Jared Hess has always found himself attracted to the outsiders of the world.
Since his directorial debut and, to date, biggest hit Napoleon Dynamite in 2004, the Brigham Young film school grad has made a career out of focusing on the oddballs, from the Mexican wrestler superhero Nacho Libre to the literary fraud at the center of Gentleman Broncos. Fraud is again the theme in his latest feature, Don Verdean, the story of a religious scam artist with good intentions.
“I’m interested in people’s stories that are on the fringe of society. I like those stories. They interest me,” he told me during an all day press junket.
In the film, Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a “Biblical archaeologist” on the verge of being outed as a fraud by the same church-goers to whom he peddles his wares, but his quick wit and blustery oration just barely keeps him one step ahead of the truth. Aided by his faithful assistant (Amy Ryan), Verdean is looking to make one big score to restore his reputation and the validity of his church.
“You wouldn’t like him in real life,” said Hess. “We all know people who are condescending and douche-y but I try to find humanity that makes them sympathetic. I like the idea of a guy fabricating stuff but actually has a conscience and thinks its for the greater good, that’s how he rationalizes it. In the film they’re trying to make their church relevant and invigorate it in a way by proving to people — you hear that from Biblical archaeologists is they look for stuff because they think if it can help one person, and finding this artifact proves [the religion] to them, then it’s a good thing.”
Hess said that he became interested in this strange pseudo-science subculture after his friend showed him videos from people making claims that they had found things like the skull of Goliath in an attempt to “prove” stories from the Bible actually happened. “My friend Jason Hatfield had turned me onto the world of Biblical archaeology and it was super funny to me,” he said. “They’re armed with just their imagination and the Bible and God and they set out to find Noah’s Ark. [laughs] These guys will make claims they found something, but then have to make an excuse of some kind like, ‘well, we did find it but unfortunately, all of our photographs were destroyed.’ [laughs] Their evidence always goes missing every time somehow.”
Growing up in a Mormon household, Hess felt a personal connection the material. He recalled seeing his grandmother owning some DVDs from Biblical archaeologists and buying into their bold claims. “Their videos look like [the one in the beginning of the film], with bad wipes, shot on a video camera. Their badge of honor was that they know somebody from Saudi Arabia, like that that legitimizes their claim, even though they’re totally unreliable. To someone like my grandma, who actually owns a couple of these videos, like ‘See? Adabi Hassaan said…’ I was like, ‘I don’t know who that is, grandma!’ [laughs]”
Like Hess’s previous features, the characters in Don Verdean have distinctly goofy manners of speech and style. Hess told me that’s a key element in his approach to crafting a story. “The way the characters talk and sound, I can’t start writing until I know what they wear and how they deliver and how they speak. Its really important to me.”
The screenplay was written the same way as his previous projects, with his writing partner, Jerusha Hess, who also happens to be his wife. “We met at film school and we wrote our first feature together so it’s how it’s always been,” Hess said. “We don’t know anything different from it. With each film we get more efficient in the way we work and we really bat things around for a long time and try to talk it out before we start writing. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out the story idea or concept will come first or the character comes first and we talk about who they are and what the story is. But we’ve got kids now so we really have to steal our moments when we can write.”
Don Verdean will mark the first time Hess will be working with actors on a second project; both Rockwell and Jermaine Clement featured in Gentleman Broncos and return here. I asked him what it is about those actors that made him want to work with them again. “Jermaine and I have a shorthand because we hear accents and voices and we like workshopping things like that,” he said. “Rockwell is like that too, but he’s more ‘method’ so I won’t give him line readings. But he doesn’t mind if I do.”
I asked him if this marks an evolution in his approach to directing. “Its funny, with Napoleon Dynamite, I didn’t know what I was doing necessarily, the proper way for a director to do things. It’s very instinctual for most directors, they just communicate in the best way they know how to get what they want. For me, it was doing the voices for all the characters [to the actors]. I did a lot of line readings and just did it how I wanted them to do it, which I know is technically not the way you’re supposed to do it or the way actors like it [laughs]. But for me and for that film, for all of us, it was our first time, so it worked out fine. Nobody had any egos. I don’t do that anymore but sometimes occasionally I’ll be like ‘just do it like this.’”
But with such a talented cast of seasoned comedy actors assembled for Don Verdean, was his approach different this time around? “It’s different from film to film. I like to be prepared. I don’t do a ton of improv, I like to have it all on the page. I don’t have the luxury doing an independent film to run a ton of film and just see what happens. Inevitably when you work with people like Rockwell, Jermaine, Will Forte, Danny McBride, they’ll give it a different reading and you’re just trying to get the best one possible. This film probably has the most amount of improv of any of [my films]. There’s one moment, a small one, in the film when Danny is talking about dinosaurs and comparing them to Voltron. I told Danny I just needed him to do a quick cutaway of him talking to these elders, just this quick throwaway shot. [I told him to] just talk about dinosaurs or Joseph’s coat of many colors or whatever. He said sure, sure, okay. I start rolling and he’s of course hilarious. So we had to use all of it. But it was supposed to just be this random cutaway.”
Don Verdean is in theaters now, starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jermaine Clement, Will Forte, and Danny McBride.