How in the hell does a small, low-budget independent movie become a massive runaway blockbuster hit and pop-cultural landmark at once? While not an exact science, there are surely several different roads to success for each production. We’ve seen it in the past with My Big Fat Greek Wedding and several others. But what about Jared Hess’ viral cult classic Napoleon Dynamite? How does a first-time filmmaker restricted by a $400,000 budget and just 23 shooting days somehow manage to make a semi-autobiographical movie based on his own experiences and still strike such a major chord among the moviegoing masses?
Seriously, how did such a big-hearted underdog of a movie made on the fly become such a beloved comedic touchstone that spoke to an entire generation? After all, it’s extremely hard to make a bad movie. It’s damn a mini-miracle to make a good movie. Yet, for Napoleon Dynamite, its improbable once-in-a-lifetime success is akin to striking lightning in a bottle two times. So, then, precisely how does such a scrappy, DIY, PG-rated indie comedy become such an unforgettable cinematic phenomenon? Well, now that 20 years have passed since the movie was made, it’s time to sit back, strap in, and figure out WTF Happened to Napoleon Dynamite!
In 2002, a couple of years before the film was released, Napoleon Dynamite began as a student film project at Brigham Young University. At the time, aspiring filmmaker Jared Hess and actor Jon Heder, who plays Napoleon, met and collaborated on a nine-minute short film entitled Peluca (via Rolling Stone). The black-and-white short film laid the groundwork for the tone and tenor of the film, which features a stoic, deadpan, and awkward sense of humor. While Heder plays a character named Seth in Paluca, his physical appearance resembles what we all now recognize as Napoleon’s signature look – the outmoded clothing, the permed hair, thick glasses, the glazed-over facial expression, etc.
So right off the bat, we have a sort of dress-rehearsal training ground for the director and lead actor to establish their brand of quirky off-beat humor, hone their sensibility, get comfortable around a camera, and prepare for the feature-length version to come. Peluca not only helped Hess and Heder calibrate their collaborative creativity, but it also caught the attention of important film executives at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2003. While most of the scenes in Peluca made it into Napoleon Dynamite, one deleted sequence from the feature film involves Napoleon winning a $10 scratch-off lottery ticket that uses to purchase a $12 suit for the dance.
During the screening of Peluca at Slamdance, producer Jeremy Coon was so enamored with the project that he encouraged Hess to drop out of BYU film school and adapt the short into a feature-length film. Hess boldly agreed and Coon helped him find investors to back the project (via Desert News). At the time, Hess began sending out copies of the short film along with versions of a full-length screenplay that he wrote with his wife, Jerusha Hess, to various casting directors. It was a major risk for Hess to drop out of school to make his feature debut, especially since Jerusha was pregnant at the time.
The title of the film was changed from Peluca to Napoleon Dynamite, which, coincidentally, was a stage name used by Elvis Costello to promote his 1986 album, “Blood and Chocolate” and a moniker he’d been using as early as 1982. According to Coon, this was complete happenstance and the filmmakers were not made aware of Costello’s alias until two days remained in principal photography. Hess notes that had he known about Costello’s use of the name, he would have changed the title of the movie. Hess claims he came up with Napoleon Dynamite after meeting a man with the same in 2000 while doing missionary work in Illinois (via EW). Of course, in hindsight, it’s almost impossible to think of the movie being titled anything other than Napoleon Dynamite.
According to Hess, when he was shopping the project around, almost everyone felt the film was “too weird or just didn’t like the characters,” and the project struggled to find support as a result. Hess claims that Jake Gyllenhaal was suggested to replace Heder by one casting director, but Hess remained steadfast in the belief that the role was meant for Heder and Heder alone. While Hess ultimately got his way, Heder notoriously received a paltry payment of just $1,000 for his acting services in the film. For such an iconic performance that nearly dominates every frame of the film, one that went on to gross more than $46 million, mind you, that’s a goddamn slap in the face harder than Napoleon being bruised by a piece of steak. Fortunately for Heder, he had the good sense to renegotiate a much larger fee once the film became a breakout hit. By the way, Heder is not wearing a wig in the film. He permed his hair for the role and was forbidden from washing it for the duration of the film shoot. By the end of filming, the dude’s hair became incredibly foul from the sweltering summer heat.
