Backyard filmmaking is a rite of passage for young movie fans, and back before digital tools and iPhones made high-def productions achievable, these passion projects were largely lovingly made disasters: filled with sketchy effects and moms calling kids in for dinner.
But that wasn’t the case for childhood best friends Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, who went above and beyond what seemed even possible for a bunch of pre-pubescent teens at the time. At 11-years-old, the duo gathered up a group of their friends and set out to remake Steven Spielberg’s 1981 adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark in its entirety, shot-for-shot. They called it Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.
What started as a summer project in 1982 grew into a decades-long quest to recreate the movie as faithfully as possible. The remarkable journey is featured in the new documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made from directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, which hit theaters and VOD on Friday. The doc not only explores the making of Strompolos and Zala’s fan film, but it also shows their more recent attempt to finish the one scene they had initially left out: Indy’s the famous brawl near the Nazi airplane.
Inverse spoke to Strompolos and Zala about embodying Indy, why they didn’t just give up after all these years, and their future filmmaking plans.
Was it just a matter of perfect timing, seeing Raiders at age 11? Would you have tried this with any other film?
Chris Strompolos: When I was a kid I had a fascination with Star Wars, and obviously loved Han Solo. So migrating to Raiders was a natural transition. Indiana Jones was a character that I had never seen before. He seemed larger than life, and very real in a historical context with real life bad guys. He had noble pursuits, and he was macho and cool and looked awesome. We were just fascinated with that hero, and I just specifically wanted to play him. That was the basic idea for me.
Eric Zala: For me it was different. Rather than wanting to be Indiana Jones, it was all just about what a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark would look like. I naively thought it could be done in one summer. But for years while we were shooting it was just about putting the best bits in order, setting them to John Williams’s score, and seeing it come together. That was the real fire in the belly for me. I wanted to see this version of the finished film.
Did you guys shoot any other movies as kids around this time, or were you 100 percent focused on The Adaptation?
CS: We definitely watched and enjoyed other films around that time, and we did little weird side projects in between everything, but Raiders was always the focus. It was never in question. Summer would start, we’d reconvene, shoot more, and that was it.
Why do you think you had such a focus on adapting the movie shot-for-shot as opposed to maybe making your own original Indiana Jones adventures?
CS: It was our intention to follow a blueprint that had come before us. That was the plan that we wanted to stick to. For me, playing Indy, I didn’t want to replace those scenes with something else. We wanted to play it serious, and to see if we could hold our feet to the fire to pull it off.
EZ: As director I had to be the guardian of the vision and keep it consistent over the years. It was a love letter to the original as opposed to parody or something new.
Looking back on it now do you think you guys are responsible for a certain kind of specific fandom, one that craves authenticity?
CS: Some people see us as the grandfathers of fan films. We certainly were some of the earliest to do it in this scope, but I wouldn’t say that we were the first. We met a gentleman at a screening of our movie who was well into his 80s, and he gave us a DVD he had digitized from a film he and his brother made in 1936 where they recreated Tarzan movies in their backyard.
Fandom can be dated back much earlier, but it has evolved. It’s now something much more academic. There are books being written about it, there are forums created about it, and there are armies of people that pride themselves on the fan film genre. We’re part of the historical timeline but we’re not responsible for it.
The movie explains that you guys went through some rough times as you got older and the shoot dragged on. Are you able to look back on the making of The Adaptation as a cathartic experience?
EZ: Very much so. It’s was a joyous time looking back at it, but for the longest time while we were doing it there was a pervading sense of dread that was like, well what if we never finish? Having finished it, especially with the airplane sequence, it’s bittersweet. We initially wrapped in 1989 and went on with life and college and jobs, but you go back and see we managed to make it our collective vision and to do it right.
Are there any movies now that you could see kids wanting to remake and do what you did with Raiders of the Lost Ark?
CS: There are certainly movies that resonate with newer generations because the mythology is done well, whether it’s Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, or even The Avengers and the Marvel stuff. It’s got to be something that makes them motivated and emotionally transported enough to inspire them to pursue that and to create those worlds for themselves.
The end credits in the documentary say that you guys quit your day jobs to focus on filmmaking full-time. Now that you’ve completed The Adaptation, what movies do you want to make?
EZ: We have a couple of projects coming up. One is an original film that we scripted together that’s kind of a southern gothic action adventure called What the River Takes, and we used everything we learned from The Adaptation for that. And most recently we were approached by Tim Skousen, the co-director and producer of the documentary, who’s interested in having us produce his next film, which is a cerebral and dark post-apocalyptic tale of survival we’re really excited about. We’re staying busy.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity