Though borne out of an LDS subculture that produced evangelically oriented films, writer-director Jared Hess emerged with a quirky, offhanded body of work that bore little if any resemblance to that of his peers. A native of Idaho, Hess attended Brigham Young University; from a very young age, he harbored ambitions of writing and directing his own films and could often be found with a camera in his hand, so he naturally gravitated to the film school at BYU. While in that program, Hess met and began dating future wife Jerusha, then an English major, and the two started working in tandem on movie projects. The newlywed couple reportedly survived a bout with extreme poverty and a great deal of desperation (and Hess worked as a camera loader and bit part actor to bring in extra money). But in the process, the husband and wife managed to raise the $400,000 necessary for a hyper-deadpan, low-key farce called Napoleon Dynamite, about a nerdy misfit from Idaho (with the most eccentric of families) who grows determined to help a buddy win in the local high school class election. With Jory Weitz, Jeremy Coon, and others producing, the Hesses snagged a Sundance Festival bow and Fox Searchlight distribution for the movie; following its June 2004 stateside premiere, it became a national sensation and went on to gross over 100 times its initial investment.
Hess' sophomore effort, 2006's Nacho Libre, embodied a step up in terms of ambition and budget. With a top-billed Jack Black (Shallow Hal) doubling as star and one of the producers, the film gently spoofed Mexican luchador films, with its tale of Ignacio (Black) a monastery cook who feeds orphans during the day, and dons a mask to fight in wrestling rings at night. As a $35-million production, the film brought in well over $80 million, and earned a fair number of positive notices from U.S. critics.
Unfortunately, Hess' third outing, 2009's Gentlemen Broncos, failed to duplicate the accomplishments of its predecessors, critically or commercially. The super-cockeyed tale of a young science fiction writer (Michael Angarano) who has his novel, "Yeast Lords," ripped off by an acclaimed belletrist (Jemaine Clement), it featured bizarre surrealistic asides, with lengthy portions of the absurd sci-fi novel visualized for the audience. The movie not only failed to connect with audiences, but reportedly drew a tiny fraction of its initial investment, effectively spelling the first major downturn in Hess' career.