While Jon Gries was eventually cast as Uncle Rico, Jason Lee was initially offered the role. Meanwhile, Jack Black and Brad Garrett almost played Rex, the crazy Rex Kwon Do martial arts trainer, but the role was ultimately given to Diedrich Bader, who filmed all of his scenes in one day. Garrett went so far as to audition for the role yet despite expressing how much he liked the script, he decided to bow out. Jack Black eventually went on to work with Hess on his follow-up film, Nacho Libre.
As for Pedro, played indelibly by Efren Ramirez, it’s worth noting that he was 31 years old at the time of portraying a high school student, while Heder was 26 at the time he portrayed the 16-year-old Napoleon. Interestingly enough, both Heder and Ramirez have twin brothers in real life. Stranger yet, the character of Napoleon’s older brother Kip, played by Aaron Ruell, is supposedly 16 years older than Napoleon in the movie but Ruell is only one year older than Heder in real life. Yet, thanks to the performances, all the characters are totally convincing.
Speaking of Ruell, he joined the project early on as a friend and fellow BYU classmate of Hess and Heder and contributed to the movie more than most people realize. For example, the tone-setting opening sequence featuring plates of food displayed in a manner that spells out the names of the cast members was performed by Ruell despite famed title designer Pablo Ferro earning credit. Far more than an aesthetic gimmick, the food items seen in the opening credits are consumed by various characters throughout the movie, giving the title sequence a thematic resonance that is easy to overlook.
In fact, the opening title sequence was actually created well after the movie was completed. The movie was originally made without a title sequence. When viewers expressed confusion over the movie’s timeline, the title sequence was created in the director of photography, Munn Powell’s basement, eight months after principal photography was completed. According to an interview with Art of the Title, Hess explained:
“So this question came up a few times and the Fox Searchlight marketing people were like “maybe we could do something to say that this is happening now” because I kept explaining to them that I grew up in a small town in Idaho and that things are more, you know, functional and fashion doesn’t matter as much … It’s kind of weird, but because they wanted to show that the film takes place now, there’s a title where a hand pulls Napoleon’s school ID out of a wallet and it says “2004.”
Originally, the new title sequence featured Heder’s hands revealing various items on the screen, such as Napoleon’s school ID. Believe it or not, this actually became a point of contention for Fox Searchlight, who felt that Heder’s hands were not aesthetically pleasing enough. As a result, one of the executives asked for the sequence to be re-shot with a goddamned hand model. According to Hess via Art of the Title:
“We actually had Jon Heder placing all the objects in and out [of frame], and then showed it to Searchlight who really liked it and thought it was great, but some lady over there was like “There are some hangnails or something – the hands look kinda gross! It’s really bothering me, can we re-shoot some of those? We’ll send you guys a hand model.” We were like “WHAT?!”. This, of course, was my first interaction with a studio at all, so they flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder. So we reshot, but they’re now intermixed, so if you look there are like three different dudes’ hands (our producers are in there too). It all worked out great, though, and was a lot of fun.”
Principal photography on Napoleon Dynamite began on July, 8 and ended on August 1, 2003, lasting only 23 days in the brutal summer sun. While making the movie, Hess turned just 24 years old, something not many people mention when discussing the movie. The film was shot on location in Preston, Idaho near the Utah border, an area Hess grew up in and was staunchly familiar with. Several locals from Preston and the surrounding towns were invited to participate as extras in the film, which helped to create a charming sense of authenticity. In fact, according to Rolling Stone, Hess claims the film is “so autobiographical,” adding:
“I grew up in a family of six boys in Preston, Idaho, and the character of Napoleon was a hybrid of all the most nerdy and awkward parts of me and my brothers growing up. Jerusha really was like Deb growing up. Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders.’ Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.”
