In 1982, two Mississippi boys with a Betamax camcorder and some free time during the summer set out to remake “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” shot-for-shot.
A project they thought would take them one summer has instead taken decades.
Now, 34 years since they started, they are touring the country, screening “RAIDERS!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” a documentary about all that went into finishing the project they started as pre-teens and finished in their 40s.
This Saturday, July 23, the adaptation’s director Eric Zala will stop in Charlotte at C3 Lab “creative hub” as a part of the tour. The screening will start at 7 p.m. and is presented by the Charlotte Film Society. It’s a chance for the public to see the finished product and hear Zala’s thoughts about the commitment his 11-year-old self never knew he was making. Tickets are $11.05 for the general public are available here.
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This commitment was born from his sixth grade film project, that — unbeknownst to him — convinced a schoolmate he would make a terrific director. This schoolmate, Chris Strompolos, gave Zala a call in the summer of ‘82, asking if he’d consider directing an adaptation of the famed Indiana Jones movie that came out the year before.
“I thought for all of five seconds, thinking ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’” Zala said. Strompolos would produce and play Indiana Jones, and with Zala on board as director, they were ready to begin. The plan was to finish the film by the time school started.
The boys, who lived in Biloxi, quickly realized in order to successfully finish their adaptation, they would need more help. About a year in, another friend, Jayson Lamb, joined as the cinematographer and editor. “He’s a really creative guy,” Zala said. “He was innovative at making faces melt and blood squirt.”
Unlike the original film, the boys didn’t exactly have $18 million to spend. Zala said they had to get creative.
“My mom’s house was ‘Raiders’ headquarters,” he said. “We didn’t have much money, which was a good thing.” He said the garage became a cave, the trees outside became critical set pieces, and the water heater was transformed into a jackal. They even started a fire — a contained one, thankfully — to recreate the movie’s flaming bar scene.
But even with Lamb’s addition, they realized this was a much bigger commitment than planned. The project they thought would take one summer took three, and then four, and then five.
“It was like summer camp in a sense,” Zala said. “There was never any question. We’d say ‘Okay, it’s June, it’s time to do Raiders.’”
Zala said they would prepare all throughout the school year to film, shoot on a Betamax camcorder during the summer, and then edit at a local television station where Strompolos’ mom worked. But the routine of planning, filming and editing was not without it’s challenges, Zala said. When they were about 75 percent done, tragedy struck.
“Chris and I had a falling out over a girl, my first high school sweetheart,” Zala said. “Chris tried to steal her away, so we didn’t talk for over a year, and we stopped filming.”
Eventually, they went back to work. And before they knew it, seven summers had passed, and they had one scene left to film: the airplane scene.
The final scene
At this point, it was the end of the ‘80’s and the boys were now entering into college. They needed to figure out a way to recreate the film’s monumental airplane fight scene safely, with almost no budget.
“We thought we would find a single-engine airplane,” Zala said, admitting it wasn’t a good plan, but it was the best they could come up with. He said he even got a pipe bomb recipe from the bad kid in one of his high school classes to recreate special effects. But when they tested it, that didn’t work either.
It seemed that all hope to complete the remake was lost. They screened their adaptation for the first time in 1989 without the airplane scene, and as they moved onto college, marriage and careers, their project was indefinitely postponed.
But then, in 2003, it was resurrected.
Zala said a friend of his at New York University’s film school made a copy of it that got passed along, eventually falling into the hands of Ely Roth, a film director, producer, writer and actor. Roth tracked down the trio and organized an official screening in Austin, Texas.
Stephen Spielberg, who directed the original film, also heard about the adaptation and wrote each of the three a letter on his personal stationary, congratulating them on the film.
It was this resurgence that inspired the men to finish the project. The team began fundraising in 2014, ultimately reaching their goal of $58,000 to finally film the daunting airplane scene. In addition, the rediscovery of the adaptation prompted the idea of making the trio’s filming experiences over the years into a documentary.
The documentary shows the three boys becoming men, always rooted in recreating the adventures of Indiana Jones despite distance and time. It also features what went into filming the airplane scene, balancing between scenes of their 80’s adaptation and their present day challenges to finish.
With the documentary’s recent completion, they are touring over 60 cities in the United States, sharing their life-long project across the country.
As appreciative as Zala is for the recognition, he said this experience has been a testament to sticking with your commitments. “There are many times that we were surely tempted to give up, had we given into that, all of this wonderful, surreal extraordinary happenings wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“Don’t do it for all those awards,” he said. “We crossed the finish line for no other ambition than to finish the damn thing.”