From creators/executive producers Jared and Jerusha Hess, Napoleon Dynamite is an animated series on Fox, based on the hit film and following the comic adventures of America’s most awesomely awkward teenager and his offbeat family and friends, as they navigate small-town life in rural Idaho. With the original cast of the film (including Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Sandy Martin and Diedrich Bader) back to voice their roles, the first set of episodes also features an impressive guest cast with Amy Poehler, Jennifer Coolidge, Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement.
While at the TCA Winter Press Tour, Jared and Jerusha Hess sat down with Collider for this exclusive interview and talked about how the animated series came about, how excited the cast was to reprise their roles, how freeing it was to be able to do anything with the story in an animated version, and that Jared is doing about half a dozen different voices himself. They also talked about what their next projects might be, and Jerusha talked about her directorial debut, Austenland (based on the novel about a woman obsessed with the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, who travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman), starring Keri Russell and produced by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
JARED HESS: Yeah, it was something we had wanted to do. We’d always felt that, if we continued the world, animation would be the way to do it because everybody gets old and it was a movie that took place in high school.
JERUSHA HESS: The timing, for us, couldn’t have been any earlier because we were making other movies. We just felt like Napoleon was at this big high and everyone needed a break. Now, people have had a break and they’re just as excited.
Were you surprised, with each year that passed, that so many people kept asking about it?
JERUSHA: Yes, we thought it was going to die. It was like, “Die, already!”
JARED: Yeah, I think people just related to the characters. And, new generations of kids are watching it, that are just starting high school and can relate to it and quote it. It’s had this weird staying power. It’s just that kids discover it and get it, and it becomes a cult thing with their friends, as it was seven years ago, when it came out.
Did you make sure that you could get the cast back together, before you agreed to do this?
JARED: Yeah. We called everybody or emailed everybody and gave them a heads up about the idea.
JERUSHA: They were all very excited.
JARED: We wanted to make sure they could do it because we wanted to do it right. Things that have been adapted into animation, like when the M.C. Hammer cartoon came out, I don’t think it was M.C. Hammer doing his voice, which was a real bummer. Maybe it was. I could be totally wrong.
JERUSHA: There’s Kung Fu Panda adaptation, too, and I don’t think Jack [Black] is doing that.
JARED: Just creatively, for us, the characters are so specific that we had to have the cast do it. And in our mind, there was no other way to do it, other than to get everybody together.
JARED: Yeah. It took awhile for some of the characters to come back. They were like, “How did I do the character’s voice?”
JERUSHA: They’re not themselves, and it’s been awhile.
JARED: Before the first table read, I told everybody, “Watch the film again. Try to remember how you did the voice. Try to imitate how you did it here, but we’re gonna bring it up a notch, so it feels more suited to animation, which is a lot more high energy.”
JERUSHA: Who brought it immediately was Efren Ramirez, with Pedro. He was back on, like that. He gets big laughs, at the table reads.
JARED: It was good, though. By the third table read, everybody zeroed in on adapting their character to animation.
What was it like for you guys to make the transition from live-action to animation?
JERUSHA: It’s so lovely! I think that’s the way forward. You don’t have to be on some horrible location for 12 hours a day. Someone else is doing all the hard work.
JARED: If you’re writing something that you know you’re going to direct, during the writing process, you’re constantly thinking about execution, at least for me. It’s like, “Okay, how am I going to pull this off?” If I’m going to write it, I’ve gotta know how I’m going to do it.
JERUSHA: We write crazy things and just expect that the animators can do it, and they do, and it’s amazing.
JARED: With animation, you’re not thinking about that. It costs just as much to draw a car, as it does to draw a spaceship or an explosion. You’re liberated. You don’t feel totally restricted. It’s so much fun.
JERUSHA: It’s awesome! It’s very fun.
Was it a fairly typical recording process for the voices, or did you have them work together, at all?
JERUSHA: But, there were episodes that Grandma (Sandy Martin) and Kip (Aaron Ruell) had a real big relationship, or Rico (Jon Gries) and Napoleon (Jon Heder), and they would come in together for those things.
JARED: For me, I like to keep track, and it’s tough to keep track and take good notes of a good take when you have the whole cast in there. So, it’s easier just to bring them in one at a time and get it right.
Were there things that you were most excited about getting to do because it was animation, that you couldn’t have done with a sequel, or even put into the first movie?
JARED: Yeah, we have an episode about Ligers, called “Ligertown,” and we would not have been able to do that in the film. There are so many things like that. Just being able to explore what’s inside Napoleon’s head and his imagination and what world lives inside of his mind, we can cut to and show in animation. In live-action, that would be more expensive to do and a little more difficult.
Where are these characters at in their lives, in this animated series?
JERUSHA: Though, we do have a reference to the dance that Napoleon does, and Pedro is now the President of Preston High, so it’s towards the end of the movie, but before the Lafawnduh marriage.
JARED: And, that could be a long time.
