Twelve years ago Jared Hess made “Napoleon Dynamite.” He’s been making the same kind of movie ever since: movies about ridiculous and self-deluding dreamers — see: “Nacho Libre,” “Gentlemen Broncos,” “Don Verdean” — anchored by a real sweetness and affection. In “Masterminds,” he has a large group of such characters.
It’s loosely based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery, in which a group of North Carolinians made off with $17 million in cash — the second largest of its type — then ran into a comedy-of-errors too strange for fiction. Hess’ film tells it from the perspective of the nicest one: David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), an armored car driver who helped facilitate the heist then found himself betrayed by everyone else (including ringleader Owen Wilson and a colleague, played by Kristen Wiig, who at least felt bad).
Hess talks to us about befriending the real David Ghantt, talking on the phone with supporting player Kate McKinnon (as Ghantt’s monstrous fiancee) and loving his characters.
This is the first film you’ve directed but not written. You were working with writers you’d known from film school, but tell me what it was like directing something you didn’t write.
We all have a similar sensibility. We all thought it should almost feel like an old Warner Brothers cartoon. And we all wanted to tell the story from David Ghantt’s perspective. I was in high school when the heist happened, and I remember seeing interviews with David Ghantt on “20/20” and other specials. David Ghantt always stuck out for me as a very interesting, complex individual. He was a big dreamer and initially he did this for love and adventure, then was totally betrayed by everybody in the process. But he came out of it with a really good sense of humor.
He’s a consultant on the film, and you show a picture of him with Zach at the end.
We flew him out to L.A. to meet with Zach and I before we started filming. Zach did not play a verbatim David Ghantt; he’s doing his own thing with it. But the one thing after talking with David that was important to us is there’s an innocence and a sweetness to the guy that’s really charming. He’s a real salt-of-the-earth person. He’s a smart guy; he just made a lot of unfortunate mistakes.
So he was cool with you guys finding comedy in an unfortunate chapter in his life?
He’d say, “You know, when I was living it, it was pretty stressful. But looking back on it it’s pretty funny.” [Laughs] He laughed at the silly things we ended up doing. We’d ask him, “How did you actually load the money into the van?” And he said, “I just chucked it in there.” He did say, “If I have one critique of the film, it’s that I never shot myself in the buttocks with a firearm. But it was damn funny, so I’m glad it’s in the movie.” [Laughs]
Other than the really obvious stuff — namely the action-packed third act — what were some things you changed from the real story or added to it?
We tried to get the broad strokes of the story right, but [David] was actually married. He didn’t have a fiancee. He was in a very boring, loveless marriage that he jumped into when he came back from Desert Storm and he was bored because he didn’t see any action over there. He married this lady he met working at the grocery store. We thought it made him more empathetic if he was engaged instead of being married. And Jandice [played by Kate McKinnon] is such a psycho. He had to get out of that relationship quickly.