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A rural Idaho town is at the center of ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’ 20 years later, it still feels the impact

Extras in the movie came from the city of Preston itself

SHARE A rural Idaho town is at the center of ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’ 20 years later, it still feels the impact
Jon Gries as Uncle Rico, Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite and Aaron Ruell as Kip in “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Jon Gries as Uncle Rico, Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite and Aaron Ruell as Kip in “Napoleon Dynamite.” Twenty years ago, “Napoleon Dynamite” made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Encircled by rolling farmland and craggy terrain, the city of Preston, Idaho, may seem like the quintessential American rural town. It’s just a few miles north of the Utah-Idaho border and the filming location of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.”

It wasn’t seasoned auteurs who scouted out this small city and developed the film, but a pair of budding filmmakers. Director Jared Hess graduated from Preston High in 1997 before heading to Brigham Young University. There he met his wife, Jerusha, and they teamed up to create a semi-autobiographical flick about a lanky, awkward teenager who has trouble fitting in.

“We were hungry. We were desperate to just eat. We just put everything into that script,” Jerusha Hess said last week on a panel discussion with the Utah Film Commission. She explained that they had a $200,000 budget, which sounds like a lot, but in the movie business, it’s just peanuts. Casting their classmate Jon Heder as the eponymous character and gathering extras from the city of Preston, “Napoleon Dynamite” was born.

Hess described the very moment when the Sundance Film Festival crowd saw the movie for the first time. That was 20 years ago, Jan. 17, 2004. As the scene where Napoleon gets on the bus flashed across the screen, people in the audience broke out into laughter. That’s when both Jerusha and Jared Hess broke out into tears. It was an early sign forecasting just how successful the movie — eventually a cult classic — would be as it amassed more than $46 million at the box office.

“Napoleon Dynamite” may be a movie about a tater tot-loving, tetherball-playing teenager who befriends the new kid and grapples with his awkward uncle (now streaming on Hulu!), but it also tells a bigger story: what life is like in rural America. It’s a story that Idaho residents have differing feelings on and dozens of out-of-state residents have traveled to investigate.

So, how does it hold up 20 years later?

Tourists from all 50 states have come to visit, Preston city council member Todd Thomas surmised, but in recent years, these kinds of visits “have tapered off quite a bit.” By 2006, just two years after the movie was made, the Chamber of Commerce said it generated $1 million for the town, per the Los Angeles Times.

Whether it’s going to Pedro’s house near the downtown area or driving to Napoleon’s home on the outskirts, the city has attracted tourists interested in seeing where all the filming happened. If you look at Google Maps for Preston, you’ll find landmarks designated for the movie complete with Google reviews.

There are 96 such reviews on Napoleon Dynamite House with reviewers saying they made a special trip out to Preston or decided to stop there while on another trip. The now closed Adventure Video store was described by tourists as a must-see stop for those driving through Preston. The store used to sell “Napoleon Dynamite” tour guide pamphlets as well as merchandise. Even though the passing of two decades may have slowed the tourism, it hasn’t completely halted.

Tourism in Preston, Idaho, today

“In the summer, if you’re driving around, you’ll spot people taking pictures at the different movie locations and know that’s what they’re doing,” Thomas said. “But it’s nowhere near as frequent as it was.” The city isn’t accustomed to significant amounts of tourism. “We’re a little bit of a pass-through spot, we get some tourism with snow. We get a little bit with the hunting season when the hunters are coming through to go north. So it was a little spurt of tourism.”

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Director Jared Hess, left, and actor Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho, during filming for “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Napoleon Pictures Limited

The spurt of tourism related to the film centers around three particular areas: the high school, Napoleon’s home where Tina the Llama lived, and Pedro’s house. Sometimes people will make a stop at the Deseret Industries, which is also part of the movie. Or they’ll find the tetherball pole.

The famous restaurant Big J’s Burgers does have a location in Preston, but the one in the movie is actually in Richmond, Utah. While the building was torn down and rebuilt, the location of the restaurant has remained the same. David Johnson, owner of Big J’s, said that even now tourists still trickle into the restaurant, especially with their families in the summer. Preston is Johnson’s hometown and he described having his restaurant featured in the movie as amazing.

Johnson explained Hess went to school with his partner’s daughter. A few years later, when Hess came asking Johnson if they could use his restaurant for filming, he agreed. “It’s just been really fun to see, one, to see him get his start that way, and two, it’s been a fun little journey to see people come to Preston, Idaho, because of a movie.”

Thomas’ friend Jay Wildt is among those who have stopped to scout out the filming locations a few years back. Wildt lives in West Virginia and after he received an epilepsy diagnosis, there was a day where he remembered feeling tired. His wife suggested they watch a movie and she put on “Napoleon Dynamite.” The couple thought the movie was hilarious and it lifted his spirits.

Later, Wildt told Thomas how much he loved the film and Thomas revealed that he was from Preston.

