MISSOULA, Mont. — It’s been two decades since a quirky, low-budget student film made all of our wildest dreams come true, and to mark the occasion, dozens of Napoleons, Pedros, Kips, Uncle Ricos — and even a couple masters of Rex Kwon Do — rode their llamas here Friday to celebrate all things “Napoleon Dynamite.”
The campus of the University of Montana may not be the first place people would expect a rally for the indie cult classic film that even now has people wishing they could Vote For Pedro instead of their real candidates.
And yet, hundreds of people packed a sold-out Dennison Theatre to listen to the hilarious reminiscences of Napoleon Dynamite himself (Jon Heder) along with his best friend Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez) and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries).
Spoiler alert, he still doesn’t throw a football over them mountains.
The starring trio is touring Montana and Idaho on a 20th anniversary celebration of the release of their film in 2004. They were in Great Falls the night before and scheduled another event in Idaho Falls on Saturday.
The VIP Experience
More than 100 lucky VIP ticket-holders were patiently and quietly lined up inside the theatre Friday, waiting for a professional picture with the actors and an autographed poster. Many were dressed as their favorite characters, while others carried pieces of movie memorabilia for an autograph.
Suddenly, the curtain on the stage parted and the stars appeared. A brief moment of stunned surprise was followed by a cheer from a few VIPs.
“Thanks, one person!” Heder shouted humorously. Then Ramirez rushed to one of the onstage microphones.
“Thanks for waiting. Go Griz,” he said in Pedro’s distinct monotone in a shout-out to the University of Montana mascot, again to a rapturous response.
The VIPs approached the three actors, who eagerly and energetically asked for everyone’s name and shook hands before pausing for a photo. Any hints of nervousness at meeting them dissipated almost instantly, as everyone felt comfortable with the affable actors.
Meanwhile, the lobby was filled with people coming for the main event, many dressed as their favorite characters.
In Front Of A Live Audience
The evening started with a screening of the movie. From the moment the opening credits began, it was clear the assembled audience was ready to enjoy themselves, lending an electrifying atmosphere to the theater that made the movie even funnier.
Experience with “Napoleon Dynamite” varied amongst the attendees. A handful were watching the film for the first time, while others were “OG fans” who saw it in theaters during its initial release, and dozens of times since.
The biggest crowd pleasers were Napoleon’s admonishments of Tina the Llama, the aftermath of Uncle Rico’s first attempt at time travel and farmer Lyle shooting the cow in front of a busload of children (based on a true story, as many of the script’s moments are.) But the loudest audience reaction was reserved for the film's most iconic moment: Napoleon’s dance to save Pedro’s school presidential campaign at the movie’s climax.
After the credits rolled and Kip and LaFawnduh concluded their post-credits wedding, the “moment you’ve all been waiting for” arrived. The rest of the event would be a Q&A session with the actors, ready to make everyone’s wildest dreams come true.
Gries appeared from behind the curtain playing guitar, followed by Ramirez playing harmonica. They played a bluesy tune as they made their way to center stage.
Heder soon appeared riding a bicycle from the back of the audience to the stage. He grabbed a keyboard and joined his fellow actors.
“Are you guys ready for some sick beats?” he asked before the trio played a welcome song, thanking everyone for attending that evening.
‘What You See Is What You Get’
When the jam session ended, the trio took their seats on a makeshift set adorned with plenty of objects iconic to the film: a football, a piñata, nunchucks and a tetherball pole.
Even the time machine there, which the actors used to take everyone back to 2001 and the inception of “Napoleon Dynamite.” Someone in the audience even provided the essential crystals to make the time machine function properly.
The project started as a black-and-white student film with Hader in the leading role during his time at Brigham Young University. It turned out so well that the writer and director, Jared Hess, was inspired to make a feature film based on his high school years in Preston, Idaho.
Heder, Ramirez and Gries took turns sharing how they became part of the film and reveled in the process. Ramirez was offered a role in the big-budget period film “The Alamo” when he was told he had been cast as Pedro.
“I asked my dad what I should do,” he said. “And my dad told me to follow my heart. And I thought, ‘Hey, that’s what Napoleon told Pedro to do,’ so I took the role.”
Gries was told the character of Uncle Pedro was “David Hasselhoff meets Burt Reynolds meets Elvis,” which immediately captivated him.
“The page was perfection,” he said.
The $400,000 movie was filmed entirely in Preston in summer 2003. It made more than $46 million during its theatrical run in 2004, immediately gaining pop culture infamy.
Heder said that after multiple Q&As like that night’s event, they noticed a theme that tended to come up in the questions.
