What happened after ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ — and the big movie its Utah filmmakers are making next

Jared and Jerusha Hess talk about their oddball movie, its Sundance premiere, and taking on a blockbuster.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jerusha and Jared Hess, the Utah-based makers of “Napoleon Dynamite,” talk about the fond memories of making the film on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The movie will screen at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, to mark the 20th anniversary of its premiere.

It’s been 20 years since some Brigham Young University student filmmakers surprised the movie world and introduced an oddball named Napoleon Dynamite.

Director Jared Hess and his wife and co-writer, Jerusha, saw their weird low-budget comedy go from its premiere at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival to earning $44 million at the box office. They have since built a movie career that most Hollywood filmmakers would envy — while living and raising a family in the Salt Lake City area.

Jared has directed five movies since “Napoleon Dynamite” — “Nacho Libre,” “Gentlemen Broncos,” “Don Verdean,” “Masterminds” and the animated “Thelma the Unicorn” (coming this year on Netflix). He also directed two documentary mini-series, “Murder Among the Mormons” and “Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators.”

Jerusha, co-writing with her husband on four of those movies, also directed “Austenland,” which she wrote with Utah author Shannon Hale, based on Hale’s comic novel. It premiered at Sundance in 2013.

Most recently, the couple co-directed an animated short, “Ninety-Five Senses,” which has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination.

“Napoleon Dynamite” is returning to the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, running Jan. 18-28 in Park City and Salt Lake City, for its 20th anniversary.

It’s one of eight previous Sundance hits scheduled to screen, marking the 40th year the nonprofit Sundance Institute has staged the festival. Jerusha Hess and star Jon Heder are expected to take part in a discussion after a screening, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m., at The Ray Theatre, Park City. It will also screen Saturday, Jan. 20, 12:30 p.m., at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, Salt Lake City.

Jared Hess won’t be attending those screenings. He’s in New Zealand, starting principal photography this week on his next movie, and his first blockbuster: “Minecraft,” based on the mega-popular video game, slated for release in theaters in 2025.

Before Jared headed for the airport, the Hesses sat with The Salt Lake Tribune, over eggs and potatoes in a Millcreek diner, to talk about how “Napoleon Dynamite” happened, what Sundance meant to them, and how their shared career led to “Minecraft.”

(Searchlight Pictures/Paramount Pictures) Jon Heder plays the title role in "Napoleon Dynamite," the 2004 comedy by director Jared Hess, who co-wrote with Jerusha Hess. The movie will mark its 20th anniversary with screenings at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

‘A kid named Napoleon’

Where did the idea for “Napoleon Dynamite” come from?

Jared Hess • “It was very autobiographical for both of us. When my mom saw the film up at Sundance for the first time, my mom was, like, ‘Well, that was a lot of embarrassing family material.’ Like, her llama was in it.”

Jerusha Hess • “The very beginning idea was, ‘I want to make a feature. Let’s make a feature.’ And all the ideas start piling in. When you’re a student, to tackle that is so huge. You have no clue how to make 90 minutes’ worth of film. Jared kept throwing ideas around like, ‘OK, what if we had some sort of crop circle-slash-Sasquatch sighting-slash-government involvement, all in this farm town?’”

Jared • “I don’t think it was exactly like that. … It was, like, about a kid who was hoaxing crop circles. That was one idea that we had that made no sense. I was just really into ‘The X Files,’ but bringing a nerd into the equation.”

Jerusha • “What we really wanted was a kid named Napoleon Dynamite. It kind of started with the character, and then what happens in the life of Napoleon.”

Jared • “It was, like, ‘Let’s just tell the story of this character.’ Ultimately, most of Napoleon’s personality, and the things that he said, was like a direct transcript of growing up in a family of six boys. I was the oldest of six boys, and just about everything Napoleon says and does were things that happened in my life, growing up in Idaho. And also her life, as well.”

Jerusha • “I had seven brothers. They’re all so awkward. If you have that many siblings, there’s going to be a couple of odd ducks.”

Jared • “When we focused on drawing from our own life experience, that’s what gave us the juice, I think.”

There was a rumor that Pedro was based on a Salt Lake City judge.

Jared • We’ve heard that he’s told people that. I’m, like, ‘Dude, I don’t know you. You’re way older than us.’ There’s been a lot of people over the years that we’ve heard, ‘Isn’t Pedro based on this person?’ or ‘isn’t Uncle Rico based on this person?’”

Jerusha • “That’s part of the charm of the movie. … People go, ‘I know Uncle Rico.’ We all do.”

How did Jon Heder come into the picture?

