EXCL: Backyard Spielberg, Eric Zala


Thanks to cheap digital cameras and YouTube, anyone who’s ever wanted to make a movie about their favorite film characters need only spend a few afternoons working on it before the whole world can judge their abilities as filmmakers. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t nearly as easy, although the availability of super 8 and betacams certainly created the desire in a lot of young would-be filmmakers. Nothing typifies this more than the story of three teenage friends in Mississippi who spent seven years between 1982 and 1989 creating a shot-by-shot remake of Spielberg and Lucas’ 1981 action classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. After finishing their astonishing piece of work, appropriately dubbed Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb put it on the shelf for nearly 14 years before it was rediscovered and became an instant cult classic.

With the first new Indiana Jones movie since 1989 in production and the boys’ achievement in filmmaking being developed as its own movie, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Eric Zala, the film’s ersatz director, about how this ambitious movie came to be and how it became such an important watermark in their lives.

ComingSoon.net: When I interviewed Daniel Clowes last year, he told me he was writing this movie about these kids who made their own version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but I’d never heard about it before then.
Eric Zala: Life is very, very strange in that way, I’ve found.

CS: You finished the movie 20 years ago now?
Zala: Just about. We finished it in ’89 after working on it for seven years, so yeah, comin’ up on 20 years.

CS: Is it surreal to be talking about it so much these days?
Zala: It’s a thrill to talk about it. It’s very surreal watching the best bits of your childhood edited, put in order and set to John Williams in a darkened theatre with hundreds of strangers. It’s very surreal and it’s very joyous, I have to say. I certainly didn’t spend my childhood from age 12 to 19 like most kids nor did Chris and Jason. While a lot of my buddies were having keggers on Friday night, I’d be painting hieroglyphics in my mom’s basement. I really have no regrets. It’s really been an incredible ride and we’re very grateful for all the unexpected attention that our little film has gotten. As you probably know, this was all never supposed to happen, all this attention and showing it to folks. We just did it for ourselves. We just really wanted to see if we could and to inhabit that world and that was the best way that we knew how to do that was to retrace the footsteps of Spielberg, Lucas and Harrison Ford and do it ourselves, like a lot of kids. When we’ve traveled, we’ve been approached by a lot of former kids, now adults, who’ve come up to us afterwards and understand that impulse, who dressed up as Indiana Jones and swung from tree to tree in their backyard, imagining themselves as Indy. We just took it a little further it seems.

CS: How many times did you see “Raiders” in theatres before you decided to do your own version and what was the impetus to get started on it?
Zala: Well, “Raiders,” the original, of course came out in the summer of ’81 and Chris, Jason and I all saw it. We weren’t I would say tight friends at that point, but we knew of each other. The idea all started with Chris. When he saw it, as he puts it, the movie split his brain open and he wanted and had to be Indiana Jones, so he bought the published script from Waldenbooks. He knew me from the school bus; we actually rode to elementary school together. He was in 5th grade, age 10, and I was 6th grade, age 11, and I borrowed his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” comic book, so he remembered that I must be a “Raiders” fan and he knew that I did a classroom film for my 6th grade class, so mistakenly thought I knew something about filmmaking at the time. So he calls me out of the blue, and says, “Hey, Eric, you may remember me? This is Chris Strompolos. I rode on the bus, you borrowed my comic book. Well, I’m doing a shot-for-shot remake of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ wanna help?” I took all of five seconds to imagine that the sets were all built, locations scouted, costumes made, everyone cast, and I’d just walk onto the set and help so I said, “Yeah, sure, count me in.” Little did I know that I was committing myself to a seven-year journey at that point, so I was scared to death and little did I know that the only thing Chris had done at that point was buy the script and cast himself. We got together and hung out in my mom’s basement. My mom had this big rambling house and a huge basement which was perfect for our makeshift soundstage, where we would later shoot the bar, the cave, the well of souls, the map room, and we listened to a bad horror movie sound effect records, two 12-year-old kids getting inspired about the idea of doing our own Indiana Jones movie. As I said, we had no idea what we’re getting into, but that’s how it started. The thing is that at that point, we’d only seen “Raiders” I dunno, once or twice in the theatre. This was before the age where you could just drive down to the local Blockbuster and rent “Raiders,” it wasn’t available yet. Thank goodness the movie was re-released in theatres in the summer of ’82, and so we saw it a couple more times then and actually snuck in an audiotape cassette recorder to record the sound effects to help film.

