Before it was the stuff of pop-culture legend, Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation was the all-consuming obsession of three 12-year-olds from Mississippi. Along with their friend Jayson Lamb, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala spent every summer between 1982 and 1989 re-creating their favorite movie, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, shot for shot from storyboards Zala drew from memory, enlisting kids from the neighborhood as extras and themselves as stuntmen. More than a decade later, a dubbed copy of the resulting fan film—which had only been publicly screened once, in the auditorium of a Coca-Cola plant—somehow made its way to director Eli Roth, who showed it to Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, who threw it on the screen to fill time after a film print arrived late to an all-night movie marathon in 2002. The crowd loved it.
Since then, Raiders: The Adaptation has once again consumed Strompolos’ and Zala’s lives, even earning the approval of Steven Spielberg himself, who wrote in a letter to Zala: “I wanted to write and let you know how impressed I was with your very loving and detailed tribute to our Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” The story is explored in detail in the new documentary Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which also documents Strompolos and Zala’s obsessive attempt to re-create the one part of Spielberg’s movie—the scene where Indy fights a musclebound Nazi inches away from a spinning propeller blade—they weren’t able to film as kids.
The A.V. Club spoke with the duo on the eve of their nationwide tour promoting the release of the documentary, which they’re screening alongside Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation. [You can find a complete list of screenings at their website, raidersguys.com.] After talking to them for a while, we can’t believe they survived their various filming adventures—although we’re glad they did.
The A.V. Club: When you two were growing up, you were fans of all kinds of media and movies. So what made Raiders special?
Chris Strompolos: The whole wacky idea was really inspired by a need to cosplay. Coming out of the Star Wars world, the cool character of Han Solo was a natural transition into the world of Indiana Jones. The character of Indiana Jones was so much larger than life, but also more accessible than “in a galaxy far, far away.” It felt historically in context, like it really could happen. He was very much the solo Solo—no pun intended—with the hat and the jacket and using his smarts and his wits to go off into the world and do noble things in an archaeological way. It was real; it was visceral. It just spoke to me.
AVC: Who storyboarded your version of Raiders Of The Lost Ark?
CS: That would be Eric.
Eric Zala: I was the aspiring comic book artist, so I drew 622 storyboards from memory.
AVC: After seeing the film once?
EZ: Well, we saw it as many times as our allowance would sustain, which was about two or three times. Thankfully, back then in the early ’80s, films sometimes saw a theatrical rerelease, and that was the case with Raiders. It was rereleased in theaters in 1982 after premiering in ’81; Chris and I had banded together by that point, so I snuck in an audio tape recorder into the movie theater to surreptitiously capture the dialogue. We got everything Raiders we could get our hands on. And with these different memory jogs, I was able to cobble it together and close my eyes and see the movie and draw it. So not once, but not much more than that.
AVC: Did you get it on video eventually?
EZ: Yeah, a couple of years in, it came out on Laserdisc, and then on Betamax and VHS, and we were like, “Ohhhhh, we get to watch it!” And, looking at it, we got most of [the details] right [from memory]. There were a couple of compositions that were flipped, or the details off, but for the most part, it was a loyal rendering. And that was the blueprint we used in the ensuing six years.
AVC: Did you write original scripts as kids as well, or was this your big project?
CS: We were obsessed and consuming by finishing Raiders. We were focused like a laser on this project and this project only, hoping that we could finish it. Every year, that was the big question: Are we ever going to finish? So Raiders was the goal. We did little skits here and there, and just little fun, weird, abstract videos in our spare time. When I met Eric, he was working on a sixth-grade film project. That was really where Eric and I came together and I thought, “This guy knows something about filmmaking.” But, as far as original scripts, no, not during that time. More recently, yes, but not during the ’80s.
AVC: What are the more recent scripts you’ve worked on?
