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  • 12.18.15

“Don Verdean” and “Napoleon Dynamite” Creator Jared Hess On Character-Based Movies

As his idiosyncratic latest comes out, Jared Hess talks to Co.Create about what goes into creating the kooky people who populate his films.

“Don Verdean” and “Napoleon Dynamite” Creator Jared Hess On Character-Based Movies

There’s a reason most of Jared Hess’s films share titles with their lead characters. It’s because these films are meticulously constructed vehicles for unique personalities who are often more engaging than the situations in which they find themselves.

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Jared Hess and Jerusha HessPhoto: Carlo Allegri, Getty Images

Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentleman Broncos all share a certain sensibility and homespun charm, but more than that, they all feature characters so fully realized and inhabited they practically jut out of the screen. Hess writes each of his creations with his wife, Jerusha, and directs them himself. Before one word is written down, however, the pair have hours of conversations mapping out every detail about the people at the center of their developing story. It shows in the execution.

In the new Don Verdean, Sam Rockwell plays the eponymous biblical archeologist who may be past his sell-by date in terms of fame, and thus resorts to some questionable activities. Rockwell, who also executive produced, is joined by an equally impressive coterie of performers, including Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, and Danny McBride. Each of them also play characters who feel as lived in as any of the strivers who populate Coen Brothers movies. As Don Verdean debuts, and with Hess’s directorial follow-up, Masterminds, set to come out in 2016, Co.Create talked to the filmmaker about the keys to creating distinctive characters.

Start With The Character’s World And Work Inward

“Sometimes a story will come when you’re very early in the writing process, or you’ll come up with a character that you like and then you try and discover what his story is and what he’s about. The world of Biblical archeology, which was something I got interested in, is really funny to me—just the idea that people with no credentials are going out to the Middle East with a Bible trying to find Noah’s Ark and other things. Yeah, it just seemed like a world that was ripe for comedy. So and then learning about some of these archeologists and coming up with their own character.”

What’s In a Name

“The character names for me are super duper important. That’s one of the first things that I would do. And this one was so weird. It’s tough, people will be like wait, what movie are you working on? I’m like, ‘It’s called ‘Don Verdean.’ I got the name from, a good friend of mine, his mom’s name is Verdon. But yeah, character names are important and I couldn’t come up with a title that seemed to make more sense than this. Biblical Archeologist seemed too long.”

The Voice and Clothes Make The Man

“From a process stand point, I feel like I can’t write any dialogue or anything until I know exactly what kind of clothes they wear, how they talk, and what their voice sounds like. That’s crucial for me. So much of it is inflection and execution and that’s why things become funny. To me it’s the way that their voices sound and how their lines are being delivered. We don’t really write a lot of jokes, I guess, it’s more in the minutia of how the characters talk. I also tend to get caught up in the minutia of clothing details. I’ve got some old JC Penny catalogues laying around the house. But yeah, we have a lot of clothing discussions on our home. Jerusha was the costume designer on Napoleon. After we know what they look and sound like, then it’s figuring out their history up to that point, as it pertains to the film.”

Start With An Actor In Mind

“I knew immediately that I wanted Sam Rockwell to play Don Verdean and knew that Jemaine Clement was going to be Boaz. And I really wanted Amy Ryan to be Carol. And we got lucky with the availability of Will Forte and Danny McBride and Leslie Bibb. They were all available. We shot the whole film in twenty-five days and so we were lucky to get them out to Utah for a couple of days to film. Danny comes from a religious family and he was like “I’m excited to tell my mama I’m playing a preacher in this film.” Sometimes the characters change once the actors are on board, though.

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This was the second time I worked with Jemaine Clement, he was in my film Gentlemen Broncos, and initially I wanted Jemaine to speak with his normal kiwi, New Zealand accent and he was like ‘No, I think I want to try this other thing. I think it would be cool if I did this weird Hebrew guy thing.’ And then he sounded like Lurch from The Addams Family. He’s got such a deep voice. But it totally worked. Things like that are unexpected but make the movie funnier.”

Napoleon Dynamite, 2004Photo: courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Write What (Meaning “Who”) You Know

“If you come to any of our family parties, you’ll see most of the characters that are in our films. After my mom saw Napoleon Dynamite, for instance, she said ‘That was a bunch of embarrassing family material.’ I have five younger brothers and most of what Napoleon says is a direct transcript of conversations we had when we were teenagers. My brother called me one time and asked me to bring him his chapstick ’cause his lips hurt really bad. I mean that whole film is very autobiographical. My wife comes from a family where she is the only girl and has seven brothers, and together we dumped our whole lives dumped up to that point into that film.”

Nacho Libre, 2006Photo: courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Start With a Minor Public Figure And Fictionalize

“I had seen these old lucha libre films late at night on Univision, and the style was just so mind-blowing to me, they were like horror fantasy films. I didn’t really understand what it was and I didn’t even know if they were really wrestlers. But I was a fan of that world and when I learned that Paramount and Nickelodeon had the rights, it was loosely based on a true story of a real Mexican priest that was moonlighting as a wrestler for an orphanage, I wanted to do it. We started with the basic true story and we went down and actually met the wrestler, Friar Storm, and there actually wasn’t anything too great that lended itself to a film. So we definitely had a lot of fun with the material and the world that we created for it.”

Gentlemen Broncos, 2009Photo: courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Side Characters and Extras Are Just As Important

“I spend just as much time developing the side characters. Every character is just super important for however little time that they are on screen. Leslie Bibb and Danny McBride aren’t in Don Verdean that much but they definitely leave an impression. Extras to me are really important too. I like to hand-pick authentic faces that you wouldn’t normally see in films, with people that seem real and unique and like they have a story. I like to think that watching one of our films that you would want to know more about everyone you see.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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