Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie so entrenched in my early eighties childhood memories that I’ll never be able to judge it from a mature distance. I’m able to forgive director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas for the two disappointing Indiana Jones sequels that followed, and I can ignore my well-earned distrust of the fourth (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which opened on Thursday). But Raiders of the Lost Ark will never age badly because I can still remember when it was grade-school playdate material.
I was seven years old in 1981 when Harrison Ford made his debut as Indiana Jones, the nerdy-cool wiseacre archeologist battling the Nazis for the mystical Ark of the Covenant. I played with a Barbie-style Dr. Jones (detachable bomber jacket and felt fedora substituting for Barbie’s boring girly attire) and Indy quickly joined my motley cast of imaginary friends. I realize now how tame (and lame) that was in the spectrum of fan worship.
In the summer of 1982, a twelve-year-old Mississippi kid named Eric Zala and his fellow fanboys Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb began a seven-year project to produce a shot-by-shot Raiders of the Lost Ark remake. It included full-scale re-creations of the movie’s Nepal bar fire (Zala set himself and his family basement ablaze) and a re-enactment of the ending chase scene that required Strompolos (playing Indy) to be dragged from the back of a moving Ford pickup that had a brake system devised of pulleys.
Zala detailed on 602 individual storyboards the scenes he’d shoot. He designed many of the film’s costumes and props (including a giant fiberglass boulder) and acted as the production’s extras wrangler, corralling neighborhood kids for long, sweaty shoots during their summer breaks. His finished film, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, is such a remarkable case study in DIY filmmaking (pre-digital video, mind you) that it stands out in a cyberworld now crowded with fan films.
Seventeen years after the hometown premiere of their film, the guys got a call from horror director Eli Roth. Incredibly, he had passed their Raiders remake onto Spielberg himself. Out of curiosity (or maybe legal due diligence), Spielberg watched the movie, wrote Zala and crew a congratulatory letter, and eventually met with the guys for a screening of an Indy blooper reel.
Fast-forward to today: Zala and Strompolos are currently shopping around an idea for their long-overdue follow-up, What the River Takes, which Zala describes as a “Southern gothic adventure film.” And one day we may see a feature film about the making of their Raiders remake. Producer Scott Rudin has the rights to the story, with graphic novelist Daniel Clowes working on the screenplay.
The Parkway Theater is screening Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation on May 24-25, with Zala on-hand to introduce the movie and take questions after each show. The welcome serendipity is courtesy of the .edu Film Festival for Minnesota high-school filmmakers. Ticket sales from this weekend’s screenings of The Adaptation will help cover the costs of the ComArts High School-sponsored festival yesterday at the Parkway and give a wider audience to the event’s winning Best-of-the-Fest student shorts; they’ll play alongside Zala’s film.
Yesterday, the student filmmakers got to meet Zala and hear from local film intelligentsia Melody Gilbert, Bobby Marsden, David Hughes, James Byrne, Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson, and Coleman Miller. They also saw their own short films projected on the big screen. Advocacy pieces dominated the documentary category; downbeat avant-garde themes stood out in the animation/experimental segment; while school tiffs, romantic entanglements, and pissed-off zombies provided fodder for the narrative filmmakers.
Heads up to film school talent scouts: keep your eye on Rosemount High School’s Annie Burger. Her nine-minute Charlie Chaplin tribute, “Opportunity Knocks,” which won Best Narrative, is a knockout—the work of a junior Zala in our own backyard.
Zala, now a boyish, bearded thirty-seven-year-old, addressed a small group of students at last night’s first screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. He was wearing a Skywalker Ranch T-shirt, but, interestingly, mentioned nothing of that other Indy film that’s causing all the fuss this Memorial Day weekend. Which is maybe just as well.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, as everyone by now knows, was Spielberg’s and Lucas’s homage to the thrilling, cheesy 1930s/40s serials they loved as kids. And there is still something almost childlike about the film. It oozes a youthful enthusiasm for movies that you don’t sense as much in the audacious sequels. It’s not surprising Zala and countless other young fans have been obsessed with duplicating its every frame—the original was itself two name-brand filmmakers’ adolescent wish fulfillment, albeit on a multimillion-dollar scale.
Sure, I’ll be in line for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull one day soon, but I’m glad I spent the day with Zala and his local acolytes. They’re making movies under considerably thriftier conditions, but I suspect they’re working more in the spirit of the original Indiana Jones than anything you’ll find at the multiplex this weekend.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation and the .edu Film Fest Best-of-the-Fest shorts play Sat., May 24 and Sun., May 25 at The Parkway Theater.