April 20th, 2008


"No Rights Reserved": the saga of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

Many filmmakers say “Pain is temporary; film is forever.” The makers of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation know that from experience.

The story is bizarre and improbable, and could’ve gone wrong in many ways (and did have problems), but it happened and it worked: three Mississippi friends, not yet teens in 1981, fell in love with Raiders of the Lost Ark and decided to make their own shot-for-shot version of it. Come 1988, the now-high school-aged Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb finished it: a complete feature-length ultra-low-budget camcorder recreation (first on BetaMax, then on VHS) of a classic adventure film. Strompolos produced it and starred as Indiana Jones; Zala directed and played Belloq; Lamb handled the special effects. (The only scene they cut was the fight next to the flying wing, but not for lack of trying: they would’ve needed to blow up a model airplane, which would’ve been the only model used in the entire film. So they worried it would look fake.) They got neighborhood kids, a local airport and a TV production crew to help. They built an Ark, a rocket launcher, fake dead bodies, Nazi flags, Egyptian tombs, and a boulder larger than Strompolos. They set many things (and people) on fire. They filmed on and inside a submarine. They trained a pet dog named Snickers to play the monkey. They even used the Wilhelm Scream, same as every other Indiana Jones film.

Afterwards, they moved on with their lives – college, jobs, marriage – but occasionally showed the adaptation to friends and associates. Someone dubbed a copy. That copy reached Raiders director Steven Spielberg, who tracked down and congratulated the filmmakers by letter. They met him. They didn’t get sued into oblivion for all their copyright violations (including, as Strompolos told me after the screening, recording sound effects and lots of John Williams’ score off of the Raiders laserdisc that came out in 1984). They succeeded in a way that reminded me of Ernie Fosselius, who made the Star Wars parody Hardware Wars and wound up working on Return of the Jedi. But their success goes even further.

These kids’ infectious, geeky enthusiasm led to their story being a Vanity Fair piece; it led to a large chunk of the film being shown at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, the annual 24-hour film fest hosted by Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News; it led to their visiting Industrial Light & Magic and seeing original Star Wars and Indy props; it led to producer Scott Rudin buying the “life rights” to their story, which might become a film at Paramount Pictures (a first-draft script by Daniel Clowes is already done). And all this inspired Film Action Oregon, the runners of the Hollywood Theatre, to sponsor a charity screening of their work, now known quite simply as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. (The film currently can only be exhibited for charity; Strompolos, Zala and Lamb cannot make money directly off of the film. Screenings elsewhere have benefited Doctors Without Borders and Hurricane Katrina relief. The money raised this weekend is going to the Austin Miller Scholarship Fund, created to honor the memory of a Film Action student who was killed in an accident.)

I was too late to join the madness Friday night – that screening sold out, followed soon after by both Saturday shows – but I was determined to join in yesterday.

That morning I donated blood at Red Cross next to Emanuel – glad that the Girl Scouts volunteering at the drive were greeting and leading people, not sticking blood-draw needles into them – then took a bus and the Max to the Hollywood District, a few hours ahead of the film (with my ticket at Will Call; I’d ordered online). Lunching, comic shop shopping, replenishing my precious bodily fluids, and waiting followed (and in the 1 o’clock hour, the theater let me hear a bit of the lecture Strompolos and Zala put on before the show). So I saw the gathering crowd…

…as well as waves of people who hadn’t heard that both of Saturday’s Raiders showings were sold out. I felt bad for one family whose young kids were dressed like Raiders characters. I felt much less bad for the woman earlier who got mad at the theater staff for, apparently, her problems getting there. She stood in the Hollywood lobby on her phone, telling someone how she’d gotten lost, had used most of her gas, and had had a nightmare time parking, all for something sold out. “I’m very upset,” she said more than once, both to the staffer and to the Whomever Person on the phone. (Hey! Here’s how we could’ve gotten her madder: ask her if she’d still want to donate to the charity benefiting from the show. Screaming likely would’ve followed that. Ideas like this are why it’s good I no longer work with the public.)

At about 3, a half-hour before ticket holders were let in, another Hollywood staffer changed the sign in the window from “Tonight’s showing of Raiders is sold out” to “ALL ALL ALL ALL ALL showings of Raiders is sold out.” One of my fellow Line People chuckled about the sign still saying “is” instead of “are.” And I wondered how big an auditorium wouldn’t have sold out.

