LOGAN, Utah — Twelve years ago, Preston was a town like any other, a relatively quiet part of southern Idaho with a population of just under 5,000 people. Most of the United States would likely have been unable to locate it on a map.
Things would change for the small Franklin County town with the release of “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004. The quotable comedy film written and directed by Preston native Jared Hess became a surprise hit, earning $46.1 million at the box office on a budget of only $400,000. As the site of the film, Preston gained a foothold in pop culture, the Herald Journal reported.
“Some people worry that the movie gives us a bad name,” Preston resident Rhonda Gregerson said. “But really, it gives us a great name. The movie put us right on the map; it’s our golden goose.”
“All over the world”
Overnight, fans from all over the world descended onto Preston to tour all the places where the movie had been filmed, from the houses of the main characters to the multicolored lockers at Preston High School. Even 12 years past the movie’s wide theatrical release, Gregerson said, every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office of The Preston Citizen, the local newspaper where she works as the circulation manager, wanting to know more about the film.
“They come from all over the place,” Gregerson said. “In the beginning it was just from the state, but as the movie became more popular, they started coming from all over the world. Germany, England, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, China. They’ve all come in and have been serious fans.”
In the years immediately following the film, Preston held a festival celebrating Napoleon Dynamite organized by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Gregerson recalled its popularity, drawing large numbers of fans each year for character lookalike contests, tater-tot eating contests, dancing contests, and the opportunity to meet Preston residents who played small roles in the film.
“If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”
Gregerson said she believed the film’s popularity would wane as the years have gone on. Instead, she said, more visitors than ever before are stopping in Preston, primarily as a side trip as they make their way to Yellowstone National Park. As a fan of the movie with a personal connection to it — Gregerson’s son-in-law is the brother of director Jared Hess — Gregerson is always happy to meet with visitors, lamenting that there no longer is a store in the city selling souvenirs related to the film.
“We’ve been hinting that someone else in the area should really pick it up,” Gregerson said. “There is clearly still a demand for it, and I hate turning people away.”
“Always making movies”
The movie’s low budget meant most of the extras and bit parts featured Preston residents, some of them longtime friends of Hess. Thedora Petterborg, who played one of the secretaries at Preston High School in the film, was one such resident, having been one of Hess’ neighbors as he grew up in Preston with his five brothers.
“Jared was always making movies,” Petterborg said. “He and my grandson were always doing crazy things with a camera. It wasn’t uncommon to hear about them making something big.”
Hess has said many of the scenes and dialogue from the film were drawn from his own life as he grew up in Preston, which Petterborg could confirm from experience.
“A lot of what you see on the screen are the things he and his brothers would get up to all the time,” she said. “They would actually slap each other and then run off. One of them really did drag action figures out the window of the school bus. They were all great kids, though.”
As filming on “Napoleon Dynamite” began in the summer of 2003, Petterborg knew Hess was working on a major project, seeing how many people were coming and going from the house he grew up in.
“I knew it must have been something important, seeing so many people around,” she explained. “Jared is a pretty smart guy. He knew exactly the places where he wanted to shoot. They were all in his head exactly as they came out on screen.”
Petterborg herself was not asked to be on-screen until the final days of shooting at Preston High School. Petterborg had been a longtime secretary at the school, so when a scene came up with Napoleon needing to ask for the office phone to call his older brother, Kip, Hess asked Petterborg if she would be interested in helping.
“It was one of the funnest experiences of my life,” she recalled. “It wasn’t like I was doing anything different, but it was a lot of fun to get a behind-the-scenes look at how films like that are shot.”
“I can do that”
One of the most memorable scenes in the film comes when Napoleon greets his neighbor, Lyle, moments before the farmer cocks his gun and shoots a cow point-blank in the face — at the exact moment a school bus full of children passes by. Dale Critchlow, now 86 years old, was also a neighbor and friend of the Hess family, often seeking the help of Hess and his brothers following a near-fatal car accident in 1980 that impaired his eyesight and left his face partially paralyzed.
“I didn’t even know he was making a movie at the time,” Critchlow said from his home in Preston, still in the area after more than 40 years. “I was putting hay in my barn and my daughter came in with Jared and said he had a question for me. He said to me, ‘Dale, I need a favor. I need you to be in my movie.’ I asked what I needed to do, and he said, ‘Oh, you just need to shoot a cow.’ Well, I can do that.”
Critchlow said the scene was shot near the end of the production cycle with a prized show cow worth $10,000.
“They wanted a cow that would be gentle and easy to handle for the cameras,” Critchlow said. “She almost wasn’t in the scene at all because her handler was late in arriving, but once she got here the scene was shot really quick. If the bus hadn’t come by at the time it did, the camera would have seen the cow lick my barrel of the gun.”
With his distinctive look and voice, Critchlow is among the most recognizable characters in the film, also playing the role of a worker on a chicken farm and the preacher in the film’s post-credits scene, offering completely improvised advice for the couple of Kip and Lafawnduh: “When an argument arises, if you go outside and take a nice walk, you’ll calm down and then you can come back and it won’t be an argument. And you’ll find that helps your health. All that fresh air and exercise will do you a lot of good.”
Critchlow said he is still recognized all the time from the film. He happily accepts visitors into his home who ask about the film and his role in it. For a time, he even had photographs of himself on hand to autograph on request.
“I can go almost anywhere and someone will remember me,” Critchlow said. “It was a lot of fun getting such a reception.”
Rumors about the fate of Tina the llama, the Dynamite family pet who refuses to eat her dinner, have even Preston’s residents divided. Gregerson at The Preston Citizen said she heard the llama had died, but Petterborg said Tina is still alive. She drove Herald Journal reporters past the alleged-Tina’s residence, and a llama with similar facial markings was indeed seen on the horizon, staring over the hills.
The llama made an appearance at the 10th anniversary reunion of the cast in 2014, and Petterborg said her owners had to move her from her original location because of how many people wanted their picture taken with her.
“The word that’s out there to most people is that she died,” Petterborg said in reference to the rumor. “But she’s still around and roaming. She’s just living a more quiet life.”
But will the popularity of the film change in the next 12 years? Gregerson doesn’t think so, and neither do Petterborg or Critchlow.
“I thought the movie would have slowed down by now, but there’s still such a demand for it,” Gregerson said. “I don’t think it will ever completely go away.”