyone was really watching me — like really watching. I was like a unique species.
Heder: The fact that she’s tall, she’s black, she’s very animated — all those things together, it’s like she’s a presence in the land of Preston. Not your usual rodeo fare. But that worked great for the film.
Coon: We shot the whole thing in 22 days — we had to get out of town because the rodeo was coming to Preston, and we were going to lose all of our lodging.
Wyatt: There was only one hotel in town, and it was called The Plaza — even though that name was kind of a reach — but it didn’t have enough room for everybody. For the crew, we wound up doing what we called the “adopt a filmmaker” program. We reached out to people in the local community and had our crewmen stay with them.
Ruell: It really felt like summer camp. We’d shoot all day, I’d take some portraits after wrap and then we’d go play basketball or drive into the next town for a movie. We all came together fairly quickly. There wasn’t much time. And because of that, it was a real all-hands-on-deck sort of production.
Ramirez: When you’re working on a film, sometimes you’re working on a job. It’s a job. But they made it feel like you’re working with a group of people who you’ve worked with for a long time. It was very welcoming.
Heder: Hanging out on set was just the thing to do. I mean, that was the most happening thing there. But the vibe was very awesome. It’s still my favorite filming experience I’ve ever had, because we were all in on it. We all thought the script was funny — as soon as we’d finish shooting a scene, we’d start quoting that scene. We were the original hardcore fans. I just remember thinking that I got it, and I loved it, and that’s kind of all I cared about. But Jared, I’m sure, was thinking this is a make-or-break kind of thing.
Jared Hess: It was a wild, stressful time. I remember just dry heaving the first day of shooting.
Ramirez: Jared was about 24 years old when we did the picture. He was really young.
Coon: I was beyond stressed, because my brother was the sole investor. You feel a different sense of obligation when it’s your family. He told me, “If this goes south, you’re still my brother, no worries — just don’t ask me for money again.”
Jared Hess: Any independent movie is like dumping money on a fire. You just don’t know if you’re ever going to see it again.
Coon: It was the bare minimum, I think, to do what we needed to do. The film ended up costing $400,000 to get it to Sundance, but I’d say half of that budget is just because we had to deal with physical film.
Covel: We were shooting 35 millimeter film on Panavision cameras. The thing about shooting 35 millimeter film is it’s expensive — to shoot, to develop, the whole deal. So we really only had enough footage for a couple or three takes at a time. Sometimes Jared would just give the performance he was looking for as an example, and then they’d take it, turn it around and perform it back. And other actors would have flipped out with that kind of thing. But everybody we had in the cast was totally willing to get into it. For Jared to be able to say, “Here’s what I’m thinking,” and workshopping that with the actor immediately to get the performance he was looking for so quickly, was a key to getting this movie made.
Coon: Jared could have done a “Nutty Professor” and played every role if we had the makeup.
Covel: I was really excited, because I got a ton of gear for the shoot, and I thought we could get a crane for a drive-along. And Jared said, “Well, actually, I really only need a dolly for one shot in the entire movie. We’re going to move the camera once, and it’s a pan across the chicken coop.” Jared knew exactly what he wanted to make before we even ordered the gear.
Jared Hess: When I was in film school, I saw this Errol Morris documentary called “Gates of Heaven.” It’s about pet cemetery owners, and the pet cemetery community, and it’s so funny. It’s such an incredible character study. All of the interviews in that film were just these locked-on camera shots. And I remember just being so blown away at how much detail and nuance you can get from people when the camera’s not moving all around. You really can settle in and discover who they are. And it works so well for comedy. And especially with this, and the way that Jon Heder was performing the character of Napoleon — and the rest of the cast as well — that it just seemed like a good fit for what I was trying to do, and letting those moments breathe a little bit longer, and become a little more awkward, than you would normally expect in a comedy.
