Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Jared and Jerusha Hess

Plucky 'Broncos'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Jared Hess, 30, and Jerusha Hess, 29, met in film class at Brigham Young University and together wrote a little independent movie called Napoleon Dynamite, which Jared directed. Released in 2004, the movie was a once in a lifetime success story, earning a genuine cult following and inspiring a generation of dialogue-quoters and "Vote for Pedro" t-shirt wearers. Hollywood loved it too, and it wasn't long before the Hesses were in charge of a summer blockbuster, Nacho Libre (2006). Despite considerably less flattering reviews, the film went on to gross over $80 million, more than doubling its production budget. Both films contained the same kind of off-kilter rhythms and dry, almost cruel humor that fans seem to love. Their new film, Gentlemen Broncos is even more complex in the plot department but still hangs onto these unique rhythms. Michael Angarano stars as Benjamin, a home-schooled teen who is also a burgeoning sci-fi writer. His widowed mom (Jennifer Coolidge) sends him to a writer's camp, where he submits his manuscript, an epic called Yeast Lords, to a contest to be judged by his hero, published author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). Lacking in new material, Chevalier senses the greatness of Yeast Lords and steals it for himself. Meanwhile, Benjamin's new friends Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Héctor Jiménez) offer to make a low-budget film of the manuscript and Benjamin watches as they makes a royal hash out of it; we also see "footage" from the "real" Yeast Lords, played out as a slightly more expensive sci-fi epic starring Sam Rockwell as hero "Bronco." The Hesses recently journeyed to San Francisco and took time out to sit down with Greencine for a discussion about the film.

Combustible Celluloid: Let's start with the title. Where did Gentlemen Broncos come from?

Jared Hess: The title came from a child-rearing book called, "So You Want to Raise a Boy" that my mom had.

Jerusha Hess: That both of our mothers had.

Jared: I come from a family of six boys and she has seven brothers, and is the only girl.

Jerusha: They needed the book.

Jared: So it was like this old book that this guy wrote, and he refers to each adolescent stage.

Jerusha: There was one, "freewheeling at 15" about getting your license. You're so excited to drive.

Jared: And in one chapter there was one called the "gentlemen bronco."

Jerusha: And that stage is when boys get their... when their man spread starts to come in, they take off their shirts and they just strut around.

CC: That never happened to me, that stage.

Jared: It was this guy's theory. The book was written in the 1950s. Not with my body. I didn't do that at all.

CC: There was something very briefly in the movie about home schooling. Is that a theme?

Jared: Yeah. Totally. We don't spend too much time on it obviously. I grew up with friends that were home-schooled, and we're actually right now home-schooling our kid because we travel so much.

Jerusha: We gently, gently poke fun at home-schooling. We're such fans and supporters of it, but there is a stigma, and it's a funny stigma.

CC: The stigma is that they're socially repressed because they don't have anybody to play with?

Jared: Exactly. They don't have any social skills...

Jerusha: But they're really smart. They might be wiping their bums with cut-up sheets. Jared's home-school friends growing up, they were a big eco family. They had rolled up little sheets in a basket.

Jared: It was weird. They would wash 'em, but they wouldn't bleach 'em. It was sick. I don't know, man.

Jerusha: That was a real side point. I'm sorry.

CC: Yuck. OK. Moving on. What were the benefits of shooting at home, in Utah?

Jerusha: We got to go home and have dinner every night. We also provided work for a lot of locals. They loved it. Some of them told us that they would have done it for free.

CC: I was laughing a lot at this movie, and I was laughing at the quality of your writing. I have been trying to figure out how to describe it. The best I can come up with is that you like stuff that you yourselves find funny. For example, there's a scene on the bus in which Tabatha asks Benjamin to massage her hands, and then Lonnie starts moaning in her ear for no reason!

Jared: That scene is something that kind of happened to me.

Jerusha: You didn't have the moaning.

Jared: Well... I had the ear blowing. It's all very autobiographical. I was going from Idaho to a Shakespearian festival in Southern Utah with a bunch of thespians. I didn't know too many people; I had just moved into town. I was sitting next to this girl and this guy and that started to happen. She didn't ask me to massage her hand or anything, but there was blowing in the ear and weird crap. The kind of crap that happens in the back of band busses.

Jerusha: So she blew in your ear?

Jared: No she didn't blow in my ear, he blew in her ear. And then everyone thought I was weird because I was part of this ménage-a-tois. Just because they were sitting by me. And so that's where that comes from. It's very autobiographical.

CC: Even so, it's a gift to be able to take the stuff you've heard in real life and be able to translate it so that it sounds like movie dialogue and that it's funny.

Jerusha: And then string it along so that they work in a story. I don't know how to do that very well!

CC: No, you do! But it's not easy and it takes a special ear, and you two have it together somehow.

