Here There Be Ligers: An Oral History of 'Napoleon Dynamite'
The creator and cast behind this cult comedy look back on how a moon boot-wearing, nunchucks-loving geek became an icon
What a difference a year makes. In 2003, Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, and Jon Heder — students at Brigham Young University's film school — were just another trio of independent filmmakers working the festival circuit in Park City. Their short film "Peluca," about a fanny pack-wearing teen named Seth, was selected to screen at the Slamdance Film Festival. If the protagonist sounds slightly familiar, it's because he was the prototype for the titular geek hero of Napoleon Dynamite, the micro-budget indie that would become the toast of that city's other film fest — Sundance — and catapult the classmates to the top of Hollywood’s rising stars list by the end of January 2004.
On the occasion of Napoleon Dynamite's 10th anniversary, the director, its star and a handful of their collaborators and supporters retrace the little-film-that-could's steps from student project to pop culture phenomenon.
"Give me some of your tots!"
Jared Hess (Co-Writer, Director): Everything in the film is so autobiographical. I grew up in a family of six boys in Preston, Idaho [where the film was shot] and the character of Napoleon was a hybrid of all the most nerdy and awkward parts of me and my brothers growing up. Jerusha (Hess, his wife) really was like Deb growing up. Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, "I hadn't really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders." Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, "I like your sleeves…they’re real big."
Jon Heder ("Napoleon"): We were both students in the film program at BYU and had been in a few classes together. He approached me about doing the role of Randy, who's kind of a bully, in this short film he was making, "Peluca." Maybe a week or so after he had first talked to me about it, Jared gave me the script and said, "Actually, look at the lead role."
Hess: I had auditioned some other people for the role in the short film and nothing worked in the way that I imagined the character. I heard the voice so specifically — and when I met Jon he nailed it. He came from a large family of boys as well, so he totally keyed into who this guy was.
Heder: When I was younger, if I got pissed at something, I'd definitely say something like, "Shut your mouth, you idiot!" So this was just an exaggeration of that — and not even that much of an exaggeration. Napoleon always has that scowling, mouth-breather look where he's kind of upset. I wasn't quite that upset all the time, but I did like some the things he liked. I went to Scout camp and I made homemade nunchucks out of carved wood. There's a lot of me in Napoleon.
Heder: We took a trip to the local thrift store and scoured the racks looking for the type of clothes that would make you say, "Oh yeah, this is totally that guy." Jared had the idea for the moon boots, and then Jerusha had the idea for the perm.
Hess: Jon had long hair, and is a handsome-looking dude, so my wife decided we should perm his hair. She thought he'd look really good with a perm. Then we gave him some glasses and did some costume design with the moon boots.
Heder: The glasses were actual prescription glasses that almost made me go blind — but man, they looked great [laughs]. While we were trying stuff on, Jared would give me his version of how Napoleon talked and then I'd do my interpretation of it.
Hess: We went up to Preston and shot the short film over two days in black and white. We knew that we wanted to do a feature — we'd already started writing a script for what would become Napoleon at that point — but we wanted to do a short film on the character to bring him to life. It was for a class assignment, and we were still trying to figure out the best way to end it. One day Jon was dressed up in the moon boots and everything, and I had about a minute of film left — stock is an expensive thing when you’re a student — so I'm like, "Man I'm not just going to waste this minute of black-and-white film that I have in the camera."
I had heard that Jon was a dancer; he has a twin brother and they would go out to dance clubs and do these synchronized dance routines. The dynamic of a guy who looks like this, is dressed like this and is throwing down some pretty impressive dance moves is just something that's still kind of shocking [laughs]. So I had Jon stand down at the end of a dirt road, I turned on the radio in the car and that Jamiroquai song just happened to be playing. I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film! You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.
Heder: Jared introduced me to the kid who he was originally going to have play Napoleon in "Peluca," who was kind of the real deal; he was a weirdo. If you met him, you wouldn’t think, "Oh, this is him," but he had similar mannerisms. That was all toward the end of 2001, when we shot the short. But by the time we gave me the script for the feature, I'd pretty much made Napoleon my own. I read it and thought, "Yeah, it all makes sense. I can see this."