Speaking of Hess’ mother, it’s worth noting that the adorable llama seen in the film is named Dolly and actually belonged to Hess’ mom in real life. Indeed, there’s a tactile, Do-It-Yourself approach to the film that allowed for genuine collaboration while making the movie. For example, Tina Majorino, who plays Deb Bradshaw in the movie, helped Heder choreograph his now-iconic dance moves in the showstopping finale. According to Heder, he also found inspiration for his awesome dance moves from Michael Jackson, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Backstreet Boys, and old Soul Train reruns.
Other examples of how tight-knit the production includes the movie being edited in Coon’s apartment with a $6,000 Mac computer and Final Cut Pro editing software. Additionally, Uncle Rico’s ex-girlfriend Tammy was portrayed by Aaron Ruell’s real-life wife. In between takes, Heder also helped to create the boondoggle keychains that Deb sells door to door in the film. As for Napoleon’s drawings, Heder did all of them himself with the exception of the farting unicorn in the opening sequence. For the post-credit wedding between Kip and LaFawnduh played by Shondrella Avery, the Black guests in attendance are Avery’s own family members. According to Hess, there aren’t many Black residents in Preston, if any, and so he invited Avery’s kin to participate in the scene to create a more diverse crowd.
Additional sequences in the film lifted directly from Hess’ own experience growing up in Preston include Napoleon dragging the toy wrestler behind the bus at the beginning, the farmer Lyle shooting a cow in front of a school bus full of children, the hysterical ChapStick phone conversation between Napoleon and Kip, and the ridiculous puffy-sleeve gag during the high-school dance. Even the silly time machine sequence was inspired by Ruell’s brother, who bought a similar device online in real-life. According to Reull in the Blu-ray commentary, all it took to convince his brother to buy the phoney time machine was sending him three $10 bills issued from different eras. Indeed, the specific brand of humor in the film comes from lived experience, which also makes the characters uniquely relatable.
To film Napoleon’s home, two different houses were chosen: one for the exterior and one for the interior. Deb’s photography studio in the film was shot inside the basement of the house used for the interior of Napoleon’s home. Speaking of Deb, actress Tina Majorino had a life-threatening peanut allergy while making the movie. Despite being tasked with eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the cafeteria scene, Majorino is really just eating a plain jelly sandwich on screen.
The part where Uncle Rico drills Napoleon in the face with a piece of stake took four takes to get right. Gries really threw the steak himself and Heder was struck so hard by the piece of meat that he sustained a sizable bruise on his nose. In fact, Heder was a real trooper throughout the production and endured several taxing physical blows on location. For instance, the scene where Napoleon falls to the ground while trying to climb a fence was performed by Heder without a stunt double, and landed so hard on the ground that the wind was knocked out of him. Moreover, in the making-of documentary for the film, Heder is seen taking all sorts of physical punishment at the hands of the schoolyard bully, Randy (played by Bracken Johnson). To his credit, Heder was a total pro and willingly leaned into his abused role as Napoleon, something that goes a long way in fostering a genuine sense of sympathy for the character.
The scene in which Napoleon slaps Kip in the living room took a total of five takes to nail. While harmless enough, the sequence involving Rex physically abusing Kip in the dojo was all too real. Bader hit Ruell quite hard for real while filming, and because Ruell had a pounding migraine that day, his pained reactions on screen are genuine as can be.
Speaking of Ruell’s on-screen reactions, the scene depicting Kip’s Tupperware durability experiment was done using two different methods. One included filling the Tupperware with cement and the other included keeping the Tupperware plastic. The take chosen for the final film was the one where the Tupperware breaks because of how much funnier Ruell’s reaction was.
Despite being set during the 2004-2005 school year, one of the things that makes Napoleon Dynamite feel so timeless is the strange anachronisms and retro stylings that take place in the film. There’s an overt throwback sense of style, fashion, and music that clearly resembles the 1980s and 1990s. Part of this was surely meant to depict how outdated and out of touch with contemporary reality the citizens of small-town Idaho were at the time. But it also helped to create a kind of retro-nostalgia for such bygone cultural technologies as VCRs, Walkmans, cassette tapes, dial-up internet, and the like. Between the somewhat ironic 80s soundtrack, Deb’s killer side ponytail, and Napoleon’s badass Moon Boots, the movie has a distinct stuck-in-the-past aura that somehow adds to the movie’s infectious appeal. Not for nothing, but the voice heard on D-Qwon’s instructional dance VHS was performed by Heder himself, a fun tidbit not many fans know about.