Did you make sure to keep in mind that people could be coming to this without having seen the movie?
JARED: Yeah, we thought about that. It was something that we talked about, every day in the writers room. We wanted people to be able to dive right in, having not seen the film, and just enjoy it and get into it. A couple of people in our writing staff showed clips to family members that never saw the film, and they dove right in. It’s not a prerequisite to have seen the film, at all, but there are shout-outs and references to things in the film that fans will really love.
How did you end up assembling your guest cast?
JERUSHA: It happened to be people that we’ve worked with before.
JERUSHA: And, they were all so excited to do it when we asked them.
JARED: Everybody was awesome, and they do such funny characters in the episodes. There was the bully guy that wore white all the time, in the movie, named Don, and I actually do his voice in the animated series. And, Jennifer Coolidge plays his mom. Coolidge is super-funny. She’s so funny.
JERUSHA: They’re the elite of Preston, and snotty as all get-out. Amy played a girlfriend option for Kip in the pilot episode. And, Sam Rockwell plays a nemesis, in an FFA episode.
JARED: He’s the king of the FFA. He’s Napoleon’s competition.
JERUSHA: We would probably bring him back to live again. And, Jemaine Clement plays a high school teacher at Preston High.
Jerusha, with your husband doing a bunch of voices for the series, you had no desire to sneak a voice in there yourself?
JARED: Maybe it will come true.
JERUSHA: I can’t handle my own voice, even hearing it echoing on a cell phone. It’s horrible.
JARED: I don’t mind hearing myself do another character, but I can’t watch myself.
JERUSHA: Jared plays Don, the high schooler. He plays Starla, Rex Kwon Do’s (Diedrich Bader) wife. He plays a hairdresser. He plays the farmer that shoots the cow. And, a Latino disc jockey.
JARED: I do a few voices because our budget is low and I have to. It is so much fun.
How does your writing process work?
JERUSHA: With this, we have a team of really brilliant people and we just get to sit back and say, “That’s funny.”
JARED: We wrote the pilot. Before they ordered the show, we put together a package and had a bunch of storylines and concepts. We developed three or four episodes for this first season, and then we wanted everybody to get involved that was on our team and feel ownership in this. It’s not just ours, but we’re developing something new. We have such funny people on our writing staff. The first couple of weeks, driving home, Jerusha would be like, “My face hurts from laughing so hard.” We were lucky with all of the amazing writers that we have on the show.
JERUSHA: We had a break in projects and I knew this author and she had a book, and the stars just aligned. It was nice. We’ve made three movies for the boys, and it was nice to make a movie for the girls.
What was it like to work with Shannon Hale and have that different writing partnership for the project?
JERUSHA: It was fun. It’s just so easy with Jared because I know him. If I don’t like his idea, I can tell him to sleep on the couch. I have a lot more control with Jared. It was harder with another person. But, it worked out.
What was it about that story that attracted you?
JERUSHA: The story is very simple and sweet, but I thought there was room for a lot of crazy quirkiness in it. That’s what I think I brought to it.
How did you end up teaming up with Stephenie Meyer, as a producer?
JERUSHA: It was great. She knew the author as well, and she just wanted to be a part of it. She was heavily involved. She’s great. She was really lovely and it was really fun. When I was directing the movie, she was so supportive and just enjoyed the comedy of it. She enjoyed being on a set that was laid back and didn’t have paparazzi circling it. It was a good change of pace. She was like, “Oh, this is how movies are made? I didn’t know.”
What was it about Keri Russell that made you want her, as your leading lady?
JERUSHA: She is so amazing. When I asked her to be in it, she was like, “Look, I just want you to know that I’m the actress you want to make your first movie with. I am not a diva. I’m just so easy.” She’s such a delightful human being. She’s just a person who’s very talented and so sweet.
JARED: I’ve got a project with Lorne Michaels company, that I’m hopefully going to do this coming year, which is exciting.
JERUSHA: And, someone else has been writing that.
JARED: Because our writing time has been spent on the show. It’s a short first season, which will end in February. If we get picked up, we would go right into production on the scripts. They’ve already ordered more scripts, so we’re working on that. So, if I do a movie, then the team is off and running. It’s a balancing act.
Will the film have a similar tone to your previous work?
JERUSHA: Yes, absolutely.
JARED: It’s based on this true story of these people who robbed $17 million in 1998 and pulled off a heist, but made some horribly bad decisions, afterwards. It’s really funny.
JERUSHA: They’re the most unlikely criminals, in the world. We like to base things in truth.
JARED: No, we’re finishing up the second draft of the script right now and it’s still going through the process at the studio.
Jerusha, now that you’ve had the experience, are you looking to direct again?
JERUSHA: I would love to! It’s a give and take, when you have babies. And, Jared makes 40 times as much as me.
JARED: Which might be $1 more.
JERUSHA: I don’t make very much money. So, he’ll make the next one and we’ll see when I can do it again. I would love to. I had such a fun time doing it. I loved my actors. They were lovely.