From Short to Long
Hess: I was a kid from Idaho: I just didn’t have any connections to the industry at all. But the brother of a good friend of mine in film school, Jeremy Coon — who ended up becoming our producer and editor — came up to the Slamdance Film Festival when the short film played and gave us the chance to go do a feature. Kodak and Panavision helped us out with student film discounts. People were crashing on couches in my family's home and in our neighbors' homes up in Idaho.
After we did the short, we already had Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell [who played Kip], but we basically had to cast everybody else out of L.A. We sent the short film along with the script to a variety of different casting directors; a lot of them thought it was too weird or they just didn't like the character. They were like, "The script's funny, but I think you need to recast this guy with somebody else."
Tina Majorino ("Deb"): Part of the draw for me was that it was so original; I had never read anything like it before. I was personally getting sick of watching the same high school comedies over and over again; it seemed like it was always from the same perspective. Plus, as a child, I was always seen as strictly a dramatic actress. I wouldn't say it bothered me, but in some ways I felt like there were so many things that I wasn't able to do because no one could believe that I could do comedy. So it was always a little off-putting when people would say, "Oh no, you're too serious." The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me. Even if I didn't get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before.
Efren Ramirez ("Pedro"): I'd been working on a show called Even Stevens for Disney. I had just auditioned for [John Lee Hancock's] The Alamo as well. As an actor, you want to move up and build a big name for yourself. But here was this independent film about these two cats who don't really know each other, but become best friends and help each other get through life. It reminded me of Midnight Cowboy. It was a big risk, because I didn't know if it was going to work or not. I remember meeting my manager and thinking, "Maybe I've made a big mistake." But when I did Napoleon Dynamite and met Jon Heder and all of the guys, I thought, "Maybe this is my home for a while." Don't get me wrong; I really would like to work with Billy Bob Thornton, he's a brilliant actor. But to play a big role as a character actor? How can you say no to something like this?
Haylie Duff ("Summer"): My manager called me and said, "This sort of bizarre movie came [to us], I'm going to send it to you and see if you're into it." The script had these long pauses in it; you know, one line then beat, beat, beat. But I read the humor in it immediately and knew it was something I wanted to be a part of it. I was attracted to [the character of] Summer because she thought she was so cool and was sort of embarrassing. Nothing is funnier to me than middle schoolers and high schoolers stuck in all their serious life drama.
Here was this independent film about two cats who don't really know each other. It reminded me of Midnight cowboy.
Hess: We shot it in my hometown [of Preston, Idaho] in July of 2003… and it was very, very hot. But it was so much fun being in this rural farm town making a movie. We shot it in 23 days, so we were moving very, very fast; I just didn't have a lot of film to be able to do a lot of takes. It was a bunch of friends getting together to make a movie. It was like, "Are people going to get this? Is it working?"
Duff: There's sort of a rapport that’s built when you film on location, especially in a place that's as remote as Preston. When you go to a shoot in Vancouver, you run into your friends from L.A. To be in the middle of nothing, we were all hanging out with each other the whole time, which was really fun. We stayed at the Plaza — The Plaza Motel, not the hotel — and it was like summer camp. We all went to Target and bought shower slippers [laughs].
Heder: It's an independent film, but because it was my first film, it just felt like that's how films were made. There were no studios attached; for the most part it was either students or recent grads from the BYU film program, locals that we knew, or friends of friends. Because we didn't have trailers, we were always hanging out on the set, helping to make boondoggle keychains or whatever. If there was a day I wasn't shooting, I'd still be on the set hanging out, because there was nothing else to do in the hot summer Idaho heat.
Ramirez: I had done some independent films here and there, but they were not big roles. And when I walked into Napoleon Dynamite, it was a group of people who had worked together before — they had done some short films together, they all went to college together. The thing about independent films is that you sort of go, "Okay, who's buying lunch this time?" And we were working in this small town that might have be about a three-miles radius. Everything you see in Napoleon, that's exactly what it is; there's nothing else.
