When I was a junior in high school, some friends and I decided to start making movies. Inspired by mavericks like Sam Raimi and John Waters, we turned our social circle into a fully functional studio: my friend Webster’s house became our back lot, various classmates, siblings, and (in rare cases) girlfriends were tapped as extras, and every odd prop or leftover Halloween costume was examined for dramatic potential. We initially dubbed ourselves No Budget Productions; later, after discovering that everyone calls their company No Budget Productions, we settled on the nonsense phrase Collective Fedora Films. Over the following two years, we made a couple dozen films – mostly improvised genre parodies shot in-sequence over the course of an afternoon (and sometimes through to morning), and edited the following day. Our magnum opus was Survival of the Fittest, a black comedy about a faux animal rights activist forced to eat his dog. Despite being shot almost entirely in two rooms with one actor, and running just under twenty-five minutes, it was by far our most ambitious production: the shoot ran nearly five months, cost a then-astronomical two-hundred dollars, and caused the three principal collaborators (myself, DP Webster, and leading man James Rossi) to become half-crazy and literally ill. Filmmaking, it turned out, was hard work.
It is with considerable perspective, then, that I marvel at the achievement at the heart of Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made: a scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot on Betamax by teenagers in and around their parents’ homes outside of Biloxi, Mississippi. In 1982, three eleven-year-olds – Chris Strompolos (producer/”Indy”), Eric Zala (director/”Belloq”), and Jayson Lamb (cinematographer/special effects guru) – set out to pay ultimate homage to Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure film. This pursuit would consume them for the next seven summers, costing them their allowances, their birthday money, and, ultimately, their friendship. Upon completion, these boys’ masterwork would go unseen for nearly two decades, when it was rediscovered by the film geek cognoscenti (chiefly Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles and horror maven Eli Roth) and toured around the country. Following the rapturous response to these screenings, Zala and Strompolos reunited, taking to Kickstarter to shoot the one scene which eluded them the first time around: the climactic fight on the airstrip in Cairo.
The documentary (which had its area premiere this Monday at the Brattle, along with a screening of the adaptation itself and a Q&A from the immensely likable Zala) works, mainly because it’s a story that naturally lends itself to the telling. As one of the boys’ childhood friends comments, “We were basically the Goonies,” and indeed the central trio feel like characters from a coming-of-age story: Strompolos is the headstrong leader, Zala the sensitive introvert, and Lamb the oddball outsider. Their mothers, meanwhile, look back wistfully at their boys’ creativity (even as they show concern over the amount of fire involved). Zala revealed in the Q&A that the movie rights have been optioned by Scott Rudin, which feels like a natural fit, once you can get past the meta aspect of a dramatic adaptation of a documentary about a remake of a movie (which is itself an homage to the serials of the ‘30s).
Structurally, the doc is occasionally a little shaky: certain events (such as Zala and Strompolos’ falling-out with Lamb) are touched on but never fully explained, and the transitions between the interviews and the production of the airplane scene are sometimes jarring. But what makes Raiders! really work is the even tone with which it treats its subjects. The adaptation is never ridiculed (a la American Movie), nor is it held up as a grand artistic achievement. It is simply a manifestation of these boys’ adolescence, the thing that filled their time the way sports or music did for other kids. The adaptation isn’t treated as “good” or “bad,” because it isn’t the point. The point is the kids.
But you know what? The adaptation isn’t bad. Sure, it’s clearly a silly project handmade by kids: beards are taped on, the jackal statue is clearly a water heater with a papier mache mask, and, like many amateur productions, it suffers the scourge of the in-camera mic. But the confidence with which Zala stages his action sequences and crowd scenes is far more sophisticated than anything my friends and I could ever manage. Strompolos, while no Harrison Ford, has undeniable charisma and presence, and some of Lamb’s special effects are legitimately impressive. And despite well-documented setbacks (and the jarring shift in age and production values), the new airplane scene looks downright professional – no one would confuse it with a Spielberg, but it easily surpasses the average Syfy original movie. Zala revealed during the Q&A that he and Strompolos have been working on an original screenplay between publicity stops, and I truly wish them all the success in the world.
Which is ultimately the upshot of the entire documentary: this screening, the fourteenth of over fifty, is part of what has been dubbed the “Follow Your Dreams Tour.” Despite setbacks, personal squabbles, and an inherently silly premise, Zala, Strompolos, and company committed to their project and saw it through to completion, and are now back on track to pursue their dreams full-time. I can relate to this as well. Collective Fedora Films never became the professional concern we occasionally daydreamed about – some got married, some got straight jobs, and I eventually realized it’s a lot easier to write about movies than to actually make them – but we also never entirely gave up the ship. Even into our twenties and thirties, we still occasionally rally the troops to make silly little movies for events like the International Pancake Film Festival and the Brattle’s own Trailer Treats competition (our 2014 entry, The Librarian, even took grand prize!). In the end, the quality of the adaptation – or of Survival of the Fittest, or any of the millions of amateur films from around the world – is less important than the dreams they represent, Those are worth preserving, no matter what.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
dir. Jeremy Coon & Tim Skousen