USC, UCLA and NYU may still get most of the glory. But when it comes to producing some truly talented—and independent-minded—teams of moviemakers, BYU is giving even the top film schools a run for their money. Following in the footsteps of fellow Brigham Young alumni Neil LaBute and Aaron Eckhart, who made their Sundance debut with 1997’s In the Company of Men, writer-director Jared Hess and producer-editor Jeremy Coon have taken their collaboration from the mountains of Park City, Utah to theaters across America with this summer’s Napoleon Dynamite.
Serving as both producer and editor, the 25-year-old Coon talked with MM about the Sundance experience, the need to wear many hats as an independent moviemaker and where this film school collaboration will lead next.
Jennifer Wood (MM): First of all, you certainly have to be congratulated on the success of Napoleon Dynamite. It’s a hit at Sundance, and now it’s one of the year’s most highly anticipated films. Did you imagine that you’d be experiencing this level of success when you were shooting the film?
Jeremy Coon (JC): I had been friends with Jared for a while when we were in college and worked together on films at BYU. I’d always felt that great things were in store for him; all he needed was an opportunity to show his talent. That said, to say that we expected the film to get this warm a reception would be a lie. I still wake up sometimes and think that it’s all a dream. My original goal was only to be able to pay the investors back their money and get enough exposure so that we could make another film and have a career. When we were shooting Napoleon Dynamite, I knew that we had a unique little comedy with a lot of laughs and thought that it had explosive potential to cross over to a broader audience—but that was only a vague hope.
MM: Napoleon Dynamite did not mark your first Park City experience. Both you and Jared had been there the previous year—at Slamdance—with the short, Peluca. How did the Slamdance experience help you prepare for the Sundance one?
JC: Slamdance is a great festival and we had a lot of fun there with Peluca. That exposure gave us some credibility that really helped us put together Napoleon Dynamite, and a small taste of what having a film in Sundance is like. But Sundance is really a completely different beast.
The press, distributors and other industry types all pay much more attention to Sundance than Slamdance, and Sundance is much more of a feeding frenzy. The experience of Slamdance was a great start because there are much fewer films than Sundance and you get a lot more personal attention to guide you through putting together a successful festival campaign. We learned a ton of stuff and it translated very well in our preparation for Sundance.
MM: Napoleon Dynamite is based on Peluca, which was shot in just two days for a budget of under $500. What were the production details of Napoleon: length of shoot, budget, etc.?
JC: ND was shot over 22 days in Jared’s hometown of Preston, ID with a production budget of $320,000. We shot on 35mm with cameras from Panavision.
MM: We often find hyphenate occupations in moviemaking—writer-director, actor-director, actor-producer. But it’s rare to come upon a producer-editor, which is what you are. How did you stumble into this job which could, at times, seem diametrically opposed, considering one is on the business end and the other is a creative position?
JC: I actually started out as an editor first and moved into producing my last few years in college because there was a lack of good producers. I thought I could do a better job than most people I knew, especially with my business background. Originally, my aspirations as an editor were what gave me the desire to produce a feature. If I produced my own film, it would allow me the opportunity to make the jump to editing a feature. You have to find ways to create your own opportunities, because they will rarely be effortlessly handed to you—especially in the entertainment business.
MM: How do you balance the two titles? Are there times where you found yourself, as producer, wanting to speed the process up; but, as editor, trying to find a way to get more time to perfect your craft?
JC: I actually really enjoy the challenge of both producing and editing, and it keeps me well-rounded. I think a lot of producers are really failed artists who produce as way of fulfilling those creative desires vicariously. My creative outlet is editing.
The hardest part is the balancing act of producer and editor. As the producer, I want to limit the number of takes we do to keep costs down so we stay on budget and schedule, which technically conflicts with what I want as an editor. An editor wants as many options as possible to cut with. I also have to detach myself from the footage and the circumstances surrounding shooting it, so I can look at it all objectively when I cut. Just because you spent two days and a lot of effort to shoot a scene doesn’t mean it has to be in the final cut. It is cool, though, to have such a great creative relationship with Jared—where I can be on the set and offer my advice on what shots we really need and what shots can be deleted. In my head, I’m already making editing decisions of what I’ll use or want.
MM: Do you prefer one job over the other?
JC: I probably prefer producing more, at least for now, because it allows me more control and freedom to pick films I really want to work on. That freedom comes at a cost, since producing is lot more work in many ways.
MM: Were there any particular scenes where you found the producer and the editor at odds with one another? Where, for example, as producer, you thought something would—or would not—play well with an audience, but as editor wanted to lose it—or keep it?
