Raiders! The Story of the Great­est Fan Film Ever Made and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adap­ta­tion

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Raiders.

1981 was a great year to be a kid at the movies — films like Time Ban­dits, Mad Max 2: The Road War­rior, Ex­cal­ibur, An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don, and Clash of the Ti­tans opened that year. But the flick that trumped them all at the box of­fice was Steven Spiel­berg’s spe­cial ef­fects-laden Raiders of the Lost Ark ,an old-fash­ioned epic in­spired by the se­rial ad­ven­tures of the 1930s and ’40s. Sud­denly kids every­where were sport­ing In­di­ana Jones’ fa­mil­iar brown fe­dora, car­ry­ing a bull­whip and pis­tol, and us­ing their Be­ta­max video cam­eras to shoot their own back­yard ad­ven­tures. Raiders spawned three se­quels, a tele­vi­sion se­ries, video games, nov­els, and sev­eral Walt Dis­ney theme park at­trac­tions. It was a B-movie story with an A-list cast, state-of-the-art movie magic, and enough blood and gore to in­spire a kid to fol­low a ca­reer path to Hol­ly­wood’s magic fac­to­ries and learn from such in­dus­try wizards as Chris Walas, the man be­hind Toht’s melt­ing face in Raiders, one of the coolest makeup ef­fects in cin­ema history. It was the kind of movie that made you want to make movies.

Raiders opened in the­aters in June of that year. It was nom­i­nated for sev­eral Acad­emy Awards, in­clud­ing Best Pic­ture, and won four of them: for sound, art di­rec­tion, edit­ing, and vis­ual ef­fects. Any shot-by-shot re­make would be a dif­fi­cult tech­ni­cal chal­lenge to pull off at best, but that’s what two friends in Ocean Springs, Mis­sis­sippi — Eric Zala and Chris Strompo­los — set out to do in the sum­mer of 1982. Their friend Jayson Lamb joined them the fol­low­ing year. They were all around eleven and twelve years old. Their film is the sub­ject of Jeremy Coon and Tim Sk­ousen’s new doc­u­men­tary Raiders! The Story of the Great­est Fan Film Ever Made, and no “making of” doc­u­men­tary has made me want to see the movie it’s about more than this one. Their fan film is also the 2012 sub­ject of a book by Alan Eisen­stock. The doc­u­men­tary tells two sto­ries in one, mov­ing back and forth from past to present to tell them. One is about the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adap­ta­tion, the kids’ film, and the other is about the same peo­ple, now adults, who re­unite to ful­fill a child­hood dream. The doc­u­men­tary screens as part of the Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val on Sun­day, Dec. 6, fol­lowed by a screen­ing of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adap­ta­tion. For a do­na­tion, the film is avail­able at www.raider­s­ as a down­load or on DVD.

The doc­u­men­tary de­tails the cir­cum­stances of the young moviemak­ers’ lives. Back in the ’80s, Eric Zala was be­ing raised by a sin­gle, di­vorced par­ent in a di­lap­i­dated old house with cracked walls and sag­ging ceil­ings. Maybe that’s why his mother let him turn it into a movie set, part of which could be hoisted to the liv­ing room ceil­ing when not in use. Eric be­came the project’s di­rec­tor and also played the role of the chief vil­lain, Dr. René Bel­loq, Paul Free­man’s role in the orig­i­nal film. Chris Strompo­los’ par­were ents, too, di­vorced. He lived with his mother and an abu­sive, al­co­holic step­fa­ther. For him, In­di­ana Jones was a kind of ideal adult male fig­ure — one that he could look up to — and he took on the star­ring role as Indy, also be­com­ing the film’s pro­ducer. Jayson Lamb, an ec­cen­tric kid who smoked pot and was into nude shamanic danc­ing, com­pleted the trio. He had a cre­ative streak and knew how to do makeup ef­fects and use squibs, tricks he’d learned by read­ing about Tom Savini and other makeup artists. Jayson worked on spe­cial ef­fects for the pro­duc­tion and was the cin­e­matog­ra­pher. They en­listed friends to act as cast and crew. The film’s un­sung hero is Eric’s younger brother Kurt, who played nu­mer­ous roles and suf­fered many in­dig­ni­ties in the form of death scenes. At times, dozens of chil­dren were par­tic­i­pat­ing in the project at once. They were not af­flu­ent or priv­i­leged kids, and many came from bro­ken homes. They grav­i­tated to­ward Chris and Eric, whose movie be­came their bedrock. Over the course of the next seven sum­mers,

