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Though there have been many definitive moments in Idaho's history, none may be so groundbreaking as Aug. 27, 2004, when the world first heard phrases like "Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner," "I caught you a delicious bass," and, "flippin' idiot!"

On that August day, moviegoers first fell in love with Napoleon Dynamite. The awkward teenager from the unknown village of Preston, Idaho, muttering endless slang phrases with frustrated sighs, tickled the funny bones of moviegoers across the globe and put Idaho on the map in a way that even potatoes couldn't.

In the words of Napoleon, "It's incredible."

It all started one day as Jared Hess, while serving a Latter-day Saints mission, was walking along the streets of Chicago. Hess and his mission partner struck up a conversation with a man who, looking at their name tags, commented on the oddity of both of their names being "Elder." After giving an explanation, Hess asked the man for his name.

"Napoleon Dynamite," the man responded.

Delighted, Hess wrote the name down in his journal that evening and even told his mother he believed it would someday be the title of a movie he would make.

In the summer of 2003, Hess began filming in the town where he had spent his most memorable high school years: Preston, Idaho. Hess raised the funds necessary for the movie himself and began shooting "Napoleon" on an incredibly tight budget of $400,000.

Hess and his crew spent a month filming in his hometown. He used some of his school buddies, Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell, as lead characters and accepted the generosity of Preston dwellers, who housed and fed many of the crew members.

Hess even used his family's pet llama, Dolly, as a no-charge character in the film.

No one, not even the optimistic Hess, could have guessed how the film would catapult and "make some sweet moolah." "Napoleon Dynamite" grossed over $45 million in the box office, well over 100 times its budget, not counting millions more in DVD sales, tourism and "Napoleon" merchandise. The movie's success was unthinkable, especially to those who were involved in the project.

"Sweet Skills" Hess: The real Napoleon

Jared Hess moved to Preston with his family in the middle of his high school years, a challenging time in anyone's life. The new start was intimidating in a town where everyone knew everyone else since birth.

Hess felt very much the misfit like his awkward protagonist.

"We moved when I was in tenth grade. I really kind of first felt like a loner my first year of school there," Hess said. "I was really a nerd that moved into town and had to find my way."

Hess' Preston High English teacher, Karla Cattani, recalled some of Hess' oddities.

"He made a video for a project when we covered 'The Odessey,'" Cattani said. "We also had TVs in all of the classrooms, and he did a lot of video stuff with that by way of sending out info to the student body, varying from wacky to useful."

"He used to watch the Discovery Channel every day," another former Preston High teacher, Mary Heers, said. "He had a very hungry mind."

Whatever his high school quirks, Hess soon found a way to use them to his advantage.

"Later, I started getting friends, working on video projects, and I thought it would be fun to run (for student body president)," Hess said. "I had a lot of fun, and I started to exploit all my weirdness."

During his campaign, Hess wowed classmates by growing a unibrow he later let students pluck for a fundraiser. Like Pedro, he also discovered the key to presidential success was not so much in the platform as the stage.

"It didn't really matter what your politics were. It all boiled down to your skit. If you had a great skit, you were a shoe-in," Hess said.

The director chuckled as he recounted his performance.

"Yeah, I didn't even give a speech. I just went out there and did this really lame choreographed dance to "Street Fighter 2" and had a friend off stage making the sound effects. No speech. Just kung fu."

Is it any wonder that Hess won the student body president election by a landslide? As with his character, the nerd came out on top.

More than just Pedro's presidential campaign was based on Hess's personal experiences. Many of the stories-; from the phone call for chapstick to the cow execution in front of a school bus-; came straight from the lives of Jared and his five brothers.

"After my mom saw the movie, she said, 'Well, that was a lot of embarrassing family history on film,'" Hess said.

"One of Jared's brothers really did shave his head because it was hot outside," actor Efren Ramirez, who played the role of Pedro, said. "And another (friend) actually ordered a time machine."

The idea of Pedro "building a cake" to get a date for a dance was a true-to-life concept.

In fact, Hess himself once received an edible invitation to a Preston dance: a plate of muffins with the romantic caption, "There's muffin I'd rather do than go to the dance with you."

"If you ask out a girl, (in Preston) you don't just ask her. It becomes more of a stressful thing," Hess said.

Even with all the hilarious stories pulled straight from his Preston years, Hess admits that without one essential component, "Napoleon Dynamite" would probably not have hit the theaters.

That one factor was Hess's wife, Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote the film.

"It's extremely a perfect match. I couldn't be more lucky," Hess said of his wife. "I always feel like she's the smarter, funnier one of the both of us. She keeps everything moving forward. I probably would still be twiddling my thumbs in college trying to figure out what to do."

"I thought it'd be nice if you could pull me into town."

"Napoleon Dynamite" opened the eyes of the world to a place they had never seen: a place filled with brightly colored high-school lockers, chicken farms and llamas that eat ham.

People liked what they saw.

Since the release of the film in 2004, more than 26,000 "Napoleon" fans from all over the country (and even out of the country) have made a pilgrimage to see Preston first-hand. For a town with a population of 4,000, it was a phenomenon.

