Interview: Jared Hess on the Biblical Archeology Comedy “Don Verdean”

Posted on December 14, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Jared and Jerusha Hess are best known as the co-screenwriters of the offbeat comedy Napoleon Dynamite, which Hess also directed. Their latest film is “Don Verdean,” with Sam Rockwell as a hapless Biblical archeologist who commits fraud to satisfy backers eager for artifacts from the Biblical era, including Goliath’s skull and the Holy Grail.

Tell me about the very funny dance number that appears out of nowhere in the middle of the film, when Boaz (Jermaine Clement) takes Carol (Amy Ryan) out to a club.

Jermaine is quite a dancer. It was just supposed to be a small little moment but it’s tough to pull that guy off the dance floor. So we rolled a couple of different takes and it was just him doing his interpretation of what he thought was some kind of traditional Israeli dance would be like if it was mixed with techno. It’s his seduction dance anyway but the subtleties of his moves are very funny.

And the dress Amy Ryan wears is in that scene is a hoot, sort of Disco Barbie Ice Skater.

Yes we wanted something that was over-the-top or what Boaz would think was sexy and beautiful and made somebody feel like a princess even though it was pretty hideous with how it’s bedazzled. It was like a competition gown from the 90s.

Copyright 2015 Lionsgate
Copyright 2015 Lionsgate
If you yourself could find some holy artifact and assuming that there were no laws preventing you from taking it home what memento from the Bible would you want to get?

Oh man! You know I think The Holy Grail would have to be the one if all the legends are true about eternal life and all that good stuff. That would be a fun one to find.

What is it that is so endlessly interesting about people trying to cheat each other?

I always find it funny and probably it’s more tragic when people are lying to each other because they think it is for a good cause or for the greater good. In reality it’s just hurting themselves and everyone around them. To me that kind of tragedy lends itself to comedy.

What locations did you use for the Holy land scenes?

We actually did shoot a little bit in Israel believe it or not. It was mostly second unit stuff. Our cinematographer went over there and shot a bunch of locations. But then we shot the bulk of it in southern Utah. St. George Utah is where we shot stuff that doubled for Israel.

I really enjoyed the little short about Don Verdean at the beginning of the film that looked so authentically amateurish. How did you develop the cheesy, low-budget look?

It was funny because my grandma would buy all these different archaeological Biblical videos and a lot of them looked super homemade, shot on a VHS camera. I feel most comfortable behind the lens of a VHS camera myself because it’s where I got my start as much a kid making films and so it was such fun to shoot in that very low resolution format and then go in with an old title maker and do those transitions and wipes. There are so many videos like that that with people who discuss their discoveries and often times make up excuses for why they no longer have the evidence of their amazing find.

Is that where the idea came from?

Jason Hatfield, one of our producers, turned me on to the world of Biblical archaeology or at least pseudo-archaeology, with people who don’t have any credentials going out with the Bible and trying to find really sensational objects like the ark of the covenant or Noah’s Ark or any other big object in the Bible. They pop-up in the news occasionally and I read a story a couple years back about a group of Christian Chinese college students that were going out and thought that they had found Noah’s Ark and it turned out unfortunately just to be like a Ranger cabin and they were sorely disappointed. There was just something so funny about the idea of being an amateur archaeologist that isn’t formally trained in the discipline but with imagination and the Bible they can go all there and find it with the help of God.

Are you especially cautious about making fun of religious people?

Not really because to me, it wasn’t so much about making fun of religion as it was about getting caught up in a world of lies. It’s something that Don Verdean believes in. He is a believing Christian guy but he’s willing to commit fraud, to do what he thinks is going to help people find God. To me, that dynamic was funny that people do make really bad decisions when they’re trying to promote the religious cause. Christians are always looking to convert the world on some level and to what extent people will go to accomplish that I think is interesting. And so are their fears. In the 80’s and 90’s there was this big fear of the occult creeping into pop culture, cartoons, video games and that kind of thing and there was so many funny examples. My mom was like:“You know, a group of scientists at school were watching He-Man one time and they saw Satan’s symbols in Skeletor’s lair.” Even as a kid I am like, “What group of scientists watch He-Man for things like occult symbols?” There are people that were former Satanists turned Christian that go around and give these talks to different churches and groups about how they became saved and that to me is such a funny, silly world. It’s sensational and anything that will give your story some juice.

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