Majorino: There was one motel in town and there was a hole in the bathroom floor; you had to jump over it to take a shower. But it felt like that was just part of the adventure [laughs]. I don't think that I’ve ever been on a set with such organization, though. We were busting out probably eight to 10 pages a day and we would wrap every day at 6:30 pm. We often get asked if there was a lot of improv, and there really wasn't. It's all there on the page. Jared is that good.
Hess: When I did the short film, Jon had gone to a hair academy to get his perm. When we did the feature, he couldn't get to Idaho until the night before shooting. So I told him to go back to the same place and to get the same thing as last time — same roller size, nice tight perm, same everything. He called me and was like, "Yeah, I got the perm but it's a little bit different than it was before." He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!
My wife's cousin was a hairdresser and said that if we re-permed his hair it would break off. And the hair was everything. So my wife and her cousin spent the whole night re-perming his hair, until maybe two or three in the morning, just doing a water perm. Then they told me that Jon couldn't wash his hair for the next three weeks! So he had this stinky 'do in the Idaho heat for three weeks. We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair [laughs].
Duff: During the scene where Jon Gries [who played Uncle Rico] is driving down the road handing out breast enlargement pamphlets, it was so incredibly hot where we were that we were literally in the middle of a take when I saw stars and just hit the ground. The boom guy caught my head before it hit the ground. So that was a new experience: heat faint.
Heder: There's a lot of running on gravel roads out in the middle of nowhere, like for the prom, which wasn't that bad. But there’s a cut scene where I'm running to make it in time for the election; I'm running on this gravel road that's uphill and we had to keep doing it over and over, because I was dying.
Majorino: The scene where Napoleon comes to ask me if I'm drinking one-percent milk and I have the sandwich stuffed in my face? We were shooting in the high school and there was no air conditioning in the entire school. All of us were dying.
Heder: [The dance scene] really didn't take long to shoot, but it was super awkward because I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. I had kind of planned out the first couple eight counts — the beginning of the dance where I'm shuffling — but then I told Jared: Let's just do it three times. Get three songs, and I'll just dance to one song until I'm ready to puke and I'll say "Okay, cut." Then we'll take a five-minute breather and do it again with another song, because at the time we didn't know which song we were going to be able to get. I think we played a Michael Jackson song and then we might have played two Jamiroquai songs. We were both kind of obsessed with Jamiroquai at the time and really wanted it to be that, so we were so glad we got that song.
Heder: We made it a closed set. I asked Jared, "Do we really need the boom guy? There's no sound." And the sound people were kind of pissed like, "What? We don't get to be in there?" I was kicking everyone out. People kept coming up with excuses as to why they needed to be there. There were people hiding out in the stands and up in the projector room. I was kind of self-conscious at first and then I thought, whatever. And really, physically, I was just dying after each take. Because I was going at it full blast, just sort of freestyling it. The two questions I get asked the most are "Will there ever be a sequel?" and "Can you still do the dance?" And no, I can't do the dance, because I never memorized it. But I can do a similar dance.
Dance, Sundance, Revolution
Hess: We had a bunch of extras who were just local high school kids. We had just shot the scene where Napoleon was talking about how girls only want guys who have great skills. When we broke for lunch, there were a group of about 10 or 15 kids and they were quoting what we had just shot amongst themselves. I thought that was a good sign — that maybe people will understand and enjoy this film.
Heder: When we shot the film, I had no idea of what the plans were. Not knowing exactly how the business worked, I remember thinking, ‘I don't know who is ever going to see this.' All I cared about was getting a DVD copy that I could show to my family. But the producers were talking about Sundance, and I knew that was kind of a big deal. I went over to Jared's place when they were trying to get it ready for submitting it to the festival and saw a rough cut. I'd never seen a rough cut of anything before. And I remember thinking, "Oh. This isn't very good…" So I was kind of worried.
