Filmmakers look to go beyond ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

Jared, Jerusha Hess have work to do after first feature

Filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess are interviewed during the 23rd annual Port Townsend Film Festival. (Steve Mullensky/for Peninsula Daily News)

Filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess are interviewed during the 23rd annual Port Townsend Film Festival. (Steve Mullensky/for Peninsula Daily News)

PORT TOWNSEND — It’s been almost 20 years since filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess’ singular, offbeat hit “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) made moon boots, “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts and ligers cultural touchstones of a certain nerdy cool.

The film about a morose and awkward high school loner Napoleon (Jon Heder) and his socially maladjusted friends (Tina Majorino, Efren Ramirez) is by turns hilarious and cringe-inducing. It manages to be both unsentimental and a Valentine to loyalty, family and being true to yourself.

The Hesses were in town this weekend to take part in the Port Townsend Film Festival, where they were interviewed by former Sundance Film Festival executive director John Cooper after a Saturday night screening of “Napoleon Dynamite.”

“John was the one who told about the [Port Townsend] festival,” Jared Harris said. “We said, ‘Sure, it sounds great.’”

It was at Sundance that “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered and that ultimately sent it on its way, taking in more than $4 million at the box office (on a $400,000 budget) and making almost $140 million in DVD sales.

Not bad for the first feature film Jared and Jerusha Hess had ever made right out of Brigham Young University’s film program.

Although they have gone on to co-write and Jared Hess to direct three more films together —“Nacho Libre” (2006), “Gentlemen Broncos” (2009) — and have worked on other projects together and separately, the Hesses understand they’ll always be linked to “Napoleon Dynamite.”

“It’s kind of nice,” Jerusha Hess said. “It’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.”

It has also given the Hesses the opportunity to take on projects where they could follow their interests, rather than try to repeat or revisit their first big hit.

For Jared Hess, it has meant directing the three-part documentary, “Murder Among the Mormons” (2021), about Mark Hofmann, who was convicted in the 1980s of theft by deception for forging documents related to the origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and for second-degree murder when two people were killed by homemade bombs he delivered to their homes.

“I love documentaries and I have another one I’m hoping to work on,” he said.

In 2013, Jerusha Hess wrote and directed “Austenland,” a romantic comedy produced by Stephanie Meyer (author of the “Twilight” series), which starred Keri Russell as a “Pride and Prejudice”-obsessed woman who visits a Jane Austen fantasy resort in search of a real-life Mr. Darcy.

Not even the pandemic slowed them down: since 2019, the couple have been working out of their home in Salt Lake City on the Netflix series “Thelma the Unicorn” about a pony whose dream it is to be a unicorn.

Next for Jared Hess is directing a live-action film based on the video game Minecraft. Jerusha Hess said she has a number of projects she is working on independently.

The Hesses’ eldest child, Elliott, 19, is studying at Claremont McKenna College, while the three youngest — Greta, 16, George, 11, and Birdie, 9, are still at home. Jared Hess said Elliott had shown some interest in filmmaking, but it isn’t something they’ve ever encouraged.

“He says, ‘Well, maybe I might want to,’” Jared Hess said. “But he’s also happy doing his own thing.”

The youngest are still content to watch “Napoleon Dynamite” on the car’s video screen.

“They think it’s funny,” Jerusha Hess said.

________

Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at paula.hunt@soundpublishing.com.

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