It’s a story that even Hollywood couldn’t make up, and a film urban legend until it was finally proven to be true. No doubt hundreds, if not thousand of children had their lives irreversibly altered upon their first, then repeated viewings of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, setting creative life goals in a way that went beyond play acting Indy in their friends’ back yards. But for a ragtag group of still-pubescent youths led by “indy” Chris Strompolos and director Eric Zala, it actually meant spending their lives straight into college re-creating RAIDERS shot-for-shot. Put away into their private warehouse, Strompolos and Zala’s “ADAPTATION” was unearthed a few years ago to become a charming cause célèbre among both Hollywood fanboys and professionals like Harry Knowles and Eli Roth.
Now both celebrities, along with real RAIDERS Sallah star John-Rhys Davies pay testament to RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE. Giving the hook to this wondrous documentary, co-directed by behind-the-camera NAPOLEON DYNAMITE veterans Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, is the fact that the death-defying, decade-plus shoot of the ADAPTATION was missing a highlight of the Spielberg film – names Indy’s flying wing fight. RAIDERS! follows a still-youthful Strompolis and director Zala as they put the final, far more professional piece in the puzzle – at the risk of the families, jobs and even lives. As Coon and Skousen chronicle the longest shoot of all time for its final cliffhanger, they also take a deeply touching meditation on how the fantasies of youth grow into the reality of adulthood, capturing both the eternal charm of perhaps the greatest action movie ever made with the story called life.
Assignment X: How did you two first meet?
JEREMY COON: Tim and I met in film school back in the late 90s. It was an awesome time with us working on everyone else’s films in various capacities. We were there with a special group of people such Jared and Jerusha Hess, which helped pave the way for NAPOLEON DYNAMITE.
TIM SKOUSEN: We’ve basically never stopped working on each other’s films since then.
AX: How do you think that working on the peculiar teen angst of films like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and THE SASQUATCH GANG set you up to do RAIDERS!
JC: I’m more drawn to films that are unique and make me feel happy. So many independent films are depressing and focus on just the negative or heavy topics. Those films are important, but I think people go to the movies a lot of the time to escape. If it’s something that I react to and are willing to spend a couple of years making, then hopefully others will feel the same way.
TS: Aspects of characters like the shirtless family, Zerk’s jingoism, or Gavin’s love of pre YouTube bootleg videos in SASQUATCH were based on real friends of mine or my own experiences. And I know many of the stories in NAPOLEON were based on real stories from Jared’s time growing up in Preston with his five younger brothers. Tina the llama in DYNAMITE is literally Jared’s family llama (named Dolly, natch) that he would have to feed growing up. So we saw all those traditional teenage rites of passage in the RAIDERS! story very quickly. Fighting over a girl, jealousy, love of movies, using home video cameras, etc. were all things that rang true to people that grew up in the 80s and beyond. And that feeling of kids being free to create without too much parental supervision that many of us experienced in our youth. We saw in Chris, Eric, and Jayson things that so many teens experienced in that time period.
AX: When did you first hear about RAIDERS: THE ADAPTATION and what was your reaction when you saw it?
JC: I first saw THE ADAPTATION at a kid’s film festival near where I live in March 2013. I had heard rumors about some kids making a home video version of RAIDERS in the 1980s years ago, but never read much about it or got the full story, which is surprisingly because I like to think I’m on top of those things. I couldn’t find THE ADAPTATION online, so I thought it was more of an urban myth or just wasn’t that good. I didn’t have any plans so I went to check it out on a Saturday afternoon with a couple of friends. About 15 minutes into THE ADAPTATION after the bar scene with all of the fire, I feel I love with it and had so many questions. I turned to the friend I was with and said I had to make a documentary about it. Luckily Chris Strompolos was there for the screening.
TS: I saw the film later with a crowd at a small screening in LA. If I could sum it up in one word, that word is “charming.” It had all the fun and charisma of the original RAIDERS, even though it was these little kids. I loved it.
AX: How difficult was it to get your documentary off the ground?