Hess: We had shot the film and were cutting it, but it wasn't done. It didn't have any music in it, it hadn't been scored, and we were still messing around with it. But my producer, Jeremy Coon, said, "I'm just going to send a rough cut to Sundance." And I was like, "Man, no. Don't do it. Let's put our best foot forward and wait until it's all done, until we've locked the cut and scored it and done the final color timing on it." I was convinced that it wouldn't get in because it wasn't ready and I wanted to wait until the following year to submit it. But Jeremy did it anyway; I was pretty upset with him at the time. Then, in November, I got a call from Trevor Groth at Sundance as I was headed up to Idaho to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and it was the greatest phone call I've ever received.
Trevor Groth (Director of Programming, Sundance Film Festival): In my 20 years on the programming staff for Sundance, Napoleon Dynamite is the only feature film submission I immediately rewatched. Much of the genius of the film is in the details, and I wanted to make sure I truly absorbed and savored its magnificence. Plus I was laughing so hard I missed hearing some lines. I have family from Preston, Idaho, where they made the film, so it was especially great to see the film made with such heart.
Nancy Utley (President, Fox Searchlight): All the studios track which movies are going to be at Sundance and are looking for certain things, and I don't think Napoleon Dynamite was on very many people's radars. So it really was one of those mythical stories where it pops out of nowhere, it's made for no money by people we don't know, it gets a big sale in Sundance, and becomes a commercial hit. It's a film that reinforces the dream of a lot of independent filmmakers that there can be this truly democratic process of making a film — and you can still get discovered by both studios and audiences.
Ramirez: They screened Napoleon Dynamite at the Library Center Theatre, which is one of the bigger theaters at Sundance. We were all sitting in the last row and as we were watching it you could really just feel the audience getting into it. Once the movie ended, they called us up on stage and it was like when a rock band is finished with its set and there's a communion with the audience. I thought that was the coolest moment. We didn't know what the outcome would be for the film, but to feel that energy — especially in that room — you knew that it was very strong.
Heder: Just going to Sundance is still one of the most memorable moments of my life. The premiere screening was the first time we had seen the film with an audience, with real people, and mostly people we didn't know. A lot of us had our friends and family there, but then there were people like Faye Dunaway and I think Daryl Hannah might have been there? Faye Dunaway came up to me afterwards and started talking to me, and I was just like, "What?!"
Duff: Seeing the film at Sundance was pretty surreal. It was also sort of when Sundance was different, too; people were still making really tiny movies and they were really getting a chance to have people see their films. So it was special to sit there and see people laughing at it and enjoying it, the way we enjoyed making it.
Hess: I was so nervous about Sundance. I was convinced that people would either totally get it and enjoy the film, or I would hear crickets. I just didn't know. We hadn't had any screenings prior to the festival. But we got there and people started laughing at the first image of Napoleon, it was just an amazing experience. During the slow motion shot of Napoleon walking down the street in the brand-new suit that he just got to go to the dance, there was a moment where I looked over at Jerusha and got a little choked up that people were enjoying it the way they were. People were cheering and clapping. And I'll never forget that moment. It was like, "Oh, wow. I think the film is going to have a little bit of a life."
Groth: I felt really strongly that this was a great film but with any comedy, especially one this unique, you never know how people will react. When I heard audiences laughing during its premiere and having such a strong reaction to it during the Q&A afterwards, I knew we had helped launch this film into a pretty amazing trajectory.
Utley: Like many people, I thought the movie was absolutely hilarious. I think Napoleon Dynamite is a true original and there's no way to look at that film and compare it to something else. Whereas a lot of the movie business is, "It reminds you of this film meets this film," Napoleon is just its own thing. And that catches your eye right away.
Hess: There are so many books written about "How to Survive Your First Film Festival" or what certain filmmakers did to write and finance their movies, and then having managed the film festival world. Every film student reads those books. I had read a bunch of them going into the festival, but I had no expectations at all. Just getting into Sundance for me was such a dream come true. I lived so close to the festival growing up and had attended it as a teenager and while I was in college, just to experience it. But to be there and have people wanting to buy your film… it was very surreal.
