Summary List Placement
With a shoestring budget, offbeat characters, and a largely-unknown cast, indie comedy “Napoleon Dynamite” is one of Hollywood’s most surprising success stories.
“Napoleon Dynamite” was first released in 2004 after premiering to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It was also a major hit when it received a wider release from Fox Searchlight Pictures. “Vote for Pedro” shirts soon became ubiquitous, as did references to “ligers” — a half-tiger, half-lion hybrid drawn by Napoleon.
Jared Hess and his wife, Jerusha, wrote a film about a high school loner Napoleon (Jon Heder) and his eccentric circle of friends and family.
Set in Preston, Idaho, where Hess himself spent much of his adolescence, the film perfectly captures the backwards charm of a small rural town, where Cyndi Lauper and Moon Boots reign supreme even in the year 2004, and after-school chores include feeding pet llamas.
One of the film’s most iconic moments occurs near the end, when Napoleon performs a stunningly skillful dance (to funk band Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat”) in front of his peers in order to help his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) become class president.
Napoleon’s moves became the stuff of legend after the movie turned into a blockbuster. But Heder told Insider he just kind of “winged it” when it came to filming the scene since there was no choreographer working on the movie.
For the film’s 17th anniversary, Insider spoke to Heder, Hess, who also directed the film, and Ramirez about how Napoleon’s now legendary solo dance scene came to be — and why the film’s quiet charm endures years after its release.
The director first learned of Heder’s dance skills while they were both students at Brigham Young University
The way Heder explained it, he and his twin brother, Dan, were always “obsessed” with the 70s and “loved the 70s all through high school.”
But when the brothers arrived at Provo, Utah’s BYU in the late 90s, their obsession reached new heights. Inspired by disco music and the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever,” they began dancing together on nights out. When the twins’ lives started “forking,” or growing apart, the actor continued to dance on his own, mostly at the bidding of his friends.
“I was obsessed with Jamiroquai. I just loved them. When their newest album came out that was the album I was dancing to everywhere,” Heder said of the British funk band’s 2001 project, “A Funk Odyssey.”
It didn’t take long before Heder’s dance moves caught the attention of Hess, who was also enrolled at BYU at the time. The two soon collaborated on a short film, “Peluca,” which followed a quirky high schooler named Seth (Heder), whom Hess described to Insider as “kind of the same character” as Napoleon.
While shooting “Peluca” in Idaho, the crew had extra film left so Hess decided to film Heder grooving in character, inspired by the actor’s now infamous dancing.
You just wouldn’t expect a guy that looks like that to throw down some wicked moves.director Jared Hess
“I was like, ‘Jon, while you’re still dressed up in the moon boots and everything, let’s go shoot this shot,'” Hess recalled to Insider. “‘At the end of this empty dirt road, I’ll just turn on the radio, and whatever’s playing, just dance to the music.'”
Hess ended up filming Heder dancing for “a minute and a half” to a Jamiroquai song that just so happened to be playing on the radio.
“The dynamic of seeing this guy that looked like [Heder], being able to throw down some pretty impressive moves, is so strange and entertaining and funny all at the same time,” the director said. “It was just kind of this incredible epiphany that occurred.”
Ultimately, that dance scene didn’t end up making it into “Peluca.” But Hess and his wife were inspired to include a similar sequence in the feature they were writing — called “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Heder recalled Hess telling him at the time, “‘Yeah, it’s going to be the climax for the film; you dancing.'”
Heder got the ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ dance scene done in three takes
In the film, Napoleon’s impassioned dance to Jamiroquai (during an assembly in front of the whole school) comes as a last-ditch effort to secure votes for Pedro, his new friend who desperately wants to be class president. But the dance also impresses Napoleon’s friend and maybe-crush Deb (Tina Majorino), and forces his high school classmates to think of him in a new light.
Hess and Heder told Insider that they took a more unorthodox approach to filming the now-iconic scene. Running low on funds and unsure what song Napoleon would actually be dancing to, the cast and crew were forced to get creative.
“We had one roll of film left and basically had just three takes to get the entire dance sequence filmed,” Hess said. “I remember after each take I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I didn’t think that we had it. I was really worried.”
“And so I just kind of had to live with it and cross my fingers,” he added.
Although the film didn’t have a choreographer to help Heder with his dance moves, the actor knew that he wanted to make Napoleon’s dance markedly different from the character’s normal physicality.
“Like, Napoleon barely moves. He doesn’t express a lot, he doesn’t get that animated,” Heder recalled. “We knew the vibe of the whole movie and the purpose of this dancing would be so different than the way Napoleon usually moves.”
He also had some pretty straightforward direction from Hess: “Dude, you just do your thing.”
“That was his direction. He just put it in my hands,” Heder said. “Then I realized, you know what, I’ll just do what I normally do. I’ll just do my best to make it as funky as I can and as good as I can.”
Really the Napoleon dance is just dancing from your heart.Jon Heder
Hess also told Insider that some skillful editing was involved to make Heder’s dance even more memorable, combining the best shots from multiple takes for the final version.
“When we got into the cutting room, when we were editing the film, it was like, ‘Oh, wow. Yeah, we’ve definitely got it,'” the director recalled. “We ended up kind of Frankensteining together different dance moves from all three takes that we did and [put] them together as one.”
“It worked because it wasn’t a professionally choreographed sequence,” Heder added. “It had a little of that ‘just making it up as I go’ vibe.”
Adding to the pressure was the fact that Heder had to dance to multiple songs with similar tempos, in the event that their licensing request for Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat,” the second single from the band’s fourth album, “Synkronized,” was denied.
“One take was to ‘Canned Heat.’ Another take was to ‘Little L,’ which is another Jamiroquai track from their album ‘Funk Odyssey,'” Heder detailed. “And then we danced to a Michael Jackson song from ‘Off the Wall.'”
Both creatives agree that the scene wouldn’t have been quite the same if they hadn’t secured the rights to “Canned Heat,” but that ultimately, the success of the scene came down to the hilarious visual of Heder’s character dancing his heart out.
“At the end of the day, you still would have had a nerd performing some ridiculous dance moves in front of a high school,” Hess said.
And Napoleon’s audience? Those were real high school students from Preston, Idaho, who worked for free, according to the director.
“We didn’t have any money we could offer them,” Hess recalled of casting the students. “It was just like, ‘Hey, wanna come be in a movie and get a free bottle of Gatorade’ or whatever we had out of the cooler. But we offered everybody a credit in the film. So it’s a pretty long credit sequence at the end.”
The extras didn’t even get to see Heder’s dance, nor did any of the other cast members.
“We actually shot all of their reaction stuff, weirdly enough, without Jon dancing. Cause they didn’t want Jon to overdo it,” Hess explained. “Jon was literally just performing for the crew. He wasn’t even performing for an actual audience of extras, which is kind of weird. He was boogieing down for just a bunch of film school friends.”
The result was one of the most memorable movie climaxes in recent years: a quietly joyous, slow-building celebration of dance and movement, performed by one of film’s most unassuming protagonists.
“We had no idea how it was gonna turn out until we went to the Sundance Film Festival and we saw the whole thing,” Ramirez, who played Pedro, recalled. “It was just perfect — from the crowd’s reaction to Heder’s dancing.”
In the years since its release, Heder’s dance has become an instantly recognizable part of the film
Nothing has been quite able to match the barely-contained exuberance and self-effacing coolness of Napoleon’s dance since, and the scene has become as much of a calling card for the movie as a “Vote for Pedro” shirt.
“As a character, it definitely won Napoleon some long overdue respect,” Hess said of the dance. “It’s like, here’s a guy that’s just flying under the radar in life and is underestimated by everyone. Suddenly he has a showcase for this weird secret talent, but he’s using it to help his best friend. ”
“This is what a friend would do for his friend, and that Napoleon put himself on the line like that, that’s so wonderful to see,” he told Insider. “It’s like, wow, that’s what friends are for.”
But if you’re expecting Heder to ever bust a groove like that again, don’t wait on it.
“It was all freestyle. I didn’t memorize it. I mean, look, I’ve seen it many times, so there’s certainly moves I could do, but I don’t remember the order,” he said.
“I always tell people: Really the Napoleon dance is just dancing from your heart,” Heder added. “It’s just like, feeling it and just letting it go. Because what it was. That’s just all I did for it, was just feeling the groove.”