Like many kids who grew up in the 1980s, including me, Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos liked to create little movies in their backyards with their parents’ video cameras. (Mine was a Star Trek pastiche called “Planet of the Disappearing Potatoes”, which began with the voice over, “Captain’s Log, Stardate: One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four.”) Zala and Strompolos were slightly more ambitious, aiming to re-create their favourite movie of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot-by-shot. It took them over thirty years, but they finally finished it, and the story of that process, and the many twists and turns of fortune their lives took during that period, is told in the documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, directed by Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon and now available on Netflix.
With the support of their families, Eric and Chris set about making their opus as pre-teens, with Chris playing Indy and Eric playing Belloq, and various other friends filling in the extra roles. (The documentary, for example, recounts the charming story of casting a girl from their community as Marion, and Chris experiences his first real kiss in front of the cameras as they played the love scene on the Bantu Wind.) Determined to make their version of Raiders as close to Steven Spielberg’s original as possible, given that they had essentially no budget, the boys resort to all manner of indie-film ingenuity, creativity and fearlessness, including nearly burning down a house during the bar fight scene and going through no less than five boulders for the opening sequence, inching ever closer to convincing no-budget special effects. Their sense of “don’t slow me down with the facts” and determination to press on, year after year, with this childhood project shines through every minute of the final fan film. The documentary recounts their efforts, in 2012, to shoot the last piece of the puzzle, namely the expensive and complex “flying wing” sequence, involving complex props, pyrotechnics and a rigidly choreographed fist fight, and shows that Zala, in particular, has lost none of his energy and enthusiasm for remaking a modern classic.
At the start of the process, Zala and Strompolos were risking (and spending) really no more than their weekends and summer vacations in Mississippi making their Raiders, but as the documentary shows, as time went on, the stakes increased, as did the risk. A third filmmaking partner, Jayson Lamb, joined the team early on, and specialized in makeup and special effects, but differences in lifestyle and creative vision eventually led to his leaving the project formally, but he would remain associated with the fan film for years. And then there was the normal experiences of simply growing up, and an incident involving a love triangle eventually drove them apart, not long after they had finished their first almost-complete version of the fan film.
One question many viewers might have about this project and its stars is what they did next, after spending so much time and energy labouring essentially on someone else’s project. It’s here that the documentary takes a darker turn, recounting how Zala tried and essentially failed to make it in Hollywood as a writer and director, settling instead for a job with a video game company that allows him to support his wife and children. Strompolos took a more problematic road, venturing into music and film and eventually drugs (“I loved cocaine,” he admits today) that took him out of creative contention for some time. Now sober, Strompolos takes a more laid-back role in the present-day re-shoots, leaving it to Zala to find the money and, in what becomes a real conflict, get the time off from his day job to finish shooting. During an excruciating phone call between Zala and his boss, we can see the fundamental struggle of many modern artists, between their artistic passion and the cold realities of having to make a living. The latter part of this documentary is driven by the notion that Zala disappointed his friends and himself by “selling out” or giving up on his artistic visions, and in that moment, watching the middle-aged man bow his head and humbly ask his supervisor for time off, we see that there is, deep within him, still that 12-year-old who couldn’t wait to get out his father’s video camera and shoot another Raiders scene. We’re also reminded that, as amazing as the fan film is (and the footage we see here is wonderful), it’s just a fan film, meaning everyone involved was doing it for fun, and Zala in particular is putting his family’s security at risk by continuing with this crazy project. How much are singular artistic visions really worth? To Eric Zala, apparently, they’re worth almost anything. As the documentary draws to a close, we get the sense that finishing this film at long last not only brought a chapter of the directors’ lives to a close, but opened up a way forward to more, original projects.
In the end, Raiders! is about dedication and commitment so strong that it powers through years, changing circumstances and evolving personal relationships. Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos are essentially ordinary people (their families’ involvement in the television industry notwithstanding) who are attempting to move in extraordinary circles through their art. We see lots of documentaries about the making of a film, but it’s rare to get an “amateur”’s perspective on the process and the delicate balance of factors that must come together to live life successfully on both practical and artistic levels.