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Napoleon Dynamite and Idaho

Jon Heder's Napoleon is from Idaho
Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
When you think of Idaho, you probably do not think much about movies and the billion dollar industry that is Hollywood. Big cities and other famous places across the world get movies made about them and in them (Strangely enough, Vancouver, Canada is one of the biggest places to make movies these days) but Idaho does not get much attention when it comes to the camera, with a few notable exceptions. There is one major movie that has seen a surprising about of success and which is all about Idaho. You may have heard about or seen the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite, a movie that has very little to do with 19th-century French generals or explosive material. If there is a quintessential film about the Idaho experience, it is Napoleon Dynamite, and I am here today to reveal some interesting facts and trivia about the creation of the movie and let you know all about why should watch and love this glimpse into Idaho life and the Idaho landscape captured on the big and little screen.

The mind behind the movie and the director behind the camera was Jared Hess, an Idaho native. A lot of his experiences are rolled up into the movie and Napoleon Dynamite never would have existed if he had not grown up in an Idaho town very similar to the one featured in the movie. Much of what happens over the course of the movie’s runtime happened during the director’s childhood, including the infamous scene where an old farmer shoots a cow in front of a school bus full of children. The reaction of the children in the movie was probably much the same as that of the children in the film; outright terror and surprise. One of the things a writer first learns when they start their craft is to “write what you know” and that is definitely what happened with Napoleon Dynamite. Jared Hess knew Idaho and he made that knowledge come out on the big screen. There were also some minor parts on the film for other natives of Idaho that had no part in the film industry. As you might expect, the cow I just mentioned a moment ago was a cow from a nearby farm that they brought in when their acting cow got held up somewhere else. Obviously, no cows were harmed in the making of that scene.

Pedro Sanches from Napoleon Dynamite
Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Movie Production – Napoleon Dynamite

The production of Napoleon Dynamite went through several different stages. At first, it was just a skit Hess put on in high school called “Peluca” that had a very similar character to that of the titular Napoleon. The actual film Napoleon Dynamite had a much smaller budget than most films with wide releases get. They had $200,000 dollars to make the whole movie work. Obviously, the minds behind the movie had great ambitions of getting major actors involved beyond some of the essential local roles that couldn’t have been filled by anyone who did not already know what the source material was based off of (Jonathan Heder, the BYU student actor who played Napoleon, was really the only option that made any sense), but some of the casting was definitely slapdash. The Napoleon Dynamite crew had a great casting director that found them some perfect characters, but it was definitely difficult to get some of the big names they might have wanted involved in a small production way out in the middle of Idaho. When the time came to get extras involved for some of the bigger scenes, Hess as director had to pull some quick moves to get the local population involved in the film. Eventually, once most of the filming was done, the film was picked up to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival, a major stepping stone toward any film’s success (It can basically create careers for filmmakers that are just starting out). The major companies Fox Searchlight and Paramount Pictures bought the film when they saw it at Sundance and from there it became a hit across the country. Many big-time actors and movie industry figures point to the movie as being quite successful and a benchmark for movies like it.

If you have not seen the movie itself, it is a hilarious picture of the character of Napoleon Dynamite’s life in small-town Idaho. Most of the movie was filmed in and around Preston Idaho and you can definitely get a picture of what the area looks like and what it might be like to go to high school in as small a town as Preston is. The town is definitely an Idaho town and Jared Hess did not pull any punches when it comes to showing what Idaho is like, both in its nature and its civilization. Beyond just being a look at Idaho life, it is a general look at what it is like to be lonely growing up and to not have a place in school as well as society at large. None of the main characters in the movie (Even those who have grown up and no longer attend the local high school) have a firm place in the local society and they tend to be ostracized by those around them, picked on and thought less of. Napoleon Dynamite is a film for the little guy, and many people can empathize with that. Those that cannot empathize can at least find some pure joy in just how funny the movie is and how it breaks the traditional forms of comedy.

Whether you love or hate the movie for its charm and inherent stupidity, you have to admit that Napoleon Dynamite showed off a lot of what it is like to live in Idaho. Jared Hess turned the absurdity nob up to eleven, but even then, the story of Napoleon is not that different from the story of many Idaho natives, especially if they did not quite fit in their hometown. If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it. At the very least, it is an experience.

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