"We didn't really realize what it meant to remake a $26 million film on your allowance," 37-year-old Eric Zala recalls. He's speaking to me from his home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast—not far from where, 26 years ago, he and his friend Chris Strompolos, then aged 12 and 11, decided to make a shot-by-shot remake of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Over the next seven summers, they'd transform a basement into a soundstage, drag each other behind trucks, and do whatever else they could to faithfully recreate the adventures of Indiana Jones.
"Some of the early footage of us lighting Eric on fire got to my mom," 37-year-old Strompolos says from his home in Los Angeles. "She wasn't happy with us, for some reason."
When Strompolos first saw Raiders in 1981, he reacted pretty much the same way every other kid did: "I wanted nothing more [than] to be in that world and wear that hat, put on that jacket, and have a bullwhip by my side," he says. "Save the girl. Fight bad guys." Unlike every other kid, Strompolos decided to actually make it happen.
Strompolos pitched the idea of remaking Raiders—with himself playing Indy, naturally—to Zala, with whom he rode the school bus. Zala agreed to direct (and co-star as Indy's nemesis, Belloq), and the two started watching Raiders over and over, committing everything to memory.
"Birthdays and Christmases became prop- and costume-acquiring opportunities," Zala says. "'Chris, your birthday is coming up—can you ask for the hat? Christmas, I'll ask for the bullwhip.' [We were] asking for a case of gold spray paint for a birthday to spray paint the ark I built from 100 bucks' worth of lumber and Styrofoam and plaster from the local hardware store."
Cobbling together allowances, abandoned trucks, and condoms full of fake blood, the duo even talked a grumpy Navy captain into letting them shoot on a decommissioned submarine. Zala and Strompolos spent a total of seven summers creating their VHS and Betamax epic with help from friends (including Jayson Lamb, who shot the film and created the lo-fi special effects). Despite challenges (like puberty changing Strompolos' voice halfway through shooting), they painstakingly recreated every scene—from Indiana Jones' archaeology lecture to the infamous sequence where Indy runs from a rolling boulder. Once completed, the film was set aside, until, years later, Strompolos got a phone call.
"I was working at a DVD lab when I got the call from Eli Roth," Strompolos says. Roth "had a copy of the movie from a friend of a friend of a friend of a roommate."
Hostel director Roth, fresh off the success of Cabin Fever, knew people at DreamWorks, and the tape made its way to Spielberg, who offered Zala and Strompolos his congratulations. Then everything came together: The Raiders adaptation screened at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse; geeks everywhere learned of the film via Ain't it Cool News; and Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin snagged the rights to turn Strompolos and Zala's story into a feature film.
After years working corporate jobs, Zala and Strompolos have returned to filmmaking—they're currently working on a "Southern gothic adventure" for their production company, the appropriately named Rolling Boulder Films. In the meantime, they ensure that when the rare screenings of their Raiders happen, they happen for charity.
"Our relationship with [the film] has been odd over the years," Strompolos says. "It sat on my shelf for 16 years. I think there was a shroud of embarrassment about it—it was just this geeky, dorky thing that I had committed my entire childhood to doing. And then it exploded and took off and became this crazy sensation, and I've been able to forge a joyful relationship with it again. I've been able to see how it changes people, inspires people, energizes people. It brings people back to that nostalgic, amazing place when they fell in love with movies for the first time."
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation screens at the Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy) on Friday, April 18, at 7 pm and Saturday, April 19, at 3:30 pm and 7 pm. Admission is $5-8, with all proceeds going to the Austin Miller Scholarship Fund. Strompolos and Zala will be in attendance for all three screenings, and on Saturday at 1 pm, they'll give a free lecture for young filmmakers. For more info, see Movie Times on pg. 43, filmaction.org, and whatwouldindydo.com.