CS: How did you avoid all the audience noise?
Zala: We didn’t. Particularly when Indy shoots the Arab swordsman, there’s clapping, laughing, hootin’ and hollerin’, all that stuff. Actually, that mainly turned out being more of a memory trigger for us, than anything we actually wound up using. It wasn’t until much much later that we’d be doing the post-production and the sound-editing on our own film and by that time, “Raiders” would have come out on laser disc about midway through production. At that point, we had to rely on memory, so we amassed everything “Raiders” we could get our hands on: action figures, the storybook, the John Williams soundtrack, bubblegum trading cards. I spread out all these photos and played back our illicit recording of the movie and spent a whole summer doing little else but just storyboarding every single shot. 602 in all, and those storyboards became our blueprint that we rarely deviated from for the remaining six years. We still have those today and in fact, I made a printed down copy and passed them on to Chris and Jason, they hadn’t seen them in years. That was kinda cool.

CS: Chris was already obsessed enough to see this through, but how did you get everyone else involved in making this movie over such a long period of time?
Zala: That’s a great question. I think it comes down to the fact that each of us, Chris, Jayson and I, while we shared the passion, we were very, very different kids looking back on it, and we each brought different strengths to the table. Chris’ strength for example, while he might be quick to start and to quick to give up, while my strength was stick-to-it-ism. Chris had a extroverted, gregarious charisma that drew people in, so he would get people jazzed and excited to “Come on, this is a good idea.” “Okay, I’ll dress up and be a Nazi soldier or a pirate or an Arab.” Chris would talk them into showing up and I would keep them there, so that was our ying-yang intersection of our individual strengths. That, and we were ultimately lucky I think. Like the gal I asked at my church to play the part of Marion, approaching her with the rather dubious line, “Hey, my friends and I are making a movie. Do you want to be in it?” (laughs) Thankfully, she recognized my intentions as honorable and she said “yes.” I bet she had no idea that she was going to be sticking with it for the next five years.

CS: I noticed that she had many different hairstyles throughout the movie.
Zala: Yup, yup (laughs) That’s our closest thing to timecode of when things were actually shot. “Angela’s hair is short… oh, it’s long, oh, it’s short again.” Chris’ changing voice. We weren’t old enough when we started to grow real stubble–we had to fake it with Vaseline and ash from the fireplace–but we could grow our own stubble by the time we were done. We were lucky that there was a core cast of characters, the kids who played Marion, Sallah, Toht, Dietrich and Brody that would show up each summer. Each summer for us, it wasn’t, “Hm, should we do it?” Every summer, it was sort of like, “Okay, it’s June, and you know what that means? Time to work on Raiders.”

CS: I was really impressed as I watched, because I’d wonder how you were going to do something and you always found clever workarounds like with the snakes and the submarine. Was anything particularly problematic that you had to keep working on?
Zala: Ah, yeah. I’d say most of it. There was little that was easy. It was certainly challenging and we didn’t have any but our allowances to work with, so there wasn’t much of a budget. Probably the real boondoggle of a lot of it was the boulder.

