A Jones for Indiana

It's the Littlest-Blockbuster-That-Could. The notorious fan-made remake of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' rides into Anthology Film Archives.

Americans love gumption. We believe that stupid ideas become brilliant ones if you just keep working on them with bullish tenacity. We love phrases that stroke our underdog obsessions—"against all odds," "hold tight to your dreams," "never surrender," "stay the course." One might call it a national Quixote complex, but the imagery isn't quite right: We seldom picture ourselves as senile old-timers, but rather wide-eyed children, pumped up with the fructose-laden juices of everlasting hope, belting out "Tomorrow" from Annie as part of the middle-school talent show of our national psyche. Naïveté is our favorite virtue, and juvenile delusion our common faith.

Perhaps this begins to explain the gutsy appeal of one of the strangest permutations of '80s nostalgia to hit movie screens—the now-notorious Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a 100-minute shot-for-shot amateur-video remake of the 1981 Spielberg-Lucas adventure flick, created over a span of seven years by a group of kids in small-town Reagan-era Mississippi. More talked-about than seen, The Adaptation arrives at Anthology Film Archives this Friday for a rare two-day run. Filled with ingenious contraptions and overweening jerry-rigs, The Adaptation remakes Raiders on less than 1/2,000th of Paramount's original $20 million budget, conjuring exotic locales out of cardboard sets in parents' basements, casting tweens in Boy Scout uniforms as Nazi bad guys, and rolling a gigantic hand-crafted boulder through the family garage to create the film's signature scene. Nothing short of slapdash spectacular, The Adaptation is indie (or Indy?) filmmaking taken to its greatest and most sublimely ridiculous extreme. With its mawkish aping of high-concept Hollywood style, The Adaptation's unabashed desire for achieving big-screen blockbuster-ness tugs right at the nerdy core of every film-school dude's mall- incubated fantasies of Tinseltown apotheosis.

Now grown-ups, the former Mississippi kids— The Adaptation's director Eric Zala, producer Chris Strompolos, and special-effects wiz Jayson Lamb—have made that dream a reality. After person-to-person dubs of their homemade homage journeyed all six degrees to the desk of Spielberg himself (unbeknownst to the makers), the trio racked up a 2003 theatrical premiere at Austin, Texas' screenhead shrine, the Alamo Drafthouse, leading to a gushing review by Ain't It Cool News' online über-fanboy, Harry Knowles, which in turn paved the way for a breathless, 10-page feature in the March 2004 Vanity Fair. Before long, the three guys found themselves meeting Spielberg, getting brought out to the Lucasfilm ranch for a special screening, scoring a deal with producer Scott Rudin—who's preparing a Daniel Clowes–scripted film based on their experiences—and taking lunch with development executives to discuss directing their own original blockbuster screenplay, currently titled What the River Takes. Zala, Strompolos, and Lamb may have scored the biggest hit ever for Team Film Geek.

From school-bus meetings to Speilberg's office: "purist" filmmakers Jayson Lamb, Chris Strompolos, and Eric Zala
Rolling Boulder Films
From school-bus meetings to Speilberg's office: "purist" filmmakers Jayson Lamb, Chris Strompolos, and Eric Zala

"We're sort of informally known out here as the ' Raiders guys' or the 'Raiders boys,' " says Zala, phoning in an interview with the Voice from Los Angeles between meetings. "Which we get a kick out of, since we're in our mid-30s now. I think some people half-expect to see pimply-faced 18-year-olds."

The Raiders-redux saga began in 1981, not long after the initial release of the original movie, when the three boys were between 10 and 11 years old. "It had come out that summer," Zala remembers, and "Chris got it in his head to do this shot-for-shot remake. He just was consumed by the adventure of it. We met on the school bus going to elementary school. He had borrowed my Raiders of the Lost Ark comic book, so he knew I was a fan, and called me out of the blue and said, 'Hey, I'm making this, do you want to help?' I imagined that the sets were all built, the costumes were all picked out, and I'd just walk onto the set and help out. Little did I know that at the time, all that Chris had done was buy the script at Waldenbooks and cast himself as Indiana Jones." Nevertheless, Zala and Strompolos struck up a friendship forged in their mutual commitment to the plan, with pudgy extrovert Strompolos taking the role of movie star, wonky Zala diving into the intricacies of storyboarding, and MacGyver-esque Lamb eventually joining to figure out low-budget special effects. According to Zala, they "had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, remaking this multimillion-dollar film on our allowances. We naïvely thought it would take a single summer—it went on to take seven summers. We started when we were 12 years old and finished when we were 19. I was a freshman at NYU by the time we finished."

With Raiders only recently premiering in theaters, studying its shots in detail was a tricky matter. In the early '80s, "you couldn't just go down to the local video store and rent Raiders," Zala says, "since it was still several years from being released. Originally, we didn't have much to go on." So when the movie was re-released to cinemas in the summer of 1982, the boys masterminded a primitive pirate copy, sneaking an audio-cassette tape recorder into a screening to capture dialogue and sound effects. "We bought everything Raiders we could get our hands on," Zala reports—not just a making-of screenplay book, but "action figures, photos, trading cards. I spent a whole summer with all this material, stayed up all night drawing storyboards for every single shot. Those storyboards kind of became our bible that we pretty much stuck to for the remaining six years." When a Raiders laser disc eventually emerged in the late '80s, the teenagers were surprised at how close their remake came. "We got a lot right, we got some things wrong. It's about as shot-for-shot as we could get with what we had at hand."

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