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

More in Entertainment

Peninsula College offers jazz concerts

The Peninsula College Jazz Ensemble plans two free concerts… Continue reading

Plankenhorn to perform at The Palindrome

Jeff Plankenhorn, a world-class songwriter who recently moved to… Continue reading

Arin Sarkissian.
Port Townsend Symphony Orchestra concert set for Sunday

The Port Townsend Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of… Continue reading

Local artist and immigrant Egor Shokoladov has been accepted into Art Basel Miami, the art fair considered the largest event of its kind in the Americas.
Peninsula artist to exhibit work at leading arts fair in Miami, Fla.

International event will show pieces from hundreds of galleries

A decorated Christmas tree titled “Take Me Back” stands at Vern Burton Community Center in Port Angeles on Saturday after fetching the top bid of $7,500 offered by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe during Saturday night’s Festival of Trees gala auction. The tree, designed by Staci Politik and sponsored by Applebee’s Restaurant, included a $2,000 premium gift certificate for home furnishings from Angeles Furniture. More than 40 trees were auctioned off on Friday as a benefit for the Olympic Medical Center Foundation. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Festival of Trees brings in over $200K

The 33rd annual Festival of Trees netted $202,000 over… Continue reading

Mary Fahl's show at Concerts in the Woods on Dec. 2nd.
Mary Fahl to perform year’s final Concert in the Woods

Mary Fahl, formerly of the October Project, will perform at… Continue reading

Anna-Marie Tax, 7, of Port Angeles and her brother A.J. Tax, 4, behind, are served by volunteers, from left, Phil Becillis, Lorenz Sololmann and Patty Sollman during Thursday’s Community Dinner at Queen of Angeles community hall in Port Angeles. Hundreds of people took part in the free meal, which featured traditional Thanksgiving fare, dessert and the companionship of other community members. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Free community feasts draw Peninsula residents

Volunteers serve hundreds with turkey, all the fixings

Gen X dance party set for Saturday

An early-evening nightclub is set for Saturday at Studio… Continue reading

Ceremonies, lights, shopping mark Thanksgiving weekend

Port Angeles and Sequim both will mark the Saturday after Thanksgiving with… Continue reading

Giving thanks isn’t just a holiday tradition; it’s survival

Mood for gratitude ‘part of human DNA’

Roundabout at Highway 20, Kearney Street open

The new roundabout at the intersection of state Highway… Continue reading