Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015)


USA. 2015.


Directors/Producers – Jeremy Coon & Tim Skousen, Photography – Tim Irwin & Ed Stephenson, Music – Anton Sanko. Production Company – Drafthouse Films.

The story of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989) exists in legend – even if the film itself has not been widely seen (it has, for example, not been commercially released and is only available in bootleg copies). In 1982, Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos, two twelve year-olds in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, all enthused after watching Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), decided to shoot their own version on video. Over the next seven years, filming during high school summer breaks, they conducted a shot-for-shot remake, replicating every scene themselves. The story gained popularity through local tv and newspaper coverage and then wider attention after Eli Roth played a copy at the Austin Movie Butt-Numb-a-Thon in 2002. Their story was even optioned for adaptation as a feature film.

There was only a single scene they never completed – the fight in and around the plane. In 2014, they came back together after twenty-five years and began a Kickstarter campaign to complete that scene. Both Zala and Strompolos are now in their forties and, as is recounted in the documentary, have headed in very different directions in adult life.

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is a documentary made during the shooting of that final scene and one that goes back to trace the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. The documentary was co-directed by Tim Skousen who had previously directed The Sasquatch Gang (2006) and several other documentaries. The film covers everything from interviews with Strompolos and Zala, their family members and many of the actors and people who were present during the original production, as well as those involved in the present-day reshoot. Eli Roth, Harry Knowles and several of the players in the film’s discovery are interviewed, while the film also gets in several questions with original Raiders actor John Rhys-Davies.

The story of the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is an extraordinary one and the documentary does it full justice. What is remarkable is that Zala and Strompolos started shooting after only a single viewing of Raiders and were recreating shots and dialogue from memory – this was before the era when copies of Raiders would have readily available on video to reference either. Certainly, they did have some natural advantages – like Zala’s mother being married to the head of a local tv network and being able to lay her hands on a videocamera for them.

The documentary is filled with hair-raising stories of the completely seat-of-the-pants techniques they were improvising and of things going disastrously wrong. Production was shut down by their parents after the attempt to shoot the barroom scene set one of the kids on fire, although was restarted with the promise of ‘adult supervision’ where the one adult they persuaded to join them proved even less responsible and encouraged a much larger scale shooting of the scene that nearly set the entire basement of the house they were in alight. Or of Eric Zala being covered in plaster to make a mould of his face for the climactic meltdown scene – only for them to get builder’s plaster not realising and his face to start burning up, requiring a 911 call and he be rushed to emergency so that the plaster could by surgically chipped off. Even the shooting of the fight under the truck involved a truck that was a mock-up and had no proper brakes. The homemade improvisations are frequently ingenious – in lieu of the Nazi monkey, we get the family terrier who was made to salute with the use of a fishing line. As Eric Zala’s son says at one point “I think it’s amazing Steven Spielberg needed $20 million to make Raiders; my dad only needed his allowance.”

The kids are also prone to problems that no real-life film set ever had to encounter – like the divorce of parents during shooting. Even the scene where Harrison Ford and Karen Allen kiss was played out between Chris Strompolos and Angela Rodriguez with Chris never having kissed a girl before. (In the present-day scenes, Strompolos also admits that he was kind of hot on her at the time too). Or the jealousies that tear the friendship apart right at the end of shooting when it is perceived that Strompolos has made moves on Zala’s girlfriend and the falling out with the third wheel in the production Jayson Lamb when it is seen that the other two were taking all the credit for his work. (Lamb also gets sidelined from the present-day reshoots too).

The present-day reshoots, while approaching a level of professionalism, are not without major problems too in that the desert shoot is rained out for days, delaying shooting. Much of the film is beset by the constant fears on behalf of Eric Zala who promised his boss that he wanted to take the time off work at a crucial juncture and is having to beg for extra days, worried that he is going to have no job to go back to. Even then, the explosion of the plane goes wrong and ends up with the professional pyrotechnician (who has been warning everybody else about the dangers) having to be carted away in an ambulance.

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