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.
It seems that with most of these actors make for great collaborators, since they’re used to improvising and writing their own material.
I would talk to each of them before we began shooting — just brainstorming with them on how the characters would look and sound. Zach thought wearing a pair of jean shorts for the wedding photos would look great. With Kate, we had lengthy conversations where I was just dying on the other end of the phone. She said, “Maybe my name can be Jaundice.” [Laughs] I said, “That’s great but maybe too on-the-nose. Let’s try ‘Jandice,’ because it almost sounds like Jaundice.” But we had a tight shooting schedule and to be able to do improv is such a luxury. We didn’t have time on our side. People came prepared with jokes they wanted to try on the day. It was more about preparation in advance.
It’s strange that studios don’t give more money towards comedies.
Once the studio hears about another studio doing a comedy in under 40 days, they go, “Maybe we can do it in 35!” We pulled it off. But at the times it did feel like an independent film schedule. We probably could have had more days to pull off certain things. But we pulled it off, and now they’re probably saying, “Let’s do it in 20 days!” They cut costs with shoot days, which is a mistake.
I wanted to talk about how you feel about your characters, who are uniformly silly and often foolish, but also portrayed with affection. This is a movie that could have been cynical and mean-spirited, but having David be fundamentally sweet changes it for the better.
The movie wouldn’t work if you didn’t care about him. If you’re just sitting back and laughing at a bunch of jokes and you don’t care about the people involved, to me that’s not a complete experience. I love David Ghantt as a person, and that had a big impact [on the film]. I love all my characters in every film I’ve made. Sometimes things can become mean-spirited if you’re not working hard to create empathy for your main characters. It’s a balance and something I’m conscious of, for sure.
You once talked about how a lot of the jokes in “Napoleon Dynamite” came from your life or people you know. It’s almost self-deprecation.
You just have to have a sense of humor about your mistakes in life and move on. Being able to look back and laugh at unfortunate outfits you wore in high school or whatever it might be is a healthy thing.
The movie about my hilarious outfits and bad hair from when I was a kid in the ’90s would be funny, even if nothing happened to me.
Dude, that’s a good look. It’s comin’ back.