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.

Achieving such a faithful copy required a great deal of ingenuity. Replicating the film's signature boulder sequence, for example, became a years-long epic in itself. A first version, a hulking lump of bamboo poles and duct tape, proved too large to leave the bedroom in which it was constructed. Boulder no. 2, made from chicken wire, blew away in a hurricane. The third model, cast in fiberglass in a hand-dug dirt mold with help from a local artisan, finally did the trick (even surviving Katrina many years later; the fiberglass boulder still sits in the backyard of Zala's mother's house). Trained monkeys being hard to come by in Mississippi, the boys substituted a dog named Snickers for the comic-relief animal bit.

Like the hero of their obsessions, the kids narrowly escaped doom numerous times. Thinking they could create a cast of Zala's noggin to melt for the movie's supernatural finale, the boys covered their producer's head with industrial plaster, leaving drinking straws for breathing, but then found the material too hard to break open, necessitating an unscripted adventure involving local police and the emergency room. Zala nearly incinerated himself in a "very ill-advised stunt" as a Nepalese barroom brawler who catches on fire. "We naïvely doused my back with gasoline that day," he says. "I was wearing a fire-retardant raincoat under the costume, so I thought, 'Hey, we're playing it safe.' And so we roll the shot, I stand, they light me on fire, I scream, hit my mark, and then I yell, 'Cut! OK, blanket!' Two kids rush by with the smothering blankets prepared, put them on, pull them off—I'm still on fire, and now they're fanning the flames higher and my hair starts to get singed. The smell of burnt hair fills the room." Eventually, a fire extinguisher stopped any serious damage, but "our moms caught wind of what happened and for some reason had a problem with this. So they shut us down for the summer." But they got the shot—providing one of the numerous how'd they do that? astonishments that raise this amateur production far above the level of today's made-for-YouTube follies.

Though they managed to include an exploding truck and at least one real gun, not every element of the original made it into the remake. Missing from the final cut, Zala notes, is "the scene where Indy has a fistfight with a muscular, bald airplane mechanic who winds up getting chopped up in the propeller. In short, we didn't do that because it was too dangerous, and we would have had to resort to blowing up a miniature airplane with a firecracker at the end. And this may sound funny, but we didn't want it to look cheesy. So we omitted that. I think on some level that always haunted me—for years, I had dreams that we were shooting that scene." After six summers of production, the crew spent another summer editing on a clunky 3/4-inch U-matic video-editing system at a local TV station. So far, they've resisted doing any Lucas-style digital clean-ups. "The film that you see is untouched since we did the final edit in 1989," says Zala. "We are purists."

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

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is far from the only fan-made film that's been circulating in recent years, though it is one of the most elaborately and piously executed. The genre reaches back at least as far as 1969, when then-10-year-old director Peter Emshwiller directed and starred in the 16mm short Jr. Star Trek with his pals, aided by his father, Ed Emshwiller, himself an influential experimental filmmaker and science fiction illustrator. After showing on PBS, the Kuchar Brothers–style eight-minute piece became a favorite at Star Trek conventions.

More recently, Internet fan culture has spawned hundreds of new examples, mainly clustered around properties with mega-cult followings like Star Wars, Star Trek , Doctor Who, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer , tending heavily toward dorky satire and movie mash-up. More than one full-blown podcasted "TV series" has been set in the Star Trek universe with new characters. Lucas has even sanctioned an Official Star Wars Fan Films Awards competition, though allowing only documentary, mockumentary, and parody entries: There would be no place in the competition for something like, say, the fan-made phenomenon The Phantom Edit, an illicit video re-edit of the much-maligned Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace that improved the original by removing Jar-Jar Binks and cutting goofier character dialogue; that one remains samizdat. Numerous examples of machinima—making short movies using video game environments as virtual sets—re-create famous scenes from film-geek favorites, including a much-circulated remake of Gladiator's opening Romans-versus-Gauls battle created entirely within Halo with scores of players.

Nor is The Adaptation the only shot-for-shot remake. Gus Van Sant premiered his nearly shot-for-shot update of Psycho in 1998, produced by Universal. Now largely forgotten (Zala says he hasn't even seen it), the film emerged in a flurry of ballyhoo around the audacious concept. Though frequently dismissed as a gimmick, Van Sant's Psycho appears to have presaged his interest in re-creating actual events like the Columbine shootings and Kurt Cobain's suicide in his neo-structuralist trilogy of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005).

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