Revisiting Raiders

Decades later, a trio of teens look back on their home movie remake of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

It’s amazing to realize that it took Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford 19 years to conjure up a fourth Indiana Jones adventure, one they called INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, which was released this past summer. The film first premiered at Cannes, France and it was quite well received. The film went on to gross big-time box office with $783 Million worldwide. Now, on October 14, 2008, the DVD edition is being released by Paramount Pictures on DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

But it’s also just as amazing to realize that there is another Indiana Jones production that you’ve probably never heard about. It’s the adventure story of how three kids from Mississippi, just hitting into their teens, decided to film their own adaptation of one of Hollywood’s most successful blockbusters. Their story is the one about bonding friendship and relentless determination.

When Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb decided in the summer of 1982 to hand-craft a personalized version of Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it was just the beginning of a long, fractious and arduous seven-year journey for the trio. They scraped every penny from their allowances and called in favors from classmates, adults and kids in their orbit towards filming a shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s $20 million homage to the movie serials of the 1930s.

“To Strive, To Seek and Not to Yield…”

In summer of 1981, Chris, Eric and Jayson (who ranged in age from 11 to 13 years old) were living and going to school in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Ordinary kids, they became friends and discovered a shared passion for RAIDERS and Strompolos was eager to become Indiana Jones. He roped in Zala, who agreed, and then Lamb joined the team. The three assigned themselves multiple roles to play in front and behind the camera.

In addition to being the star Strompolos also handled the producer and sound mixer duties. Zala cast himself as Belloq, the arch-rival archaeologist working for the Nazis, and then constructed the storyboards and art direction. Lamb kept himself behind the camera as cinematographer, editor and special effects.

Often filming in their own bedrooms, their parents’ basements or on location, the boys soon came to understand the challenges of their filmmaking tasks. This was in the days before RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was commercially released on videotape. No scripts were available, so the entire adaptation had to be fashioned from memory and help from references like the comic book and the novelization.

To complete all the shots they needed, the boys had to film over the course of seven consecutive summers, finishing in 1989. In the final film, it showed: The ages of the actors often fluctuated from scene to scene, depending when it was filmed.

However, RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION was so carefully crafted that anyone familiar with the actual Spielberg production could easily recognize characters, costumes, locations and sets. And yes, the boys even managed to find themselves a submarine to use in their film. Cannily, many camera angles are eeriely close to the original film’s look and feel. Even the editing’s tempo are very close to the original film.

When RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION finally finished production after six tough summers, it was 1989; editing was handled at the local television station, which lent equipment and space so that the boys could complete their work.

Shortly thereafter, a cast and crew screening was held at a local PepsiCo auditorium to an audience of about 200 people. Everyone laughed and cheered and the boys were happy. Life could now go on.

It wasn’t until years later, on December 2002, that a filmmaker named Eli Roth gave a videotape dub of the movie to Harry Knowles, webmaster of the ¨uber-film geek website Aint It Cool News. (Roth got obsessed with the film after it was passed on to him by other fans who had caught an NY University screening when Eric was a film student there.)

As an unannounced, and impromptu screening, the audience was at first simply stunned to see RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION. And as they absorbed the film, they responded with delight and cheers. Five months later, in May 2003, the filmmakers reunited in Austin, Texas for another screening, and the reaction was equally enthusiastic. That’s when the three boys realized their private little film project finally had broken out into the world.

“Crack the Whip”

Today, Chris Strompolos says that what kept the three of them, over seven years of hard work, going on the project was simply that they were confident and had strong support from their family and friends. “We were surrounded by a lot of naysayers, “When are you going to finish that RAIDERS thing!?’ We were inspired to prove them wrong,” he says. “The most prominent point was that the working team of Eric, Jayson and I — the working chemistry was so strong — particularly between Eric and I. We just found each other as friends and that’s been the nature of our relationship.”

It was truly a collaborative effort, says Strompolos. The many who worked behind the scenes were conscripted into the adventure when problems were needed to be solved. “It was just a volunteer effort from summer to summer,” he says. “There were people who stayed around for the whole time,” like Eric’s little brother Kurt, who snagged at least six different on-screen roles.

As an example of the tribulations endured by the boys, the actress originally cast as Marion Ravenwood filmed a few scenes but then something unexpected happened. “She had moved to Alaska without telling us!” recalls Strompolos. “We were unable to finish. We had to reshoot everything.” Another girl, Angela Rodriguez, who was spotted by Zala at the local church, agreed to take on the role. “She was a perfect match and it ended up being really great,” he sighs.

“We just wanted to do the best we could. We never had any plans or intentions to ever show it to anybody. We were just doing it for the love of it, for ourselves. It was a fun project. We never had an end goal in mind. We weren’t going to sell it or distribute it. After many years of trial and error, we had a shot that we loved or something that really worked, we just got even more excited.”

