Written by Denis Faye
In my experience, horror writers come across as the most balanced people when interviewed, maybe because they excise their inner demons on the page. If you want neurotic, you need to talk to comedy writers.
Jared and Jerusha Hess are the exception to this rule. The married writing team behind Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre (co-written with Mike White) and Gentlemen Broncos, now out in theaters, seem warm, friendly and completely at ease. Jared, who also directs their films, is thrilled to death by the gnocchi lunch provided by his Fox Searchlight PR team and waxes on about his family and friends, occasionally giving them voices suspiciously similar to the eccentric characters in his movies. Jerusha is a little less chatty, but when she does talk, she is quick to engage her husband in rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of a Hepburn-Tracy film.
Somewhere in the middle of their flying barbs, the Writers Guild of America, West Web site asks the couple a few questions about their unique sense of humor, how their Mormon faith affects their craft, and why any time in the married writing duo’s life can be sexy time, as long as Jared plays his cards right.
I was watching Nacho Libre recently when my 5-year-old daughter wandered into the room. At first I was going to turn off the TV, but then I realized there was no reason not to let her watch it. How do you guys manage to walk the line between family friendly and hipster cool like that?
Jared Hess: We showed our 6-year-old boy Napoleon for the first time, and when I asked him his favorite part, he said, “Dad, I really liked that part where Napoleon says, ‘Do the chicken have large talents.’ That was pretty funny.” He thought he said talents instead of talons. I said, “Yeah, they do have talents.”
We derive so much inspiration from the characters in our films who are generally people we know, whether they’re immediate family or friends or people we’ve grown up with. After my mom saw Napoleon, she was like, “That was a lot of embarrassing family material.” Even more so in Gentlemen Broncos because the mother character is based on her and her strange exploits.
Photo: © 2009 Fox Searchlight
Jemaine Clement in Gentlemen Broncos.
Jerusha Hess: I do think we keep it in mind, because we’re constantly asked to go to schools and elementary schools. We’re talking to kids and kids love our movies, so when we’re writing this, we’re saying, “Yes, kids want to see this.”
Jared Hess: We try to avoid objectionable language in our movies. I guess that’s due to how we were raised. We got in trouble a lot if we swore.
But it’s funnier that way.
Jared Hess: Yeah, I guess it forces you to be more creative, and a lot of it is patterned after, in Napoleon, the way my brothers and I talked to each other. Ultimately, we are conscious about content. But Gentlemen Broncos has a PG-13 rating, largely due to the cloning humor.
Jerusha Hess: But if the question is, “Why do the hipsters like them?” I’m confused as to why they like them.
With the autobiographical aspect, is that an endless resource for you? What happens eight or nine films from now when you’ve used up all the characters you know?
Jared Hess: That’s a good question, man. I hope it doesn’t ever happen. We’re very social people. We never know who we’re going to meet at the Home Depot that inspires us.
I saw a thing on YouTube where Jerusha told Sam Rockwell that you guys plan to write for four hours a day, but you spend most of it eating. Is that true?
Jerusha Hess: It’s a bit of a joke, but it’s only a joke because it is real. We’re really slow at this. We’re kind of lazy–
Jared Hess: You’re not lazy! She’s selling herself short because if it weren’t for her, I don’t think I’d ever have done a film.
Jerusha Hess: Still, we do a lot of eating.
Jared Hess: Well, take a lunch break.
Jerusha Hess: And a breakfast break.
Jared Hess: Well, yeah. A big part of our process is spitballing ideas for quite a long time verbally before we write anything down.
And how long does it take the two of your to turn out a script?
Jared Hess: It’s hard to gauge but probably about six months or something.
Jerusha Hess: Once you start actually typing it all out, we have this goal of getting two pages a day.
Jared Hess: Which, depending on how heavy the lunch was, determines if that’s accomplishable or not.
When it comes to the humor in your films, the silence is almost as important as the gag, if not more so. How does that play out in on the page?
Jerusha Hess: Jared writes every other word a “pause” or “beat.” He’s one of those writers.
Jared Hess: Yeah, to your point, there is a layer that doesn’t show up on the page, so I think in telling, you know, yeah–
Jerusha Hess: I think what Jared’s trying to say is, when we write, we could just write the script and do one thing, but since he’s directing, he goes in after the fact, and it kind of becomes a shooting script. He writes in camera moves sometimes. He just has to see every angle in his mind before he feels good about the script.
If I got a copy of one of your scripts before I saw the movie, would it be as funny?
Jared Hess: Well, uh, for me–
Jerusha Hess: No.
