Raiders! is a unique film about a unique subject. After watching Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, an 11-year-old in Mississippi recruited two of his friends, along with a neighborhood worth of extras, to recreate every frame of the film. Over the next seven summers, they completed every scene but one. Raiders is the story of their film’s rediscovery, its subsequent ascent to cult-classic status and the tribulations endured by the filmmakers as they reunited to shoot that final scene.
The amateur filmmakers, Chris Strompolis, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb, went to every conceivable extent of youthful enthusiasm and ill-informed creativity to produce their previously unsung masterpiece, and the process was trying. By the end, friendships were fractured, houses nearly burned to the ground and neighborhood teens almost run over by a truck with no brakes. Zala, who directed the production and played the part of Dr. René Belloq, was doused with gasoline and set alight for one scene, then sent to the emergency room minus his eyebrows after a failed attempt at making a plaster cast of his face. Despite the setbacks, the tween filmmakers persevered into their college years, replicating a $20 million film they had only seen a handful of times — with nothing more than their ingenuity and their allowances.
That one unfinished scene, in which Indiana Jones fights a Nazi ubermensch under the menacingly whirling propellers of a slowly rotating plane, would haunt the trio into their adulthood. While the shoot had long since been abandoned, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, as the fan film came to be known, got a new lease on life. A VHS copy fell into the hands of director Eli Roth, and he passed it on to Harry Knowles of the website Ain’t It Cool News to be screened at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2002. The overwhelming audience response to the movie stirred Zala and Strompolis to action, and a Kickstarter campaign was initiated to complete the film.
But, as with the making of any movie, complications arose. Zala had traded the ideals of his New York University film school days for familial responsibilities and a corporate job, while Strompolis had struggled with cocaine and meth addiction. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat these turns as it follows the two through a bumpy reconciliation after years of estrangement and a shooting schedule fraught with financial shortfalls and technical difficulties. Documentarians Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen refuse to pull any punches in dealing with Zala and Strompolis’ personal flaws, but they seem to have a genuine sympathy and affinity for their subjects. While talking heads such as Roth, Jonathan Rhys Davies (who played Sallah in the original Raiders) and Alamo owner Tim League fawn a little longer than necessary, they provide valuable context for the resurgence of popularity that Raiders: The Adaptation has experienced in the maturity of the internet age. There’s also a fair bit of psychological navel-gazing and an attempt to tie the origins of the adaptation to the filmmakers’ difficult home lives, but this is all overshadowed by audacity and ambition underlying what they managed to achieve. As a documentary, Raiders! is compelling and engaging.
But the documentary is only part of this equation. Zala and Strompolis are currently involved in a roadshow presentation of the documentary, along with their adaptation, spanning close to 70 cities, presenting a double-feature showcasing the two films. It’s definitely worth seeing both. Raiders: The Adaptation is the stuff of film-nerd legends, and it does not disappoint. Due to obvious copyright issues, this double-feature format is one of the few opportunities to see the fan film, and certainly the only chance to see it on the big screen with an audience. After screening the adaptation, I was struck by how well the narrative of the original holds up even while shot and acted by complete amateurs, a testament to Lawrence Kasdan’s script for the original film. More importantly, I was struck by the tenacity of this tiny troupe of teens and what they were able to accomplish. Both the documentary and the adaptation will make you feel good about every crazy scheme you’ve ever considered — and bad about every time you didn’t follow through because you thought it might be too hard. Required viewing for creative types and those who like to dream big. Not rated
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse, double-feature late shows only.