Director Jared Hess loves science fiction. If you wanted to talk to him for hours on end about rocket ships, space rangers and David Lynch's Dune, he would happily oblige. The dead-pan visionary behind Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre loves the genre so much, that he projected some 16-odd years of mechanical beasts and galactic intrigue into his quirk masterpiece, Gentlemen Broncos. "I had drawings of Battle Stags in my Trapper Keeper," Hess recalls. "That was the kind of crap that I drew when I was 14. It was fun to be able to bring those bad boys to life."
Although Hess' contagious passion of the genre informs much of his latest offering, the piece retains the same auto-biographical flavor of endearing dysfunction that distinguished his previous works. The director was happy to walk Paste through the memories that inspired him and describe the process of being a left-field comedian in a mainstream market. What follows is as charming, refreshing and rambling as any moon-walking milk tester or salad-loving luchador.
Paste: How did you come up with the initial concept for Gentlemen Broncos?
Hess: My wife has a cousin who lives up in Alaska. He’s 15, and for a long time he’s been writing really messed-up science fiction and fantasy stories. His parents have been pretty worried about him. The content’s pretty intense. So we loosely based a film on that idea.
Paste: How much of your wife’s cousin’s work resembles the narrative from Gentlemen Broncos' Yeast Lords?
Hess: You know, his stuff is a little more medieval, and there are a lot more battles and generals. So it doesn’t really resemble. He’s actually a really talented writer. The Yeast Lords stuff is mainly drawn from early ideas that I had as a kid. Certainly the science fiction--all of my favorite films were sci-fi.
Paste: You’ve mentioned before that the Cyclops in the movie was inspired by the movie Krull and Jemaine’s voice came from a character in Logan’s Run. Are there any other Easter Eggs that reference older sci-fi movies?
Hess: Oh man. In the Brutus sequence the first time, where he’s like “Cyclops there, Surveillance Does
,” the hats Veronika and Kenonka are wearing were kind of borrowed from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And there’s a lot of little shout outs to my favorite science fiction films. I really liked the movie Dune as a kid. And I know David Lynch, for whatever reason, doesn’t claim that film anymore and I don’t know why. Have you seen that movie?
Paste: Just bits and pieces. I recall Sting battling people with a staff.
Hess: Yeah, he had a really weird, metal-like diaper. It’s funny because I actually worked with some of the crew who worked on Dune, and they shot that in Mexico believe it or not. A lot of my crew on Nacho Libre has all of these funny stories on when they worked on Dune. There were different versions of the worms they went through, because the first ones were really, really phallic. And that’s hard to believe, because they’re very phallic in the final film. But you know the dudes in those tight, black body suits that you can pee in, and it turns into cleansed water? The sweet body suits that the main guy wears at the end when he’s on the planet- well, apparently there were supposed to be tons of them, and the director looked through the viewfinder and was like, "Really!? We have a 100 people out there?" "Yeah--there are a hundred people." And he’d look through the camera again. "Gosh, are you serious? It even looks like less people now." The suits were so hot, that the extras who were wearing them were passing out. [laughs] It was funny.
Paste: There’s also an autobiographical base to the film as well. Can you talk about how some of that bled through?
Hess: Yeah, yeah. The mother character was loosely based on my mother. She worked for a modest nightgown company and made and sold popcorn balls for a while. For the Lonnie Donaho character, I went to high school with a kid when I lived in Kansas. One time I got a phone call form him, and he was like “Hey, I’m shooting a thriller this Saturday. I would like you to be the lead. I need you to bring a pair of pajamas; there will be a bedroom sequence.” I was 13 or 14, thinking, "I don’t know if I’m allowed." He was pretty prolific. He made a lot of soap opera movies. I don’t know if he made any horse movies, but I kind of based the Lonnie character on him.
Paste: So you were in a lot of these lo-fi thrillers?
Hess: I made a lot of my own films as a kid. The Yeast Lords movie was a very accurate representation of my early work.
Paste: Have you ever thought of releasing those early films as a bonus on the DVD?
Hess: Ah man, they’re pretty shameful. But yeah, maybe if I get enough confidence, I’ll put some of that on a DVD.
Paste: How about the hand massage ménage a trois scene? Was that based on personal experience?
Hess: That did happen to me traveling on a bus to a Shakespearian Festival. These two kids that had befriended me, a guy and a girl, they got really weird and I was immediately grouped in with their weirdness, as if I were part of the ménage a trois. But I was huddled against the window, looking out, trying to prove that I wasn’t a part of their little weird fling. Oh, man. [laughs]
Paste: Jemaine Clement had mentioned that you spend a great amount of detail describing what your characters wear. In all three of your movies, there’s quite an emphasis on the fashion. How do you come up with these offbeat outfits and accessories?
Hess: So much of them are based on things that I wore growing up, but oftentimes when (wife/co-writer Jerusha and I) are writing, the first thing that we’ll come up with is what they’re wearing and how their hair is. And then shortly thereafter, what their name is, how they sound when they talk and all of those details that for me, are very important. For Jemaine’s look, I was a camera assistant for a while in college and I was working on an independent film about pioneers that were headed west. I remember one time, the screenwriter showed up on set and I was blown away, because he looked exactly like Chevalier does in our film: the jeans, the cowboy boots, the turtleneck, a Bluetooth ear piece that he never, ever uses. So we kind of patterned his look off this really cool-looking screenwriter.
Paste: Mainstream critical reception to the movie hasn’t been exceptionally positive, but some smaller outlets have been appreciating it. When you’re making these movies, how hard is it to fit a vision as offbeat and unique as yours into a mainstream context?
Hess: With Napoleon as well, it wasn’t the most critically acclaimed show ever, but when we’re making these films, we’re trying to make the films that we’ve always wanted to see. You cross your fingers and hope that there are people out there like you, and there are, which is great and that was what Napoleon showed us. We didn’t go in thinking, "Gosh, we really want to make a piece that makes the critics just love it." We’re making a film for us and people like us, you know what I mean? I haven’t been up on it because I’ve been busy and traveling, but there are people out there who identify with the characters in our films and the comedy as well.
Paste: Nacho Libre was a studio venture and now you’re back working independently. Are there pros and cons to each situation?
Hess: You have a little bit more creative license when you’re shooting on a lower budget. You can maintain creative control a little bit more, whether it’s final cut and casting the film the way you want to. You do forfeit a little bit of that the bigger your budget is. It just depends on what resources you need to tell the story the way you want to tell it.
Paste: One thing I’ve noticed about your film is that everybody looks extremely indigenous to the real world. There aren’t any LA models filling in as extras. Do you aim for that local, organic feel?
Hess: Absolutely. We like to populate our films with, like you said, authentic faces and people. It’s an important part of creating. It is an abstract world, but we have a lot of fun giving people an opportunity in our films that normally wouldn’t be cast. It’s a fun experience.
Paste: It also seems like you have a great deal of affection for small town America. What is it that attracts you to it?
Hess: I moved around a lot growing up and it was mostly Middle America and the smaller towns of it in Kansas and Idaho and Utah. It’s just something I’m familiar with and know. It’s just the kind of life I’ve experienced, I guess.
Paste: Do you have anything lined up that you can talk about?
Hess: Not anything that I can talk about right now, but we’ve got some stuff cooking.
Paste: Is it still going to be a comedy?
Hess: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to do the comedy thing for a while. My wife (Jerusha) also just wrote a romantic comedy without me. She’s just finishing writing it right now.