Napoleon Dynamite was made for just $400,000. It grossed $40 million at the box office. But Napoleon wasn’t just a cult-classic comedy, it was a completely new style of humor never-before-seen in Hollywood: rural, small-town nerds trying to find their way in their odd world.
How was Napoleon Dynamite made? How did it come out of BYU? How did it get widespread distribution across the country? We answer these questions in our sit-down interview with Napoleon Producer/Editor Jeremy Coon.
Jeremy Coon and Jared Hess met each other in the early 2000s, both were film students at BYU — Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. When Coon’s brother expressed his desire to finance a film, Coon graciously proposed betting the money not on his own film or direction, but on his classmate. He had come to admire Hess´ comic genius and writing/directing talent. He proposed the idea to Hess who said he could flesh out his five-minute student film called Peluka into a feature film called Napoleon Dynamite. Jared’s girlfriend (at the time) Jarusha helped him flesh out the script and the roles, Jarusha writing the female characters lines with Hess writing the male characters.
While I was studying film and journalism at the University of Utah, it was hard to imagine that a place such as BYU could be the epicenter for the creativity, talent, and characters who went on to become legends. The main characters, producer, director, and writers of Napoleon Dynamite were all BYU film students in 2002.
Coon explained how neither Kip—played by Aaron Ruell—nor Napoleon–played by Jon Heder, had any professional acting experience. He admits he especially had apprehension when casting Aaron Ruell as Kip. “Aaron is very well spoken, polished and well put together. Very far from being a real-life nerd on the caliber of Kip.” Only when he saw Ruell in character, dressed in costume, with the hair, the speech and tone he had carefully crafted was he convinced he was the perfect fit for the part.
Coon and Hess made the movie with a budget of just $400,000 and a 23-day production schedule with a three-week editing period. Obtaining music rights was actually double the production budget. Coon said that steps were taken along the way to improve the film after they were told they succeeded in gaining a feature release at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was such an audience favorite it lead to an acquisition/ distribution deal with Fox Searchlight for limited test release. The test release was a hit, so Fox added more theaters. Eventually, the release expanded to include hundreds of theaters across the country. “It stayed playing in theaters for a very long time,” said Coon.
Napoleon Dynamite offers such an abundance of one-liners, memorable scenes, it would have seemed that everyone who was a part of the film might have guessed they were working on a film that would become a hit. According to Coon, this was not the case. Napoleon was never expected to become the phenom it became. Coon said that he just wanted to learn about the film industry and hopefully return the money that his brother game him to finance the film. “If anybody were to say they expected the success from the film that we realized, they would be lying,” said Coon.
By 2003 Napoleon Dynamite became a cultural phenomenon. The film brought Utah/Idaho humor, lexicon and weirdness into the mainstream of the Hollywood and national spotlight. Nobody would have ever expected that jokes about chicken talons, nunchuck skills, and nerdy fighting brothers could be funny enough to make an entire movie. Nor could anyone have predicted that rural Idaho would make for the backdrop for a blockbuster movie that became a cult classic.
Coon said that after Napoleon he relocated to Los Angeles. He spent seven years there producing various film projects including Sasquatch Film, and Raiders, the story of the greatest fan film ever made. Coon has made his way back to Utah, where he resides with his wife and child. Jared Hess went on to write and direct Nacho Libre, Masterminds, and Gentlemen Broncos. Jon Heder had a stint working with other top Hollywood comedians such as Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory, and David Spade and Rob Schneider in Benchwarmers. In my opinion, he should have kept getting parts, he is a comedian who belongs in more films.
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Upcoming Event Napoleon Dynamite Screening in Utah
Friday, May 3rd the Utah Film Center will be offering a special screening of Napoleon Dynamite at East High School. Most of the actors who were a part of the film will be in attendance to answer questions and snap photos. “Not since the initial release at Sundance have so many cast members come back together,” said Coon. Tickets to the event can by found here.