Penny Christensen of the Preston Chamber of Commerce said even four years after the movie's release, curiosity and excitement still draw fans and tourists to Preston.

"They come here, hundreds of miles out of their way, just to see Napoleon's town," Christensen said. "They'll walk in the chamber with kind of a stupid look on their face, like 'We don't know why we're here, but we had to come and see Napoleon.'"

Overall, the folks of Preston have embraced their stardom with wide open arms. Though the locals insist that not much has changed since the movie's release, one can't help but notice an influence. The Cuttin' Curral, an actual Preston salon, sports a "Napoleon Dynamite" poster in the window. A huge map of "Napoleon's world" fills a front window of the local newspaper, the Preston Citizen.

Overflowing bowls of boondoggle key chains with "Vote for Pedro" emblems fill several shelves at the Preston Chamber of Commerce, along with shelf after shelf of "Napoleon" postcards, T-shirts and paintings. Visitors can buy a "sweet Napoleon tour" map of Preston, which gives directions to several of the movie's landmarks, including Napoleon's house, Preston High School, Rite Wood Eggs and even the park where Kip and Lafawnduh play footsie.

Some "Napoleon" memorabilia hunters even collect "authentic" souvenirs beyond the key chains and T-shirts. Christensen said fans have paid for rocks out of the driveway of the home used for Pedro's house (featured in the infamous bike jump scene). A fan from California bought Uncle Rico's bright orange van, and someone even purchased the front door off Napoleon's house, according to local rumor.

The tourism boom was a welcomed source of income for the town.

"It's brought a lot of economy, a lot of business to Preston. At that time, it was pretty dead, and we needed something," Christensen said.

City leaders put their heads together and in 2005 created a way to capitalize on the booming "Napoleon" enterprise.

Every summer, fans can attend the annual Napoleon Days celebration, which falls near the time of the town's other annual attraction, the Preston Rodeo. Napoleon Days is a weekend-long celebration that helps re-create iconic images of the movie. If one attended Napoleon Days, he or she could compete in a Napoleon lookalike contest, wow a crowd with some sweet moves in a dance-off, chow down on Big J's tater tots, or be crowned king of the tetherball matches. Local celebrities from the movie often make an appearance to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Nearly 8,000 fans invaded Preston for Napoleon Days 2005. Numbers have dwindled the past two years, but Christensen is confident that the Napoleon-based tourism industry is far from over.

"I believe that people will still keep coming to Preston for many years; People will always come here to see Napoleon's town," she said.

"What are you going to do today, Napoleon? "

The majority of those involved in bringing "Napoleon" to the screen came with very little experience. Jon Heder (Napoleon) and Aaron Ruell (Kip) were friends with Hess during his Brigham Young University days and had never acted for a feature-length film. It was Hess' first full-length writing and directing endeavor.

But Hess wanted it that way.

"We didn't have the money or context to get a cast full of stars; everyone worked for pretzels, basically," Hess said. "And I think (moviegoers) accepted the actors because they didn't come with all the star baggage. You kind of believe and accept these people as the ones that inhabited that world. It would have been hard to contrive."

Perhaps the most non-contrived characters were those who were totally true to life: the locals.

Aside from the droves of Prestonites who appeared as extras in the film, a few scored speaking parts and integral roles. Three such characters are the school secretary, Thedora Petterborg; the kid on the bus, Jamen Gunnell; and Lyle, the cow-shooting farmer, Dale Critchlow.

Petterborg was indeed the real deal, having been the secretary at Preston High for close to 18 years. The role was beyond natural.

"I knew they'd been filming. I would see them driving to town, and I could see them setting up in different places. It was no big deal; it was just Jared filming again," Petterborg recalled. "Then I got this phone call from his assistant saying, 'Jared would like you to come be in his movie.'"

Though the occupation was true to life, Petterborg said the role required some tough acting on her part.

"I was never as grouchy as I was in the movie, but Jared wanted me to have a straight face," Petterborg said. "I said, 'Jared, you know I can't do that!'"

Jamen Gunnell, then a bleached-blond sixth-grader, had no idea that his one line, "What are you going to do today, Napoleon? " would launch him into the spotlight. In fact, his nonchalant avenue of earning a speaking role in the film was the last thing to indicate greatness and fame.

"I went to the (Preston High) auditorium and they said, 'You might have a speaking part. We'll contact you.' I didn't even audition or anything. I just said my name."

Now a sophomore at Preston High School, Gunnell said the "fandemonium" has yet to subside.

"I do get recognized a lot. People come from out of town, and they'll recognize me and ask me for my autograph," Gunnell said.

Fans' relentless zeal of everything "Napoleon" still amazes Gunnell.

"I thought it would die down eventually, but it hasn't really for me. It was just really weird because I just think I'm a normal kid, and people just come walking up to me, and they're all excited and stuff," he said.

Dale Critchlow never expected to score a hugely popular role in a major motion picture. The Preston resident of 43 years had been a farmer for most of his life and was intensely shy.

"I was never even in a school play maybe in chorus where you're singing," Critchlow said.

