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South Mississippi
1982

Three friends (and one doomed truck) set out to remake Raiders
Three friends (and one doomed truck) set out to remake Raiders

Indiana Jones, the intrepid archaeologist, has managed to escape a basement of blood-curdling dangers, the betrayal of a young guide, and a death race against a giant fiberglass boulder only to come face to face with a tribe of upset natives. They’re brandishing sticks bearing some kind of resemblance to spears and they all look like they’re around 12 years old. They’re wearing grass skirts. Most of them are skinny, but one is particularly chubby.

Pushing 20-some years later, this childhood live-action remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark has itself become something of an archaeological find. Its rediscovery has sparked in its now 30-something crew a resurgent interest in filmmaking, led them to the mecca that is Steven Spielberg’s Amblin headquarters for a meeting with the man himself, and, in a monster-sized salute to circular references, inspired a “life rights” contract with Scott Rudin to turn their own story into a true-blue Hollywood movie.

“It’s redefined for me what’s possible in life,” said Eric Zala, who directed the remake, known as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, and starred as Rene Belloq. Eric looked back on that early production with a refreshing amount of enthusiasm during a recent screening in Boulder, Colorado. (When the movie is screened, strictly in educational or non-profit settings, at least one of the team is on hand for questions and answers.)

Eric’s gregarious personality fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm and he unleashed a trove of fun and funny stories about his fellow filmmakers, dubbed the “Raiders Boys,” Chris Strompolos (Indiana Jones) and Jayson Lamb (the special effects guy). The magical spirit of Betamax washed over the auditorium.

It all started innocently enough when the “tweenage” Chris unhatched a crazy, naive idea to remake their favorite movie during summer vacation. Not realizing how big an undertaking a full-length feature film would be, they set out to make the whole thing—not just the adventure scenes, but the dialogue and (yikes!) the kissing scenes, too. “It helps to not know what you can’t do because then you’re not limited,” Eric said.

When they weren’t done after that first summer, they spent free time during the school year doing research. Taking advantage of the movie’s theatrical rerelease, Eric snuck in a tape recorder to get the whole screenplay down. That audio tape and the images the movie burned into their imaginations would serve as key reference points. As year after year rolled around, Christmases and birthdays were “prop procurement opportunities” and it was assumed summer breaks would be devoted to the Raiders project.

The Basement, the Boulder, and the Blowout

There were plenty of setbacks, many brought on by their boundless ambition. One summer’s filming came to an abrupt stop when Eric’s mom shut down the production after she found them filming in the basement with Eric screaming and his back on fire. Production resumed the following summer after a safety demonstration for the parents and the team bringing on an “adult chaperon” for supervision (read: an adult who was even less responsible than the Raiders Boys).

Then there was that pesky boulder from the opening sequence. It took five tries.

“The very first year, Chris and I stayed up way past our bed times making this really cool boulder out of crisscross bamboo stalks and duct tape and cardboard,” Eric recalled. “And then, as the sun came up, we realized it was too big to get out of Chris’ room.”

Following that, they ordered a weather balloon out of the back of a comic book. It was $40, a fortune for a 12-year-old. After covering the thing in papier mache, it popped. One made of wooden cable spools came up short; it was only three feet tall. Another made of chicken wire was blown away in a hurricane, never to be seen again. Finally, a fiberglass version made in someone’s backyard got the job done.

The only scene they didn’t tackle was the one involving the Flying Wing. After a pipe bomb experiment failed, the boys considered using firecrackers and a plastic model but, darn it, that would be cheesy! It was a decision that made sense at the time, but it haunted Eric for years and to this day they joke about bringing the cast back together to drop in the new sequence and “see if anybody notices.”

Personal milestones like cracked voices and driver’s permits punctuated the production as one year blurred into the next. The exclamation point that nearly brought the show to a complete collapse was hormonal. Tensions flared when Eric found out Chris had taken Eric’s first high school sweetheart out to dinner behind his back; in a unique moment of pure teenage hubris, Chris even gave her his personal calling card. Eric made her tear up the card and flush it down the toilet.

