In 1982 three Mississippi teens — Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb — had the insane idea to remake, shot-for-shot, Steven Spielberg’s classic "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Seven summers later they finally completed it, with the exception of one iconic scene.
In the age before Internet, the fan film, titled "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation," quickly built a cult following via VHS. After Zala gave permission to one of his friends to make a copy of his master VHS, the grassroots domino effect of "The Adaptation" began to spread throughout the country. It became so big, in fact, that by 2003 copies found its way to Hollywood, and Spielberg himself even saw it (and loved it).
The trio did an incredible job of recreating iconic scenes from the original.
Here's Indy trying to get the golden idol in the beginning of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Here's the same scene in "The Adaptation."
Indy fighting bad guys in Cairo.
Again, here's that same scene in the remake.
By 2003, the kids, at this point in their early 30s, had been trying to move on from the project that swallowed most of their youth. But the sudden surge of attention for the film pulled them back in and they found themselves motivated to do what they couldn’t pull off for those seven summers — shooting the dangerous airplane explosion scene that also includes Indy fighting a large Nazi while avoiding the plane's propellers.
With documentary filmmakers following along, Strompolos, who plays Indiana Jones in the remake, and Zala, director on the film (Lamb had a falling out with the two numerous years before), assembled a team to build a life-size replica of the plane in the scene and recreate the desert location in the Mississippi Gulf Coast (yes, complete with camels). Last year, the scene was shot in just over a week on a measly budget of around $60,000 they received from investors and a Kickstarter campaign.
The result is chronicled in the documentary "Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made," directed by Jeremy Coon (producer of "Napoleon Dynamite") and Tim Skousen, which just had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival over the weekend.
Along with being ringside while the pair shoot the airplane explosion scene — which had horrible weather, a novice crew and shoddy pyrotechnics that almost ruined the final shot — "Raiders!" also recounts the 33-year history of the making of "The Adaptation."
We get first-hand accounts from Strompolos, Zala, Lamb and many others who spent most of their childhoods with the trio either starring, working behind the scenes as crew, or both explaining what it was really like to try to make a Spielberg film in their neighborhood.
For every remarkable story of how they pulled something off — like Indy being chased by a boulder or the ghosts coming out of the Ark — there are the ones where serious injuries or death wasn't far off. For example, there was a scene where an old truck with no brakes was used to shoot the famous scene where Indy slides under a moving truck carrying the Ark, and is then dragged behind it from his whip. At another point, Zala was purposefully lit on fire with gasoline to recreate the bar brawl where Indy finds Marion and the bar burns down. (Luckily a fire extinguisher was close by.)
That halted production for a while due to angry parents.
But when it came to shooting the exploding airplane scene the kids couldn't decide what to do. Lamb, who was the cinematographer and special effects whiz of the group, wanted to do it as a miniature, but that wasn't in the cards for Strompolos and Zala. Spielberg didn't use miniatures for the scene! They finally just decided it wasn't possible to pull off (and do you really think their parents would allow them to fight near spinning propellers or blow up a plane?).
The scene wasn't a cakewalk for Spielberg either.
Filming in Tunisia, by the time they shot the scene, most of the cast and crew were dealing with food poisoning. Spielberg was spared as he only ate out of canned food from England. Harrison Ford's left leg was run over by the plane, tearing his cruciate ligament during shooting as well.
"Raiders!" is a testament to the power of movies and how, in this case, just dressing up as Indiana Jones for Halloween wasn't enough for a group of kids from Mississippi. But it's hardly the only example of the influence movies can have on us.
We've seen it in Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind," which stars Jack Black and Mos Def as video store clerks who mistakenly erase all the tapes at their video store and decide to creatively reshoot them on no budget in their Brooklyn neighborhood with one camcorder. And opening last weekend, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" is based on the urban legend that an office worker from Tokyo traveled to Fargo, North Dakota and died in search of the money Steve Buscemi's character in the Coen brother's "Fargo" left behind in the film.
This summer, popular Sundance film "The Wolfpack" opens in theaters, a documentary that highlights six brothers who have been living in an apartment in New York's Lower East Side shut away from society and only know about the outside world through the films they watch and then reenact using homemade props and costumes.
"The Adaptation" stands alone in fan films, not only because of the dedication behind it, but the story the kids pay tribute to is one that continues to capture the imagination of audiences young and old 34 years after its release. (Sadly, the movie probably won't be released any time soon due to copyright issues.)
Unlike films today that are topped a few weeks later by something bigger and bolder, Spielberg (along with Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, who wrote the screenplay) created a story, characters and action sequences that to this day never feels outdated. Strompolos and Zala were so obsessed with it they needed to be in that story.
If you grew up loving Indiana Jones you understand why "The Adaptation" was made and why Strompolos and Zala had to finish it. Indy is still a movie hero we can relate to. He doesn't have super powers, or powerful weapons that destroy the villains. Harrison Ford plays him as a man driven by discovery and uses sheer effort and wits to accomplish it.
How much does that ring true today? In a recent Rolling Stone reader's poll asking to vote for your favorite Ford character, it wasn't Han Solo but Indiana Jones that came out as the number one choice.
There are some guys from Mississippi who feel the same way.
Watch the first 10 minutes of "The Adaptation" below via YouTube: