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