This week on the podcast, we're highlighting director Jared Hess's career and success patterns. As I'm sure you know, his first feature film, Napoleon Dynamite, was a cult classic and huge box office success. It's an excellent case study worth replicating as you develop your own first feature film.
Jared Hess attended the same film school as us (BYU), and as such, we were fortunate enough to have some interactions together and learn details about his first feature experience that are surprisingly not widely known or available on the internet. We're so excited to share his story and advice with you today, and hope it will inspire you as it inspired us.
We intentionally created the Success Patterns series of our podcast to motivate you with the plethora of examples of successful filmmakers who exemplify the model we teach in our program. They all made low-budget first feature films, pulling a lot of their own resources. They didn't have prior industry connections or advantages, and yet, were able to launch extremely successful careers for themselves in this industry. Enjoy!
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Okay, welcome to the podcast today. This episode is going to be about Jared Hess. who's the director of films like Napoleon dynamite, nacho Libra, masterminds, and the current Netflix. Murder among the Mormons was his, I think his most recent work. But before we get into that, we wanted to update you a little bit on the film that we are currently making. And, we have a trailer that is. Really close to being all finished up and we're going to start sending that out soon. And the film itself, we are. Cutting more than we thought we could cut because we've been getting a lot of really helpful feedback from people that we've been sending it out to fellow filmmakers, people. Not in film. Professors and we're getting really good feedback. I'm feeling really encouraged about the potential of this film. I think it's going to do well. I'm really happy to be getting that feedback. Definitely. We have been able to cut. What 30 minutes in the last month, probably from the film. Oh, yeah. We're 20 to 25 minutes. Yeah. So. So now we're about an hour and a half, which is about what we wanted. So I think right now it's sitting at exactly 95 ish pretty good. That's pretty good. So that's coming together and we're getting ready to lock and put it through the next stage of post. The effects and color and sound mix and everything else.. We have a composer on board. We're getting really close with other, team members, getting those all locked in and, and we have some really talented people that are. Working on and, and, looking at working on, those, those things. So in our case, We didn't have all that lined up beforehand, but, but we're really happy with how that's coming together as well. So I'm really hopeful and, Encouraged. Yeah. I mean, we might try to submit to some festivals here in the spring. I think the only thing that might slow us down is money. We are thinking we might go try to raise some more funds to finish the film, which I think will be easier to do on the backend. Now that a lot of the risk is gone in that we have the completed projects. So you can watch it. So this all sounds kind of funny, but I think with the first features, that's a common tale that a. There's some financial raising of money on the backend. it doesn't have to be that way honestly, but, the nature of ours was that the script wasn't even finished. So our budget wasn't as precise as it will be in the future. As well, and we, yeah. We had people who are willing to purchase more shares than we even had available on the front end. But we were trying intentionally to keep it very low budget as a strategy to make a high profit, for our investors. So we are still, I think, going to do that in the end, we'll probably sell some of our own shares, our sweat equity that we maintained just to make the project even better. Yeah. Well, getting, giving you guys a really transparent behind the scenes. Look at, our post-production and distribution approach and, equity financing and whatnot. but on that note, we, we mentioned earlier that we wanted to talk today about Jared Hess, who is, he did a lot of the same things, not, I mean, not exactly the same things we just mentioned, but the same things that we have experienced and the things that we advocate a lot here at the film and family academy. Regarding how to approach a first feature film and how to approach a feature film career. If it's what you want to do to make movies for a living this whole series. We have as part of our film and family podcast, we have a series called success patterns, which is all about. Filmmakers that, you know, And how they used. Sort of a low to no budget feature, film, debut. To show what they could do and to get their career started. And I think a lot of us delay that step, but we really believe. That it's a necessary step if that's what you want to do for career. And Jared's a great example of that. We wanted to go into his story. Yeah, absolutely. And Jared went to the same school as we did, brigham young university we have met him and his wife. A few times and heard their story. And I actually thought his story was pretty common knowledge, probably because of that., but upon doing research for this podcast, I realized that a lot of historians not. Easy to find on the internet. so we're going to share that here in the podcast. So you guys can learn from it as well. Jared and his wife co-wrote this script and they had only