Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
Teenagers Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos set out to recreate Raiders of the Lost Ark shot by shot back in 1982. They filmed for seven years but never quite finished. The resulting film, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, made its debut in 1989 at a beverage distribution company in Gulfport, Mississippi. Years later, when a VHS copy of the movie found its way to horror director Eli Roth, it became an underground hit. The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin screened the full film in 2003. The new documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (based on a book with the same title) chronicles the making of the movie and follows Zala and Strompolos as they set out to film one last scene to complete their film. It’s a fascinating film and we recently spoke to Zala and Strompolos, who have taken the doc on tour.
You talk about your childhoods in the movie but could you both elaborate on what drew you to Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Chris: When I was 10 years old, I saw the film and Indiana Jones was a natural transition from Han Solo and Star Wars and my obsession with that world. Indiana Jones was a believable character for me. He was larger than life and he represented the wit and machismo and the physicality of a hero that I had not seen. It was exciting and true and honest. I wanted to be that character. That’s how it started.
Eric: For me, I wanted to know from the perspective of a director what a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark with kids as actors would look like. That was a captivating concept for me. It lit a fire in the belly. We wanted to see this film and the only way to do it was to make the damn thing.
When you originally embarked on the project in 1982, did you have any sense that it would be such a long project?
Eric: We would have laughed at such a prospect. Back then, our loftiest ambition was simply to finish. The prospect seemed undoable. It was a pipe dream that one day Spielberg might see it, not sue us and actually like it. That came true.
What’s it been like to revisit the movie for this documentary?
Eric: That’s one of the really joyous things about getting the band back together again in terms of tackling the airplane scene as adults. We get to be reunited with our cast. Who gets to go back and do what they always wanted to do? It’s not just whatever neighborhood kid we could corral into pitching in and playing a part. They are folks who are near and dear to us and who wanted to participate and wished that they could have been with us in Mississippi in the ‘80s. They’re now indelibly part of the story. To work with people you love, isn’t that the best? It has been for us. We forged teen Raiders, as if in fire. Now, as we endeavor to go on and make original films, we are looking forward to reigniting that team once again.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot in the original?
Chris: There are two scenes that stand out for us. There’s a scene that was really, really difficult but was enjoyable. And there’s a scene that was really unenjoyable. I’ll start with the first. The scene at the excavation site was a hard scene just logistically with the scope of it and the weather and the heat and the number of extras involved. That made it a very difficult shoot. The truck scene was difficult but really fun. The trio — we were all in sync and firing on all cylinders. Eric was really well-organized and prepared with a shot list and storyboards. We had the architecture of the scene fleshed out and it was fun.
Eric: We had an opportunity to compare notes in light of stepping back and looking at the past. That hits the nail on the head.
The documentary centers on the final airplane scene. Talk about the frustrations of trying to film that scene.
Eric: It’s both similar and different. It was no more “endless summer.” Previously, if we didn’t finish, there was always next summer. One of our biggest challenges here was time slipping away through our fingers. We pulled together the airplane scene in a matter of months and so remotely because I lived at the time in Las Vegas and Chris was in Los Angeles. We were shooting in Mississippi and had to do location scouting and build a 70-foot wingspan replica and straw hut and tower. We are grateful for all the people we worked with. What was different was also being able to pick those people. They’re amazing, amazing people. You have greater resources as an adult. We could do it right—as we wanted to do it. Of course, with that comes a price tag and everything is more expensive. We were no longer asking for props and costumes for our birthdays. No, you put your own money on the line to cross the finish line because so many people have invested so much. Mortgage payments and keeping our jobs weren’t on our minds when we were 12. But what was the same was how we did it and how we met the challenges. We learned those lessons when we were kids. It’s not always fun. You have to push through, though it seems impossible. You have to ignore that seeming certainty and push through. When we were kids, we didn’t know that remaking a 20-million-dollar-movie on your allowance wasn’t very realistic. We didn’t know how to pull it off the second time and have it documented. If we were going to fail, it was going to be immortalized too. We went for it, pushing aside those voices of self-doubt. It paid off again.
What was it like to talk about your personal issues with each other and with your families? What does it add to the movie?
Chris: Eric and I agreed in the beginning that we wanted to be honest and true and forthright and, as it’s described, “warts and all.” The dark components of the documentary are things that [directors] Jeremy [Coon] and Tim [Skousen] handled beautifully. They wove them into the documentary really well. Part of that had to do with the comfort level. They created an environment of safety where we could share those things. It adds a depth to the documentary. Otherwise, it would just be fun and adventurous and cool. The credits would roll and you wouldn’t be left with much. Humans are more complex than that. Because it spans so much time, you need that in there to make it a deeper and richer story. It’s about our friendship and everything we went through and it doesn’t shy away from anything.
You’ve been touring with the movie. What has fan reaction been like?
Chris: It’s been immensely gratifying. We just did this for ourselves. None of that was supposed to happen. Maybe that unexpectedness factors in. That’s why we wanted to do this tour. We wanted to meet people who were touched and moved by the journey and taken by our little humble bouquet to the Spielberg/Lucas classic, this perfect film. Now, to see the reaction not only to the airplane scene but to the doc that gives the context of this 33-year-old journey is so wonderful. We have 52 cities and counting. As tough as this was, having consumed our entire childhood, when I talked to people after the screening I felt like I was repaid one hundred times over for the sacrifice.
What other projects do you have in the works?
Chris: Eric and I founded a production company in 2007 called Rolling Boulder Films. We are actively developing a slate of projects. The first one is the one that’s nearest and dearest to our hearts. It’s called What the River Takes. We wrote it on the road when the adaptation was first discovered and we were touring. It’s a Southern Gothic set in Mississippi. It’s a father quest. It has all the things that Eric and I would love to see and do in a film. It has adventure and action and physicality and great character and good mythology. The second one is a literary property that we’re targeting. It still falls in the Southern Gothic category. The third one is that the co-director of the documentary wants us to produce his next one. It’s a dark, sci-fi cerebral post-apocalyptic tale of survival.