A `Dynamite' filmmaker

Geeky underdog, too, Jared Hess triumphs with low-budget `Napoleon'

July 06, 2004|By Tess Russell | Tess Russell,SUN STAFF

When Jared Hess was growing up in the small rural town of Preston, Idaho, he and his five younger brothers loved watching movies in which the uncool kids triumphed, shedding their outsider status and gaining acceptance by dint of some special skill or virtue.

His film Napoleon Dynamite, which opened in Baltimore Thursday, chronicles a geeky title character who also finds redemption, but does so by ordinary means. "I guess the Napoleon character is the `underdog' that I'd never seen before but always wanted to see onscreen," says the 24 year-old Hess, who first came up with the idea for Napoleon as a film student at Brigham Young University.

"My brothers and I, collectively, were like Napoleon, and my wife, Jerusha, who wrote the film with me, was like Deb [Napoleon's equally quirky love interest]."

Knowing that the casting of Napoleon would be critical, Hess began searching for the right actor but initially had no luck. Lightning struck one day in a chance discussion with friend and fellow student Jon Heder.

Hess was amazed at how immediately Heder understood the character, but using Heder presented one fairly significant problem: The actor wasn't nerdy enough.

"Jon looks nothing like Napoleon in real life. He's a very fashionable guy, so the next step was to change that," Hess says. "My wife said, `Jared, we've got to get that man a perm,' so we got him the tightest perm available and put him in some moon boots and from there he really came to life." Indeed, watching the film it is hard to imagine anyone but Heder in the role.

Hess conducted a sort of trial run with Peluca, a short film featuring the Napoleon character that played at the Slamdance competition in 2003. The reaction was almost overwhelming and Hess suddenly found himself with financial backing to make a feature-length film. His next stop? Hollywood?

No. Preston, Idaho.

"When I was writing the film, I was very conscious about what my resources would be, and I knew that going back to my hometown I would get a lot of help from the community. And creatively, too, there were just so many things that fit perfectly. ... [Preston] really was Napoleon's world."

Cinematographer Munn Powell used several unorthodox camera techniques in the film, most notably a large number of static shots. When asked about the film's distinctive look, Hess explains that "there are a lot of subtle details about the characters - the way they look, the way they move - and the best way to accommodate those is to have a static camera. That way you are able to focus on the characters more, to settle into their world a bit more easily."

It's a world with which moviegoers across the country may fall in love. Fox Searchlight, which is distributing Napoleon Dynamite, has been employing marketing techniques usually associated with bigger-budget films. Free screenings held prior to the movie's national release have generated so much buzz that there is now a full-fledged fan club on the Napoleon Dynamite Web site (www2.foxsearchlight.com/napoleondynamite) in addition to trading cards and special-edition lip balms (for the explanation for that, you'll have to see the movie).

As for the success thus far of his first feature film, Hess remarks: "I think most of us either were Napoleon or knew someone just like him, and this film strikes a chord with people because it reminds them of their own awkward teenage years. ... You really want these characters to succeed, and each of them does in their own way."

If the film's message of hope seems almost too good to be true, Hess says simply, "I like a happy ending. That's not always appropriate for every story, but to me, for this one, it just seemed right."

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