Utley: I think its celebration of the underdog is a perfect analogy to independent films, which are the scrappy, misfit, idiosyncratic cousins to the glossier, big studio films. So I think everyone who works in independent film relates to Napoleon and Pedro and Kip and Deb. And the big studio, tentpole films are more akin to the character of Summer, with her perfect costumes and her choreography and her pretty hair. So I think there's something that just struck a chord [with Fox Searchlight] as seeing ourselves in the movie.
Heder: I knew that there was something there, especially when I started getting cards from agents and managers and publicists. Right away, there was a bidding war for Napoleon Dynamite, but that was in January. Yes, it was popular at Sundance. It got purchased; I got an agent. I was finishing up my last semester at college and I wasn't quite sure what it all meant, but it was a very exciting time. It wasn't until the movie premiered and I went all over to promote it that it felt legit. Fox Searchlight was flying me to these places where I was doing TRL and Letterman. That's really when I knew.
Utley: It was somewhat surprising how quickly it caught on. While we were in Sundance we went to see the film in Salt Lake City also, with more of a mainstream crowd that isn't paying to be at a festival, and we saw how strongly that group related to the movie as well. And then we came back and showed it on the lot and it got another big response, so we started to feel like we were onto something.
Heder: The biggest thing for this film was that they had this Web site that created this fan club. They really pushed it through a number of special screenings where they'd give out Napoleon Dynamite Chapstick and watches. That's when you knew they were really going to town with this. They were making talking plush dolls. We struck a chord and people really got who this character was and what this film was all about.
Utley: I think the fact that the movie does have those catchphrases really does help people come out and keep talking about it and playing out scenes from the movie, which is a very sticky kind of marketing that's rare to have on a film. It also had iconic imagery between the ligers and the side pony and the llamas and the moon boots. So it's something where if you see something from Napoleon, you can recognize it right away.
Heder: That Halloween, people were dressing up as Napoleon Dynamite and holding Napoleon Dynamite parties. Preston, Idaho itself held a Napoleon Dynamite Festival for a few years. It was very surreal.
Majorino: The first reaction that I got from the people around me was "This isn't going to go anywhere, this isn't going to do anything, this is dumb, why do you want to do this?" I didn't even think about this movie as being part of the trajectory of their careers; I just thought that there was no way that Jared and Jerusha, having written this amazing script, weren't going to blow up some day. I obviously didn't think of the end game…which I tend not to do anyway, but especially with this one. And it was such a lovely and shocking outcome. It was incredible.
Duff: I think really where I realized it was kind of a big deal was when I saw it again at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles and people were walking out of the movie quoting it and saying, "I've seen this three times." I think that was probably the first time I realized the general population loved this movie. But even to this day, that people come up to me and still quote it to me is the ultimate.
Groth: I give Jon Heder tremendous credit for his awe-inspiring performance in the titular role because it takes something special to make that character as lovable and even relatable as he did.
Majorino: I used to get asked all the time whether we were going to do a sequel. And it was a question I always hated, because I didn't have an answer. So that always made me feel like an asshole because these people are so obsessed with this movie and I want to give them good news, but I don't have anything to say.
Heder: It's such a hard mix. I was always for doing a sequel, just because I thought it would be fun, but it was always contingent upon if Jared wanted to do one. If Jared was involved — if he wrote it and directed it — that's the only way I saw it happening, because it's such a personal story of his. He made these characters; he created this world that's based on his experiences growing up. It couldn't be done by anyone else.
Hess: The studio had always approached us about doing sequels. I think it's been a very financially successful film for them, so I think people can be excited about anything Napoleon.
Heder: I think for a lot of us, we never really pictured doing a sequel in the beginning because it just felt like an indie, art-house film — kind of weird and quirky. They never made a sequel to The Big Lebowski or those kinds of films, and yet they were such established characters; it wasn't really about the stories, it was about the characters. So you easily could make a sequel… but we're older. And I've told a lot of fans: Part of the charm of Napoleon is that he's in high school. He's a kid. It's a coming of age story about the charm of youth and not having to be responsible. We love Napoleon because he reminds us of our youth and being a kid, having an imagination. And doing anything outside of that is hard.
