How 'Napoleon Dynamite' Became A Cultural Phenomenon (And Then Reached Critical Mass)

How 'Napoleon Dynamite' Became A Cultural Phenomenon (And Then Reached Critical Mass)

June 11 marks the 10th anniversary of "Napoleon Dynamite." In honor of the cult classic, HuffPost Entertainment spoke with actor Jon Heder and writer/director Jared Hess about how the film exploded into a cultural phenomenon, and its significance a decade later.

Jon Heder will never really escape Napoleon Dynamite. "Obviously, my life is saturated with people talking to me as if I'm him," Heder said. What's strange about the past few years, though, is that the way of approaching him has noticeably shifted to nostalgia. "There's this moment when people start to say, 'Oh, I remember watching you as a kid!' And that ages you."

Heder's sentiment reflects the weight Jared Hess' "Napoleon Dynamite" holds for so many people, especially those who watched the 2004 movie as teenagers. Heder knows that experience himself through the "awesome '80s films" that had a similar effect on him growing up.

"You could have seen a movie only a few years ago, but it still holds a special place if you watched it when you were young -- once you reach adulthood your timeline becomes more flat," Heder said in a way that would make Rust Cole proud. It's true: "Napoleon Dynamite" was important for a certain generation because of the way its forever quotable dialogue acted as a unifying force for whatever elementary, middle or high school they might have been trudging through back in 2004. Heder remembers that kind of thing with "The Goonies" and "Back to the Future," but he doesn't understand what it might be like to experience it through "Napoleon Dynamite." "I almost want to interview you," he confessed. "I'm proud to be a part of a movie that had that effect on people, but I wasn't really a part of it."


As Heder recognized, yelling "Your mom goes to college!" at another person might create a temporary bonding experience, but "once everybody's in on it, it's not an inside joke anymore." This reflects a broader trend of cult films. Initially, they hold a specialness, and that appreciation brings camaraderie to a group simply by virtue of being able to recite certain lines. Yet if the films gain too much traction, that intimate catchiness becomes bloated with mass appeal. It's the kind of thing Heder saw happen with "Austin Powers" or "Borat." (And, yes, he blurted out the culturally-decimated catchphrase of the latter movie -- "Nice!" -- while discussing all this.)

"I'm excited for someone who didn't get poisoned by the critical mass."

Heder is acutely aware that "Napoleon Dynamite" suffered at the hands of this same phenomenon. So much so that he looks forward to interactions with the rare individuals who have managed not to see the film (or be inundated by the subsequent tidal wave of quotes).

"I'm excited for someone who didn't get poisoned by the critical mass," he said, before quickly confirming that those people do, in fact, exist. ("Seriously!")

"It's like a leak at a power plant," he continued. "It exploded and everyone was contaminated, and here's someone living off in La La Land, who was never affected by the fall out." But even in those moments, Heder doesn't relish in the rare opportunity to be "Jon" before "Napoleon." It's more about the excitement of having a fresh pair of eyes see the movie that is still so close to his heart. "I love that scenario," he said, "because I get to say, 'Dude, you've gotta watch it. You're missing out!'"

"Napoleon Dynamite" was released in six theaters on June 11, 2004, but it's theatrical origins date back to that year's Sundance Film Festival. Where it really started, though, is back in 2001, with a black-and-white short film, "Peluca," that was the debut of the now-iconic character. The story as to how that came together starts with Hess meeting Heder at Brigham Young University. Both grew up with similar backgrounds and ran in the same circles once they got to BYU. When it came to producing "Peluca," Hess had seen Heder in a number of student films, and also had a sense that he would understand the character.

“When I was doing the short film, I had it very clear in my head how he was supposed to sound and look and talk," Hess said. "I had done some auditions with the theater department, and couldn’t really find anyone that was authentic in bringing it to life. Then I remembered Jon from one of my director classes.“

Heder remembered that Hess initially asked him to read for Randy the bully, though Hess swears he always knew Heder was his Napoleon. The director eventually ended up getting a real-life bully for the part, whom Heder simply describes as the real deal. "He would beat up [Jared's] brothers, and Jared just said, 'Go do that to Napoleon.'"


