Jared and Jerusha Hess aren't your typical Hollywood power couple. They live in Utah with their two kids, and they're members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — better known as the Mormon church.
But a power couple they are, of sorts: The filmmakers, best known for their surprise hit Napoleon Dynamite, are also the creative duo behind the camp Jack Black curiosity Nacho Libre and the new comedy Gentlemen Broncos.
This latest oddball fable revolves around Benjamin Purvis, a home-schooled teen who writes a disturbing science fiction story called "Yeast Lords." Benjamin winds up meeting his literary hero — a famous sci-fi author named Ronald Chevalier — whose trademark accessories are his Bluetooth earpiece and elaborate turquoise jewelry. Stuck in a writers'-block rut and facing a publisher's ultimatum, Chevalier winds up stealing "Yeast Lords" and publishing it as his own.
To make matters worse, local filmmakers turn it into a truly dreadful movie shot on VHS tape with cheesy effects. The irony: It looks a little like Jared Hess' very early work — from when he was a kid.
"A lot of my early film experiments were really lame videos," he recalls. "I'd get a piece of Plexiglas and paint various moons on it, and have my brothers run through the shots with laser guns. Lame things like that."
Jared pulled Jerusha into filmmaking when they met in college, at Brigham Young University.
"She was an English major, and I told her to join the film department because you didn't have to read long books," he says. "You could watch movies and write about them."
And so she did. The couple's first project was a screenplay they wrote not long after getting married. Jerusha recalls being so poor at the time that they had to share one chair as they wrote.
"There were a lot of tears, and he was like, 'I'm gonna make movies, baby.' And I would just cry, 'How are we gonna afford to eat?' " she says.
The couple scraped together $400,000 to make Napoleon Dynamite, a comedy about a nerdy high school kid (Jon Heder) whose hobbies include singing in sign language and sketching mythical creatures. The movie became a cult hit and wound up making more than $44 million at the box office — not bad for a film that Jared Hess says was based on his own adolescence in rural Idaho.
The Hesses feature plenty of non-actors in their films. For Gentlemen Broncos, they sent their casting director out to local Walmarts in Utah to look for unusual people to feature.
For the role of Dr. Ronald Chevalier, though, they went with Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame.
The actor says Jared and Jerusha Hess have a lovely understanding of people who don't quite fit in.
"When I read reviews of their movies, if it's a good review, people will often say, 'The Hesses have an obvious affection for their characters.' And the bad reviews will say, 'The Hesses have an obvious contempt for their characters.' "
Clement says the filmmakers have nothing but love for their misfits and their nerds — and even for the pompous, story-stealing Dr. Chevalier.