“I was very dramatic and I called him and I screamed my guts out at him. I just swore a blue streak,” Eric admitted. After five years, it looked like they weren’t going to continue. They didn’t talk until the following summer but they managed to patch things up enough to complete the movie. Three years later, they were back to being best friends.

That sore point is now simply another part of their movie’s lore. Perseverance is one of Indy’s trademark traits and it rubbed off on the Raiders Boys. Amid Marion Ravenwood’s changing hairstyles and Indy’s expanding and contracting waistline, they chipped away at their labor of love. While they toiled over their one singular obsession, Spielberg and company cranked out two completely new, big-budget Indiana Jones adventures.

The Final Reel

During the course of their mini-epic production, the Raiders Boys corraled a cast of dozens and would call everybody and anybody who might be available, asking questions like, “Hey, Jimmy, wanna be an Arab this weekend?” Another question the Raiders Boys routinely asked themselves was, “Are we ever going to finish?”

In his mind Eric had built up expectations over the years, imagining hugs and tears around the set when filming was finally, triumphantly, completed. Instead, filming the final scene (with Indy and Marion tied to a pole while ghosts swept away Belloq and the Nazis) was anticlimactic. Other off-set flirtations made for a tense set and finishing the filming was simply a relief. Even then, it’d take another year of editing before the final product was ready for viewing.

In that regard, the boys got a bit of a lucky break. Chris’ mom had married into the TV business so they were able to work nights at the station, wading through and editing more than 40 hours of footage. With the project that was inextricably tied to their childhoods behind them, they celebrated with a hometown screening for family and friends, made souvenir VHS copies for the castmates, then moved on.

Eric pursued a degree in film at NYU, using Adaptation footage as part of his demo reel for admittance, and even had some success with his student production. But, while trying to make it in L.A., he fell into a different career as a video game tester. Granted, he was working at one of the top game publishers, Activision, but it wasn’t a career in film.

The Shift in Focus

A serendipitous paradigm shift in May 2003 disrupted a very comfortable life Eric had carved out at Electronic Arts in Florida. “I’m just minding my own business—average day at work—when I get this e-mail. ‘Hi, Eric. You don’t know me, but I’m a horror movie director, Eli Roth. This may sound strange, but Steven Spielberg has seen your little Raiders movie and he loved it,” Eric explained.

Somehow one of those old VHS tapes had fallen into the hands of the man who directed Cabin Fever and Hostel. Eric pieced it together: “(He) got a copy from a friend who got a copy from a friend who got a copy from an old college roommate of mine who made a bootleg copy unbeknownst to me.”

“Each of us received from Mr. Spielberg about a week later a very kind, signed letter thanking us for our very loving and detailed tribute. ‘Wow, it can’t possibly get any better than this,’” Eric recalled. “Little did I know….”

When the movie got a “real” premiere in Austin, Texas, Harry Knowles, creator of the movie site Ain’t It Cool News, was in the audience. Buoyed by Knowles’ glowing review, news spread like wildfire and the Internet was abuzz from Texas to the Netherlands about this weird little movie made by devoted teenaged fans.

The Internet publicity led to several calls from magazines and other publications that wanted to write about the Raiders Boys. They finally agreed to let Vanity Fair write an exclusive about them for its March 2004 Hollywood issue. The magazine treated them well, flying them all back to Mississippi and reuniting them with as much of their cast and crew as could be found.

From there, things snowballed into something even bigger than that fiberglass boulder. The Raiders Boys started getting calls from TV talk shows, including The Late Late Show and Today.

A year after they got their nice letters from Spielberg, they were in L.A. for a round of TV interviews with CBS, NBC, and CNN “…and we got a call out of the blue. ‘Mr. Spielberg would like to meet you in his office tomorrow at noon.’ So we got to travel to Amblin and walk in and say the most absurd words I’ve ever said to this day: ‘Hi, we’re here to see Mr. Spielberg.’”

