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We visit Preston, Idaho, hometown of Napoleon Dynamite (and director Jared Hess)

The A.V. Club
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August 15, 2013 AT 1:00 AM
The Napoleon Dynamite director may have graduated high school a year before Rushmore hit theaters, but looking through the yearbook at his alma mater of Preston Senior High in Preston, Idaho, it’s easy to get the strains of “Making Time” by Creation stuck in your head. Exhibit A: The suit and tie, the helmet, the walkie-talkie—Wes Anderson and Jared Hess were separated by 10 years and 1,600 miles, but in the Preston High yearbook, Hess shows Fischerian levels of precociousness. He was class president. He was a prominent member of the video-production crew. In one pic, he’s getting his unibrow plucked onstage in front of his classmates for charity. His fellow residents of Preston were used to seeing him with a video camera. As he says in the yearbook, “Making movies is my life. If I didn’t make movies, I wouldn’t have a life.” So when he returned to his hometown years after graduating high school to make Napoleon Dynamite, shot at his alma mater and some of his old haunts, everyone figured it was just another one of Hess’ movies. The low-budget indie definitely wouldn’t have looked like a big Hollywood production; the film cost only $400,000 to make, but would gross 10 times that after it made a splash at Sundance and became a hit theatrically. (Star Jon Heder was paid $1,000 for the role.)  More than a hit, Napoleon Dynamite became a phenomenon: Its many memorable lines were quoted incessantly until they became more annoying than funny (an occurrence known as Borat Syndrome), Jon Heder appeared as Napoleon for the MTV Movie Awards, and the character was spoofed in a risible Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer comedy—the truest indication of pop-culture oversaturation.  Nearly a decade after the film hit theaters, visitors still make the trek up to Preston to see Napoleon’s house, the high school, the thrift store, Pedro’s house, etc. People in town, unsurprisingly, have mixed feelings about that. Preston High principal Jeff Lords told us that some of them feel mocked by Napoleon Dynamite, but some just don’t want a bunch of attention on their small town. Lucky for them, Preston isn’t really close to much (Salt Lake City lies 100 miles south) or on the way to anything. The fans who make the trip are the diehards. Lords is happy to host—in the past, he’s let visitors take pictures in the auditorium where Napoleon danced his way into winning the election for Pedro. Before he moved to Preston a few years ago—after the film came out—he promised his former students that if they raised enough money for their charity drive, he’d do the entire Napoleon Dynamite dance at an assembly. They did, and he happily complied—though he’s not eager to share that video footage. But he’s happy to talk about the movie and the attention it still brings the town that produced Jared Hess. Cue “Oh La La” by Faces.