DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth; Jared Hess Talks About “Napoleon Dynamite”
by Wendy Mitchell
[EDITORS NOTE: “Napolean Dynamite,” which debuted at Sundance ’04 one year ago, is now available on DVD.]
You can’t be much further outside of the system than being a 24-year-old first-time feature director shooting an indie comedy in Preston, Idaho for $200,000. Such humble credentials didn’t stop director Jared Hess from becoming the toast of Sundance 2004 with his riotously funny first film, “Napoleon Dynamite.” During the festival, Fox Searchlight nabbed rights to the film, with a total budget of $400,000 including post-production costs, for $3 million.
Hess, who grew up in Preston himself, is a Utah-based filmmaker who attended the film program at Brigham Young University, where he met his future wife and co-writer Jerusha and also his future star, Jon Heder. The über-geek character that would become Napoleon was introduced at Slamdance 2003 in Heder’s short film “Peluca.” The strong response to that short inspired investors to fund the 22-day “Napoleon Dynamite” shoot.
In those three short weeks, the cast and crew created the most laugh-out-loud indie comedy in recent memory. The film chronicles the misadventures of misfit highschooler Napoleon, who spends his days doodling mythical beasts in his Trapper Keeper notebook, eating Tater Tots, befriending new kid in town Pedro, and perfecting his dance moves. At home, he has to contend with his grandma’s llama Tina, his football-obsessed uncle Rico, and his chat-room addicted brother Kip. indieWIRE recently talked to Hess about his inspirations, his writing process, and his old moonboots. Fox Searchlight (working with MTV and Paramount) opens the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: Where did this character Napoleon Dynamite come from?
Jared Hess: It’s really just a collection of people, and experiences that I had growing up, and it’s not based on any particular person but a lot of who he is came from myself and mainly my younger brothers.
iW: Your younger brothers are geekier than you are?
Hess: We’re all kind of collectively geeky.
iW: What do your brothers think of the film?
They like it. When my mom first saw the film, she said, “Well, Jared, you’re just drawing a lot of our family out into the world. It’s a family video!” I mean, it’s all fictional but a lot of the characters hit close to home with my family.
iW: After you made the short film “Peluca,” when did you think this character was compelling enough to sustain a feature film?
Hess: “Peluca” screened in 2003 at Slamdance and the audience response that we had there was just so fantastic. It was funny, I had the idea before making it into a short that it was going to be a feature-length film, so we had the script written for “Dynamite” by the time we went to Slamdance. We had our first draft ready to go. We ended up using our screenings at Slamdance to screen it for potential investors. And it worked out great. It was such a great response. A couple of months later we got a check to make our movie.
iW: That is a fairly small check we’re talking about?
Hess: Oh yeah, we made the film for $200,000. And then when post-production came around, we had to get rights to the music and stuff, and ultimately the total budget was $400,000.
iW: And how much did Fox Searchlight pay for it?
Hess: $3 million.
iW: With Fox buying it, is there a lot of pressure on the film? Do you wish it was going out smaller?
Hess: I still feel like it’s very small, it is a very small film. Definitely there is pressure when any acquisition is made and there’s a release behind it. They’ve already been doing word-of-mouth screenings nationwide, and the response has just been equivalent to Sundance or even better. That’s pretty cool, so we’ll see what happens. The film definitely has an audience. It’s one of those handle-with-care kind of films and Fox has been doing a phenomenal job of giving it to the audience that wants to see it.
iW: What were the benefits of staying outside the system and doing it low budget… Did you want to have more control?
Hess: As far as aesthetic control goes, your first feature may be one of the few times that you have full creative control of the project that you are doing. At the time we had this great opportunity, this investor that was just totally gung-ho, and wrote us a check. Those windows of opportunity are very rare, and so we took it. When you don’t have money that you can throw at it, you have to use your own creativity and your own imagination to make things work. That’s more challenging. I think it’s the creative process at its best, when you’re working under those financial restrictions.
iW: Had you worked on films before you went to BYU?
Hess: I did, I started working as a camera assistant when I was 14 for a cinematographer who does a lot of IMAX films, TC Christensen. Every summer, when school got out, I would go work as a camera assistant, as a loader, stuff like that. That was in Utah in California.
iW: What would you say are your influences as a writer or filmmaker?