In­di­ana Jones. Al­ways knew some­day you’d come walkin’ back through my door. — Mar­ion Raven­wood

(Karen Allen) in Raiders of the Lost Ark

it would come to de­fine their youth. It would also be­come the stuff of movie-geek leg­end.

From the start, they aimed to make as faith­ful a re­make as pos­si­ble, with only mea­ger means avail­able to them. If the back­ground called for Arab dig­gers ex­ca­vat­ing the ru­ins at Ta­nis, then they would dress their friends as Arabs and place shov­els in their hands. But they had to im­pro­vise. When they needed props, they re­quested them as Christ­mas and birth­day gifts. Ja­son Mel­ton (Capt. Katanga) loaned out his ger­bils as stand-ins for rats, and they even found a role for Chris’ dog Snick­ers. They made use of a derelict old truck with no en­gine and no brakes, pulled along by ropes, re-cre­at­ing the stunts in the truck chase scene with­out any pro­fes­sional ad­vice or ex­per­tise. Over the course of those seven years, they spent more time with the charac­first ters than the ac­tors who played them. The kids evoke the spirit of the ac­tors in the orig­i­nal while making them their own, es­pe­cially Chris as Indy. At one point, Eric un­can­nily chan­nels Bel­loq al­most ex­actly as Free­man played him. Judg­ing from the footage as­sem­bled here, there is enough fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial to call their film a trib­ute, but its cre­ative en­ergy is unique.

The boys grew up over the course of the pro­duc­tion, so their ages shift back and forth dur­ing the film be­cause scenes were filmed out of se­quence. The project con­sumed them from pre-pu­bes­cence into their teenage years, and up into their first years of col­lege. Since they were es­sen­tially film­ing their childinevitably hoods, mile­stones were caught on­screen. Eric con­vinced a pretty older girl named An­gela Ro­driguez to play the role of Mar­ion Raven­wood (Karen Allen in the Spiel­berg orig­i­nal). When they shot the cabin scene, it was the first time Chris had ever kissed a girl.

Coon and Sk­ousen as­sem­bled an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of out­takes and be­hind-the-scenes footage from the re­make, and they jux­ta­pose this with sim­i­lar archival footage from the set of the orig­i­nal

It’s a credit to the kids that they had the fore­sight to hold on to the out­takes. The footage re­veals, some­times hu­mor­ously, that the pro­ducThe tion was a trou­bled one. boul­der that nearly crushes Indy near the start of the film went through four pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions be­fore they got it right. An accident in­volv­ing in­dus­trial plas­ter sent Eric to the ER; a sus­pi­cious on­looker called the po­lice when he caught them film­ing the Arab street fight scene in an al­ley; Eric doused him­self in gaso­couldn’t line and they nearly put the flames out; and years into pro­duc­tion, a tech­ni­cal glitch forced them to reshoot most of the footage. Eric’s mom agreed they could keep film­ing only un­der adult su­per­vi­sion, but the adult they got ended up need­ing more su­per­vi­sion than they did. He nearly let them burn the house down (not for the first time), in­struct­ing them where to put the ac­cel­er­ant for a more dra­matic ef­fect.

As pro­duc­tion con­tin­ued through­out the 1980s, word of the re­make be­came news­wor­thy. But when Jayson was in­ad­ver­tently left out of a live ap­pear­ance on a TV talk show, it caused some hurt feel­ings and re­sent­ment. Chris and Eric were get­ting on each other’s nerves, too. A be­trayal by a teenaged Chris had caused their re­la­tion­ship to cool; by the time the pro­duc­tion wrapped, the two best friends were barely speak­ing. In­stead of be­ing elated, cast and crew were left stressed, bit­ter, and dis­ap­pointed. Still, the trio at­tended the 1989 world pre­miere in Gulf­port, Mis­sis­sippi, which would be its first and last pub­lic view­ing for a long while. Then Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adap­ta­tion, dis­ap­peared among all of Eric’s other VHS cas­settes, fad­ing into ob­scu­rity like the Ark of the Covenant.

