How ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ Filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess Got the Oscars’ Attention by Pivoting to Animation

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess have a working relationship so blessedly intertwined, they even share the same Wikipedia page. So the infectious spirit with which the “Napoleon Dynamite” collaborators received the news of their first-ever Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film — for their elegiac 13-minute “Ninety-Five Senses” — feels right on brand for the Salt Lake City-based team.

The short chronicles the recollections of a death-row inmate named Coy (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson), who recounts his tale in vignettes illustrating the five senses and how they evaporate from the body after one’s passing. Each sense is animated by a completely different team to give the feeling of timelessness, with the styles running the gamut from hand-drawn to CG-enhanced.

A scene from “Ninety-Five Senses”
A scene from “Ninety-Five Senses”

“Salt Lake Film Society started a new arm during COVID,” Jerusha said. “And it was a really cool and lovely idea where they take filmmakers who have worked in the industry and pair them with up-and-coming animators. We picked six different animators and along the way, our buddies Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer jumped on board and wrote this script knowing that it was going to be for five to six animators. That’s how they picked the five senses as the vehicle to show each chapter.”

They began work on “Ninety-Five Senses” in 2020, during the early pandemic and while the Hesses were already working on Netflix’s animated adaptation of “Thelma the Unicorn.” The subject matter hit home for everyone involved. “I
think the whole mood of the world affected the emotion — the themes of death and reflecting on your life and having gratitude for things in spite of the heartbreak that you’re experiencing,” Jared said.

The result is a sobering examination of capital punishment in which the animation makes it feel even more urgent, even though the film does not have a political bent. “It was really an international group,” Jared said, noting that
many of the animators hailed from Latin America, now gaining steam in the animation game. “Some were just out of film school; some are still in film school. It was just an incredible collection of young, talented artists that brought this
thing to life.”

It might seem bizarre that the wonderfully eclectic Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Watchmen,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) would be a new colleague for the duo, but he fit exactly into the proceedings and enhanced the emotional timbre of the piece. “Tim was our muse from the very beginning,” Jared said. “We’re just huge fans of all of his work. And he’s born and raised in Oklahoma. He just has such an authentic drawl he’s bringing to life.” Jerusha added, “He specifically found a Texas accent to do, which is so cool. He’s such a pro. And when we met him, it really felt like, ‘Oh, yeah, you feel like you have been a part of us forever.’”

The short film format is proving to be attractive for many of the world’s most individualistic filmmakers: Wes Anderson is a nominee for Best Live Action Short Film this year while Pedro Almodóvar made that category’s shortlist. “You have the freedom to be personal,” Jared said. “And there’s such a purity about it. You’re doing things for the love.” Jerusha added, “There’s not really any money going into it, you don’t get any money out of it. And sometimes these little stories [wouldn’t] get any light shined on them if they were feature-length.”

The news of their nomination was especially heartwarming coming the week that “Napoleon Dynamite” enjoyed a 20th anniversary screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Jerusha attended the screening while Jared was hard at work on the much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of video game phenomenon “Minecraft.”

“I had just watched it for the first time in 10 years, with my 11-year-old. She was giggling the whole time and I had a big smile plastered on my face,” Jerusha said of their tiny indie — made for a minuscule $400,000 — that ended up becoming a massive hit, grossing roughly 100 times what it cost to produce. “It just holds up in the weirdest way,” she said, laughing. “Sitting with it now, I’m like, ‘This is such a tight, funny, dumb movie.’’’

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more of the issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024

Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap

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