In the '80s, three Mississippi teenagers filmed an incredible shot-for-shot remake of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. You can see it this weekend at Portland's Hollywood Theatre. Here's a slightly longer version of the story I wrote for today's Oregonian about it.
In the 1980s, Chris Strompolos and two friends, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb, filmed a shot-for-shot remake of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in Mississippi. Strompolos played Indiana Jones.
It took them seven years -- using camcorders, friends, family and whatever props they could cobble together.
"Here was this seven-year odyssey of being a total geek," recalls Strompolos, 37. "For me, it represented a chapter in my childhood that was very exciting and very turbulent -- a lot of changes, a lot of parental stuff going on, figuring out my awkward teenage self.... I think for many years, my relationship to that movie was one of embarrassment." After he got his life sorted out and got married, he says, "I never watched it. I never showed it to anybody. My wife didn't even know. I tucked it away."
But then something extraordinary happened. The remake -- dubbed "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation" -- leaked to the world. And the world was awed and amused by the insane level of detail these young men invested in their homage to Steven Spielberg's adventure classic.
And the world (and a few Hollywood fans) saw fit to make it a cult sensation, changing Strompolos' life forever. In fact, he and Zala are (proudly) hosting three screenings of this remarkable, obsessive act of movie love this Friday and Saturday (April 18-19) at the Hollywood Theatre.
The rest of this fairly incredible saga after the jump.
The kid puts himself in the picture
Millions of kids were blown away by "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when it hit theaters in 1981. Only three loved it enough to spend most of a decade on a shot-for-shot remake.
The saga begins in 1982, when 10-year-old Strompolos bonded with 11-year-old Zala over a "Raiders" comic book on a Mississippi school bus. Strompolos was a charismatic idea man; Zala obsessed over finishing what he started.
"When we join forces, it's undeniably powerful in terms of work ethic," says Strompolos, laughing. "We're both control freaks and extremely obsessive and very meticulous -- but somehow we don't get in each other's way."
They made notes and secret recordings of the film in theaters, long before "Raiders" was available on VHS. They transformed Eric's basement into a Peruvian temple, a Nepalese bar, a crypt full of snakes. That basement (and the occasional cast member) was set ablaze. They cast blonde children as spear-wielding Hovitos, a cute older girl named Angela Rodriguez as Marion, Chris' dog Snickers as an evil monkey and Eric's poor younger brother Kurt as nearly everyone else. With budding technical genius Lamb handling the pyrotechnics and special effects, they were underway.
Watching the final result with an audience is a multilayered experience. On one level, it's funny: Because it was shot over seven years, largely during summer vacations, heights, voices and hairstyles often change mid-scene, and some substitutions (bicycles for motorcycles, Nazi-saluting dogs for Nazi-saluting monkeys) are stunning because they give a real idea of the relentless obsession behind the camera. These kids were going to get their shots -- no matter what.
But on another level, "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation" keeps tugging your jaw to the floor. With the exception of the bloody fight around the flying wing (the one scene the boys had to omit, for logistical reasons), these kids keep finding ways to re-create big-budget action scenes without money or stuntmen. You find yourself saying, "Uh, did they really just set that room on fire? Did he just crawl under a moving truck? Are those real snakes? Did they really talk the Navy into letting Strompolos climb around on a real submarine? Am I actually catching myself enjoying this, here and there, as pure narrative?" The answer is "yes" on all counts.
So how did the "Adaptation" go from embarrassing Strompolos to becoming his calling card? The chronology goes something like this:
Zala, who directed the "Adaptation," went on to study film at NYU. He occasionally screened the remake for friends. A bootleg copy found its way to horror director Eli Roth ("Hostel"). Roth, by all accounts, went insane for it. In 2003, he brought it to Austin, Texas, and got part of it screened during a film festival hosted by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News.
The audience, by all accounts, went insane for it, too.
Knowles notified the world of the "Adaptation"'s existence in 2003, in a breathless AintItCool.com posting. " This is the best damn fan film I’ve ever seen," he wrote. "The love and passion and sacrifice is on every single frame of this thing." He quickly helped organize a screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse. Zala, Lamb and Strompolos attended, and -- to their surprise -- they got a four-minute standing ovation.
"When I finally saw what it represented to people," recalls Strompolos today, "I think I experienced -- and understood -- the joy."
Meanwhile, Roth slipped a copy to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg wrote personal thank-you letters to Strompolos, Zala and Lamb -- and later invited them to his office, where he showed the stunned thirtysomethings never-released blooper reels from the "Indiana Jones" trilogy.
