By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 screensthe 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 Adaptationremakes 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 Lambhave 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 Rudinwho's preparing a Daniel Clowesscripted film based on their experiencesand 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.
"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 summerit 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 reportsnot 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."
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 offI'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 shotproviding 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 mefor 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."
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 Brothersstyle 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 Menacethat improved the original by removing Jar-Jar Binks and cutting goofier character dialogue; that one remains samizdat. Numerous examples of machinimamaking short movies using video game environments as virtual setsre-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).
The art world and avant-garde film have produced their own remakes as well. Pierre Huyghe cast John Wojtowicz, the real-life bank robber who inspired Sidney Lumet's 1975 Dog Day Afternoon, for his 1999 video installation The Third Memory, joining him in split-screen against re-edits of Al Pacino's portrayal of his story. The most careful adaptation has been Elisabeth Subrin's Shulie, a precise 1997 remake of an obscure Chicago student documentary about feminist writer Shulamith Firestone, made in 1967 when Firestone was still an undergraduate, prior to writing her influential tome The Dialectic of Sex. Including subtle deviations from its original (a Starbucks cup placed on purpose in one shot, for example), Subrin's film becomes a conceptual riddle on the nature of historical truth. In the same decade, video artists Cecelia Doughtery and Leslie Singer created postmodern pixelvision remakes of works like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the early reality-TV show An American Family, recasting the stories with their queer compatriots. More recently, in 2002, Los Angeles artist Michele O'Marah remade 1983's Valley Girlwith minimal sets and a thirtysomething cast, adding a poignant layer of adult pathos to the original teen flick's New Wave insouciance.
Though The Adaptation has no pretensions to such artistic depth, it creates an unintentional disjunction between the innocence of its all-kid production and the unwittingly adult undertaking they literally grow intoin the course of the video, we watch the cast shoot up from squeaky-voiced children to high school seniors. Perhaps this is why it's affecting viewers in ways its makers wouldn't have expected. At screenings, Zala says, they're "approached invariably by folks our age, who say basically: 'I understand. I played Indiana Jones in my backyard with a bull whip and hat, but you guys did it.' One guy had tears in his eyes-because, he said, 'you kind of did it for all of us.' " A touching story, but slightly disturbing as well: It's a vision of Hollywood as a never-ending existential loopchildren playing at being adults, and adults never quite emerging from childhood dreams.