CS: Really? I loved the boulder. That was great!
Zala: Thank you, thank you. Well it went through no less than five incarnations. The first one, Chris tackled the very first year that we banded together. We stayed up way past our bedtimes in Chris’ room constructing this really cool boulder out of crisscrossed bamboo stalks, duct tape and cardboard. It looked really cool and as the sun came up, we realized that it was too big to get out of Chris’ room, so we had to bust it apart to get it through and it was trashed by then, so we had to start from scratch. #2, I ordered this big weather balloon out of a comic book and the plan was to cover it with papier-maché. We got through the first layer of papier-maché and then came down the next morning and found out that it popped. Boulder #3, we tried this wooden spool that they coiled cable on, tried covering it with cardboard. It was really more of a rolling cylinder than a boulder but it was only three feet high and we fooled ourselves into thinking maybe if we do low angles, it would look really menacing. Nope, not at all. Boulder #4, chicken wire. I cut up my hands bending chicken wire into this 6 foot high spherical frame and I was going to cover that with papier-maché. Well, a hurricane hit Mississippi that summer and I still remember looking out the window seeing hurricane winds buffeting our poor little chicken wire boulder frame and seeing it bounce over the edge of a hill and off into the water and who knows where it is today? Boulder #5, that was the trick. We finally got smart. My mom knew this guy that did custom fiberglass for boats. We convinced him to let us dig a hole in his backyard, and I dropped a plum line to scrape out the edge of the hole so it would be a perfect hemisphere, and lined the edge of the hole with fiberglass, which hardened. Popped that out, repeated the process, joined the two halves together and finally after four years at this point, we at least had our spherical fiberglass boulder which we painted grey and rolled down two untreated telephone poles in my mom’s garage, made up to look like a cave.

CS: I assume you saved the boulder all those years. I can’t imagine you’d want to throw it away after all that work and time.
Zala: Actually, at the time, we had to say goodbye to it, because our deal with the fiberglass guy is that he would only charge us a hundred bucks if he could keep it as an example of his work, so we let him. The funny thing is that when Vanity Fair flew all three of us down only a couple years ago, we looked him up to see if maybe we borrow it as a prop for the photo shoot that Vanity Fair was doing. He was like, “Yeah, and hey, do you guys want to keep it? You can have it.” We said absolutely and we loaded this big giant boulder into the back of a truck and brought it back to my mom’s house and wound up using it in the photo shoot. The funny thing is that Hurricane Katrina hit–well, nothing much funny about that–but the boulder which was in the backyard was gone and we were sure that it was in Nebraska by then, but we actually wound up discovering it about 250 yards away in a swamp and actually rolled it back. It seems sort of fitting that the boulder survived even Katrina.

CS: I understand that the movie was put aside for a number of years, so how was it rediscovered so that it’s been shown so much in recent years?
Zala: When we finished in ’89 after working on it for seven years, as far as we knew and as far as we were concerned, we were done. Seven years is a long time to work on something, so it pretty much sat on our bookshelf. We figured the chapter was closed. Occasionally, I’d break it out and show it in my college dorm TV lounge or something like that, and people would respond very strongly to it, but I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until four years ago that it was discovered quite by accident when in 2003, a bootleg copy fell in the hands of Eli Roth, who had just done “Cabin Fever.” He was taking meetings around Hollywood and brought along this bootleg tape of our film. He took a meeting at DreamWorks, Spielberg’s company, so he brought this tape along and passes it to the head of production at DreamWorks, and said “Hey, I had nothing to do with this but you should really check this out.” The guy watches it and says, “This is great! I’m going to show it to Steven!” Calls back on Monday and tells Eli, “Steven watched it and loved it and he wants to write these guys a letter of appreciation. What are their addresses?” And Eli has no idea who the hell we are ’cause he’s never met us, but thank God, this was 2003 and there’s that wonderful invention known as the internet. He tracks one of us down, Jayson, who passes on the contact info for Chris and myself. I’m just minding my own business, just an ordinary day at work, and I get this Email out of the blue. “Hi, Eric, you don’t know me, but my name is Eli Roth. I’m a horror movie director and Steven Spielberg has seen your little Raiders movie and he loves it. He wants to write you a letter of appreciation. What’s your address?” Of course, I thought, “Alright, who’s pulling my leg? Very funny.” I wound up talking to Eli for about three hours that evening and it dawned on me that this guy was for real. I gave him my address as did Chris and Jason, and each of us about a week later received a very kind letter from Mr. Spielberg thanking us for our very loving and detailed tribute. I thought “Wow, this can’t possibly get any better than this.” But it did.

Around that time, we were also invited to screen our little film for the first time publicly at the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre in Austin, Texas. This is June 2003, so they flew the three of us down and we had an incredible premiere, like a three-minute standing ovation. People really responded to it. I was kind of terrified at the time. I turned to Chris when I saw the line around the block and said, “Do all these people know they’re standing in line for a movie we shot in my mom’s basement?” But the reaction was so amazing, so wonderful, and from that, Harry Knowles, the internet film critic that runs Aint It Cool News, he was in that audience that evening and wrote an amazing review, and all of a sudden, this little film fan that wasn’t even so much as a rumor on the internet, all of a sudden they’re talking about it in The Netherlands and Asia.

Since that original screening in Austin and Harry Knowles’ subsequent review, which then led to a 10,000 word article in Vanity Fair which was pretty amazing. That in turn led to Scott Rudin, mega-producer who had a deal with Paramount, approaching us about making a movie about our childhood story remaking “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” So we did wind up signing a life rights contract with Mr. Rudin. The weird twist of all this being that a movie’s in the works about our story. In the process of all this, we have shown the movie since that Austin premiere three years ago probably about 30 or 40 times around the country. We don’t advertise, but generally people seem to find us who really want to screen it. We only screen for reasons of copyright at places that are non-profit and the Anthology Film Archives is the only such entity that we’re aware, so when they approached us, we were very excited about that. Also, I’m a former NYU student, so I’m well familiar with the Anthology, so it seemed like a great match.

CS: When did you go to NYU?
Zala: We finished our “Raiders” movie when I was a sophomore at NYU. When I came home for the summer, we finally finished it for good.

CS: You must have discovered some new skills as the movie went along as well.
Zala: Initially, when we were starting, it was like film school on the fly. We worked on preproduction for a whole year. It wasn’t until Year 2 that we actually started shooting. Since we had no training, well we sucked, there’s really no polite way to put it. It was very discouraging as a director for me to see the result after two years work at that point, for it to look so terrible, but we got back in there and reshot certain scenes over and over and over again until slowly, we started to pick up things about lighting, composition, mis en scene, about acting, about pacing, tone, just by sort of trial and error. It helped that we actually were trying to duplicate as faithfully as possible an original, because it sort of held our feet to the fire in terms of quality. We knew what the end result needed to be whereas if we weren’t, it would be all too easy and tempting to cut corners. “How can we set the bar on fire? Where are we going to find a submarine or a location for the Sahara Desert in Mississippi?” So that really challenged us. I think it was ultimately good for us, even though it had us pulling our hair out at some point.

CS: So Steven Spielberg never knew about the movie before three years ago?
Zala: Exactly right. Once finished, it sat for sixteen years on our shelf and we didn’t do anything with it.

CS: Do you think your movie might have inspired him to finally get going on “Indiana Jones 4”?
Zala: (laughs) Well, it’s kind of you to say so. While I’d like to think so, I don’t think we can claim credit for that, because we actually did wind up meeting with Spielberg a year later in 2004, and one of the things that he told us… At that point there were rumors sifting around “Indy 4” and by that point, the Frank Darabont script had been turned in and reportedly, Spielberg liked it, Lucas didn’t, so they passed on it and kept looking. I remember Mr. Spielberg talking to us a little bit about that. I do have to tell you, one thing that has caught our attention is that we’d not seen before that did seem to coincide that ’round the country, there seems to be these revival screenings of the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You didn’t see that, and we have wondered out loud if that was coincidence or not. Certainly, if anything, the thought of us actually adding money to the coffers of the original kind of makes us feel good.