Jared • “He was in a bunch of my film classes [at Brigham Young University]. I was, like, ‘Man, this guy’s really funny.’ … I had written ‘Peluca,’ which was the short film that was the predecessor to the feature. I was, like, ‘Who can I find to play the perfect mouth-breather?’ Jon might be good, but he was kind of a cool, groovy dude. He had long, beautiful hair. … Jerusha was, like, ‘We’ve got to send him to [a beauty school] and get him a tight perm.’ And then we went and borrowed her uncle’s moon boots. …

“We took six or seven other film students from BYU up [to Preston, Idaho]. We shot the short film in two days. … I remember, we had 100 feet of film left — shooting 16mm black-and-white. I was, like, ‘Man, I don’t want to waste it. Let’s shoot something.’ … He was still dressed in character — moon boots, glasses, everything. I just turned on the radio and he just started dancing. And this Jamiroquai song came on. And Jon just danced to it, while the camera was locked off and he was in the middle of this dirt road. … We were like, “[the feature has] got to end with Napoleon dancing in an assembly in front of the whole school.’”

What were the biggest changes to the script once you started shooting?

Jared • “By the time we had written it, we were very conscious of how limited our resources were. So we wrote it knowing it was the only thing we were going to be able to pull off in 23 days. I think the hardest thing that we had was getting cows to show up on time.”

Jerusha • “The night before we started shooting, Jon Heder came into town. That’s how unprepared we were. We didn’t have weeks of rehearsal. Our actor came the day before. And he had just had his second perm in less than a year, at the same hair school. And it was so bad.”

Jared • “Instead of being a tight perm, it was Shirley Temple curls.”

Jerusha • “We couldn’t afford to take him to a real salon. … We scrambled that night to find someone who had a [home] perm kit in their cupboard somewhere. … That night, my [hairdresser] cousin and I permed his hair again, with just a prayer it wouldn’t fall out, because it was so damaged. And for the rest of the shoot, because his hair was so fried, he couldn’t wash it. … So he was just rocking the stinkiest little ‘fro.”

Jared • “If you watch the movie, there’s flies coming in and out of it, obviously laying eggs or having a meal in his head.”

Jerusha • “It’s that kind of magic. We can never replicate the wildness of making a $200,000 movie in three weeks. … Everyone on set, all the crew members, were just buddies of ours from BYU, who we begged to come help us. It was a bit of a sleepaway camp feel.”

(Searchlight Pictures/Paramount Pictures) Efren Ramirez, left, as Pedro and Jon Heder as Napoleon in "Napoleon Dynamite," the 2004 comedy by director Jared Hess, who co-wrote with Jerusha Hess. The movie will mark its 20th anniversary with screenings at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance and beyond

You get the movie made, and you get the news that you got into Sundance. What was that phone call like?

Jared • “We were driving up for Thanksgiving to Preston. … We just had our first kid. And we had a Cricket phone that only worked between Bountiful and Point of the Mountain — that was our coverage area. So, literally, we got the call from Trevor Groth [then a Sundance Film Festival programmer], as we’re driving up. … Our producer, Jeremy Coon, who’s amazing was, like, ‘We should just send it out and see what happens.’ It was rough — it had no sound effects, no score, we were still in the middle of fine-tuning everything. … I think it was on two separate VHS tapes. I thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get in. We should have waited until next year, when it’s done-done.’

Jerusha • “I was just talking to [John Cooper, then the festival’s programming director] recently, and they were, like, ‘I was in the room when that VHS was put in the VCR, and the whole room stopped. And they were all watching it. Like, “What is this?”’ They were all glued to the screen.”

Jared • “[After the call,] we were, like, ‘Whoa, now we’ve got to finish it. Between Thanksgiving and January, we’ve got to score it, we’ve got to do the mix, we’ve got to cut the negative and get a couple of prints made.’ It was off to the races after that.”

What was the first screening at Sundance like?

Jared • “We knew it was a specific type of comedy that was going to resonate with some people. You either get Napoleon and love him and you’re on board and rooting for him, or you’re not, and you’re, like, ‘This kid’s weird.’ … It was an 11 p.m. screening at the [Park City] Library. It was late. We didn’t have the credit sequence. It literally went from a black screen to Napoleon waiting for the bus. I was holding my breath. The moment he appeared on screen, people started clapping and laughing. And we were, like, ‘Whew.’ I remember when Napoleon is wearing this suit that he bought at the thrift store, and he’s holding this corsage and he’s walking down the street in slow motion — it was raucous applause.”

Jerusha • “You couldn’t ask for a better audience. The Sundance audience is just smarter, and they’re there to love your movie. They got it.”

Jared • “I was, like, ‘I think we’re going to be able to sell this thing. Fingers crossed, we might be able to sell it.’”

Jerusha • “We never thought this would happen. It was all just to get to the next step. Let’s make this very low-budget movie so that someday we could make a big movie. Or let’s make this tiny movie so that someday we could get an agent. We weren’t thinking, ‘Let’s make this movie because it’s going to be huge.’ … [We had a family, and] we just had to get a job.”

One thing about “Napoleon Dynamite” is that some people get it and some people don’t.

Jared • “[Todd McCarthy] wrote a scathing review at Sundance [for Variety]. And later, he got so much flak for his review that he had to write a second one, digging his heels in deeper.”