Napoleon Animated: "It's like a lion and a tiger mixed..."
In 2012, fans got the sequel they'd been waiting for — sort of — when Jared and Jerusha Hess gathered up all of the original film's cast to create a six-episode animated series for Fox that featured such titles as "Ligertown" and "Pedro vs. Deb."
Hess: Doing an animated series let us open up the world and try new things and introduce new characters. And I've just always loved animation, so it was a no-brainer for me when the opportunity came about. We had so much fun, especially to be able to get the cast back together.
Majorino: When they contacted me about the cartoon, I was thrilled. It was an immediate yes because I felt like it was the perfect vehicle for Napoleon to live on.
Heder: [When people ask me about a possible sequel], I say: Look, we gave you six episodes of an animated series. That equals more amount of time than a sequel. If you sit down and watch those back to back, you've got yourself a sequel. Because you've got all the same characters and all the same actors.
Duff: I was definitely shocked [to get a call about the cartoon], because it had been so many years. But I had so much trust in Jared when we made the movie and him knowing exactly who these characters were and what he wanted to convey with some of these scenes that when I heard they were going to make the cartoon I was like, "Okay, cool." Then when I realized that everyone from the original movie was behind it — writing the episodes and directing everything, doing the voices —it was just a no-brainer for me. I was just like, "If Jared's doing it, we've all got to do it!"
Ramirez: It was a challenge because of the timing and trying to work everybody's schedule and that was very hard. But if Jared called me up and wanted me to dress up as a gorilla in a tutu, I'd do it.
"Just listen to your heart. That's what I do." 10 years later...
Hess: Every filmmaker has moments of doubt when they're doing it, but you have to trust in your instincts and go forward with it. There were a lot of people who didn't respond to the film, but for the ones who did, it was a special experience. It was a character that they fell in love with and I'm glad that I didn't change that early on based on other voices that were trying to change how I saw it and heard it.
Duff: If you have somebody who has a vision, just hop on it and go with them. Jared was very clear with what he wanted. And everything was on the page, too.
Heder: There was so much I didn't know when I was making Napoleon Dynamite. I truly love making independent films and I've made a lot more recently. And it kind of reminds me of going back to Napoleon Dynamite; when you hang out with the crew and cast in a small location on a fixed budget, it just reminds me of that. And just to have fun.
Groth: The fact that now, on its 10th anniversary, audiences are still discovering and the film proves its brilliance. We even hosted an outdoor screening of it in August with Cinespia at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery as the kickoff event for our Sundance NEXT FEST summer festival.
Utley: I think the [film's] legacy is, more than anything else, about the value of an original idea of a certain place and time that nobody's ever thought of before. The film has its own lexicon and imagery unique unto itself. When I walk down the street, I still occasionally see people wearing a "Vote for Pedro" T-shirt — one of the original ones from way back in the day with the ringed collar — and I think, "Wow. It lives on." And that's really cool.
Ramirez: [I've realized] how much life can change in a period of 10 years. After Napoleon Dynamite got so huge, Pedro Sanchez became an icon. Everywhere I go, people recognize me. As an actor, you have to stop and ask, "What do I do with this fame? How do I make this work?" Some people sort of get stuck in that, like a wormhole, which is dangerous. Jeff Bridges told me that once you play a character, you kind of want to alter it just a little. Just enough so that people recognize you, but that they don't really recognize you. That's when they see you as an actor, not a character.
Majorino: I came away from making Napoleon Dynamite with so many fantastic memories and I learned so much from the filmmakers I was working with. This was just something where I said, "Look, this is my first time back out the gate. This is what I want to do. Just let me do it and let me have fun." And after everything transpired, my agent called me and said, "I was so wrong. Don't ever listen to me again."
Heder: Fans ask all the time: What was your favorite movie to work on? It sounds cliché, but it will always be Napoleon Dynamite. It's hard to top it.
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