made short films beforehand. By the script. I mean, Napoleon dynamite, which was his first feature. Yeah. And, and the short film they made beforehand, when it was called And it was just like a sort of silly little short film that was about the same titular character and appoint dynamite. And, I think in the short film is pretty much just them hanging out and. Like stealing from a thrift store. And I dunno, it's very similar to Napoleon dynamite. Just even. But yeah, it's even like slower and kind of like more simple. And yet it was. It did well. And people really liked the short and they decided they were going to make a feature. And wrote it and decided to shoot it in his hometown of. Uh, Preston Ida. Preston Idaho. That's right. Yeah. So this was largely autobiographical and he really was pulling from his own family stories, his own. High school stories. He filmed in his own high school. You know, they had. People sleeping on the couches of friends that they'd grown up with to get them out there and have them have a place to stay. They shot at the chicken farm or whatever that his brothers used to work at. Yeah. So it was all like local connections. There's that guy who shoots the cow by the bus. Yeah. And that was actually his neighbor. And all the costumes, his wife found at thrift stores on the way there in between Utah, where they went to school and Idaho, where they filmed the movie, they stopped at all the thrift stores and she found all the costumes. along the way. And so one of the interesting thing is, they had. From my understanding that I've read and. And gone from him is, is that there was one equity investor and. And we bring that up because it's something that I think most of us are stuck on. We get stuck on it and I. Sometimes we talk about how money doesn't really matter in art and in movies and stuff, but it's very hard to make movies without money. But I truly believe it doesn't require as much as we sometimes think. And, and sometimes it doesn't require any at all, depending on what you're making. But in their case, they raised, $200,000 from the producer's brother who had had like a really successful, like early.com boom business. You know, this is early, early two thousands. And, And they shot on. I wouldn't even call it raised. They secured those. Yeah. It's not raising cause they, you know, The film. Yeah, Kickstarter didn't exist. They didn't really get paid to make the film. John Heeter got paid a thousand dollars. The role. Yep. Of course he doesn't mind. Well now he's yeah, he's making way more than that. Well, especially during the two thousands and 2000 tens, he had a very. Sort of flash in the pan. Fruitful career. Yeah. Yeah. Heater to, the quote was that his brother who, so the producer of Napoleon Dynamite's brother who funded the film said no matter what happens, we're still brothers. But don't ever ask me for money again. I said, if I don't make my money back, just don't ever ask me for my, again. He said, which I thought was kind of funny, but it was, you know, that's sometimes how we feel going into stuff like this. But my point that I was going to make on it was, you know, they shot this movie using a lot of the resources that they had. They did bring in one or two actors, I think from, from LA, I know that uncle Rico was an actor from Los Angeles, but he wasn't like big name, talent or anything that was going to cost tons and tons of money. They want to Jack Black. Yeah. But he, he didn't want to do that. I don't know, but he did the next one, which was Napoleon dynamite. Naturally Raymond to say. And then, But then they shot it on 35 millimeter film. And so I truly believe that Napoleon dynamite could be made today. On an even smaller budget. And I think that. Inflation. Not withstanding. I still think it would be smaller and you could make it today. That's not to say like that they weren't thrifting and that they weren't like super creative filmmakers. I'm just saying that. Even for us today, there's never a better time to make a, a chief first feature. Yeah. Film is extremely expensive and most of us don't. Face that same obstacle anymore. Like celluloid. Yes. Yes. They have to pay to develop and you have to pay how, you know, for exactly how much you use. You can't just go back and delete. And free up space or drop cards. Errors are much more fatal. Like. You know, you flash a can of film and it's. Gun owners, you know, it's that's, I think it's even more dangerous than like losing a hard driver. mag in today's digital world. Um, nothing against shooting on film. I'm just saying for introductory filmmakers, that's not a necessity. You can shoot digitally and it's wonderful. Yeah, but in the end, I mean, it worked out really well. So if you guys don't know the numbers, I'll give you a quick little overview. The film cost $200,000 to make. And it's sold. To Fox Searchlight, it got into Sundance, right? The paramount. That's it. Paramount. So you can tell that. deal. They did together. Well, paramount, I believe bought it. It got into a bidding war at Sundance. We'll get more into the Sundance story, but it got into a bidding war and it's sold from. Multiple millions of dollars. And grossed $42 million in theaters, which of course. Paramount made, but they, they distributed it through MTV. Yeah. because they weren't even going to distribute it at first. My understanding that I've heard from a professor of mine, this is, so this is hearsay, but my understanding was that. It was defensive buy. They bought it. As a defensive bike against