Jerusha: We hear it. We hear the rhythm of it. We know that this line is funny if you take out this word. I think it's a rhythmic thing.

Jared: Part of it ends up being direct transcripts of family members or things that have happened and our family members... it's not scientific.

Jerusha: I think we are pretty smart, Jared. I'm trying to get that out there.

Jared: No. We just remember the details that are important to us.

Jerusha: Jared's got a real humility schtick going.

CC: There's one scene, just after the snake poops all over Mike White, and Jennifer Coolidge says something about getting some "paper towel." Not "paper towels" with an "s" on the end. It was such a small thing, but so funny!

Jared: That was her. She's weird. She just said, [launches into perfect Jennifer Coolidge voice] "I'm going to go get some paper towel." And I kept telling her, "Jennifer, no, no, no. It's paper towels." And she's like, "I got it. I got it. Let me get you some paper towel." It was weird. And another moment like that was in the scene where Jemaine is doing the Q&A thing. I was like, "Jemaine, here you're going to say 'Isn't that why we do what we do, dagnabbit.'" 'Cause "dagnabbit" was a word that my dad would to say all the time, like "Dagnabbit, honey, these boys need to clean up the kitchen!" Or whatever. I told Jemaine to say that, but in the moment, he was like "Isn't that why we do what we do, dagnammit." He changed the "nabbit" to "nammit." And he didn't mean to. He just said it because he'd never heard it before. But it's "dagnabbit." That's the Texas way of doing it.

CC: And here you are, doing a perfect Jennifer Coolidge and a perfect "Ronald Chevalier." Can you do that a lot?

Jared: I feel bad, but...

Jerusha: That's how he directs.

Jared: And I feel bad because... I'm not a real director but that's how I do it. I do a lot of line readings. I remember when Sam Rockwell first showed up he talked to Mike Lingerano and he was like "what's Jared like to work with?" And Mike was, "he'll tell you how it sounds and he'll act it out for you." And that weirds out a lot of actors and they don't like it. But when we were done, Sam said, "Jared you're the only guy I like to have that done by." Which made me feel good. And Jemaine was really cool. Everybody was really cool about it. Because for us when we're writing, I have to know how it sounds before we put it down on paper.

CC: That Chevalier voice is really impressive.

Jared: He wanted to play it American, but I was like, "It would be cool to hear you doing Michael York from Logan's Run."

CC: Jemaine is a massive star.

Jared: He's so talented. He's great. Very humble guy, too. Holy cow. When people are working on a TV show, you kind of rule out casting anybody. But he was available. He was writing the second season of "Flight of the Conchords," but he came and we had him for two weeks or something. When he got the script, he called and said, "I love it. I'll do whatever you want. Do you have someone to play Bronco"? Knowing he'd be Chevalier, we beefed him up. Initially, the workshop scene was going to be a character that you only saw once in the film, and we thought it would be great to have Jemaine do that scene as well.

Jerusha: Jared and Jemaine kind of had a bromance going on on set. They looked like the same person; they could speak the same voice. They were just the same. Everybody would be wanting to get close to Jemaine and hear him talk and be near his presence. And Jemaine and Jared would be huddled off together, whispering quietly, discussing ideas. And then all of a sudden you'd hear this awful laugh that was so funny. [She imitates Jemaine's laugh.]

Jared: [also imitates Jemaine's laugh]. It's like a machine gun. A machine gun and a hyena.

Jerusha: And then they would confer again. It was very secretive.

CC: I wanted to ask about the science fiction element. Science fiction novels have a whole different fan club, and then there are people who like cheap science fiction movies and then there are fans of The Matrix. What kind of fans are you, or are you fans?

Jared: I like both. I'm a fan of both. As a kid, I wanted to be a special effects guy. My favorite movies were the George Lucas stuff. I wanted to work for Industrial Light and Magic. I was nerding out. A lot of my first, early movies were trying to do matte paintings. Put multiple moons on a piece of plexiglass and film as my brothers ran around underneath with laser guns or whatever. But things changed. Because I only got about as far as the Lonnie Donaho movie special effects, the Yeast Lords version.

CC: So when you got to shoot special effects for this movie...

Jared: It was awesome. It was a very indulgent fantasy that was coming to life for me.

CC: You did them very 1950s style...

Jared: We tried to do as much in camera, and it's a comedy and we wanted to enjoy the science fiction bits on a comedic level. So instead of doing a lot of CG stuff, it was more animatronics and miniature models.

CC: I like that stuff better.

Jared: I do too. It's got more character.

CC: Jerusha, were you a sci-fi fan?

Jerusha: I liked the movies. I never read any books. So I come from more of the "Let's poke fun at it," so Jared doesn't get too serious with it.

October 20, 2009

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