Ten years ago today, Napoleon Dynamite was released in a limited number of theaters, after initially being picked up and screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004. The movie, shot on the extremely low budget of $400,000, soon gained traction, leading Fox Searchlight to give it a wide release in August 2004. Before long, Napoleon Dynamite had become a cult classic and national phenomenon. Jon Heder, who played the eponymous character, and director Jared Hess spoke with BuzzFeed about the unique filming experience a decade later.
Where did the idea for Napoleon Dynamite come from? Did you base any of the characters off of people you knew?
Jared Hess: When my mom first saw the film at the first screening, she said, “Well, that was a lot of embarrassing family material.” I come from a family of six boys, so most of what Napoleon says and does in the film is based on my five younger brothers. Most of the material in the film is things we experienced firsthand or said to each other, so it was very autobiographical. Growing up in rural Idaho totally formed the story, and I think being in college and looking back at my high school years through a different lens, we were able to find humor in very painful experiences when we were teenagers.
Jon, how did you prepare for the role?
Jon Heder: I know Jared got so much of the character from his younger brothers, and that’s where I got a lot of inspiration: from my younger brothers. We all joked that Napoleon is the perpetual younger brother. He just embodies so much of what people who have younger siblings experience. I have two younger brothers, and a lot of the performance was based on the memories of them — high school, middle school, elementary school, just all of them growing up — having to fend for themselves in this world, being in a big family with older brothers. They’re all like, This is so unfair! This is stupid! I hate you guys! I hate the world! It’s just this attitude that’s very natural — it was comedy in that we would laugh at my brothers, but it was just plain real life.
How did you find out about Napoleon Dynamite? Were you at all hesitant to sign on because the script was so out there?
Heder: Well, for me, it was a very, very unconventional way of doing anything — it was just so different from what typically happens in film. Because I was, first of all, a college student. I wasn’t an actor. I did a little acting on the side, but nothing professional, more like, Oh, my buddies in film school want me to play a goofball in this little short they’re doing for a school project. That sort of thing. Jared and I went to the same school. We were in a couple of classes together and we knew each other somewhat, and he thought, Jon might just be able to pull off what I envision. So he talked to me and I got it right away. I just knew the world that he wanted in the characters. So much of it was similar to how I was raised, my world growing up. Just similar sensibilities. So it was really a perfect union, I think. We just both lucked out. It was just very different from doing your typical feature film.
What films would you say inspired you?
Hess: There’s a documentary by Errol Morris called Gates of Heaven, which has real people, but they’re fantastic characters. And the way that it was shot with the camera being static, having conversations with a really eclectic variety of people … It was a film I saw in film school and it definitely informed our approach to filming.
What were the challenges of filming this movie?
Hess: It was super-low budget. We were all just a bunch of dumb film students who didn’t really know what they were doing. I had done a short film with Jon Heder based on this character, and for that film, it was my wife Jerusha who had to give him a perm … We got him a perm for the short film and a year later for the feature version.
Jon couldn’t get up to where we were filming until the night before we started shooting. I told him that he needed to get a perm just like the one for the short film. He went to this beauty academy that was really cheap and this girl gave him a perm and he showed up and said, “Yeah, I don’t think she did it the same way.” Jon looked like Shirley Temple. His hair was in big ringlets and it was totally wrong. And my wife and her cousin, who was the hairstylist of the film, were like, “Can we re-perm this?” which you can’t because the hair can totally fall out. You can’t double-perm something. So instead, they spent all night rolling his hair into curlers, just doing a water perm, and Jon couldn’t wash his hair the whole rest of the movie. For 22 days, he did not wash his hair. Poor guy. And if you watch the film, you know we shoot on a lot of dairy farms and you can see there are flies flying around his hair. His hair got pretty stinky when we were shooting, but we just couldn’t risk having to perm it with real chemicals again.
Did you improvise any of the lines?