another movie that was going to be released. And then someone from MTV said, No. I know exactly how to market this film and it has an audience and we could make money on it. And it may have never come out after getting acquired at Sundance. Had it not been for MTV, distributing it in theaters and. Making like over 40 million and then with merge and DVD sales, which also went gangbusters. I think the movie is. Had a lifespan gross so far. Almost half a billion dollars. I mean, it's. The point dynamite became a real. Cult classic to say the least to me, it was a cultural. Doozy. It was big. Uh, phenomenon and it really paved the way for a lot of films that came after it that were similar low budget comedies, like almost rebranded Sundance as a festival. I feel like the sunshine. A lot of. Once that followed shortly after even John heater, like did a movie with will Ferrell. after that. And will Farrell told him, he said, well, you've changed things. Like basically, you've, you've carved out a very new, strong niche in the world of comedy. The first several years become cult classics way later in the game. And this one was immediately. Instant classic. It was really kind of interesting what they did there. I do want to disclaim here. Napoleon dynamite. I've heard it described by other independent filmmakers as is what would be called a freak of nature. It was so successful and you don't need your first film to be that successful. It is such a cool story. He's probably, it's probably the most successful first film of almost anyone else will ever cover on this podcast, including way bigger directors in terms of the scale of the movies they're making now and the scale of their careers now. Jared has. In terms of money, which isn't, everything is not Christopher Nolan. Right. And we'll do an episode on Christopher Nolan, but. but his first feature was way bigger than. Like anyone else's first feature that we would ever cover on, on the show, because it's just the biggest, first feature in history. I feel like, in terms of these low to no budget cheap. Totally independent first features. I'm not talking about first features of people who like are already in the Hollywood system when they make a movie, like with all that backing, considering that they had no big name talent. Yeah. You know, no huge people attached to the film and that it was just this little, like he made it with his resources and his hometown. Kind of film. The relative return on investment was extremely. I wonder if it's the greatest relative return on investment in history. I mean, like for the amount that it cost, the amount that it sold for and the amount that it's grossed in terms of theatrical, DVD and merchandising. It's it's insane. But my point once again, is. No one's first feature needs to even come remotely close to that, to kick off a feature filmmaking career to take you out of. Paying your bills with commercials or wedding videos, or I don't know, teaching or whatever you do, all of which are great. They're great things. But if you want to make feature films for a living. You don't need to make deploying dynamite. However, everyone I know, puts an appoint dynamite on their comps. Like when they make pitch decks and they have to create comps, like they're all like, well, Napoleon time, I only cost this much and look how much it made. It's a great comp it's just like our movie, you know? No one can really calm. Dynamite. Because it's like trying to say like once lightning struck here, so it's a good place to stand, to get struck by lightning, you know, it's. You'll stand there for a very long time. Like, so, it's a good example of what's possible though. Yeah, I think it, it is really impressive what they were able to do, even with the money that they had, you know, their production designer. I think he said he had $2,000, for the whole entire films. Budget. And he got, I mean, He, or she, maybe it's a sheet. Whoever it was got really creative with the production design, you know, all the like tater tots and catch-up plates that they did with the credits and title sequence. Did they do that? That was incredibly couldn't have done that title sequence in production. I have to go back and watch like what the credits were. It was in post. Maybe they did that later. It is maybe one of, I think it might be my favorite opening title, credit sequence of all times. Very good. So good. but yeah. And whether you like an employment dynamite or not, a lot of people really don't like that movie. it's so. What it is, and it's so confident in it's self. Like it's it's. You know, if you're not repelling people, you're not attracting people. And, and it's so, and that's what great that's, what's so great about independent films is that they can do things that are way bolder and more unique than a lot of Hollywood pictures, which now there's lots of Hollywood pictures like Napoleon dynamite, but there were none before. I think it's also a great example of what independent filmmaking is like, if you kind of are aware of some of the behind the scenes stories of how they made these scenes work and often the things that are creative challenges turn into the greatest parts of the film. For example. In this film, they talked about the dance scene, the final dance that he does in front of the whole school to kind of stand up for his friend, Pedro I think pedro's running for student body president. And he has to do like an artistic performance. And Pedro was like, I didn't prepare a. That's great. Like, Artistic presentation or a dance