But there was one scene the film­mak­ers never shot. It was the in­fa­mous air­plane pro­pel­ler scene, and it al­ways nagged at Eric that they never got around to film­ing it.

Eric had made some copies of the adap­ta­tion while at NYU film school and, through a se­ries of com­pli­cated but for­tu­itous events, a copy ended up in the hands of film­maker Eli Roth who, im­pressed, took it to Harry Knowles of the web­site Ain’t It Cool News. Roth con­vinced Knowles to show it at the But­tNumb-A-Thon 4 film fes­ti­val in 2002. They screened only a por­tion to fill time be­tween other sched­uled show­ings, draw­ing boos from an en­rap­tured au­di­ence when they had to turn it off. Peo­ple in at­ten­dance that night de­scribed the magic of it: If you re­mem­ber the Spiel­berg movie, then you an­tic­i­pate each up­com­ing scene in the adap­ta­tion and won­der how the kids will pull it off, want­ing them to suc­ceed. A lot of kids who came of age in the ’80s clearly had the same — or a sim­i­lar — dream to make a movie. I had that dream, but I lacked the am­bi­tion (and my video­cam­era was stolen). But I did know a kid who ac­ci­den­tally launched him­self through his mother’s wind­shield, try­ing to re-cre­ate the truck chase scene from Raiders. The point is, some kids tried — but th­ese kids suc­ceeded, and that makes them he­roes.

Knowles and Roth were de­ter­mined to track down the film­mak­ers, but learned that the three friends were no longer speak­ing. Jayson, now an artist, spends much of his screen time ex­pound­ing on the cre­ative dif­fer­ences be­tween Chris and Eric and him­self. Nev­er­the­less, he was be­side his two friends when Roth brought them and their film to an­other Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2012, where the trio re­ceived a four-minute stand­ing ova­tion. Over the years, Chris and Eric re­mained friends, but it was a tough road for Chris — he was in and out of jobs, went through bad re­la­tion­ships, and strug­gled with meth ad­dic­tion. He leaned on Eric for sup­port, some­times heav­ily, and Eric can’t keep the raw emo­tion from his face when discussing it in the doc­u­men­tary. For Eric, film­mak­ing fell by the way­side, and he en­tered the cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment, ris­ing in the ranks to ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions. But what he and Chris really wanted was to shoot that one re­main­ing scene, a com­pli­cated se­ries of 124 shots, so that’s what they set out to do in June of 2014. It’s a re­mark­able epi­logue to an al­ready re­mark­able story.

Chris and Eric set up a Kick­starter ac­count and met with po­ten­tial in­vestors, aware they were ask­ing for help to fund a per­sonal, not a com­mer­cial project and that in­vestors would likely never see a re­turn. Once back in pro­duc­tion, they re­assem­bled as many of their orig­i­nal cast as pos­si­ble to shoot the scene, in­clud­ing Kurt and An­gela. But prob­lems plagued the pro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing rain, mud, me­chan­i­cal fail­ures, and walk-offs. Spiel­berg faced his own trou­bles on lo­ca­tion shoots; there were days when tem­per­a­tures in Tu­nisia, where the Ta­nis footage was shot, reached 130 de­grees and, ac­cord­ing to John Rhys-Davies (Sal­lah in the ’81 film), ev­ery­one got sick. A quick cut from a vin­tage shot of Spiel­berg on the set of Raiders shows a sim­i­lar shot of a down­trod­den Eric, more than 33 years later, shoot­ing the ex­act same scene. De­spite all the set­backs, he’s in his el­e­ment, and you still want him to suc­ceed.

But does he? Do any of them? You have to wait un­til the end cred­its to find out.

Left to right, as teens, Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb, and Chris Strompo­los; above, left to right, Jayson Lamb, Steven Spiel­berg, Chris Strompo­los, and Eric Zala

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