It’s been a decade since America voted for Pedro and made Napoleon Dynamite a hipster touchstone. The 2004 indie comedy, about a small-town loser (Jon Heder) with mad dance skills determined to elect his pal Pedro (Efren Ramirez) class president, divided audiences when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. But Fox Searchlight saw the zeitgeist-shifting potential of director Jared Hess’s first film (written with his wife, Jerusha) and turned the $400,000 oddball into a sleeper hit that raked in $45 million.
How did that happen? With the help of the stars—and one stand-in llama—EW went searching for answers.
Napoleon Dynamite began as the student short film Peluca, which also starred Jon Heder. Most of the other actors were cast later for the feature.
Jared Hess (Director): Jon was in one of my directing classes, and that dude could be pretty funny just because of the way he talked already. He totally understood the mouth-breather kind of character that we were going for.
Jon Heder (Napoleon): Jared originally wanted me to play the bully character, Randy, who shoves Napoleon up against a locker.
Efren Ramirez (Pedro): When you’re auditioning, at first you don’t get the movie at all. I read the Pedro character and I thought, “This is a little odd.”
Haylie Duff (Summer): [My manager] was like, “A lot of people don’t really get it.” I read it and immediately knew it was going to be really funny. All of those dead spaces that you see in the movie were actually on the page, too.
Tina Majorino (Deb): I wasn’t allowed to audition for comedies as a kid, and this was my first audition back. [Majorino had been a child actor in Waterworld and Corrina, Corrina.] My family didn’t think the script was funny at all, but I loved it.
The film shot in Idaho and Utah during summer 2003.
Hess: We shot it in 23 days, and it was nerve-racking. I heaved every morning before getting in the car.
Heder: It felt like a glorified version of a student film. Almost all the crew were guys we knew from school.
Majorino: It was very hot. But it was like being at summer camp. We were all staying in the same little motel, which was hilarious ‘cause it was called the Plaza Motel instead of the Plaza Hotel. You know, we were really killing it.
Duff: My dog ran away while I was there. He was in bad shape, and I had just gotten him healthy. We put up signs. The local radio station announced it. But I flew home with an empty dog crate. It was one of the most devastating experiences of my life.
THE SUNDANCE PREMIERE
Hess: [At an early screening] I remember the point when I thought, “Okay, it’s going to find an audience.” It was during the slow-motion shot of Napoleon, after he’d bought his thrift-store suit, walking to the dance holding the corsage. Everybody started cheering and clapping.
Heder: Jared said to me, “Dude, you’d better get ready; you’re going to start getting offers.” I didn’t quite know what to do.
Ramirez: We were passing out “Vote for Pedro” and “Vote for Summer” T-shirts and buttons. The way it was received was astounding.
Hess: [After the movie came out] my mother-in-law, who does a lot of humanitarian work in Honduras, emailed us and said, “I think your movie’s done okay. I just saw a fisherman wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ shirt.”
Heder: I couldn’t be more stoked about being this cult character. I grew up loving Coen brothers films and Pee-wee Herman, all those films that get quoted a ton.
Majorino: When people react that way to a project you’ve been a part of, it’s surreal. It’s been 10 years, and it’s still relevant to people.
Heder: The weird thing is, I can’t get my kids to really enjoy Tater Tots. I’m like, “You guys are weirdos. They’re awesome.”