Really, much of "Napoleon Dynamite" is what Heder would dub "the real deal." The original guy that Hess considered for the role wasn't so much an actor as "a weird awkward-ish kid." In the end, he couldn't act on screen as he so organically did in real life, and thus the serendipitous union of Hess and Heder was sealed.

"So much of 'Napoleon' was taken from him and his younger brothers' stories growing up," Heder said. "Jared really ran for president. His brothers really worked at a chicken farm. Lyle the farmer was Lyle the farmer, who really shot a cow in front of a bunch of kids on a school bus."

Hess said the film so closely mirrored his life that his mother came up to him after seeing the completed movie for the first time at Sundance and said, "Well, that was a lot of embarrassing family material."

He noted that many scenes (and most of those quotable lines) are essentially transcripts of discussions he and his brothers had growing. In fact, the only thing he identifies as specifically not being pulled from his childhood is the aggressive karate instructor who teaches Rex Kwon Do.

"Lyle the farmer was [based on] Lyle the farmer, who really shot a cow in front of a bunch of kids on a school bus."

Though less specific than it was for the filmmaker, Heder -- and much of the cast and crew -- was intimate with that lifestyle and character. The 36-year-old actor clarified that this was not so much a trait of Mormons (as much of the cast, crew and BYU student body is), but the idea of a simple lifestyle. Heder equated it most closely with "living life as a scout," and explained that he spent much of his youth with a local troupe. Though most of the film is most precisely Hess' story, ultimately, "everybody knew a guy like Napoleon growing up."

"I think there was just something about it that connected a lot of people," Heder said. Hess originally played around with very cartoonish versions of the characters, and relied on his cast to tone things down. "It's almost like he had to go over the top in order to break out of the norm and understand the seedlings of the character," Heder explained. "It was kind of the actor's job to bring it back to Earth ... because what Jared wanted is for these characters to feel real."

“Once you feel like an actor who knows they are being funny, they stop being funny," Hess said. "Part of the process was making sure that no one felt self aware about what they were doing."

Rather than workshopping through Napoleon's development, Heder and Hess mostly just hung out together. Heder recalled how they would play around with the character, when they'd shop for Napoleon's various outfits at local thrift stores. Of those outfits: Hess had the moon boots in mind (because he would frequently wear them, even in the spring time, while growing up), but much of the other mythical t-shirts and tight jeans were found from scrounging. During the retail excursions, the two would work on voices and, of course, mouth breathing.

While these traits certainly help characterize Napoleon as an outsider, it's notable how "Napoleon Dynamite" differs from what we've come to know as the typical nerd film. There's a certain power to the character that goes beyond the archetype of the weird dude who gets left out.

“I think more than anything people related to the awkwardness of adolescence that is personified in a character like Napoleon," Hess said. "But he’s also a version of that guy they hadn’t seen before.”

"In most nerd films or stories, they're trying to be so hard to be a part of it," Heder said. "They stand out because they're smart, they're geniuses, but they always don't know how to get the girl, or are concerned with being wimpy and small." Napoleon is completely different.

"He's a weird kid, but not really that smart, he's not a genius," Heder said. "Maybe he's getting good grades, but he's not excelling; he's just socially awkward. He doesn't know how much of an outcast he is, and that's what gives him that confidence. He's trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it." Heder noted the scene where Napoleon, without flinching, asks the most popular girl in school to play tether ball: "He thinks that's normal. He thinks, 'Why wouldn't you want to play tether ball? Tether ball is the sweetest thing in the world.'"


The other thing that Heder thinks makes "Napoleon Dynamite" so relatable is its timelessness.

"It doesn't feel like, 'Oh, this is such a 2000s movie' or 'Oh, this is such a '90s movie,'" he said. There are cues to certain generational trends (like maybe those moon boots, for example) but Hess' film transcends that. Maybe the only real thing that seems dated is the talent show dance, but that wasn't inspired by any specific decade, so much as Heder's own free-style.

