SXSW Review: ‘Raiders!’ – The Story Behind the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
When Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos were kids, they dreamed of making movies — and then they made that dream a reality. They spent most of their childhood summers in Mississippi shooting a shot-for shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. The project eventually consumed seven years of their lives and nearly destroyed their friendship, but in the end, Zala and Strompolos completed their film, which they called Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. It is an charming and inspiring work, and true to the boys’ mission, it faithfully reproduces every scene in Raiders — except one, the fight between Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and the giant muscle-bound Nazi at the Egyptian airfield. Decades later, after The Adaptation became famous as arguably the greatest fan film ever made, Zala and Strompolos reunited to shoot their one missing scene and complete their magnum opus. Documentarians Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen were on hand for the production, and turned it into Raiders!, a solid film about a seemingly frivolous subject that builds to a surprisingly serious conclusion.
Between scenes from the reshoot, Coon and Skousen interview Zala and Strompolos, along with their loved ones, some film critics, and several of their other collaborators. Jayson Lamb, the special effects wizard who figured out how to approximate Industrial Light & Magic’s cutting-edge effects on a budget cobbled together from a couple kids’ allowances and birthday presents, doesn’t always have the nicest things to say about his buddies. The story of The Adaptation is recounted in detail with lots of footage from the film itself, along with outtakes and biographical info.
With Raiders: The Adaptation, Zala and Strompolos might have made their dream a reality, but the most consistently interesting (and slightly depressing) part of the Raiders! documentary is the way reality repeatedly intrudes on their dream. Like many Steven Spielberg characters (and Spielberg himself), both Zala and Strompolos are children of divorce. Their relationship with Jayson Lamb remains contentious to this day. One stunt at the airfield goes disastrously awry. The reshoot takes place in the middle of Mississippi's rainy season, and the production loses several precious shooting days to torrential downpours. When they fall behind schedule, Zala’s day job gives him an ultimatum: Return to work as originally promised or don’t bother showing up at all. A child might watch Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation and get inspired to make their own art. If the same child watched Raiders! next, they might think twice.
If there is a big takeaway about filmmaking here it’s that it’s better to be lucky than good. And Zala and Strompolos are often unlucky, right down to when they were born. In the 1980s, cameras were hard to come by, special effects had to be done practically, and internet distribution didn’t exist. Today someone could make a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders (or, say, the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron), throw it up on YouTube, and get it seen by hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of days or even hours. In many ways, these men were ahead of the curve. In 2015, the basic notion behind Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation — take something people loved as children and remake it for a new audience — is Hollywood’s core business model.
Raiders!’s editing feels choppy and rough; at 104 minutes, it could use a tighter and more concise cut (or some contributions from more of the filmmakers behind the original Raiders besides John Rhys-Davis). But even in its slightly rambling, Spielberg-less form, Raiders! moved me in ways I did not anticipate. Zala and Strompolos’ Raiders: The Adaptation remains an incredible piece of fan appreciation, and a true work of art in its own right. Still, there’s a lot of melancholy in this story, and Coon and Skousen don’t shy away from the darkness in their subjects’ lives. Even more fundamentally, the documentary makes it clear that the Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos of 2015 are not the ones they thought they would be thirty years ago on the "set" of their homemade Raiders. They didn’t become rich and famous filmmakers. They have day jobs and demanding bosses. Yet through it all they still had Raiders. And with it, their dreams.