CS: Eric and I formed our production company, Rolling Boulder Films, in 2007. Raiders keeps pulling us back. We’ve been juggling our lives and our wonderful adventure with Raiders, and, in the meantime, we co-wrote sort of a Southern Gothic action-adventure film called What The River Takes. It’s set in present-day Mississippi. So we’re currently refining that. And then there’s a book we’ve had our eye on for a while now called Gone South by Robert McCammon. We’re trying to get that underway and option that. That’s a deal that isn’t closed yet, but it’s a book that we love and it’s close to our hearts and it’d be perfect. Most recently, I’m continuing my role as producer and Eric is going to put on his producer’s cap. We’re going to produce [Raiders! documentary co-director] Tim Skousen’s next film, which is more cerebral sci-fi.
AVC: So it sounds like you would like to spin this into a whole career.
CS: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. I think that would be the goal.
EZ: We’ve wanted to be filmmakers since—yeah.
AVC: Since forever.
EZ: We’ve been wanting to make movies for a very long time.
CS: Actually, Eric and I have wanted to go into the produce industry, so—
CS: After Raiders is laid to rest, we’re going into produce.
AVC: [Laughs.] When you watch your version of Raiders now, are there parts you don’t remember filming?
EZ: No, that’s the weirdest thing. I do remember all of it very well. Of course, between the book and documentary, we’ve opened up 40 hours’ worth of outtakes. Sharing all the behind-the-scenes stuff has kept the memories very fresh. And of course, working with the author of the book, Alan Eisenstock, we’ve tried to be very accurate in all our memories and relaying them. I think that part of our lives has been well-documented. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you were shooting Raiders, you guys were lighting a lot of things on fire and jumping off a lot of things. What was the closest you had to severe injury on set?
EZ: That would be what we termed the plaster story. It was the closest that we came to someone actually dying. I should mention the real irony to this is that Chris is playing Indiana Jones, and I’m playing Belloq [as well as] the director behind the camera. And yet, ironically, during the course of the seven years, I’m the one who keeps getting hurt: A broken arm, singeing my hair, lighting my back on fire. And of course, there’s the time that I got a plaster mold stuck on my face trying to recreate the plaster mold that Spielberg and Lucas used when they did the famous melting head special effect.
[Friend and cinematographer] Jayson [Lamb] had used the wrong kind of plaster, and my eyelashes and eyebrows were embedded in the plaster, not coming out for anything. They had to bring me to the emergency room. I still have the pieces of plaster with my eyelashes and eyebrows still sticking out like bristles on a hairbrush. And actually, when they pried it off, I couldn’t see. My eyes were so irritated from the grit from the plaster that my first thought was, “My god, I’m blind! What good is a blind director?” They were just irritated—prescription drops cleared it up. I could see. But yeah, it was touch and go there. The guys were worried I would suffocate and used a chisel and hammer to break through the husk encasing my head before they brought me into the hospital. Good times.
AVC: So how long after that did you try to reshoot that scene?
EZ: Well, Jayson thankfully said, “Okay, I’m never asking you to do that again.” He came up with an innovative substitute special effect: He took a plaster mold of a mannequin’s head and filled it with this gore concoction of his own creation, and he took a photograph of me screaming and then had that converted to a slide that you would put in a slide projector. Out in Chris’ neighborhood, in a deserted field, we ran extension cords to plug in this slide projector at night. Then we had the plaster head stuck on a wooden stand, dressed to the shoulders with my costume, and projected the photo onto the face of the mannequin so it looks like me—or enough to pass. Then we set the camera on a tripod, picked up a double-barrel gauge shotgun, aimed it at the head, and blew it to smithereens. And that’s how we eventually got our exploding Belloq head.
CS: And tell her what happened after that.
EZ: Oh, yeah, yeah. Of course the sound of a double-barrel gauge shotgun attracted the attention of the neighbors, and for the umpteenth time in our tumultuous Raiders history, the local police came out to see what the hell these kids were doing. Chris Silverton, our buddy, managed to talk the cops out of arresting us. I think [the cop] went on giving us his card in case we needed anything. So it worked out.
AVC: What’s the total number of broken bones and trips to the emergency room over the course of filming? Do you have those stats?
CS: The Raiders Injury Metrics. That’s funny. Well, I mean, Eric had a broken arm, plastered face, burnt hair, we had—I got kind of a mild heat stroke, but nothing really trackable if you’re looking for metrics. [Laughs.] What else, Eric?
EZ: You know, really, I think that’s about it, which is kind of amazing. [When you’re young] you don’t understand the basic fragility of the human body, so we pushed it, not knowing better. Very lucky, looking back.
AVC: Part of the myth of your Raiders movie is the story about how it got rediscovered. When did you first find out that anybody else was interested in your childhood project, and how did that feel?
CS: Eric and I were both kind of bewildered, surprised, confused, and excited [at first]. Initially, I think we both thought it might have been a joke, when we got a message from Eli Roth and the letter [from Stephen Spielberg] and everything. You know, like somebody was playing a cruel joke on us. As far as feeling vindicated, I think there’s a certain closure there, and a certain excitement. I think that it’s a wonderful feeling to feel acknowledged by one of your childhood heroes, and the myth keeps expanding. Every time we think it’s over, a new phase of our Raiders life continues. And here we are, smack-dab in the middle of another phase.
EZ: I would only add to that our first-ever Q&A, I said to the audience, “This was never supposed to happen. We did this for ourselves.” This was pre-internet, of course, and, as far as we knew, nobody would care. We just wanted to finish for ourselves. Surprising, yes, and unexpectedly gratifying, I guess. I’m so grateful for the experience, and of course being able to continue the adventure now is just mind-blowing. So it’s a joyous thing.
AVC: Why was it so important to finish the airplane scene? Was it just a matter of principle?
EZ: The airplane scene was the only scene we didn’t shoot back then, because who’s going to give us an airplane and let us blow it up? We would joke and say, “We’ve got to go back and do this right. Get the band back together and shoot the airplane scene.” But ultimately, we shelved the idea, because we didn’t want people to think that all we’re capable of doing is Raiders, you know? But when [documentary co-directors] Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen approached us, Chris reminded me that back when we did this for ourselves as kids, we certainly weren’t thinking about what the world thought, or anything other than following our own yearnings to experience that. That was ultimately what did it for me, and why I said, “All right, Chris, I’m in. Again.”
CS: Yeah, I think it was the convergence of a lot of good timing. We had been approached to do a documentary by many filmmakers through the years. I had met Jeremy when I was on the book tour in Utah, and he came up and saw [Raiders], strangely and coincidentally, in the same theater Napoleon Dynamite premiered in, and he said, “I just thought you guys were just a figment of everybody’s imagination and didn’t actually exist.” He was really excited. I didn’t know Jeremy, but we ended up going out for a quick dinner, and it was good chemistry. Jeremy’s the type of person who is serious when they discuss things, and he’s about action, and somebody who can cross the finish line with something. And Eric and I are the same way when we set our mind to something. “Let’s not just talk about it; let’s push ourselves to actually do it.” So it was a nice match. And, as Eric said, Jeremy responded to [resurrecting the airplane idea], and it ended up being a nice cornerstone, sort of a parallel narrative, between telling the history of Raiders and sort of a new, present-day struggle of getting this final scene. It’s a beautiful sort of bookend and it worked out very nicely.
AVC: Obviously, there have been Indiana Jones movies since Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull came out a few years ago. Has time—or sequels—changed your perception of the Indiana Jones franchise at all, or do you still love it as much as you did back then?
EZ: Speaking for myself, obviously Raiders is the best one. I think that, as subjective as these things are, it comes closest to empirical fact. Crystal Skull is of course infamous for being imperfect, but it’s not all bad. I was still very happy to see Indy back in the costume again, and I had no idea that I had a submerged fanboy desire to see Indy and Marian get back together. And I had that itch scratched. Whatever its flaws—Shia, swinging monkeys in trees, nukes in the fridge—none of that will change the fact Chris and I are both excited that Indy 5 is going to happen and that Harrison Ford is going to be in it. So, yeah, color me excited.
CS: I’m a hardcore Indiana Jones fan to the death.
AVC: That was going to be my last question, if you were excited for the next Indiana Jones movie.
CS: Yeah. I’ll be there. As soon as tickets go on sale, I’ll get one.