Then we loaded in. The Hollywood’s main screening room somehow felt more packed than at last summer’s Serenity charity screening, which also sold out. (Was there also kind of a nervous energy in the room? Or was that just my own nervous energy?) We quieted quickly when the Film Action Oregon people greeted us, then gave a nice round of applause to Strompolos and Zana, who’d been flown in at the sponsors’ expense for the weekend. (The sponsors and presenters, for completeness’s sake: Video Verite, Bridge City Comics, the Portland Mercury, Dark Horse Comics, and Salty’s Dog & Cat Shop.) They introduced themselves and the film quickly – they did far more speaking at the Q&A afterward, but at that moment they, and we, were champing at the bit to see the film.

I’m not alone in being amazed by that screening and that movie. It’s an askew, Bizarro-world view of this film that I’ve seen countless times, with moments that are amusingly “off” (a too-deep dubbed-in voice coming out of this little kid saying “If they knew we were here, they would have killed us already”) followed by moments where, for instance, Strompolos gets Harrison Ford’s body language exactly right. The adaptation’s a crowd-pleaser, overcoming its technical flaws with sheer verve and chutzpah: we laughed, we cheered, we roared, we even let out a collective cry of “Awwwwww” when the end credits said that Snickers passed away in 1988. (The film’s dedicated to him.)

Zala clearly relished playing Belloq, complete with white clothes and French accent. His younger brother Kurt dutifully played all sorts of characters, usually when someone else who was supposed to act in a scene flaked. (Kurt’s name shows up so often in the end credits that it becomes almost funny.) For the basket chase, the filmmakers wrangled up far more baskets and extras than I expected. The camerawork, never less than workmanlike, sometimes captured moments of beauty, like the Egyptians digging towards the Wells of Souls, backlit by pretty sunset clouds. The audience loved that shot.

Their Marion, Angela Rodriguez, looked to me like a cross between Nicka, the first girl I had a crush on back in sixth grade, and L.A. Law’s Michele Greene, who I had a crush on a few years later. You think I minded? And Rodriguez – now a mom in Minnesota – was bold in her work as well, willing to punch guys, handle guns, dodge flames, and even take off her shirt and bra for the scene when she changes into the dress Belloq gives her.

And yes, the finale includes the angels of death flying out of the Ark and killing Belloq and the Nazis. The angels were matted in by TV studio techs, but at moments I couldn’t tell if they’d been matted in or were somehow on-set effects. Movie magic, people! It’s even possible with almost no money!

Almost the entire crowd stayed for the entire credits, which rarely happens. The crowd loved Strompolos and Zala. One of the first questions was “Are you single?” I thought, That’s the sort of question Neil Gaiman gets asked.

By showing’s end, I had cheered and hooted my way to being incredibly thirsty. Also hungry, but in that annoying way where I couldn’t think of what sounded good to eat, a quandary that stayed with me as I left. A sudden cloud burst motivated me into the Panera Bread on the way to the Max line, and I had a mango smoothie that exactly hit the spot. I got home, flashing back on geeky details of the day, and rested my mind. While knowing that, at the same time, one more crowd was in the Hollywood, many jaws dropping – again – at what these guys achieved.
Whale fluke

Words of wisdom from Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala

Not only did they show their handiwork Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, but Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala spoke of how they made it, and how other people can make movies. Saturday at 1, they gave a presentation in the Hollywood Theatre (not yet packed to the walls for the screening), telling of what you need to need should you heed the words of Lloyd Kaufman and Make your Own Damn Movie! They touched on this again in the post-film Q&A. And two particular tidbits came out of those talks that I wanted to share separately:

* People got hurt more than once on the film. There was even a broken arm. Eric Zala got hurt when he and his crew tried to make a plaster mold of his face (for when Belloq's head explodes). They used plaster that caused a burning sensation all over his face; they'd neglected to put Vaseline on his eyebrows and eyeslashes, so those hairs were embedded in the plaster; and it took hospital technicians with saws (plural) to get the mold off his face. His lashes and half of an eyebrow went off his face with the mold. "I was told 'sometimes they grow back,'" Zala said. They did.

But he mentioned that, and the story about setting the family basement on fire, to make a larger point: "Don't, do, what we did. Don't. We were young; we were dumb; it could've been, instead of a Cinderella story, a cautionary tale. Don't, Do, It."

* In the (only pyschologically) painful field of writing, Strompolos and Zala hammered home this point: write, then rewrite what you've written, and rewrite it again and again, because you have to get the writing as good as you can get it. They are now writing their own original script, and are rewriting often. So, they added, did M. Night Shyamalan. They said that Shyamalan didn't come up with the ending of The Sixth Sense until his 10th draft; it wasn't until then that he made the mental leap Wait! Maybe Dr. Malcolm Crowe is really...

"Thank goodness he didn't stop with Draft 9," Zala said.