CS: There are obviously some problems with the movie in terms of sound. Have you thought about spending some time cleaning it up for an official release?
Zala: We certainly have gotten a lot of requests for copies and even been approached for distribution before. Obviously, taking the legal action before the picture or sound quality, that would be great, but we’re in a legal grey area. The way we navigated very carefully and respectfully and non-exploitatively is that whenever we do screen, money from the box office doesn’t go to our pockets. We don’t make any money from that personally, so in that way, we try to be respectful. We don’t sell any copies on eBay. In fact, we don’t sell any copies at all and have actually worked very hard to keep it off the internet for that very reason and knock on wood, so far successfully. I’m sure that if anyone were able to clear the legal hurdles for some sort of public release, it would probably be Scott Rudin, whom we have a life rights deal with. If the movie about us is greenlit, I imagine that it would be likely that they would see about clearing those hurdles, so perhaps it could be released publicly, either as a standalone or as a bonus for the film about us.

CS: It makes sense since Scott has such a good relationship with Paramount who owns the rights to most of the stuff in question.
Zala: Exactly. As for cleaning it up, we’ve certainly been approached by some people who’ve offered to do some video restoration, like when we screened at Pixar. To date, we have not done any, and we would certainly be for cleaning it up if that’s possible in the future. We won’t be doing any special edition in terms of inserting new footage or tweaking the edits, even though as director, I see all the flaws and all the things I would do differently now. We’re taking something of a purist approach so far, but like I said, if it is possible to not change the content but simply make the picture or sound clearly without changing the content whatsoever, then we might want to do that. When we screened in Seattle, I guess it’s appropriate that someone in the birthplace of grunge made the remark that some of the roughness of the picture and sound is part of the charm, it clearly not being a professional piece, but rather innocent and from that time of Betamax and big clunky analog cameras and what not.

CS: Have you met with Daniel Clowes and been involved with the making of the movie about the making of your movie?
Zala: Dan, when he was tapped by Mr. Rudin to write the script about us, he didn’t have to, but he called each of us and interviewed Chris, Jayson and I about three hours apiece, very thorough, and we actually wound up flying out to San Francisco, and when we screened at San Francisco Indiefest, we got a chance to meet him in person, and met him and his wife for dinner. Great guy, and it’s certainly comforting that the person who’s going to portray your life to the outside world turns out to be a nice guy and very talented. When we were out there in the San Francisco area to screen at Pixar and at Skywalker Ranch, we met Dan again, so we’ve been meeting with him periodically and as a result, he’s done a lot of research and would contact us occasionally for little details. We haven’t read the script yet, though obviously we’re dying to, but we’re trying to restrain ourselves from asking Mr. Rudin, who needs to give the thumbs up for that. If the movie gets greenlit, there’s going to be some little actor following me around getting my mannerisms right, kinda bizarre.

CS: I know you’ve been doing some stuff with movies and TV but has anyone else involved in your movie gone on to do anything else in this field?
Zala: You probably know that Chris Strompolos, who played Indiana Jones and was producer, and I have partnered up again after many years to form a production company called Rolling Boulder Films, and we’ve redevoted our lives to our love of film once again and are currently working on a new adventure script, which we’re just about to go out with in L.A., so in that sense, we’re very much back into film.

CS: Studios will probably figure you don’t need a very big budget considering what you’ve done for next to nothing.
Zala: (laughs) We clearly know how to stretch a dollar.

CS: And how do you feel about the new Indiana Jones movie? Are you excited to see Harrison Ford back in the hat or are you worried that he might be too old to recreate that magic?
Zala: Ah, I’m trying to suspend any expectation whatsoever, because it has been a while and you hear plenty of jokes about how Harrison Ford’s too old. I don’t know about that. I think he can still pull it off. Someone sent me a photo from the internet, recently snapped of Harrison Ford sitting in a chair wearing the Indy costume for the first time in like 20 years. I’m 36 years old now, but I just got like a ten-year-old kid again. It’s just stupefying and iconic to see that again, and though in your mid-30s, you have to work a little bit to get in touch with that inner child again–there’s tendency for adults to become cynical or whatnot–but I just found that same jubilant boyish excitement of wanting to see him in action again, so I’m hopeful.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation will be screened at the Anthology Film Archives on Friday and Saturday, July 6 and 7, with Eric Zala in attendance. You can read and see a lot more about this movie at The Raider.net.