About 16 years ago, a group of friends from Brigham Young University‘s film program debated whether to submit their movie “Napoleon Dynamite” to the Sundance Film Festival.
“There was some discussion at the time whether we should wait or not and whether the film was ready,” said producer and editor Jeremy Coon, who ended up entering the film.
Fortunately, Coon’s instincts were “dead on,” according to director and writer Jared Hess.
“I was just worried because you want to put your best foot forward,” Hess said. “It’s really hard to get into Sundance, but now we’re forever grateful.”
Some of the cast and crew of “Napoleon Dynamite,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, recently reunited for a Utah Film Center screening and Q&A celebrating the movie’s 15th anniversary at East High School in Salt Lake City.
Hess said at the Q&A much of the film was autobiographical.
“A farmer shot a cow in front of my brother’s school bus. Those things were very true to life,” Hess said. “Napoleon, most of what he said or did was based on me and my younger brothers and dorky friends growing up. Pedro, I had a friend come to school one day that shaved his head because he said his hair made his head hot.”
The dress Deb wore to the high school dance in the film was based on a dress writer Jerusha Hess’ mom made for her.
“She just made me a dress with very big sleeves to make up for the fact that there was other concave parts of the dress,” Jerusha Hess said.
Jared Hess said his favorite part of the movie to film was the chicken farm scene.
“A couple of my brothers were in that scene and they actually worked at that chicken farm,” Jared Hess said. “They would work there for like a whole week and then they’d get a check in the mail for like $4. And at lunch, they’d always offer them lunch, and it was always an egg salad sandwich, hard-boiled eggs and then orange juice with raw eggs in it.”
The writers said they relate most to Napoleon’s and Kip’s characters.
“Those were our babies that we were giving a story that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, so yeah, we love them most,” Jerusha Hess said.
Jon Heder, who played Napoleon Dynamite, said the dance his character performs at an assembly in the film was largely not choreographed.
“If you’re going to do the Napoleon dance, just freestyle, baby. Just dance whatever’s in your heart because that’s all I did,” Heder said. “The only part that we choreographed was, so Tina Majorino, who plays Deb, she actually, she was a choreographer and she was a dance instructor. … So the night before, we went up to the Rex Kwon Do studio where they had all the mirrors, and we just sat there and we kind of worked out the first two eight counts.”
The cast and crew reflected on working within a limited budget and time frame to make the film. Jared Hess said Heder created most of his character’s drawings in the film.
“As far as the score goes, a really great composer, John Swihart, did the score, and my only direction to him was, ‘I want it to sound like Kip did the score on a Casio keyboard,’ and that was it,” Jared Hess said. “We just kept trying things until we got what we liked, and we didn’t have a lot of time.”
The group also discussed how most of the stunts in the film were real.
“Diedrich, he slapped the crap out of me,” said Aaron Ruell, who played Kip, of his scene with Diedrich Bader, who played Rex. “No joke, like I think he had some attitude coming in our little set, you know. He did not hold back.”
Jared Hess said the community in Preston, Idaho, where “Napoleon Dynamite” was filmed, supported the movie “so much.”
“I think it put them on the map in a fun, kind of quirky way, and we couldn’t have made the film without them,” Jared Hess said.
Shondrella Avery, who played Lafawnduh, remembers being a star in Idaho from the moment she stepped off the plane.
“If there ever was a place that I was a star, it was definitely in Preston, Idaho, because it was just one of one, me,” Avery said. “Everyone was staring around the trees, they just was coming out and looking, and I was like, ‘I’m here, I can touch you and hold you and hug you cause I’s arrived.’ ”
“The town had already been a little startled when Starla was around town in her bikini,” Jerusha Hess added.
Avery said she thinks the greatest gift about “Napoleon Dynamite” is “there really isn’t no A, B or C star power.”
“We are iconic and legend and all these characters will outlive us, so I kind of think we won,” Avery said.
Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro, said he initially had to choose between parts he got in “Napoleon Dynamite” and the 2004 film “The Alamo.” His father advised him at the time to follow his heart.
“And that’s funny because Napoleon says to Pedro, right, ‘Follow your heart. That’s what I do,’ ” Ramirez said. “So for all you dreamers, if you want to become an astronaut, if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be an actor, a director, a writer, if you want to be the president of the United States of America, dream it and do it and be it.”