Of course, this all culminates in arguably one of the greatest final sequences ever filmed: Napoleon’s iconic dance performance!
According to Portland Monthly, the dance sequence was always conceived to be the final sequence in the film. Jared and Jerusha Hess knew that Heder loved to dance and decided to tailor the ending of the movie to his insatiable hobby. Per Heder in the interview:
“Jared’s wife was like, ‘Jon, I hear you’re a pretty good dancer. I’ve seen you boogie; it’s pretty sweet.’ “And I was like, ‘Well, I like to dabble.’ I liked to mess around sometimes in front of friends and dance. But I did take pride in it. I won’t be modest. I wasn’t great but I did like to mess around … Cut to two years later: after we had shot the short, they were like, ‘Okay we’re going to have you dancing in the movie as the climax. This is going to make or break the film.’”
The critical dance finale was scheduled to be filmed toward the end of the shoot. By this time, the production had run out of money and film stock and was left with only one roll of film to capture Napoleon’s dance. Think about that for a second. Hess and Heder only had 10.5 minutes to nail the final dance sequence before they ran out of film. And with no more money at their disposal, they could not reschedule the scene for a later time. The dance literally was make-or-break time for the entire production; one that not only paid handsome dividends in the end but has become one of the all-time great movie moments ever committed to celluloid.
According to Heder:
“It was a lot of pressure. I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene. This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory. He gets up there, and it’s quiet: no reaction from the audience.”
Heder adds that the dance was completely improvised on the spot with no pre-arranged choreography, stating “They were like, ‘No, Jon, just figure it out.’ So I just winged it. I danced three times and they took the best pieces from each of those.”
It’s true. Heder danced to three different songs on the day of filming and the final sequence in the film splices the best moves from each performance. The power of editing makes it look like one seamless dance routine played to one song, Jamiroquai’s 1999 single “Canned Heat.” Heder adds:
“When you’re shooting in independent film, you don’t know what you’re going to get the rights to,” Heder explained. “We thought Jamiroquai might be expensive. So we danced to three different songs. To that song and another Jamiroquai song, “Little L.” We danced to Michael Jackson, something off of Off the Wall. Just those three. And then we got the rights to Jamiroquai. And I think that was half our budget.”
Considering the entertainment landscape in 2023, it’s hard not to think of Napoleon Dynamite as a sort of pre-TikTok viral dance phenomenon that helped make such personal expressions so popular as a shared experience. For a movie about sort of being stuck in the past, perhaps the greatest legacy of Napoleon Dynamite is how it presaged the proliferating dance craze currently taking over the internet. The fact that TikTok is the official advertising sponsor of Napoleon’s iconic dance sequence on YouTube, which has over 8 million views by the way, is a delicious piece of irony lost on nobody.
Many fans of the film may not realize that the post-credit scene was not originally part of the movie and was added after the film scored such a major success at Sundance. Fox Searchlight re-edited the film and commissioned a 5-minute epilogue to conclude the film. Crazily enough, the wedding scene cost roughly $200,000 to produce, which amounts to about half of the movie’s original $400,000 budget. More trivially yet, the shots of Napoleon majestically arriving at the wedding via horseback is a direct homage to a similar scene in The Man From Snowy River, a beloved Australian romantic adventure, right down to the musical score by Bruce Rowland and the frilly costume Napoleon wears.
Now, coming full circle, the real question is how does a movie made so quickly and so cheaply by a first-time filmmaker become such a massive commercial success? Well, not to oversimplify, but the film tested through the roof during the film festival circuit, culminating in a torrid bidding war between Fox Searchlight and Warner Independent Pictures at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. At the last minute, Fox Searchlight purchased the rights to the film for a whopping $4 million, 10 times greater than the film’s budget.