Strompolos says when the three of them reunited at the Austin, Texas screening with Harry Knowles in attendance in May 2003, they were stunned at how many people actually showed up to see the film. “Our hearts sank because we thought, ‘My god! Don’t they know that they’re going to watch something that was shot in Mom’s basement!’ We didn’t know what we had,” he chuckles.

“It Belongs in a Museum!”

Since 2003 the three boys, now in their 30s, have continued as friends and working together. “The RAIDERS movie gave us a certain momentum,” says Strompolos. He asked Zala to join him in business and the collaboration has worked out well, bringing to fruition a film production company, appropriately titled Rolling Boulder Films.

In fact, since that year, the boys have been touring with their RAIDERS adaptation at charity screenings all across the country with a few international countries like Australia, Germany and Canada. “We always do it in affiliation with a charity,” he says. “For example, in Vancouver, all proceeds went to the Canadian Cancer Society.” Strompolos estimates they’ve flown to about 40 or 50 U.S. cities. Earlier this year the film had its Los Angeles premiere screening. “We’re booked for events all the way to the end of the year and in fact we’re looking into events for 2009,” he says. “We’re trying to get overseas. We’re in discussions about Iceland, Norway and the U.K.”

Sitting in with an audience who is discovering the film for the first time is a constant revelation, says Strompolos. “Obviously, we’ve screened it so much and I don’t sit with the audience every time,” he says. However, there are special moments that happen. “When the energy in the room is just so incredible, Eric and I will say, ‘Let’s watch it!’ For us to view it with an audience is pretty incredible because when we finished the movie, I was done with it. I was burned out and moved on to other things. Screening it for audiences, and seeing the joy and inspiration it brings to them, has allowed me to revisit that chapter in my life all over again. It’s incredible to me, in a room with 500 people, watch them whoop, holler and cheer and just have an amazing time.”

During one of those screenings last year in Mississippi, in a large turnout at a theater, the boys were reunited with their Marion — Angela Rodriguez, whom they hadn’t seen in about 18 years. “Angela’s really happy,” says Strompolos. “She’s completely cool that [the film has] gotten as much attention as it has. She’s a shy sort and doesn’t like the spotlight, which is ironic. She’s a single mom. She’s doing well. I was just in Minneapolis and saw Angela again. She’s still delighted to have had a part of the whole thing.”

Armed with three copies of the film on VHS tape, a DigiBeta copy and a DV Cam copy, Strompolos reports that “We sell out theaters. We get cheers and standing ovations. People are inspired and overjoyed. It’s taken on an incredible life of its own. Someone said our story is an evergreen story. And I think there’s always going to be someone who wants to see our movie, so we can keep touring.”

As a result of their fame with the RAIDERS adaptation, the boys sold their life story to film producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures, which has a completed script by Daniel Clowes. “They’re going to hit the pause button on it for a bit,” says Strompolos, who notes the film is in active development. “Because INDY IV is out in the theaters, they are going to wait until that rides out its wave, and then start putting together the film.”

Rolling Boulder’s next project is a bona-fide feature film. They snagged for themselves a Paramount development deal with their production company. The film is titled THE RIVER CHASE. “It’s sort of a ‘southern gothic action-adventure film,’ says Strompolos. “It’s a river quest. It takes place in present-day Mississippi which is our home state. The script is done. The concept artwork is done and we’re putting it together.”

Another item on their slate is a “passion project” spearheaded by Jayson Lamb, a behind-the-scenes documentary of their RAIDERS experience titled WHEN WE WERE KIDS. “He’s taken all of the footage and digitized them,” notes Strompolos.

When INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL bowed at movie theaters this summer, Strompolos, Zala and Lamb once again revisited with their favorite hero. “It was a real pleasure to see Harrison do his thing again,” notes Strompolos. “It wasn’t a perfect script. But I think the mythology of the Indiana Jones saga, the excitement of watching him again, was everything it could be. I’m so happy that the fourth movie happened in my lifetime!” he laughs.

The trio’s association with Indiana Jones got as far as receiving a personal letter from Steven Spielberg, who screened their adaptation and he expressed his admiration for their work and telling them that their work was the best homage to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Later, the three filmmakers were granted a personal audience with Spielberg at his office at Universal Studios.

Although RAIDERS THE ADAPTATION was filmed and cut together using primitive videotape equipment, today Strompolos and Zala tour with the film by carrying a VHS tape copy, a DigiBeta copy and a DV Camcorder copy. The three of them are resisting any notion of taking today’s advanced video editing and special effects tools and taking it through a restoration process to upgrade the quality. “There are some dangers in that and the reason we haven’t done that yet is there’s a purist’s quality of the film being edited by a child’s hands,” notes Strompolos. “Aside from the opening scroll, we haven’t touched a frame of it. That’s part of its charm. People like that it hasn’t been touched. We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘Don’t you touch a frame of this!’ I’m sure curiosity will get the better part of us at some point. We’ll clean it up, take it through a restoration and re-cut it just to see what we end up with. It’s on our list of things to do.”

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