“Everything you see is pretty much as it seems,” he said. “This movie’s a documentary, for all intents and purposes.”
Hess wrote the movie based on his Idaho experiences and those of his brothers. Many of the performances in the movie, such as Lyle the farmer and Randy the bully, were played by the actual people who inspired the scenes.
Even the time machine encounter was based on a real event when actor Aaron Ruell’s brother used their parents’ PayPal account to buy one off eBay (it cost $640). And yes, someone did get zapped while trying it out.
That authenticity translated to the production process.
“If it looks like it tastes bad, it tasted bad,” Heder said. “If it looks like it hurt, it hurt. If it looked like it smells bad or good, it smelled that way.”
“What you see is what you get,” Gries added.
Part Of The Skit
That was the most formal part of the Q&A, and all three actors were eager to hear from the audience. The bulk of the next hour was spent answering questions and distributing well-intentioned snark to the audience as they discussed many aspects of the film and characters.
Heder moved through the audience with a microphone while fans got to ask pressing questions, ranging from genuine inquiries to references to the film. One fan asked Gries if he still had any Bust Must + supplements (they were “for a friend”), while another asked for the true meaning of Kip’s clever quip that sends Deb running off their front porch, “Your mom goes to college.”
Another asked if Napoleon wanted to play him at tetherball (but the prop wasn’t set up for a game with the intensity of a Napoleon Dynamite match).
The actors were clearly enjoying themselves and were more than comfortable riffing the audience. When Heder was told someone’s brother won a talent show by memorizing the choreography of his iconic dance, Heder revealed there was no choreography.
“That was all freestyle, so your brother wasted 10 hours of his life,” he said, while acknowledging the dance was one of the few “unscripted” moments of the movie and the moves were “whatever I farted out in the moment.”
“I usually don’t take tots from strangers,” Heder said as he accepted a tater tot offered by a front-row fan (it was spicy). Gries later accepted some tots himself, even trying to throw one into Heder’s mouth (which was slightly more on-target than Uncle Rico’s footballs).
At one point, Ramirez asked if anyone in the audience was celebrating a birthday and was soon distributing cakes he “built” to help them celebrate. Later, Heder rewarded fans who answered two “Napoleon Dynamite” trivia questions with boondoggle keychains he made.
Heder revealed that he and the production crew made all of the boondoggle keychains seen in the movie.
One of the final Q&A questions was about the possibility of a “Napoleon Dynamite” sequel. Heder said there isn’t one in the works, but added, “I don’t think the book of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is closed.”
Then thunderous applause.
The question got the actors going and, for a moment, they got lost debating their interpretations of where their characters would be 20 years later.
Heder believed the sequel would be a drama where Napoleon would’ve lost his iconic hair and his budding romance with Deb. But he would resolve to find her again and finally fix his teeth.
Ramirez saw Pedro marrying Summer Wheatly and opening “a law business,” or law firm, for those who want to get technical with terms.
Gries assumed Uncle Rico would be in litigation for something he posted on his TikTok channel.
Wildest Dreams Coming True
The only way to end a live “Napoleon Dynamite” event is with a dance competition.
Heder, Ramirez, and Gries encouraged everyone who came in costume to join them onstage for a freestyle dance-off.
The music from Napoleon’s dance played, and those onstage were told to let loose and go with the flow. The clear winner was Josh, who dressed as Napoleon and flawlessly executed many of the dance moves with the actors’ encouragement.
Soon, Josh was the only person onstage dancing. Even Heder stopped to watch. Josh’s prize was a T-shirt from the “Napoleon Dynamite” worldwide tour (that never went worldwide).
“We’ve never had a dance-off where everyone cleared to the side and said, ‘Just go, bro,’” Ramirez said.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening for everyone, especially Heder, Ramirez and Gries. They admitted that the cast remains close and that none of them would be doing the 20th anniversary tour if they didn’t enjoy the company of their costars.
Gries recalled the premiere of “Napoleon Dynamite” at the Sundance Film Festival. The entire cast and crew moved through the community, distributing posters, Vote for Pedro buttons and pictures of ligers to promote the film. And in case you don’t remember, “It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed, bred for its skills in magic.”
They were ecstatic when they saw a line outside the theater where the film would be shown, and were shocked to learn that the line was to get tickets for future shows, as nearly 3,000 people had already got tickets for the premiere.
The recurring theme among the actors was how personal the film and the tour were to them and how they appreciated the “OG fans” who helped “Napoleon Dynamite” find its initial success and the new generations that have kept it around.
Heder had one request before the audience left the theater.
“Keep showing the movie to your kids,” he said. “And your kids’ kids. And your kids’ kids’ kids. But you can probably stop after that.”