The strange tale of how a Galifianakis-Wiig comedy, from the director of ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ sat on a shelf for a year

Jared Hess, director of "Napoleon Dynamite," has a new comedy out, "Masterminds."
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Some Hollywood directors would be sent into an emotional tailspin if their movie was yanked from the schedule and put on the shelf just weeks away from its release. Agents would be screamed at. Therapists would be called. But Jared Hess is not built that way.

Late last summer, Hess’ caper comedy “Masterminds” was suddenly taken off the release calendar when the studio behind it, Relativity Media, went into bankruptcy. The film had a roster of comedy heavy hitters behind it, including stars Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson, producer Lorne Michaels and Hess himself, who directed the 2004 cult phenomenon “Napoleon Dynamite.” But for reasons having nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with its studio’s financial turmoil, its fate was suddenly in limbo.

As Relativity’s financial implosion made headlines and set tongues wagging across Hollywood, some speculated that “Masterminds” – along with a handful of other unreleased Relativity films, including the Halle Berry thriller “Kidnap” – might be sold to another studio, go directly to streaming video or perhaps never be released at all. Still, Hess didn’t really freak out.

“I don’t think anybody knew what would happen,” Hess, 37, said over lunch in Los Angeles on a recent afternoon, projecting a kind of good-natured, Zen calm from behind a thick, lumberjack-style beard. “The picture was locked. It was in the can. They had scheduled a press junket. And then it was like, ‘Ohhhh!’ ” He shrugged. “There was nothing you could do, really, so I just moved on to other things. You just wait and see what happens.”



Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Jason Sudeikis, Zach Galifianakis, Leslie Jones and Owen Wilson star in “Masterminds.”

In the end, it worked out. Relativity, which emerged from bankruptcy in March, is finally releasing “Masterminds” on Friday, more than a year after the film’s original release date.

Hess isn’t complaining about the delay. He’s just happy that the movie is seeing the light of day. “It was a very interesting turn of events, the way it played out,” he said matter-of-factly. “Now I just hope that people enjoy it.”

As a writer and director, Hess has always been drawn to stories of misfits with outsized dreams; his other best-known film, 2006’s “Nacho Libre,” starred Jack Black as a Mexican monastery cook who moonlights as a masked luchador. “Masterminds” fits that bill.

Based on the real-life 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery – known to aficionados of bungled crimes as the Hillbilly Heist – “Masterminds” stars Galifianakis as David Ghantt, an armored-truck driver who stole $17 million in a plot with a former co-worker (Wiig) and her friend (Wilson), only to have the ill-conceived scheme unravel in spectacular fashion.

In the hands of, say, Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers, it’s easy to imagine such an ill-fated crime story going off in a dark, R-rated direction, but Hess keeps the proceedings on the cartoonishly silly, PG-13 end of the spectrum.

“Jared’s movies are so goofy – in a great way,” said Galifianakis. “The R-rated movies are easy to do, but language has become such a crutch that it doesn’t interest me. This is a more innocent movie, and that’s really what attracted me to it. It’s nice to have a movie that you can maybe take your aunt to and the drive home is not completely quiet.”

While “Masterminds” is the first feature that Hess hasn’t written with his wife, Jerusha, the film still bears his uniquely quirky comic fingerprint, said Chris Bowman, who co-wrote the script with Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey.


“Everything Jared does is going to filter through his sensibilities,” said Bowman, who, along with Palmer, has been friends with Hess since college. “If he goes and does a slasher film, the killer will have an obnoxious mustache and, like, a chinchilla hat.”

In a weird way, if it had never been released -- if it was kind of this lost thing -- it would have been intriguing.

Zach Galifianakis

It’s been 12 years since Hess broke out with “Napoleon Dynamite,” the deadpan story of a high-school geek with delusions of grandeur who helps his friend Pedro run for class president. Made for less than half a million dollars, the film stirred up major buzz at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to become a sleeper word-of-mouth hit, grossing $46 million and unleashing countless “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts and Internet memes into the world.

Hess, the oldest of six boys raised in a Mormon family, was stunned to see the movie’s success snowball so dramatically. “‘Napoleon’ was like a transcript of the way my brothers and I spoke in middle school and high school,” he said. “I hoped that it would get into a film festival somewhere and then, if we were lucky, maybe we’d sell it and it would play at midnight on some cable station somewhere. It was all kind of a fairy tale.”


Hess’ follow-up, “Nacho Libre” proved an even bigger mainstream hit, earning nearly $100 million worldwide despite sharply divided reviews. But in a pop culture landscape that has grown ever more fragmented, replicating the lightning-in-a-bottle success of a film like “Napoleon Dynamite” has grown increasingly difficult, and Hess’ last two comedies, 2009’s “Gentlemen Broncos” and 2015’s “Don Verdean,” have failed to connect with wide audiences.

With a sensibility that’s simultaneously off-kilter and broad, Hess has never fit easily into studio executives’ standard boxes. “The conversation that I end up having a lot is, like, ‘Are we going to get the small, indie Jared Hess that’s kind of weird on this movie or the commercial Jared Hess?’ ” he said. “It’s fine. I think a lot of directors I know have the same thing where they kind of live in both worlds.”

Straddling different worlds is nothing new to Hess. A father of four, he still lives in Salt Lake City, traveling regularly to Los Angeles for work.

The fact that Hess isn’t fully enmeshed in the industry gives him a unique point of view, said Bowman. “Jared is not a Hollywood guy – he’s kind of a stranger in a strange land when he comes out here. The feeling everyone had when ‘Napoleon’ came out was ‘Who is this guy who came out of nowhere?’ – and that continues to pay dividends. People want to work with someone who has a different perspective, and he really does.”


In many ways, Hess remains the same guy he was when he made “Napoleon Dynamite.” “There are people who, when they encounter great success, it really changes them,” Palmer said. “There have definitely been times when there have been a lot of people trying to get a piece of Jared, and yet he’s still gracious with everybody.”

After the prolonged delay to get it to theaters, it remains to be seen to what extent audiences will embrace “Masterminds.” The film is tracking for an opening weekend of between $8 million and $10 million and reviews have been mixed.

The fact is, “Masterminds” is hardly the first movie to be released after a period of sitting on the shelf; the horror film “The Cabin in the Woods” and the “Red Dawn” remake, for example, were both pushed back for two years after MGM underwent its own bankruptcy in 2010.

“I didn’t give it too much thought; as an actor, once you’re done with it, it’s out of your hands,” Galifianakis said of the delay. He laughed. “In a weird way, if it had never been released – if it was kind of this lost thing – it would have been intriguing. But I’m obviously glad it’s coming out.”


For his part, Hess is already busy with other projects. He and his wife have written a “NickToons” feature for Paramount Pictures featuring characters from ’90s Nickelodeon cartoons, and the two just finished the script for a stop-motion-animated kids’ western comedy that Hess will direct.

Beyond that, Hess recently became attached to direct a third installment in the “Shanghai Noon” western buddy-comedy franchise and has branched into TV as well, helming episodes of an upcoming Fox time-travel comedy.

On this September afternoon, though, Hess had his other life on his mind, the life that unfolds both not very far and a million miles away from Hollywood and all its attendant pressures.

“I’m flying home tonight,” Hess said. “Going to go to the Utah State Fair. Get a deep-fried Ding Dong, some deep-fried Oreos.” He grinned. “It’s so naughty but I’m going to get down-and-dirty.”


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