Jared Hess, director of “Napoleon Dynamite” and the upcoming film "Gentlemen Broncos," has made a career out of creating eccentric characters.

First we had Napoleon, the nunchuck-wielding, moon-boot wearing dancing fiend. Then there was Nacho, the cook-turned-wrestler in "Nacho Libre." In "Gentlemen Broncos," we meet Benjamin Purvis, the quiet science-fiction lover whose mom sells nightgowns and popcorn balls for a living.

In "Broncos," Hess takes us into Benjamin’s world of cowboy heroes, battle stags, pooping snakes and transvestites. Benjamin finds himself in uneasy situations involving blow-darts, hand massages, guardian angels and shootouts.

So color me surprised when I sit down to talk with Hess and find that, besides his freakish height (6’5"), he looks pretty normal, even average. In comfortable jeans, black-rimmed glasses and a black flannel shirt, he doesn’t even vaguely resemble the outrageous characters he creates. But as we begin to discuss the process of what it was like bringing "Broncos" to life, Hess reveals his fascinating and hilariously weird brain, showing that he might be more like his characters than he seems.

Blast: You say that a lot of your stories are autobiographical.

Jared Hess: Yeah. When my family first moved to Idaho, before school started, there was a trip to a Shakespearean festival in southern Utah. I didn’t have any friends yet, and my mom’s like, "You’d better go on this thing, it’ll be awesome, you’ll meet a lot of new friends." So this girl and this guy who were very similar to Loni and Tabitha made friends with me and were like "Come sit by us! It’d be awesome!" I was sitting just like Benjamin was and they busted out the lotion and he started giving her a hand massage and blowing in her ear, and all the kids on the bus were like, "Gosh that kid’s an idiot. He’s hanging out with those guys!" So it was really uncomfortable. It was all the gross crap that happens in the back of a van bus.

My wife Jerusha…has a 15-year-old cousin who lives up in Alaska, and he’s been writing really messed-up science fiction stories that make his mom cry. We read some of them and the content is quite disturbing. His were a little medieval. I tried to block it out of my mind. It was a lot of…slapping.

Blast: In what ways do you see yourself in Benjamin Purvis?

Jared Hess: I think I identify with him, in him being kind of an outsider a little bit, but someone who’s creatively engaged, although he’s misunderstood in the things he’s trying to create. I channel that for sure. Especially as a kid I was trying to make my own videos even though people may have gone "Oh well, what are you doing?" You know? It was important to me.

The mother character in this film is based on my mom. She worked for a modest nightgown company and sold popcorn balls that me and my five younger brothers would have to go peddle around…so many things that happened to Benjamin in the film have happened to me.

Blast: One thing that’s a little different about Benjamin is that, you know, with Napoleon, he’s very outlandish. Benjamin is very relatable. He’s a normal kid. And besides the fact that he’s wicked into sci-fi, you really kind of think he’s not a nerd.

Jared Hess: Yeah, yeah. He’s the most normal character in the film. He’s surrounded by a lot of eccentric personalities. You kind of learn about his weird side through his work. But definitely, yeah, he just seems like a normal kid.

Blast: Is Ronald Chevalier based on anyone?

Jared Hess: One time I was a camera assistant during college, and I was working on a really low-budget independent film about Mormon pioneers coming to Utah. The screenwriter visited the set one day, and he was rocking the same clothes as Ronald Chevalier’s the first time you see him. The same Bluetooth earpiece that he never uses. He just looked awesome.

Blast: Tell us about putting the look for the film together.

Jared Hess: To me it’s really important. There’s such a hand-made quality, I think about all of it. It’s all from our style and It’s fun that people can recognize your work based on looking at it. It’s important to get the right kind of tone out there. We shot the film entirely on location in Utah. But the science fiction aspects of it, you know i borrowed a lot of things from my favorite science-fiction films. You don’t really see the big budget glossy expensive CG stuff. You know, like, the battle stags and crap, that stuff was in my trapper keeper when I was like, 12. Stuff that I’d drawn. A lot of the ideas that are in (Benjamin’s) story are, you know, really lame ideas that I had as a kid.

Blast: You’ve got some pretty fierce animal action going on in this film.

Jared Hess: We do!

Blast: You’ve got like a wolf, a bobcat, a snake, like all this stuff. Did Mike White actually have the live snake on him?

Jared Hess: He did. That was a real snake. His name was Peaches. And (Mike) got to be very good friends with Peaches. When we were shooting the snake would…he couldn’t control it very well and it was always gravitating toward Jennifer Coolidge’s chest (laughs) and she would would go "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" But it was very tame. It’s an albino boa. Weird, huh?

