"I was dry heaving up to the moment of the first screening in Sundance," says Napoleon Dynamite creator Jared Hess at a small café on the Fox Lot. In the middle of the interview, Hess interrupts to take a call from his dad — I’d expect nothing less than a familial bond and slight neurosis from half of the mind (Jerusha Hess, his co-writer wife, is the other half) that gave us what will be this summer’s sleeper hit. Included in Newsweek magazine’s list of the best summer films (alongside The Day After Tomorrow and Spider-Man 2) is the strawberry afro of Napoleon Dynamite.
"It was pretty exciting," Hess says of the news weekly’s recognition of a film that explores outcast Napoleon, played by newcomer Jon Heder, and his misadventures with his Mexican best friend, chat room-obsessed brother, past-obsessed uncle and neurotic potential romance. The plot is thankfully loose, letting the audience explore the high schooler’s quirky, eccentric world.
"It’s a comedy, and you fear the sound of crickets in the theater," Hess explains of the dry heaving. "But, thankfully, people laughed."
After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Napoleon Dynamite was wooed by a number of distributors, until Hess decided on Fox Searchlight. He admits he liked the way the film company handled last year’s sleeper zombie hit, 28 Days Later.
"That film had no names, no major stars. It was shot in mini-DV — but it was brilliant filmmaking. I think they’re doing a similarly fantastic job now."
Indeed, a grassroots marketing campaign has burgeoned like Napoleon’s hair, with free screenings offered in select areas leading to strong Internet and word-of-mouth support. For Hess, however, the most important sound he’d like to hear leave lips is laughter.
"Humor’s so subjective and I was always worried that people wouldn’t get it. Humor’s determined by your upbringing, where you grew up, that sort of thing." Hess, the oldest of six boys, says that most of the material in the film came from his brothers, and plenty of moments are almost direct transcripts from conversations he’s had in his own life.
So, did he get beat up by his brothers for defaming their reputations?
"My mom saw it and said, ‘Jared, there’s a lot of embarrassing family material in your movie — but that’s OK.’ The family’s been very supportive and they all have a great sense of humor," says Hess. "They know it’s not malicious at all." To punctuate this point, Hess’ dad happens to call at this moment to check up on how his Salt Lake City-raised son is doing in Hollywood.
The film takes place in a time warp of sorts, where Napoleon’s style seems borrowed from the late ’70s where the rest of the world is caught in the mid-’80s. Yet Hess says the film actually takes place in the present.
"The styles are eclectic, what the people are wearing. In a lot of rural communities, however, it’s whatever works, works," Hess explains. "It’s not so much the case of fashion and style, but function. Napoleon’s moon boots also double as a great pair of running shoes."
Based on the short "Peluca" which introduced the Slamdance Film Festival to Mr. TNT ("we tested the water and got a great response — we knew we had to do it"), Hess then went on to work with the same group on the feature. A group the 24-year-old worked with throughout college and hopes to continue working with in the future.
"I would love to continue working with this crew," Hess says. "What you see in the film is what we had written, with the addition of great spontaneous things that occurred on set."
On the DVD, look for a number of deleted scenes, including a "pretty funny, awkward high school kickball scene."
Next up for the filmmaker is … an AOL ad? "I just need to pay the bills between films," Hess says with a laugh. Just don’t expect to see the bald AOL yellow man grow an afro.
Napoleon Dynamite releases in Los Angeles June 11.