Hess: I really like the Coen Brothers a whole lot. And I also love the movie “Rad,” the BMX movie. I think as far as underdog films go, that was a pretty big influence growing up. Every time I saw it, man, it would make me want to bust out my Huffy and take if off a sweet jump.
As far as the material that I do, I think growing up and moving around a lot is what influenced me.
iW: A lot of people have drawn comparisons to Wes Anderson.
Hess: Yeah, I think he’s a totally brilliant filmmaker. But as far as my style, I don’t pattern anything I do after anyone else. I appreciate other artists’ work, but to me my main inspiration is coming from my life experience.
iW: How was it going back to shoot in your hometown of Preston, Idaho, and what did people there think?
Hess: They loved it. It was the biggest thing to hit Preston since the rodeo. They totally loved it. The community was so helpful. There was only one motel in the whole town, so a lot of people opened their doors and let a lot of our crew crash in their basements and stuff like that. It was a totally community effort, we didn’t have to pay for any of the locations.
iW: Were there any particular challenges you had with this low budget and also shooting in a place that’s not known for producing films?
Hess: Just in terms of location, it was hard. On our first day of shooting, the camera truck broke down… We had started shooting at a thrift store at 4 or 5 a.m. and camera truck broke down and we missed shooting that whole scene… Our call time was at 5 and the camera truck got there at like 11. Due to our location it wasn’t very easy getting gear and stuff like that. That was the first obstacle, literally the first day of shooting, actors are there, lights are ready… Where’s the camera!? That was stressful but after we got past that we didn’t run into too many problems.
iW: The dialogue is pretty unique… Is that how people talked growing up in Preston?
Hess: Not really. These characters are totally fictional. These characters are definitely inspired by a lot of different people. Friends, my brothers. Like that scene at the beginning where Napoleon calls Kip to get his Chapstick, my little brother called me from school one day, he said, [affecting Napoleon-like groan] “Is mom there?” I was like, “No, she’s getting her hair done.” He was like, “Chapstick! Just go get it for me! IDIOT!” So a lot of those things were straight up.
iW: Jon Heder doesn’t look geeky in real life… Did you have any concerns that he would be too cool to play Napoleon?
Hess: He comes from a family of a lot of brothers like I did, so when we began talking about the character, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He has some brothers that were similar to mine. We were concerned because he’s a handsome guy and he dresses very well, so we were like, “How do we get Jon Heder not to look like Jon Heder?” and my wife said, “We’ve got to get that man a perm.” So we got him a perm with the tightest rollers that they make. Permed his hair, gave him a nice part down the side, put him in a pair of my old moonboots, and there you go.
iW: Those are your old moonboots? You’re a brave man to admit that.
Hess: Yeah. My mom got some smokin’ deals on moonboots for the whole family up in Idaho.
iW: How did it work with a cast of different experience levels?
Hess: It was fine. I totally lucked out in getting Tina Majorino and Jon Gries. They were just rockstars at being totally chill. We’re in the middle of Idaho, we didn’t have great accommodations, they were just so rad. They were just team players. There was just a great synergy on set. There were no egos at all. They were really in it because they loved the script and they loved the story and wanted to make it happen.
iW: What’s the process like writing with your wife? Do you trade drafts or do you sit in a room together?
Hess: We sat at computer together and we talked about everything. We just sat down and freakin’ wrote the thing from the ground up. I had all these characters that I knew that I wanted in the film… And she helped a whole lot with the narrative structure, and she is kind of the female voice in all this. It’s hard to say because it’s such a symbiotic relationship. But we’re very different creative egos, there were lots of disagreements. She’d think my idea sucked, and I’d get offended, and I’d think her ideas were bad and she’d get offended but ultimately you’re just raising the bar in what you’re trying to accomplish and hopefully it results in something better than if you just did it alone.
iW: Are you still thinking of turning “Napoleon” into a TV show?
Hess: There are still some talks about that, we’ll see what happens. I’m currently working on the next feature that I want to do. [Also writing it with Jerusha and Aaron Ruell, who plays Kip] I have a difficult time pitching my ideas, they are just things that you kinda have to… experience.
iW: Just a tiny teaser?
Hess: It’s about some dudes in their 40s [laughs]. It’ll be fun, I’m very stoked.