Lots of kids are inspired to make their own version of a movie when they’re on a high walking out of a blockbuster on a hot summer day. But Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala and took their obsession much, much further after seeing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in 1981. The pair set out to remake the Steven Spielberg classic shot-for-shot — the entire thing — and it took years and years to complete. While making the bargain-basement film almost destroyed their friendship, the impressive project reached cult status and even caught the attention of Mr. Spielberg himself.
Chris and Eric’s story made it to bookshelves with RAIDERS!: THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE, written with Alan Eisenstock, and I got the opportunity to speak with the pair about their epic filmmaking adventure when I was at ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. “It’s really something to meet your boyhood hero and find that you’ve chosen your heroes well, ” Eric told me about their meeting with Spielberg, describing the Hollywood legend as “warm and paternal” and detailing how they spent 45 minutes talking about “life and movies” with him before he treated them to some never-before-seen Raiders outtakes. “It was a real pinch-me moment.”
The pair of former school kids from Mississippi first bonded on a school bus over the Marvel Super Special comic book adaptation of RAIDERS back in the early ’80s, and immediately began plotting how to meticulously relive the film on camera. “It was really born out of a role-playing fantasy, that I just wanted to play Indiana Jones,” said Chris, who took on the role of Indiana Jones. “It was always our goal from the very beginning to do the entire film.”
Eric took on the directing chores and played bad guy Belloq, while eccentric friend Jayson Lamb was enlisted to run the camera and work on the homemade special effects — some straight out of THE ANARCHIST’S COOKBOOK. Armed with a clunky, problematic Betamax video camera (and later a VHS camera), the film’s script from Walden Books, an illicit sound recording made in a movie theater, 602 individually drawn storyboards (“It took me the entire summer [to make them],” said Eric), wardrobe and props requested as gifts from their parents, specifically Indy’s signature whip and fedora (“Birthdays and Christmases became prop- and costume-acquiring opportunities,” said Eric) — and of course an unlimited imagination — the determined filmmakers coerced curious friends like a modern-day Tom and Huck to help realize their production.
“Chris was the outgoing, gregarious guy; I was the skinny, geeky kid — total opposites on the surface,” said Eric. “He had the charisma to draw people in. I was sort of the disciplinarian to keep folks there. That was sort of the yin-yang of the friendship. … These differences made it work, but it was also a source of conflict.”
The exhaustive project made them the best of friends and the worst of enemies, with conflict, parental intrusion, and elemental issues threatening to shut down the production over and over. Battling lens-fogging issues and camera breakdowns due to the Mississippi humidity, the boys set out each summer to lovingly recreate every special moment of RAIDERS, from the giant rolling boulder (made of fiberglass) to the fiery bar fight in Nepal (after almost burning down their basement, “We sort of learned to keep our parents in the dark,” said Eric), to Indy’s incredible truck fight with the Nazis (achieved by towing an engine-less truck that they found abandoned in the mud) and the face-melting grand finale (with swirling ghost effects achieved with the help of a water tank and the high-tech help of the local TV station’s editing equipment).
“We didn’t really have a budget; we built stuff, found stuff, dug through our parents’ closets and Goodwill, Salvation Army, people throwing things away,” explained Chris, who estimated that the project cost them approximately $5,000 when all was said and done. “Lots of donated time, lots of donated energy, lots of people pitching in.”
Watch the trailer for the documentary about the making of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: THE ADAPTATION: https://youtu.be/C4UYBhDVm9k
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: THE ADAPTATION finally found its way to Spielberg courtesy of filmmaker Eli Roth (who got ahold of ragged copy from a friend) and, after watching it not once but twice, the legendary director sent both Chris and Eric personalized letters, calling their labor of love “hugely imaginative” and “very loving and detailed.” He said of their film, “To this day … still the best piece of flattery George [Lucas] and I have ever received.” Chris says that Spielberg told them that their film even “inspired” him, and added of their personal encounter with him, “He was warm and gracious and he’s continued to be supportive, year after year, of our movie.”
Now dads with their own families, Chris and Eric reunited to form their own production company called Rolling Boulder Films, naturally, writing scripts, optioning projects and producing films. And they finally got to film that one key scene that was missing from their production: The Flying Wing fist fight. VICE documented the duo’s final return to their lifelong project to film that spectacular scene, and you can watch the highlights HERE: https://youtu.be/3gV6QMj0fvQ
Then read more Steven Spielberg-related articles, see more of my ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT-related tales and interviews, Summer Music Recommendations, movie reviews, or there’s plenty of STAR WARS musings, Famous Monsters fun, cool vintage movie lobby cards, etc.