“As I got to know Todd and understand more about him and then seen pictures from his childhood, it became clear to me, at least in my belief, that the film is about him,” Wildt said. Of course, the movie is autobiographical about the creator Jared Hess, but Wildt isn’t the only one to spot connections between Preston residents and the film. Thomas said plenty of residents relate to it, too.

When Wildt went to visit Preston, he remembers donning a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt with Thomas and taking pictures at a video store, which had a set-up. “It was just so much fun to relive the film, particularly through the eyes of somebody that was so closely associated with some of the ideas, locations and people that were involved,” Wildt said. “And so it made it even more special for me.”

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Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Efren Ramirez (Pedro) in “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Access Films

In addition to finding the movie hilarious, Wildt emphasized how “warm and clever” he thought the movie was. “The movie itself has just so many clever perspectives on culture and behavior of people that we might consider unusual. And for me, I just think that’s a great way to approach life and look at people,” he said, explaining that the movie had a fondness toward people who may typically be seen as on the outskirts.

Do people in Preston relate to the movie?

It was also apparent to Wildt just how much pride the town had in the film. That’s something Thomas described as well. While Thomas can’t speak for all the residents of Preston, he said there’s a general feeling of appreciation in the city for the film. “They used the people in it. There’s a lot of local people in it and it’s so fun to see your friend on screen,” he said.

Describing the film as “relatable” especially for those who lived in the area, Thomas recalled when his son came home with a flyer looking for extras for the film. “I would say the majority of people loved it and have watched it multiple times.”

It’s also fun seeing your school on screen. The movie spawned one of the most famous dance sequences in film history: Heder gets up on stage and dances to “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai. It has close-ups of Napoleon’s moon boots before it comes to an abrupt halt as he sprints off the stage. Around 400 or 500 extras came to the scene (remember a bunch of extras lived in Preston). Reportedly, those extras ended up getting a credit in the movie — it’s another way that the whole city was involved in the flick.

Thomas himself especially related to movie. After he watched it with his son and daughter, they burst out laughing because they thought he was just like Napoleon. “I had moon boots. I had frizzy hair. I was tall and skinny like Napoleon. And they said, ‘are you sure that movie’s not about you?’ And I said ‘trust me, it’s not. But there is some similarity.”

An Idaho resident who lives a few hours northwest of Preston, Kimi Smith, said she thinks the movie portrays people in rural Idaho well, too. Smith’s stepmother grew up in a rural town in South Dakota and she said while she can’t speak for people who grew up in the area, she thinks it “portrays (rural Idahoans) accurately many, many years ago.”

Smith’s connection with the movie stretches all the way back to 2005 when she attended the very first Napoleon Dynamite Festival. It’s estimated that around 3,000 fans showed up that day where there was a tater tot-eating competition and many people wearing moon boots. “I’ve just had a soft spot for ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ ever since I saw it, even though when I saw it the first time, I didn’t understand it.”

When Smith returned to Preston in 2021, she drove around to a bunch of different spots and took pictures of his experience. In a blog post describing the trip, she wrote, “It was a quick drive-by adventure, but it was fun to find them, as in 2005 I had only seen Napoleon’s house, Pedro’s house, and the school (that I can remember, at least).”

Smith said one of the favorite parts of her journey was seeing the community of people who live in the area. “It’s just fun being where a fun and quirky film was made and it was made right here in Idaho.”

While people have journeyed to see the locations, not everyone in the town thinks the movie did right by Idahoans. Thomas said that while he loved the film and still quotes it all the time, not every resident in the town views the movie in the same way. Smith said, “I know a lot of people who are offended by it and a lot of Idahoans who just used to watch the movie and they just think it’s dumb. They’re like, ‘We’re not like that.’”

Thomas said some people in the community “thought it was just the silliest thing ever and didn’t like it.”

While the movie certainly has critics who are quick to point out that it may portray rural Idahoans in too goofy a light, Thomas said he thinks the majority of his fellow Preston residents seem to have positive feelings toward it. It doesn’t hurt that the director is Jared Hess, who graduated from Preston High School as valedictorian and involved much of the city in the movie’s creation. “My mom’s llama is in the film, we shot in my neighborhood, farmers from my LDS ward were in the film, the chicken farm where my brothers used to work at, the high school where I was student body president” Hess said. “It was a very personal undertaking with a lot of absurd, true-to-life moments.”

One of the movie’s producers, Sean Covel, described it as a “risky movie to make” because it’s off Hollywood’s beaten path. “It was made in the middle, by people who grew up in the middle, for people in the middle.” After all, making an absurdist and eccentric comedy riddled with dry humor about life in a small Idaho town isn’t exactly the kind of pitch that executives would expect to make big bucks. But the movie managed to showcase the power of middle American filmmaking.

Middle America is often the brunt of the joke in Tinsel Town. But in this comedy, something different happened — middle Americans were the ones telling the jokes.