Even more impressively, they also sold their “life rights” to Paramount, meaning the studio had the right to make a movie about their story. The screenplay for that big screen adaptation of their Raiders adaptation was written by Dan Clowes, who wrote Ghost World and Art School Confidential, and the project is now awaiting the green light to go into pre-production.

Everybody from Greg Kilborn to Spielberg himself had begun referring to them as the “Raiders Boys,” and although that wasn’t in and of itself a money-making accomplishment, Chris realized it was the kind of stepping stone that could get their foot in the door. Maybe they could start getting meetings with studios, and if their life rights do get turned into a movie, they’d have even more clout with Hollywood insiders.

So Chris proposed the same idea he proposed when they were 12. He suggested they make a movie. Not a copy this time, but a brand new movie – a “southern gothic action adventure” set in their home state of Mississippi. He also proposed they form a film production company in Ocean Springs, their home town, which they all consider as their creative wellspring.

It was a different gamble this time around. Instead of sacrificing their weekly allowances and six summers, they would be sacrificing six-figure salaries and job security. As Eric pointed out, “the more you have, the more you have to lose.”

The Resurrection of Dreams

Eric Zala recalls the day he and Cassie changed their lives forever
Eric Zala recalls the day he and Cassie changed their lives forever

“I think it was in Idaho that we had an extraordinary screening. The audience just loved it. It was just a chills-down-the-back kind of night. I was still riding the high<” Eric recalled of that fateful night. “I say to my wife ‘I think I was meant to do this’ and I probably fell asleep. My wife, Cassie, stays awake for the better part of the night thinking how can we make this work.

“Next morning we’re driving down the mountain to the airport and she says, ‘Okay, here’s what we need to do. Just listen. In nine months, after you get your bonus, you quit your job. We move to Mississippi where the cost of living is cheaper. Cash out your stock options. Sock away a nest egg to live on as long as we can. I’m going to start up a jewelry business with an old high school friend. And we’re going to do what makes us happy. Because you do need to do this.” To this day, Eric remembers that life-changing drive well. “It resonated. I knew.”

“Throughout that day I alternated between euphoria and a feeling of terror as I perched on the edge of a great abyss. But I thought ‘You know what? I’m scared, but what am I really scared of? In reality, I’m probably not going to die in the gutter. I will probably eat. I may have to flip burgers, but I’m probably not going to die and neither is my family. What really ought to scare me is a more realistic fear that at the end of my life—I’m 70 or 80, I’m on my deathbed, and I’m thinking ‘well at least I played it safe. at least I didn’t take any big chances.’

“I may fail, I might fall on my ass. But every time I have the biggest success in my life, it’s always when I risk complete failure. One of my favorite quotes is by Teddy Roosevelt. I’m paraphrasing, but, ‘I’d rather have my life checkered by euphoric success and horrible failure than live in the gray twilight that knows neither success nor failure.’ I look at that at times when I get worried about the mortgage because that’s what should scare me and not dying in the gutter.”

Timing is everything in Hollywood and in Mississippi. Eric left his job and sold his custom-built house only to arrive in Ocean Springs with his wife and son one month before Hurricane Katrina. The house that, during Eric’s youth, was overrun by tents in the living room, a cave in the garage, and heiroglyphs all over the basement walls, was roughed up pretty badly. But Eric’s family from Colorado and the East Coast all converged on their childhood home, situated “across the street from the Gulf of Mexico,” and the rebuilding process made for a unique bonding experience.

Looking back to the future, Eric and Chris are once again setting out on a great adventure. In a nod to their film roots, their production company is called Rolling Boulder Films and they’re almost ready to start shopping around their first screenplay.

“I still have moments of fear. My wife, thankfully, values following dreams more than financial security. She’s an exceptional woman. I’m happy. I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” Eric said. “I don’t have financial security, but I can honestly say that I’ve never looked back. So here’s to Cassie. Amen.”

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies

  • Rob Miller: cool site January 19, 2011 reply