Jerusha • “We still meet people who are, like, ‘Oh, that movie,’ and they’re always, like, ‘ew.’”

Jared • “I was up in Preston. … I’m, like, ‘I’m here, I should just go to the original Napoleon house.’ Amazing family that lives there. Dairy farmers that own the house, still live there. I knocked on their door, chatted with them. Hadn’t seen them in years. Sweetest family ever. The wife was, like, ‘Since the movie came out, there are people who come to our house every single day.’”

Jerusha • “It’s like a pilgrimage.”

Jared • “There are people that come and take selfies. … The town printed a sign, and they called [the street] ‘Napoleon Dynamite Lane,’ But it got stolen so many times, they don’t have it any more.”

When did you realize “Napoleon Dynamite” had become a phenomenon?

Jerusha • “It was in the mall, walking with our little newborn. We passed a Hot Topic. Out on the table, [there were] so many ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ T-shirts that had quotes on them — I don’t know who got paid for this — but every quote from the show was represented by a T-shirt. … I got the chills. Like it’s not even ours any more.”

Jared • “Jerusha’s the one who made the [iron-on] ‘Vote for Pedro’ T-shirt. She made it the day we were shooting the scene of him getting on the bus. And a day later, we shot him performing the dance.”

And, some months later, Dennis Quaid is wearing a “Vote for Pedro” shirt on ‘The Daily Show.”

Jared • “And we saw Denzel Washington wearing one in an interview. … And [Greg Popovich,] the head coach for the San Antonio Spurs, in the [2016] election cycle, he was wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ shirt. … It’s fun that it continues to have a life of its own. So many high school kids, middle school kids, discover it. I think they can relate to the plight of a high school teenager.”

How has “Napoleon Dynamite” influenced your choices since then?

Jerusha • “We always have an indie comedy in our brains. We’re always ready to write that one. Some of the little movies that have happened between other things — it’s like, ‘Let’s make that movie about that one person we saw somewhere.’”

Jared • “We’ve got a catalog of goofy characters and stories we want to get to.”

Jerusha • “Our heart is always in the indie-comedy world. But then you have to provide your family. And there are big opportunities to make movies with big names and budgets.”

Jared • “To me, the biggest takeaway is, whatever you’re doing, try to keep it personal on some level. As much as you can bring your own unique life experiences into the stories you’re telling, that’s when it’s special, and it’s not just another derivative piece of work. … It’s trying to keep that frame of mind with everything that you do.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jerusha and Jared Hess, the Utah-based makers of “Napoleon Dynamite,” stand for a portrait on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The movie will screen at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, to mark the 20th anniversary of its premiere.

Daring to make ‘Minecraft’

You’re about to make “Minecraft.” But it’s not your first brush with a big-budget movie.

Jared • “I took a couple of Marvel meetings. … We’ve got five different animated movies that we wrote for different studios. … It’s a miracle that any movie gets made, ever. So many stars have to align — schedules, money, budget, script, concept. So we’re constantly pitching on stuff.”

Jerusha • “In between all of these five movies that he’s directed, we’ve written another five that didn’t get made. It is just the business. You’re always just a little bit hustling. … And, meanwhile, let [Jared] direct a documentary series. Let’s make a short movie. You have to spread yourself out.”

How did “Minecraft” happen?

Jared • “I was developing a movie with Legendary Pictures, and that one didn’t happen. They called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be working with Warner Bros. on “Minecraft.” Do you have any interest?’ And our kids play that game endlessly. I’m, like, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘Come with a take,’ and I did, and had a meeting. Trying to adapt something that doesn’t have a story — it’s an open sandbox game. … I like the challenge. There’s got to be a fun, ridiculous movie here. And there is.”

Jerusha • “Jared was directing ‘Thelma the Unicorn,’ and we’re both writers on that, so we were really busy with that. We were directing that little short film, and were really busy on that. He was doing ‘Muscles & Mayhem,’ and he was really busy on that. And then he was in ‘Minecraft’ school every day.”

Jared • “We’ve got Jason Momoa. We’ve got Jack Black. Who else has been announced?”

Jerusha • “There’s a funny lady, who has not been announced.” [On Jan. 17, the trade publication Dateline reported that “The White Lotus” star Jennifer Coolidge, who co-starred in Jerusha’s directorial debut “Austenland,” had joined the cast.]

Jared • “We’re shooting in Auckland, New Zealand, on these ginormous soundstages. … The production designer is the guy that did all the ‘Lord of the Rings’ stuff, Grant Major.”

Jerusha • “Our cute little 20-year-old was working there last year, working on the crew in the art department. He was sawing square carrots all day. He was, like, ‘Is this what a movie is?’ He loved it, though. ‘I made a pumpkin, Mom.’”

Jared • “I think anybody that does any IP, they just want to avoid an ugly ‘Sonic’ situation.” [The first trailer for the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie angered fans, because Sonic’s computer-animated teeth looked too real.] “I just can’t disappoint the 10-year-olds, or they’re going to murder us.”