“Napoleon Dynamite” director Jared Hess is well aware that his particular style of aggressively quirky humor isn’t for everyone. He’s fine with that. The 30-year-old filmmaker admits that even his own grandmother -- with whom he shares a warm relationship and a love of western history -- is baffled by his oddball sensibility and his popularity with the youth of today.
“She was talking to one of my younger brothers,” Hess recounted recently over breakfast, “and she said, ‘Well I’m glad Jared likes this history stuff, ‘cause I tell you what, this comedy thing sure isn’t gonna last much longer!’
“We’ve been quoting that one a lot,” he says, clearly amused.
Hess can laugh about it because “Napoleon” and its nerds-on-parade stylings certainly struck a chord with young audiences, its unusual combination of earnestness and absurdity creating its own cultural currency with a certain generation of moviegoers. Hess’ first feature, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 before becoming a break-out hit, grew from the off-kilter observations he collected as a high schooler in rural Preston, Idaho.
“I guess I’m just inspired by the environment that I live in,” he explains. “It comes from the places you know intimately first.”
Hess continues to raid his own personal history in “Gentlemen Broncos,” his latest celebration of fringe types, which arrives in theaters on Friday. Set in Utah, where Hess now lives, the idiosyncratic comedy features a home-schooled teenager named Benjamin (Michael Angarano) whose aspiration to be a science fiction writer is misunderstood by his sweetly spacey mom (Jennifer Coolidge), a designer of “modest nightgowns.”
On a writers’ camp trip, Benjamin’s nascent talent leads to misadventure when his pride-and-joy -- an intergalactic western he’s written called “Yeast Lords” (think bearded warriors riding “Battle Stags,” or flying deer equipped with rocket launchers) -- attracts the eye of an arrogant superstar sci-fi novelist in residence named Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). In desperate need of a hit, Chevalier decides to steal his student’s work and call it his own. Meanwhile, two of Benjamin’s “friends” from camp decide to make “Lords” into a movie of their own.
This time around, Hess initially found inspiration for his tale in his wife Jerusha’s 15-year-old cousin, who lives in Alaska. “He’s been writing some really disturbing science fiction and fantasy stories that have had his parents concerned for a while,” Hess says.
But the movie is clearly informed by the writer-director’s own boyhood dreams of artistic pursuit, says Hess, who notes that at heart “Broncos” is an ode to a mother and son who may not grasp each other’s creative impulses, but at the very least encourage each other. “My mom didn’t understand fully what I was trying to do, but her support and love was crucial.”
Even the faintly absurd title is a nod to his youth, coming from a ‘60s-era parenting tome his mother used called “So You Want to Raise a Boy?”
“There were six boys in my family,” explains Hess of his Mormon upbringing, “and there was a chapter where the author refers to the ages 16 to 17 as the ‘gentlemen broncos’ phase, where adolescents like to take off their shirts and mow the lawn. It was weird. It’s kind of unrelated to the movie, but we just liked the sound of it.”
Primarily, Hess wanted the film to shine a humorous spotlight on the purity of innocent creativity yet also how it can become bastardized. To that extent, “Broncos” includes three movies-within-the-movie: Benjamin’s hyper-macho vision in his head of his story (featuring Sam Rockwell as the bearded, drawling hero), Chevalier’s more Euro-trashy re-imagining (with a less-butch, more New Age-y looking Rockwell), and the grade-Z homemade movie adaptation made by a budding Ed Wood named Lonnie (Hector Jimenez).
“We wanted to see the world [Benjamin] had created, using plagiarism as a device to get these different interpretations,” says Hess, who wrote the film with his wife. “I’m so fascinated with anybody engaged in the creative process, whatever the final result is.”
“Broncos” is also an ode of sorts to the make-do effects of old-school sci-fi and fantasy films. “Those effects had a lot of charm and character, like monofilaments to hold up flying saucers,” Hess says, “and in our film we tried to do as much in camera as possible.”
A secondary obsession of Hess’ -- richly detailed, old-school sci-fi novel cover illustrations of the ‘60s and ‘70s -- made its way into the film’s credit sequence. “I don’t think I ever really read science fiction books, but the covers were mind-blowing. One that we show had these grown men with weird ‘Little House on the Prairie’ bonnets and AK-47s. I read about the artist and he said, ‘Yeah, the idea came to me, even though it’s not what the author had imagined.’ I guess the artists had more license back then to do what they wanted.”
Like “Napoleon Dynamite” and his second feature, the Jack Black-wrestling-in-Mexico comedy “Nacho Libre,” “Broncos” has enough fun at the expense of big-dreaming, hapless small-timers that debate might erupt again about whether Hess is truly behind his underdogs, or just pointing and laughing at them.
Hess argues that it’s actually both. “I don’t know of a comedy where you’re laughing with people,” he says. “Rarely are the characters you’re laughing at, laughing themselves.”
As someone who moved around continuously as a child -- from Arizona to Houston to London, as well as stints in Utah, Kansas and eventually Idaho -- Hess implicitly identifies with outsiders. “Napoleon’s story was my story, and the characters in this film are drawn from similar times in my life.”
In fact, the VHS movie Lonnie makes of “Yeast Lords” is, according to Hess, “an accurate representation of my early works.” As a teenage movie geek armed with a bulky VHS camera -- “the kind Michael J. Fox uses in ‘Back to the Future,’ ” Hess says -- the oldest Hess boy used to recruit his brothers for all manner of short movie projects and aimless fight sequences using the backyard trampoline.
“I’m more familiar with that camera than any other camera in existence,” he says, and remembers the “Broncos” crew mostly parking themselves on VHS filming day while he ran around re-creating his less-skilled, younger D.I.Y auteur self, sometimes unintentionally.
“I made the big mistake of pressing the backlight button, and all the footage was blown out, even though it had looked good through the black-and-white viewfinder,” he says. “I almost had to re-shoot it, but then I thought, ‘This is how I did stuff as a kid, so the Lonnie character would have just lived with it.’ ”
The potential breakout character in “Broncos” is arguably the self-obsessed, unscrupulous Chevalier, played with a plummy Michael York accent by “Flight of the Conchords” star Clement. It raises the question, if Benjamin and Lonnie have autobiographical elements, is any part of Chevalier in Hess, now that he’s made it as a sought-after director?
“Maybe he’s my worst nightmare,” Hess jokes. “But I definitely had very functional dad jeans like Chevalier’s growing up.”