Sadly, Strompolos says, he hasn't got any advance dirt on the impending "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," opening next month. "I so wish!" he says. "I'm with the rest of the Indiana Jones-loving masses on that one. I certainly tried, though -- we screened the 'Adaptation' at ILM [George Lucas' special-effects house] last February."
A movie about the movie about the movie?
In 2004, Vanity Fair magazine profiled the trio and their seven-year boyhood struggle. The article explains some of Strompolos' later ambivalence: The production was difficult, and interrupted more than once by fallings-out over, among other things, a girl.
But where Strompolos saw personal pain, Hollywood saw good drama: He, Lamb and Zala had their "life rights" optioned by producer Scott Rudin. Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World") recently finished a first draft of a screenplay about the making of the "Adaptation."
"Clowes says it's one of the best things he's written," says Strompolos. He says a director hasn't been announced yet: "Rudin, of course, doesn't sign off on anything unless he's absolutely positive."
Strompolos isn't waiting. He and Zala have formed a production company called Rolling Boulder Films, and they're working on making another (original) movie together -- "a new action-adventure movie called 'What the River Takes' …. It's set in present-day Mississippi. It's a river adventure, and a father quest of sorts. And then there's a kind of Southern-Gothic thriller that we're trying to option, and we've got a handful of other treatments that we're chiseling out." Meanwhile, Jayson Lamb is reportedly compiling, remastering and editing old outtakes footage from the "Adaptation" shoot to create a making-of documentary, tentatively titled "When We Were Kids."
'I can't believe you pulled it off'
If prior press reports are any indication, the "Adaptation" screening will be raucous. "From the first bar of static to the ending credits when the dates of Snickers' life roll up the screen, it's cheering, laughter, applause, hooting and hollering," says Strompolos. "People are also surprised that they're taken away by the story.
"Eric and I were at an international film festival in Palm Beach, and a guy our age came up to us after the screening and he had tears coming down his face. He said, 'I can't believe you guys did it. I can't believe you pulled it off.'"
Strompolos says copyright law means he and Zala can't make money directly off the "Adaptation": "The sponsoring organization with whom we choose to work" -- in this case, Film Action Oregon -- "we make sure they're either a registered non-profit or that a percentage of the box office -- if not the entire box office -- is donated to a charity. We're doing a screening in Canada for a cancer society. We've raised money for Doctors Without Borders, Katrina relief. We do ask for them to fly us in and put us up, and we do have a speaker's fee."
And so, on Saturday (April 19) at 1 p.m., Strompolos and Zala will give a free lecture at the Hollywood Theatre on filmmaking. It's aimed at teens. "We have a PowerPoint presentation that not only chronicles our production process of doing 'Raiders,' but also great lessons on doing pre-production, production and post-production," Strompolos says. "All the great lessons teenagers should know before embarking on the filmmaking journey."
JUST THE FACTS:
What: "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation" screening, with filmmakers Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos in attendance
When: Friday, April 18, 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 19, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.; two-hour lecture by the filmmakers Saturday at 1 p.m.
Where: Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland; 503-281-4215; www.HollywoodTheatre.org )
Tickets: $8 ($5 children and seniors); purchase them online here.
Best of the Fan Films
"Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation" was one of the first "fan films," but it's hardly the last. The increasing availability of cheap camcorders and video-editing software has allowed thousands of fans to make their own films set in the universes of Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk.
Here are links to a few of the better ones.
This hilarious series of short films follows a Valley Girl named Stacey (Amy Earhart) as she wanders in and out of the events of the original "Star Wars" trilogy -- becoming the ditziest Jedi in the galaxy in the process.
"Star Trek: Phase II"
This "Star Trek" fan-made series tells new stories from the Enterprise's classic "five-year mission" -- with new actors playing Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Incredibly original-series actors George Takei (Sulu) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) have appeared in episodes, reprising their roles.
If Imperial Stormtroopers were filmed for an episode of "COPS," it would look like this mockumentary -- which follows a group of the Empire's finest as they try to do their job on the mean streets of Tatooine.
"Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning"
Seven years in the making, this feature-length Finnish fan film spoofs "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5." It ends with a mammoth space battle featuring Hollywood-caliber special effects.
"Batman: Dead End"
Batman vs. Alien vs. Predator. What more do you need to know? A fan film so well-made, it actually got director Sandy Collora a few studio pitch meetings.
"Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Templars"
"Adaptation" star Chris Strompolos is impressed with what he's seen of this still-in-production fan film -- an "Indiana Jones" prequel set in Scotland and Mexico. The Web site features an action-packed trailer and the film's opening five minutes.
ALSO: Here's a long story I wrote about fan films for the Weekly Standard in 2004.