Heder: There really wasn’t a lot of improvising at all … Part of the job was the brevity and the spaces and the pauses that exist in this world, the quietness — and try to have moments to just sit there and live in it because everybody’s so tired. The world is just so exhausted and frustrated. We played around with it in the beginning. Jared had his own cartoony way of doing it, and I’d spit it back at him in a more toned-down way, and that was pretty much it. If you talk to the rest of the cast, so much of Jared’s direction is just, “Don’t do anything. Just sit there, breathe, look around slowly. Don’t react much.” People like me and Aaron Ruell, who plays Kip, we weren’t professional actors at all. We were just like, Oh, these words are great. We trust you. These are awesome. And you didn’t want to change it because they were great as it is.
What’s your favorite memory of shooting the film?
Heder: [The cast] was put in what was the fanciest hotel in Idaho. I loved it, but you know, it has the charm of a little farmhouse. It’s not like anything super fancy. So at night, we were left to get dinner on our own and I always confiscated Pedro’s bike because I didn’t have a car. So I would bike around town and grab dinner. And it was awesome because nobody knew who we were. I felt bad I was taking Efren [Ramirez, who played Pedro]’s bike, but it wasn’t his bike. It was a set bike. I’d be like, “I need some McDonald’s. Give me your bike.”
Hess: I mean, I dry-heaved every morning. Just getting into the car and not knowing what would happen — wondering if I was getting enough coverage and stuff, just the typical stuff a director worries about when they’re shooting.
There was a moment where we were shooting at the high school and we had a bunch of teenagers that were extras. It was the scene where Napoleon first meets Pedro, and I remember after we were done shooting, some of the extras were quoting the lines we just shot and that was a promising sign that maybe some of the people were going to get the movie.
How did you react to the “Netflix Problem”?
Hess: When we were shooting it, I knew it was either going to really resonate with people and they were really going to get the comedy of it, or they’d be like, This is dumb. I don’t get it. I think younger kids will definitely ease into it more, as well as adults. I remember when my grandpa saw it, he was like, “Well, that was an interesting home movie.” And there are a ton of people who didn’t find the comedy in it and it was just too out there, for whatever reason. But, I remember for Netflix, this movie kind of messed up their algorithm for recommending other films. Napoleon was very polarized.
Did you expect the cult reaction?
Hess: Not at all. I mean, we were just out of film school. It was my first film, and I hoped it’d be a stepping-stone and create other opportunities. I never thought that it would get into Sundance or that it would get bought by a major studio and get released at the level that it did. So each step for me was a fairy tale as an independent filmmaker. And when it started getting into theaters, it just sort of turned into a monster on its own. It was wild. People were on TV doing interviews, and it had nothing to do with the film, but they were wearing “Vote For Pedro” T-shirts. My mother-in-law was doing some humanitarian work in Honduras and she saw an old fisherman wearing one of those shirts and she was like, “I guess your movie’s done well!”
What’s your favorite fan reaction?
Heder: I think when James Cameron recognized me. That was pretty sweet. I went to a private screening of Avatar, and there was a Q&A and I asked a question and James Cameron was like, “You’re Jon Heder.” And I was like “WHAT? How do you know who I am!? I’m an idiot!”
What were the main challenges you faced when developing Napoleon Dynamite for television as a cartoon?
Hess: The pace was much faster in television and even more so when you’re doing something animated. It was trying, I think, to find a balance preserving the integrity of the original film and still making it a little faster-paced. And I think we did a pretty good job of that. It was just a lot of fun to be able to explore the characters again and open up their world.
Heder: Because it was animated, they always want a little bit more, a quicker pace — literally a bit more animation, bit more fluctuation in the voice, but not a lot, because they still wanted to keep it true to the character. It’s actually pretty natural to just sit there and do the character and bring him to life.
How did it feel to work with the same cast again?
Heder: Pretty much all the originals came in to do the cartoon. It was amazing. That was really our first reunion. I guess we recorded that about three years ago. It came out in 2012, and we recorded in 2011. That was awesome because it had been a long time since we’d all seen each other. We all knew the timing, we all knew the world, so that really helped.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
Hess: For me, the most interesting stories come from something people know intimately, your own life experiences. For most people, their best stories are in their own backyard. I think people should look there first. Those have the most impact and are the most original and memorable.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary, a special edition Blu-ray version of Napoleon Dynamite is now available.