It was actually Hess' wife, Jerusha Hess (the pair married a year before making the film), a co-writer on "Napoleon Dynamite," who just so happened to know that Heder could dance. From talent shows or just goofing around, word got out, and she told Hess, who turned around and told Heder, "Dude, we're going to write it into the end of the film." When probed for inspiration, Heder insisted it was just his own technique: there was no real direction from Hess, who just let Heder take over the scene.

Hess remembered seeing Heder dance for the first time. With just one minute of film left in his camera, Hess and Heder rode out to a dirt road in the town where they were shooting in Idaho at the time. Clad in moon boots, Heder walked to the end of the road, and Hess turned on the radio to find “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai playing. “Seeing someone that looked like that dancing with some pretty rad moves had a dynamic that was so strange," Hess said. "But you also instinctively wanted to cheer for the guy.” And that was the moment he knew he had the film's climax.

"There's some Michael Jackson sprinkled in there, and moves that I saw other people do," Heder said of his dancing. "But mostly that's what I would do in the mirror after taking a shower."

As for where he sat in his own high school cafeteria, Heder has a story for that too. "Well, this will explain everything: I had a twin," he said. Describing the sort of comfortability that is not completely dissimilar from Napoleon's own mentality, Heder talked about how he and his brother were in their own little world during high school.

"I mean, it's not like we were devoted, but we grew up, with this instant friend," he remembered. "We would stay out of people's way, not because we were scared, but because we didn't care that we weren't invited to all of the parties. [People] weren't seeking out our friendship, per se, but they also didn't pick on is. It was almost like we always had backup."

Heder and his insta-friend of a brother had always liked making videos, and he knew that he wanted to go into the film industry in one way or another. At BYU, he was in the animation program and just acting on the side (some classes he took via the film school led him to the student projects that helped him find his way to Hess). Even in the early stages of working on "Napoleon," Heder thought he would just go to Los Angeles after graduation and eventually find his way into the animation industry ("Pixar was the dream").


"Still to this day, I'm pinching myself, like, 'I made a movie and people saw it.'"

In the end, that didn't happen: "Napoleon Dynamite" became an explosive hit that summer, earning $44 million, despite a $400,000 budget. “I didn’t really have any expectations," Heder said. "I had hoped that it would maybe get into a festival somewhere, and that would lead to other opportunities somewhere else. But never, in wildest dreams, did I think it would even get into Sundance. It was like living a fairy tale.”

Even while Heder, Hess and the crew were in the process of making it, "Napoleon Dynamite" felt like a cult film to them. On set, they would joke that no one was going to see the movie, but that didn't matter. "A scene would end and after we shot it, we would quote it," Heder said. "We were the original annoying people quoting it. And everyone was talking in that voice, saying, 'Gosh!' 'Geez!'"

After Sundance, Heder recalls being approached by anyone and everyone, ambushed by various managers and agents almost as soon as the film's first screening ended. He had been warned. "People told me, you know, 'This could change a lot of things," but he never expected the extent of it. Since he'd enjoyed the bit of acting he'd done at that point, Heder decided to pursue the opportunities that the universe had plopped in his lap. He had just finished college, so he moved right out to Los Angeles and started making movies.

In the decade since, nothing Heder has done reached the level of "Napoleon Dynamite," and Heder openly recognizes it as the pinnacle of his career. He's notably turned down potential roles for being "too raunchy" or "too heavy," as a result of his Mormonism, but Heder doesn't have regrets about the way his career has since panned out.

"Obviously, it's my biggest film," he said, re-emphasizing that his life is saturated from playing the character, but not for a moment does he regret having done it. Ten years later, "Napoleon Dynamite" remains Heder's favorite film he has ever made, and he knows it will always hold a special place in his heart. "To this day, I'm pinching myself. Like, I made a movie and people saw it." He paused. "More than a few people."


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