Jared Hess: I don’t know. At least for me, I have to hear exactly how each character sounds. I think a lot of our stuff is funny because of how the voices sound, the whole rhythm of everything. I don’t know if that comes out on the page. With the whole Napoleon Dynamite script, until you kind of heard how he talked, I don’t know if some of the stuff would be that funny.
We discussed your creative process earlier, but can we go into more detail?
Jared Hess: Our writing process. You want to hear the ritual?
Whatever makes for sexier copy.
Jared Hess: We get our babysitter. We have two kids, babysitter comes over, we go to the office, and if we’re hungry, we may go get breakfast first.
Jerusha Hess: Every time. We always go get breakfast. If we don’t eat breakfast at 10, we’re getting breakfast at one.
Jared Hess: Breakfast food is comfort food. And then we go to the office and sit around and talk with the computer on our lap, and I might watch a few YouTube videos for inspiration.
You each have a laptop on your lap?
Jared Hess: Usually just one.
Jerusha Hess: Jared is usually at the white board, doodling.
Jared Hess: And 20 minutes before we go home and have to relieve our babysitter, we hope we have two pages done.
Jerusha Hess: And anytime Jared gets, like, a good theme, he thinks it’s time to take a break and make out.
Jerusha Hess: You wanted it sexy.
Jared Hess: It’s like a little celebration.
As your popularity increases and the pool of “known” talent you work with increases, how does that affect your creative process?
Jared Hess: With Gentlemen Broncos, I was such a big fan of Sam Rockwell and Jemaine [Clement] and Jennifer Coolidge and these were all people we’d never worked with before and they were all so talented and had such a knack for improv. We don’t do a lot of improv generally in the films we’ve done. We like to be prepared and know what we’re doing. But in their case, it was really cool to have a chance to work with people who were trying to bring more to the table then what we had in the script. But the cool thing about them too, is, based on our previous work, they knew we had a very specific vision and they were really respectful of that.
Have either of you ever had to sleep on the couch over a script argument?
Jared Hess: That would be me and it usually involves me wanting to do something dumb or disturbing in the script and Jerusha saying no.
Jerusha Hess: I usually get angry because Jared’s right. And he’s the director, and I’m just angry because I don’t have ultimate control of the script.
Jared Hess: And I might shoot it anyway when she’s not on set.
Jerusha Hess: So I make him pay for it.
So do you each have distinct voices on your own? If you wrote scripts individually, how would they turn out?
Jerusha Hess: I think our voices are similar; they’re just varied in degree. Maybe it’s because I’ve adapted his voice over time. I just wrote a script without Jared, and I heard his voice through some of my writing. He’s hard to get away from.
Jared Hess: And I read the script, and I feel like I’ve been holding her back all these years.
That’s sad. I’m sorry to hear that.
Okay, so, I’m going to end this on a question I bet you’ve gotten a million times. The Mormon question. Is that okay?
Jared Hess: Oh, yeah
Jerusha Hess: We never get asked it.
Jared Hess: Well, sometimes. I don’t know why people are afraid to ask it.
Jerusha Hess: It’s not like we’re the most fascinating people on Earth.
Jared Hess: Zzzzz … zzzzz… zzzzz…
It’s just that whenever someone’s deeply religious, you wonder how that affects their creative process. You know, like Richard Gere and his Buddhist thing.
Jared Hess: You mean how we can reconcile our faith with our industry?
Jared Hess: It’s funny. When I was young I interned as a camera assistant with a friend of the family that also happens to be Mormon. Working with a lot of people on the different film crews in Utah when I was in high school and stuff, a lot of them had decided, gosh, they could only work on run-of-the-mill kids’ films that were rated G, not very compelling because if we went of to L.A. and worked, we’d have to work on stuff that didn’t align with our faith.
Jerusha Hess: I guess there are only two different types of film in the world. There’s porn, and then there’s Disney fare.
Jared Hess: I never thought that way. We don’t really think about it a lot.
Jerusha Hess: I think with our faith, it’s a cultural thing, and it’s a lifestyle thing, and we don’t ever really have to differentiate, so it’s never really an issue. I know people think, “Oh my goodness, Jared and Jerusha, we’re not allowed to say ‘retard’ on the set of this movie! They might get angry.”
Jared Hess: It’s really funny. We shot a lot of our last film in Salt Lake City, so for our cast, it was the first time they’d been around a whole lot of Mormons, and it was kind of cool and refreshing to see that a lot of the stereotypes they may have seen or heard about were put to bed because we’re just a lot of good people.
Jerusha Hess: I think a lot of the stereotypes are true too, though.
But in your writing, do you avoid, say, coffee jokes?
Jared Hess: No. I think our grandparents would be the only ones ever to raise their eyebrows to that. “Oh, that coffee scene was a little upsetting!” My grandpa would have set me down and said, “Jared, you could have used Ovaltine.”