JC: We ended up cutting roughly 10 minutes out of the film, mainly for pacing reasons. I didn’t really have any conflicts from a producer/editor point of view because to me the scenes either work or they don’t. A rule I always like to follow if I’m on the fence about something is that shorter is almost always better. I experienced, on college short films, the awkwardness of sitting through particular scenes that didn’t work with an audience—which can be painfully long and potentially ruin someone’s opinion of an entire film.
It’s also not that all the scenes we cut out of Napoleon Dynamite sucked, because two of them I really loved, but they just didn’t fit well into the entire film from a pacing standpoint, which is much more important than any one scene. Also, with DVD extras now, those deleted scenes can still be seen. How many times have you watched deleted scenes from a movie and thought that it was so good that it should have been left in? I almost always think the editor made the right decision to cut it out.
“How many times have you watched deleted scenes from a movie and thought it was so good that it should have been left in? I almost always think the editor made the right decision to cut it out.”
MM: What was the post-production process like for you?
JC: The post-production process was a great learning experience. I learned more in those months doing everything hands-on than I would have in any amount of time in a classroom. It was great to be able to personally follow every aspect of the film from pre-production all the way through post-production. I was also the post supervisor, which is a big job by itself. Usually there are many people working together on post, but in independent film a person has to wear many hats. I’d never gone back to film on anything, so it was awesome to learn the whole process of sound editing, negative cutting, color correction and all the other processes of getting a film print ready.
MM: How much time did you have to edit the film, and how much footage did you go through?
JC: We shot about 100,000 feet, which is about 19 hours of footage, and I started cutting at the beginning of August in my living room on Final Cut Pro. The target goal was to get into Sundance, which had a submission deadline of early October—which meant that I had about two months to get the best copy of the film ready to send. I had my first rough cut done in nine days and spent the next three months tweaking and trimming it from there. We had a picture lock by mid-November.
MM: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned—from your work on student films and Napoleon Dynamite in particular?
JC: I’ve experienced a lot in a short period of time, but I’m just really starting out and still have plenty to learn. The most important thing to me can be traced to two things: the people and the film. Make sure you surround yourself with the best people you can get in every position and that you work well with them. I feel totally lucky in the way that I’m very good friends with many of our key people such as Jared, our DP, 1st AD, etc. All of us went to school together and worked together numerous times in a number of different crew positions. Working on short films in college, I learned that I only wanted to work on films that I truly believed in and could be excited about making. So much blood, sweat and tears go into making any film that to not have that excitement at the beginning will make it harder to endure and finish the film when the going gets tough.
MM: What about cutting comedy? How do you know when something works, and will get laughs with an audience, as well?
JC: Comedy is probably the hardest genre to cut, in my opinion, but it’s also the easiest to evaluate. My advice is to keep general editing rules in mind, but always be willing to throw them out. There are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines. When I first started cutting Napoleon Dynamite, I was following the general rules I had learned cutting other films, like making the editing as smooth and seamless as possible. The problem was that by making it so smooth, the punchline was often weakened—or lost altogether. I’m not sure why that is, but it just didn’t work.
Every project is different and ultimately you just have to try different things and see what works. Comedies are easy to evaluate because all you have to do it play it for a number of people: if they laugh, it works and if they don’t, it doesn’t work. You also have to go with your gut and take everyone’s opinion with a grain of salt—unless a majority of them are saying the same thing.
MM: While many moviemakers cite building relationships as one of the most important aspects of film school, do you also think that people can become too comfortable working together? In other words, can a film become too reflective of the relationship between frequent collaborators? How do you work to keep ideas—and your films—fresh and new?
JC: I guess it’s possible that some people could get so comfortable working together that they gradually become lazy, but I doubt that will ever happen with our team. We’re all driven by working hard together and making the best films we can first and foremost. Don’t get me wrong, the monetary gain we get making movies is great, but it’s by no means our focus—and I hope our priorities stay the same. The comfortable relationships between all of us is a big advantage, because it allows us to be open and critical—creatively—with each other. No one takes it personally, because we know everyone’s goal is to make the best film possible. That environment is what I hope will keep our future projects fresh and new, because none of us will let the others slack off.
MM: With that said, do you have plans to work on anything else with Jared right now? What’s up next for you?
JC: Jared and I definitely plan to work together again. Jared is writing with his wife, Jerusha, what I think will be an even funnier movie. And chances are that that will be the next film we do. We’re still putting in a lot of time for the release of Napoleon Dynamite and looking for some brief time off to relax after two years of constantly working on it. I’ll be going to Africa in August for three weeks to hike Kilimanjaro—which should be fun.