Perhaps most importantly, the studio spent $3 million to market the movie. That’s simply unheard of for such a small movie made by an unproven filmmaker. The studio was so sure that they had a hit on their hands that they made sure to promote it as widely as possible. Fox Searchlight partnered with MTV Films and Paramount Pictures to distribute the film just 17 days before the film was released theatrically, which helped it reach as many viewers as possible (via Business Wire). Thanks to the $3 million marketing budget and cross-promotion on MTV, not to mention the rabid word of mouth coming out of Sundance, Napoleon Dynamite was poised to be more successful than anyone ever could have expected much less hoped for.
Napoleon Dynamite made its world premiere at The Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2004. Five months later, the film was released in theaters domestically on June 11, 2004. Even more improbable, despite an extremely limited release, the film caught on like wildfire from the beginning. Less than one year after the film hit theaters, it grossed a staggering $44.9 million before going on to amass a total of $46.1 million worldwide.
Of course, the cultural impact of Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t stop there. The film inspired a slew of merchandising, including T-shirts, Halloween costumes, refrigerator magnets, and other memorabilia. In 2007, the film inspired a poorly-received video game called Napoleon Dynamite: The Game, which was developed by 7 Studios and published by Crave Entertainment.
In 2012, a short-lived animated TV adaptation of Napoleon Dynamite was produced by Fox, featuring all of the main cast members reprising their original roles. Yet, despite scoring decent reviews and 5.8 million viewers per episode, the series was canceled after just six episodes. However, the series is currently available to stream on Hulu and can be purchased on DVD.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy Napoleon Dynamite can claim is the algorithm-busting phenomenon referred to as “The Napoleon Dynamite Problem.” The phrase refers to how difficult it is for streaming platforms to predict what a viewer likes to watch or what they think they will enjoy after watching Napoleon Dynamite. The movie is so quirky, off-beat, and hard to codify that it completely scrambles the predictive/suggestive algorithm formula and leaves fans of the film directionless as to what to watch next.
Following the release of the film in 2004, the town of Preston held an annual Napoleon Dynamite Festival during the summertime. While the festival only lasted from 2004 to 2008, such events inspired by the film included a Tether Ball tournament, Tater Tot eating contest, Moon Boot dance-off, Lookalike competition, Football Throwing contest, and more.
The state of Idaho even passed a bill lauding Jared and Jerusha Hess for bringing such widespread awareness to the small town of Preston. The bill specifically cited how the staff of Preston High School gained global notoriety for their appearances in the movie. The bill also praised the film for helping to popularize Idaho tater tots, the state’s biggest export.
Adding to the film’s legacy, a potential sequel has been discussed since at least September 2020 (via Hyperbeast). Although Heder has expressed interest in reprising the role, he believes the future of Napoleon Dynamite would be much darker, stating:
“I feel like the future for Napoleon would be a lot more raw and edgy. So whatever he comes up with would be fun to explore, because I think whatever Jared comes up with wouldn’t be your typical, ‘Let’s do a sequel where they all look the same and they all act the same.’ I think it would be an interesting development in their lives.”
According to Movieweb, Ramirez came up with his own impromptu script for Napoleon Dynamite 2, in which his character Pedro owns a bakery and is now married to Summer, with whom he shares five children. Meanwhile, Kip realized his dream of becoming a cage fighter, while Uncle Rico is up to a new get-rich-quick scheme.
As recently as January 2023, Heder assured fans that a Napoleon Dynamite sequel is all but “inevitable,” suggesting how much of an appetite for the character audiences still have 20 years later. Let us know below if Napoleon Dynamite 2 is something you’d want to see in the future.
So yeah, that’s kinda WTF Happened To Napoleon Dynamite. Jared and Jerusha Hess took a gamble by making a small independent movie based on their own hometown experiences and the film paid massive dividends for all involved. Thanks to the memorable turn by Jon Heder and the immense marketing resources from Fox, MTV, and Paramount, the film was able to out-grasp its own modest reach as the little indie that could and shattered the glass ceiling to become a bona fide blockbuster. It’s rare when a movie is both a commercial hit and a cult classic at once. Yet, Napoleon Dynamite is truly one of a kind.