(ABC4) – Jon Heder will forever be known as Napoleon Dynamite after his debut in the cult classic back in 2004. Despite his legendary role, Heder was only a third of the trio at Utah’s very own Brigham Young University’s (BYU) film school that brought the cinematic masterpiece to life.
In an interview with BYU Magazine, Heder, along with Jared Hess, the film’s writer and producer, and his wife Jerusha Hess came together to share the history of “Napoleon Dynamite”.
As stated in BYU magazine, the inspiration for the film’s iconic main character came from a protagonist of a short film Hess wrote and directed for a screenwriting class. The 9-minute movie dubbed “Peluca” starred a fanny-pack-wearing teen named Seth.
Prior to even finishing his production of “Peluca”, which earned great commendation at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, Hess began working with his wife to write a full-length feature version of the film he named “Napoleon Dynamite”.
Hess shared his motivation for the movie’s title with BYU magazine, saying, “On my mission in Chicago, an older Italian man said, ‘Hey, church people, I want to talk to you guys. Why do you have the name Elder?’ And we’re like, ‘Well, it’s a title we carry for two years. So what’s your name, sir?’ And he goes, ‘My name is Napoleon Dynamite.’ My mind was blown. Clearly, it wasn’t his real name. But I remember writing down on a piece of paper: ‘Title of first movie must be Napoleon Dynamite.’”
With a production team compiled almost entirely of BYU students, according to BYU magazine, and a single investment of $400,000 from Jeremy Coon, one of Hess’s old film school buddies as well as the movie’s producer and editor, “Napoleon Dynamite” was born.
Coon spoke out about his choice to invest in the film with BYU magazine, saying, “Jared approached me about editing ‘Peluca’. At the time we worked together at the LDS Motion Picture Studio by BYU making, like, $7 an hour. I remember asking Jared at work one day, ‘If you had one shot at a feature, what would you want to do?’ And Jared was like, ‘Let’s take this character (from Peluca) and let me build a script around it.’” From there on out, Coon relied solely on his trust in Hess’ creative process to back his decision.
Heder, the star of the film, spoke of his excitement in joining forces with Hess, telling BYU magazine, “Jared had already made a name for himself in the BYU film world; he was this up-and-coming talent. You wanted to work with him.”
In an interview with RollingStone, Hess explained his inspiration for the film’s concept, saying, “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.”
Hess confessed his idea for the film’s famous dance scene, telling Rolling Stone, “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. 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.”
According to the BYU article, by the time Peluca got into the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, the script for Napoleon Dynamite was already complete.
After premiering at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Napoleon Dynamite became an underdog success. As stated in BYU Magazine, the film soon sold to Fox Searchlight Studios for $4.75 million and grossed more than $46 million in the first year it was released.
Despite the film’s great success, BYU Magazine emphasized the nation’s mixed feelings on the quirky movie. As expressed in the article, Netflix viewers consistently gave Napoleon Dynamite either one or five stars. Coders of the company remain stumped in their ability to predict viewers as potential fans or haters.