Here There Be Ligers: An Oral History of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’
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.