or anything. So the dance is ad-libbed supposedly, but it actually was kind of ad-libbed in the film. They were counting on him to come up with his own choreography. He did get a little bit of help from the the actress who plays Deb, who. Taught, I think preschool dance or something. So they put some moves together, but it really was not choreographed. A lot of it was just him goofing off. To the music. They, they only had 10 minutes of film left and this is like the final scene of the movie. Everything's kind of riding on it. And. He went up there and they said, we're going to play three songs, three different songs, because we don't know if we can get rights to any of the songs. So maybe that increases our chances of getting rights to one of them, which they did end up getting rights to one. Of the actual songs. They. Used in the movie. I've heard. Budget of the film? Well, I dunno. I've heard funky stories about the rights to music and that they submitted without rights and the, to Sundance, to Sundance. And then when acquisition happened, they, they basically didn't have like theatrical or like full rights to any of the music. I'm not sure how true that is. Taken with a grain of salt, but I'm not sure they actually had all the rights, like totally secure. And they use a lot of music in that movie. Yeah. Like a lot of like eighties pop songs and stuff. Well, and I guess this is one of the difficulties of sharing. Some of. Jared has his story as word of mouth, is that we may not get all the facts. Correct. So we'll do the best we can. To share with you. What we understand. So anyway, they cut. What you see now is the dancing from those three different takes to different songs. And a lot of it was kind of made up on the spot and it worked really well, and it felt believable that he was kind of up there. With some experience, practicing, dancing in his room, making up something on the spot. And I think. It's one of those things where sometimes reality is better than fiction. It's like, When you can have somewhat of a documentary element he's filming, like at his actual high school, with his actual neighbor, with his actual hometown and the jobs that his brothers actually did. It brings this element of realism that I think makes the comedy works so well. Um, in this film and can make any film work really well because you can tell a story that's unique to how you grew up and what your resources are. And that's intriguing, you know, because it's real, it's not. You trying to tell a story about something, you know, nothing about, which happens a lot in Hollywood. And then we're like, ah, I don't think you've actually been apparent. It doesn't seem like, you know what it's like to actually raise children. The hardest part for you is changing the diaper cause they pee on you. Yeah. That's nothing. Yeah. It's, you know, So as an example, No point Ima has nothing to do with no. Not that I could read maybe on some great metaphorical reading, but you know, you talked about why that helped make the comedy work. And I think another thing that really helped to make the comedy work was. It was my understanding is Jared has saw the movie gates of heaven. By Earl Morris, which was a documentary about pet cemeteries and Erin Morris had actually developed this sort of comedic cinematic graphic style with a cinematographer. And I think he went through several before you found a cinematographer that could create this sort of. Interesting approach to interviews using really flat space and using sort of the, the me's onset of these. Documentary subjects houses. And kind of, you know, putting all the weird little props and things that all their idiosyncrasies kind of featured in like a single interview setup. And they developed that style so much. And I think Jared has. Saw that in film school and. Really pulled heavily from that, visual style to create. The look of Napoleon dynamite, which I think lends itself. Heavily to the, to what makes the comedy work and employment dynamite so well, and once again, I think that that, that visual style has become super popularized by people like. Like Wes Anderson now. What's Anderson's is an identical style, but they're in the same wheelhouse for sure. But I wouldn't say that Jared pulled that from west. I think he pulled it from Earl Morris and, and it's just a Testament to show how, when you start to become more media literate, it really lends itself to your filmmaking when you're not just trying to make the next cool Indiana Jones movie that everyone's seen. You're actually watching. All sorts of film, all sorts of things. And you might think that like, Documentaries might not inform the next great comedic piece of genius, but I mean, Go watch gates of heaven. It you'll see it. And it's a gates of heaven is a pretty interesting. Pretty funny film. For a documentary about. The pet barrel industry. So anyway, we talk a lot about resource filmmaking and to me, your intellectual resources are part of that. And so intellectual resources are boundless. You know, you know, one has to invest in you with money or whatever. Film school can sometimes be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. And film education can be. Super cheap. I would once again, advocate for things like libraries and books and movies that you can check out from libraries and borrow from your friends. It used to be, they had to chase like rolls of film. Around before, like the home video industry existed. To watch, classic films. And so now you have access to so many. International films and even small, indie films, it's just so accessible with the internet. And I love that most of the directors that we talk about. Have films like that, they have films, they were heavily influenced by. And those who have seen the films can see that strong influence. But a lot of people haven't seen those films, you know, we'll talk about Damien Chazelle and how he. Was strongly influenced by umbrellas of Cherbourg in many ways. Lala land is. Americanized version. Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And Borg. I think that's. Great honestly, that they can bring these films to the attention of viewers that we otherwise might not even know exists by making their own kind of. Version or something in the same style. As filmmakers they love who, whose style has kind of disappeared. Yeah. And it's not what makes the movie great, but it's part of it. You know, it's an element, it's, it gives it a richness and a. An intelligence. That maybe wouldn't exist without that degree of literacy. And so we should really be the most. Literate generation of filmmakers ever, which I don't think is always the case, but. We can be, you know, we have so much access to intellectual resources. I also love about Jared has, is that he worked with his wife. On. Well, almost all of their projects they would write together. And then she did the costumes on Napoleon dynamite. But. I just think it's interesting with the podcast, like film and family to see. How much they were able to work together and continue to work together. a lot of the interviews that I saw. We're both of them talking about films and she's now gone on to direct her own film and kind of, you know, they're doing some Nickelodeon stuff. They're kind of doing some of their own things and branching out, but. I do think it's good to find people like that, that you can work with. And it might be someone you're married to, or it might be just friends from film school, which I'm sure they had as well on set. Who. You can feel comfortable enough to say. Well, I don't have like nice hotel for you to stay in, but I can pay you a thousand bucks and you can sleep on my couch. Yeah, my mom's house or something. And. I don't know, it'll be kind of fun and maybe it'll be good. So you got to find people like that your first time around, I think who are willing to be like, okay, yeah, I can roll with that. You know? I don't need a five star hotel. I don't need like everything to be perfect. Industry standard, whatever. It's. I even think roll with that as an idiom that comes from film, maybe. Probably. But I, I think we'll end the podcast with a little word from Jared Hess, himself talking about his approach, which we really like, because it's exactly what we teach. And we feel like it's one of the best ways. For someone who does not have tons of money or industry connections, or any advantages of those type to break into this industry. And it's just becoming more and more possible with the democratization of. Gear and the internet and all these resources. Yeah, the whole medium here's Um, someone asking him what advice he would give and, and we'll let you listen to that. Just wanted to ask you kind of the aspects of filmmaking as a young filmmaker, myself. What are some like tips or something that you would have for local filmmakers or just filmmakers in general? You know, I think. I know a lot of people that have scripts or ideas. Where they're like, man, I'm going to need 10 or 20 or $30 million to pull it off. And they ended up sitting at a project for a long time and not doing anything because they've written something too big. For the resources that we have at the time. And I would say. You know, technology so affordable now to make a film that writes something. You think your resources that you know well that you can start shooting tomorrow. I think, you know, People just wait too long. For the perfect project and then never make a movie. So I would say, do something that you can do now. Awesome. So don't be scared. It's basically what you're saying. Don't be scared and, um, And I think. Writing something with limited. Budget and resources makes you be more creative anyway. Awesome. So, and then when it comes to, I mean, right now, it's awesome. Cause I feel like these films are starting to get the recognition. I mean, you're not, I mean, I love these movies. I hope you don't take this as a role play. I mean, they're just not, you know, the mainstream. They're awesome. I mean, that's what we love about him. So, but with, you know, west Anderson, starting to get recognition and things like that, or do you have hopes that maybe sometime I'm sure every filmmaker does, but do you feel like these indie type films are, are starting to hit in that direction where they're starting to get noticed and get the recognition they deserve? Yeah. You know, I think a lot of films. Um, just with video on demand and being able to access things online so easily now. Um, you know, your people are being exposed to a lot more different filmmaker voices that they may be. Wouldn't have been exposed to before. Um, and so, you know, I think the internet. Just being able to stream and download things. Um, is broadening peoples palette. Of of film in a way where before they may have just watched what was being programmed on cable. So, yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much for your insight and good luck on your movie. Okay. I think we'll leave you with that. Go look at what your resources are and make a movie. Awesome. See you next time. Bye.