Blast: And it knows how to poop on cue?

Jared Hess: Yeah pretty much (laughs). We had a little hose hooked up to an air compressor full of beef stew (laughs). It was some gross mixture, I think it had apple sauce in it and mustard.

Blast: Not much worse than the real thing?

Jared Hess: I know, totally. Yeah, they were like, "This smells worse than crap!"

Blast: That was definitely a shocked laugh for me.

Jared Hess: I know, it’s funny because people either laugh at that or they think that it wasn’t meant to happen! People have asked me, "Was that real snake-poo? Did that happen and you just happened to be rolling?"

Blast: Well, you’re still trying to wrap your mind around the fact that he’s wearing a snake, and then all of the sudden…

Jared Hess: (laughs) Yeah, the bobcat actually had a bigger role but…wild animals aren’t really meant to be controlled. But we got it to eat cat food.

Blast: And a gonad?

Jared Hess: Yeah totally. That was like a ball of cat food.

Blast: Where does the name "Gentlemen Broncos" come from?

Jared Hess: My mom had a parenting book written in the ‘50s called "So You Want to Raise A Boy?" There was a chapter in there where the author referred to the 16-year-old stage in a young man’s life. He called it the “Gentlemen Bronco” phase of life where young men like to take their shirts off and mow the lawn. It didn’t make much sense, but I really liked the title.

Blast: This is a pretty different role for Jennifer Coolidge.

Jared Hess: We knew that we wanted Jennifer to play the mom. You can see her real, kind of tender sweet side. She’s really not that glammed up in this at all. She’s kind of a little more "Middle America."

Blast: Kind of drab almost.

Jared Hess: Yeah yeah. I felt bad that we put her in such bad clothes. She kept teasing me. But she had so much fun. And you know, she’s so great at improv. It’s funny, cause at the cast and crew screening, everyone had their favorite improvised moment that she did. Not all of them made it into the film, but some of them are on the DVD. When the scene ended, we’d kind of let her say whatever she wanted for at least a take or two and then everybody was in stitches. It’s not really about one-liners and a punch-line of a joke in this film. But you kind of get to choose what’s funny to you.

Blast: All of your characters in your movies are pretty quirky, but in this one, even down to the extras, like the ones in the choir scene — where do you find these weird looking people?

Jared Hess: (Laughs) It’s funny because the choir scene was mostly made up of my family (laughs).

Blast: Well now I’ve really offended you! Great!

Jared Hess: No, no. It’s funny because actually, like…my wife’s handicapped aunt was in that scene. (Also) one of her cousins who has Down’s Syndrome. Both of which we’re very, very close to, obviously. The extras in the film — we like to populate it with authentic people. We’re not going to a fancy Hollywood extras casting agency. We’re getting people that we interact with, you know, daily. That you see at the grocery store. A couple of my little brothers were actually Cyclops guys. They were like, (Napoleon voice) "Jared, I can’t see a dang thing in these!"

Blast: Even when Chevalier is doing the Q&A session and there are all of those sci-fi fans. I mean they’re just interesting to look at. They’re just funny people.

Jared Hess: For some of those things, we really try to get science fiction fans. So it was fun.

Blast: Sam Rockwell plays two roles in this movie. What was it like working with him?

Jared Hess: We knew that we wanted to party with Sam Rockwell. I’m a big fan of Sammy. Even though he plays two pretty funny roles in this film, when he comes out of the trailer, out of wardrobe and makeup, he’s in complete character. You know, he’s like, goin’ for it. I’ll say, "Sam, I wanna tell you something." And he’ll say "Hey, hey, hey. What? I’m Bronco. I don’t know what you’re talking about." He’s pretty die-hard. Like, he’d be watching episodes of Lonesome Dove in his trailer. He was really channeling some cowboy thunder for Bronco, which I loved.

Blast: What was it like working with Michael Angarano?

Jared Hess: It was awesome. A real pleasure. I mean, he’s so talented and he’s really effortless when he’s acting and bringing to life a character, and that was really important. You know we spent a lot of time trying to find the right person to play him and he ended up being just perfect for it.

He and Napoleon are very very different. And I think a lot of people, with Napoleon, were like, "Gosh! This kid!" you know either they really actually knew somebody like that or they were like "This guy’s obnoxious and I don’t like to have to do anything with people like that." But with Benjamin, he’s more accessible on an emotional level.

Blast: The everyman.

Jared Hess: Yeah, yeah.