Covel: When we got into production, Jerusha was pregnant and she was running the wardrobe department. And that’s a strange balance, between a writer-director and a married couple — Jared is there on set pointing the camera at stuff and getting it all figured out, but Jerusha was behind the scenes, making sure everything was operating — in a way that wasn’t just smooth logistics, but she was trying to figure out exactly what Jon was going to wear, and what that character would be. It was a really cool balance.
Jerusha Hess: It’s clear how to dress someone when they know who they are. And Napoleon knows who he is. Before filming, I think we told Jon (Heder), “Here’s 20 bucks, go to the local Provo hair school and get a really tight perm.”
Heder: Nothing will beat the glory of the original “Peluca” perm. When it was all done, it looked incredible. It looked so real. I put that thing on a pedestal, and look to it for inspiration every now and then.
Jerusha Hess: I don’t know what happened, but when he got another perm for “Napoleon Dynamite,” it went really wrong.
Jared Hess: They did really big curls. It did not look the same at all — he looked like Shirley Temple. And he showed up the day before the shoot with these big, kind of saggy curls, and we were like, “Oh my gosh, this is not how it should be.” That was super stressful for me, because the hair defined his character in such a way visually.
Heder: I completely agreed with Jared, but was like, “Didn’t they say you can’t get another perm that soon, because it’ll make your hair fall out?”
Jared Hess: You can’t perm somebody’s hair twice, or it’ll just disintegrate. So my wife and her cousin, who was our hairdresser, they spent all night re-curling his hair with a water perm.
Jerusha Hess: We rolled it up that night, put the solution in, and we were just praying that it wouldn’t fall out. We were so stressed about the longevity of his hair life that the rest of the shoot — and it was 22 days — he couldn’t wash his hair.
Heder: It got it a little bit rats nest-y. We washed it twice, I think, during the entire month that we shot, to keep that look and also to keep the bugs out. That’s when I was introduced to tea tree oil.
Jared Hess: I remember that his hair got so stinky. And there’s a ton of dairy farms in Preston, and dairy farms have a lot of manure, and that means a lot of flies. And these flies were always orbiting Jon Heder’s head and, like, laying eggs in his hair.
Covel: That dance scene in the auditorium, we couldn’t pay to have extras come in.
Wyatt: So we asked Jared about it, and he said, “What you need to do is have a hot dog boil.” And we were like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, whenever you want somebody to come out and do something for you, you should have a hot dog boil.” I don’t know if that’s just Jared’s personal philosophy or if that was a Preston thing, but that’s what he told us to do. So I called up the school board, and they gave me a big stack of printed-out sheets that were the names, ages, address and phone numbers of every student in the county. So all the interns started making calls and inviting everyone to a hot dog boil. And that’s how we got the extras.
Coon: I think we had 400 or 500 extras just in that one dance scene.
Covel: That was incredible, first off because we got to have amazing extras for a really big scene, and independent films don’t get to do that. But also, we credited those extras, which never happens in a movie.
Coon: The dance scene was something that gave me nightmares. We had one roll of film because we had to shoot interior dark scenes with a special film, and we only had one roll, which is 11 minutes. And there was no choreography. It wasn’t structured. It was just kind of like, “Jon, here’s two Michael Jackson songs and this Jamiroquai song,” and Jon’s gonna dance, and we’ll figure it out.4 comments on this story
Heder: I was nervous the whole time, the whole shoot, because it was one of the last things we shot. I kept thinking, maybe I should choreograph this, and I finally decided, “You know what? I’m just going to wing it.” When we got to set, I was like, “Sorry guys, but this is going to be like a love scene — I’m going to kick everybody out.” I thought maybe I’d do best if not a lot of people are watching. But everyone kept making excuses to stay. I would just dance until I was ready to puke, then they’d cut, I’d get a little breather, a drink of water. So we did that three times.
Jared Hess: We only had enough film for about three takes. So the whole final, climactic dance scene, there were only three takes of that, and then we kind of chopped together the best moments of it into one dance.
Coon: To me, that was the linchpin in the movie.