It was 9:30 on Saturday morning, and Jared Hess was still asleep.

Just the day before, he’d flown into Los Angeles from New Zealand, where he’s about halfway through production on the blockbuster film “Minecraft,” starring Jack Black, Jason Momoa and Jennifer Coolidge, among others.

Now, Hess and his wife, Jerusha Hess, were supposed to chat with the Deseret News over the phone. But the jet lag had kicked in, so the interview got pushed back 45 minutes. By the time the couple hopped on for a call at 10:20 a.m., they were navigating Los Angeles traffic, en route to a brunch with the team behind “Ninety-Five Senses,” an animated short film they directed that was up for an Oscar Sunday night.

For the directors, who live in Salt Lake City, this is just a snapshot of the jampacked schedule they had leading up to the Academy Awards.

The Hesses had every reason not to do the interview. But even as the “Napoleon Dynamite” creators have received their first Oscar nomination and embraced high-profile projects like “Minecraft” and the animated feature “Thelma the Unicorn,” which hits Netflix in May, they remain connected to their local community.

It was during their days as Brigham Young University film students, after all, that the origins of “Napoleon Dynamite” began to take root. And this year marked two decades since the film became an unlikely standout of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, getting acquired for nearly $5 million and effectively launching both of their careers.

Now, in somewhat of a full-circle moment, their first Oscar nomination also has a local tie-in: “Ninety-Five Senses” is the first production to emerge from the Salt Lake Film Society’s MAST program, an initiative that trains and pairs up-and-coming animators with established filmmakers.

It’s fitting then, the Hesses said, that the nomination came the same week they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Napoleon Dynamite,” their own up-and-coming moment.

“It was such a surprise, such an honor that it really felt kind of like a bookend moment to that,” Jerusha Hess said. “I know it’s not the end, obviously. But it was really cool. That first call we got that we got into Sundance and now this call that we got into the Oscars — you can’t replicate that.”

After 20 years, ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ returns to the place that gave it a chance
‘Gosh!’ An oral history of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (Part 1)
‘People are either laughing or they’re not’: An oral history of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (Part 2)

About ‘Ninety-Five Senses’

Jerusha Hess was on a Zoom call with the team behind “Ninety-Five Senses” when the Oscar nomination came. The 13-minute film was the second name read out in the category for best animated short, and Hess’ hands flew to her face in shock. She leaned forward and began to laugh. Others clapped, shouted and raised their hands in the air.

The emotional moment was the culmination of a project that started before the pandemic, said Miles David Romney, a producer on the film who founded the MAST program in 2019.

“We knew we were up against some real heavy hitters, but we also had a strong feeling that we deserved to be there,” Romney said. “But also you just can’t ever really emotionally kind of envision that moment and even understand the emotional significance of it until it comes.”

Romney was part of a team that pored over 1,000 submissions from animators before selecting a handful of artists to create “Ninety-Five Senses,” which chronicles the reflections of a death row inmate who is preparing for his last meal.

‘We make big, dumb comedies’: ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ creator on ‘sheer shock’ of scoring first Oscar nomination

Reflecting the purpose of the MAST program, the project started with the idea of mentoring rather than with a script. Writers Hubbel Palmer and Chris Bowman, longtime friends and collaborators of the Hesses, created a story where the protagonist, awaiting his last meal, bids farewell to each of his five senses. It’s a format that allowed multiple animators from the U.K., Brazil, Mexico, Florida and Utah to contribute their distinct styles, Romney said.

As directors, the Hesses’ role was to help shape and bring the different styles together to tell a cohesive story. And because they “believe really strongly in mentorship,” Romney said, they were quick to hop on board.

The Hesses know firsthand the importance of mentorship. Jared Hess still remembers how Utah filmmaker T.C. Christensen (“17 Miracles,” “Ephraim’s Rescue”) was a “huge mentor” to him during his high school days.

“Every summer, whatever T.C. was working on, he’d let me come be a camera assistant,” Hess said. “I was lucky and blessed to have him kind of teach me everything I know about production at a very young age in high school through college. That’s always stayed with me. … You just gotta pay it forward.”

The Hesses also played a major role in landing Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) as the narrator of “Ninety-Five Senses.” Jared Hess said they’ve long “been fans from afar,” and apparently the feeling was mutual.

“He’s just a remarkable actor, and … really gives everything he has in everything he does … and he certainly did with this film,” he said. “The way he performed it set a new tone.

“It’s weird, when you work on a project like this or any project, the movie tells you what it wants it to be after a while.”

‘Ninety-Five Senses’ — a departure from ‘Napoleon Dynamite’? Sort of

Thematically, “Ninety-Five Senses” is somewhat of a departure for the Hesses, whose careers have been defined by quirky comedies like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre.” But even as Coy (the philosopher on death row voiced by Nelson) contemplates the order in which the five senses shut down when a person dies, there’s a hint of that oddball warmth and humor.

“It was about something much more dramatic than we’ve ever touched on, except for you know, ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ it’s about a lonely kid, essentially,” she added. “And so I think comedies, dramas, it’s nice to pick out the opposite in both of them. There’s plenty of smiles and giggles in ‘Ninety-Five Senses’ as well.”

“We have a love and care that we give our awkward, unsung heroes,” she added. “You can feel that in ‘Napoleon,’ you can feel that in ‘Ninety-Five Senses,’ I think.”

Jerusha Hess recently re-watched “Napoleon Dynamite” as part of the 20th-anniversary celebrations at the Sundance Film Festival. It marked the first time she’d seen it all the way through in a decade. This time, her 11-year-old daughter watched alongside her, and she had a lot of questions — including her parents’ decision to make Jon Heder’s Napoleon a mouth-breather.

“My daughter hadn’t really seen it as a sentient human and I just kept looking over, a big grin plastered on both our faces. … She was giggling so much, and I really was delighted,” Hess said. “It holds up.

“It is weird and unreal that the movie has touched so many people and made so many people laugh from so many different countries,” she added. “It doesn’t feel like ours often.”

A new milestone

Twenty years since they filmed “Napoleon Dynamite” with a shoestring budget in Preston, Idaho, the Hesses have a hard time wrapping their minds around their first Oscar nomination. The nerves around it all have largely come and gone — peak nervousness happened when they were awaiting the nominations.

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

Now, they’re just enjoying their time in Los Angeles, reconnecting with their friends and collaborators who helped create “Ninety-Five Senses.” On Sunday night, the award for best animated short ended up going to “War is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko.” But the Oscar nomination for “Ninety-Five Senses” is especially big for the up-and-coming animators in furthering their careers, Romney said, adding that the nomination has given the Salt Lake Film Society program “a lot of national interest.”

For the Hesses, it’s also a milestone. But more than anything, it inspires them to keep finding those quirky yet relatable characters.

“We feel very blessed that we can continue to be creative and make films and tell the stories that we want to tell,” Jared Hess said. “We’re just grateful to be able to do that.”