Blast: So we have to talk about Jemaine Clement. I’m a huge "Flight of the Conchords" fan. As soon as I saw he was in this, I was like, "I gotta go see this!" What was it like to work with him?

Jared Hess: Yeah yeah! He is one of the most humble, sweet down to earth guys I’ve ever met in my life. Like, his success has not changed him at all. He’s still hangin’ with the same pals that he’s always had.

Blast: Like Bret?

Jared Hess: Yeah, yeah totally (laughs). He’s so funny. He would have ideas on the set of something funny to do or try, and he’s just brilliant. The guy’s so funny. His timing and everything. He was a dream to work with.

Blast: This is a completely different character from the one we all know him for. In "Flight of the Conchords," he’s so self-depricating and a putz. But in this, he’s arrogant!

Jared Hess: He’s a totally different character. I remember when our sound designers were working on the film, they were like, "Where’d you find that British actor that plays Chevalier?" And I was like, "Oh, that’s Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords." They were like "What? That’s him? Really?" They didn’t believe me. They didn’t put it together.

Blast: He really pulls off that accent.

Jared Hess: Yeah, it’s great. And I love when you watch an actor, and you don’t go "Oh, that’s Jemaine, from Flight of the Conchords." That’s always a testimony, I think, to them, that they’re really becoming the character.

Blast: How did you place him in that role?

Jared Hess: We sent him a script, and he called back and he was like (impersonating New Zealand accent) "Yeah man, I really want to do this. I’ll do anything you want. Do you have anybody playing Bronco?" And I was like, "Yeah, we got Sam Rockwell." And he said, "Oh, yeah, he’ll do great, man." And then I said, "You know, we were thinking Chevalier for you." And he’s like "Oh yeah, he’s great." Jemaine wanted to play the guy as an American, but I told him to watch "Logan’s Run" and try and do Michael York. Then he called me back and was like (impersonating Chevalier) "Hello, Dr. Ronald Chevalier." And I said, that’s what we’ll do!

Blast: What are your comedic influences?

Jared Hess: I guess it’s life. Letting those awkward beats play out. That happens in life all the time. For me they’re fun and very uncomfortable. A lot of people that watch our films, because of that uneasiness, are not sure if, gosh, something really disturbing is gonna happen. And then when they’re relieved to know that it didn’t go to the dark place they thought it might go to, then the second time around they’re like, "Ahhh." They’re enjoying it cause they know it’s not gonna go there.

Blast: It’s okay to laugh. I know what you’re talking about cause I could feel that tension building. You’re thinking, "Benjamin has just got to explode sometime soon, and I’m gonna be really unhappy if that doesn’t happen." And so when he just goes crazy on everybody, it was so fulfilling.

Jared Hess: Yeah, gratifying.

Blast: And you’re like, "Yes! Okay. Good."

Jared Hess: Yeah, it’s good. Cause he gets walked on the whole movie. He’s a polite, good kid.

Blast: Something that sets your comedy apart, too, from the rest of the stuff that’s out there right now is… lots of stuff out there is very profane. In your films people say "gosh" and "darn" a lot, and Chevalier says…

Jared Hess: Dagnammit! (laughs) That word was improvised. My dad always used to be like, "Dagnabbit!" Then I told Jemaine to say it, and he was like (imitating New Zealand accent), "Ok, yeah, yeah, I’ve never heard that word before, but I’ll try it." And so we’re shooting (and he says), "Isn’t that why we do what we do, dagnammit?!" And I was like, "Dagnammit? You just made a new word!"

Blast: Do you intentionally keep out the curse words? Is it for comedy or is it for other reasons?

Jared Hess: You know, it’s funny, because it’s such a part of how I talk. I came from a big Mormon family and we were all taught not to swear. So I don’t feel comfortable swearing. You know what I mean? I think it’s just our sense of humor.

Blast: Yeah.

Jared Hess: You know, it’s just not my personality. So that just kind of naturally works its way into our dialogue. So we have a lot of swear word replacements like "flippin’" and "friggen."

Blast: Your wife, with whom you co-write everything, has just written a romantic comedy.

Jarod Hess: She did, yeah.

Blast: Are you going to be directing that?

Jarod Hess: I don’t know if she’ll let me. I think I’ll ruin it. She’s super-talented. I mean, she may direct it. She’s not decided yet.

Blast: Will it be similar to your previous movies?

Jared Hess: No, it’s something totally different. She’s like, "I get to make a girl movie now."

“Gentlemen Broncos” is now in theaters.

About The Author

Brooklynne Kelly Peters is a Blast contributing editor

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