The farmer met Jared Hess when the young director was still in high school.

"We needed help one afternoon he and a friend come over and helped us. He wouldn't even accept money for help. He was a real nice kid," Critchlow said.

A few years later, Critchlow was atop a mound of hay when he saw his daughter and Hess walking toward him.

"He come over and talked to my daughter, and she said, 'Before you say no, listen to what he's got to say.'"

When Critchlow discovered Hess wanted him to pretend to shoot a cow in a scene for a movie he was making, the farmer thought a moment, then said, "Oh, I can do that."

Crtichlow appeared in two other movie scenes, which were written after filming started, one as the preacher for Kip and Lafawnduh's wedding.

Though part of the additional scene stemmed from necessity (Paramount Pictures demanded a trailer for the movie prior to its theatrical release, resulting in the final wedding scene after the credits), Hess admitted an ulterior motive for writing the farmer into extra scenes.

"He's really probably my favorite character in the film," Hess said. "He's so great, that guy. We thought Dale would be perfect (in the film) He's the real deal."

"Heck yes, I did!" Fans love "Napoleon"

J.J. Plew of Nampa became a "Napoleon Dynamite" fan just based on hearsay.

"I bought the movie even before I watched it," Plew admitted, saying he found co-workers' impersonations and conversation about the movie amusing already. "It was hilarious just talking about it before I watched it. I knew I was going to like it."

The movie did not disappoint.

For Plew, one of the funniest things about Napoleon Dynamite was "his mouth ...; and his Adam's apple."

"It's funny just how he was kind of in his own world. He gets that video and dances for the heck of it, how he builds himself up. Everyone knows a guy who likes to brag about how he's so good with a bow staff," Plew said.

Being born and raised in the remote community of Kimberly, Idaho, Plew said he found Napoleon's "small town mentality" extremely funny.

"The part with the bicycle, where Kip was hanging on getting the ride into town, that was pretty funny. I remember doing that in Kimberly," Plew laughed.

Beyond just an appreciation of the film, Plew has taken on the sincerest form of Napoleon flattery. He's tackled the sweet skill of being a Napoleon lookalike.

"I just started piecing an outfit together. I went to the local thrift store and picked me out a nice suit like he did, I found some nice glasses at Wal-Mart, and I just kind of went with my own style," Plew said.

Plew made a memorable appearance at a Napoleon Dynamite costume party (held at a bowling alley). His Napoleon impersonation was such a hit that he started donning the outfit more often.

"When they did start coming out with Napoleon Dynamite outfit kits, I ended up getting a wig, and I started a collection. My father-in-law had the moon boots, and now I pretty much have the whole costume with the authentic moon boots. I even have the suit and casual Napoleon Dynamite," Plew said.

Plew has trick-or-treated as Napoleon with his kids (teaming up with his brother-in-law, who dressed the part of Pedro) and has even attended church youth ministry functions in his Napoleon garb.

"Um, actually, all the kids knew who I was, and they were ranging from the ages 5 to 9," Plew confessed, but noted that it was a hit notwithstanding. "They actually asked me sorts of question like, 'What are you gonna do today, Napoleon? ' and 'What did you do last summer? ' And I told them I went hunting wolverines with a frickin' 12-gauge!"

"Flippin' awesome:" Why Napoleon made it big

There's something about this little indie film about a misfit Idaho teen that captured audiences around the world. In 2005, The Idaho Legislature even passed a resolution praising "Napoleon Dynamite" and the Hesses for the inventive film that launched Idaho into the spotlight. Sweet!

Efren Ramirez, in his role as Pedro, learned a thing or two about reaching an audience. His explanation of the movie's success is simple.

"There's passion in what he does," Ramirez said. "When you think about Idaho, you think about Jared Hess and 'Napoleon Dynamite.'"

According to Aaron Ruell, who played Kip, the movie's fame could stem from its true originality.

"It put Idaho on the map from a comedic perspective," Ruell said.

It could also be the simple product of one of Hess's greatest strengths as a filmmaker: capturing humanity.

"There were lots of those parts that were just people, and I think that's one of Jared's traits that he picks up on," Petterborg said.

"It's entertainment, and the best entertainment is a slice of life," Cattani said. "I see a lot of small town USA (in the movie), yet he has also captured the insecurities and athletic wannabes that are all over the country."

Hess, who has gone on to write and direct other films ("Nacho Libre," 2006, and "Gentlemen Broncos," coming to theaters in 2009), theorizes on what made his first movie venture so appealing to the masses.

"I think (it's) the different spectrum of characters in the movie. People can identify with somebody on every level. I think the different characters really strike a chord with people in different ways."

And all this stemmed from the director's experience in Idaho.

"To me Idaho is paradise. I don't think 'Napoleon' could have worked in any other setting. The whole character was inspired by my existence growing up in that part of the world. It wouldn't have been the same movie if it had taken place anywhere else."

Kendel Murrant is the cops and crime reporter for the Idaho Press-Tribune. She can be reached by e-mail a kmurrant@idahopress.com or by phone at 465-8169. On the Web: www.foxsearchlight.com/napoleondynamite/.

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