TS: The biggest thing was Chris and Eric agreeing to let us do it. This is a special story and so it’s a no brainer as a documentary feature. Once Chris and Eric signed on, the money was ready to go. Of course, Chris and Eric saying yes was no small feat. They had said no to many documentarians over the years. Maybe the timing was just right, or they had had a few beers… but we are grateful they said yes to us. And that they stipulated that this would be a “warts and all” documentary, which, of course, we wouldn’t have any other way. Nothing would be a greater disservice to this story than for Chris and Eric to have tried to mold and control their images through the process. They inherently knew that the film would be better if it was real. As far as I know, they only really disagreed with one comment in the film. We listened to their opinion on it, but felt that the comment was true based on all the interviews we did, so we left it in and they respected that. I’m happy to say that was a really good and respectful relationship between filmmakers and subjects.
AX: Was the plan to shoot the plane scene already in motion when you set out to make the documentary? And was it an immediate choice to structure the film around it?
TS: The idea of shooting the airplane scene had been around for years. They had often talked about it, despite Eric’s trepidation to commit to it. As Eric says in the film, it always haunted him that they never fully finished their adaptation. Eric is the type of person who sees things through anytime he says yes to something. So for him to say yes was a very big deal. Chris had wanted Eric to say yes to the idea for several years, but the timing was never right. Once they signed on to do the documentary, Eric was more open to considering it even if it was the umpteenth time that Chris suggested it. Eric was also aware that it would be a good storyline for the documentary and, we were hopeful that he said yes because it was a clear modern storyline that allowed us to get to see a little of what they went through as kids. So when Eric said yes, we knew we had more than just a historical film that used interviews only. There would be a verite element to the film that helps any documentary feel more alive.
AX: There’s a surprising amount of behind the scenes footage of the original ADAPTATION shoot. How did you find it, and how much of it was there to sort through?
TS: One of the wild cards working on the film was Jayson Lamb, who, even back in the 80s, was not that interested in remaking RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as much as he wanted to make corpses and pull off special effects. As the cameraman, his disinterest in the remake lead him to film a lot in between takes. So it became this thing where Jayson, and later other people who ran the camera, would just shoot stuff all the time. So what resulted was that we kinda had some documentary filmmakers on the original shoot. The original tapes account for about 40 hours that were later cut into the original ADAPTATION. But many of those hours are just the kids being kids. That was incredibly lucky and allows us to see the pathos of the kids as they go through the shoot. Moments of discouragement or elation were there in between the takes. There were so many moments we wish we could have included in the documentary, but simply couldn’t get to work within the main story. But there’s even more there, trust us.
AX: Whenever you make a documentary, there’s always the awareness from the “characters” of being filmed. How did that affect the shooting?
JC: This is my first documentary, but what I noticed is that after the initial awkwardness wears off, they film subjects many times forget there’s a camera there. Tim and I shot a lot of the movie ourselves on small DSLR cameras that are very unassuming and definitely helps. It feels more like a conversation when we film than an interview.
TS: Chris was the hardest to get to be real during the build up to making the airplane scene. He’s such a diplomat in real life. He’s the negotiator of the two and so it was tough sometimes to get him to stop being a diplomat and start being real. But he got there eventually.
AX: Most filmmakers go through a certain amount of humiliation trying to get their project made, but that doesn’t quite match the tension of Eric Zala trying to convince his “real world” boss to give him extra time to shoot the plane scene. Did you have to get clearance from his unnamed boss to use that scene? And were there other times where things got more personal than expected?
JC: You really couldn’t ask for two better people to work with than Chris and Eric. Once they were on board, they never held back on what they gave us full access to and never interfered with what we portrayed in the doc. I actually consider Eric’s boss to be the person who saved their project in many ways because he ultimately granted the extra days off. Any reasonable boss would probably take issue with an employee taking time off during what was the busy season at the time.
AX: You don’t quite expect the life of Chris Strompolos to get quite as dark as it does. What kind of “real” resonance do you think that gives to the film?
TS: Chris was totally open about was his past. He never flinched telling the real dark moments of his life. Once you admit that you were a meth addict, all the other little things become secondary. But Chris was always willing to tell the truth about those younger years. I mean, they guy openly admits to trying to steal Eric’s girlfriend not because he was attracted to her but “just to see if I could do it.” To be honest, this is probably the lowest moment for his character. What kind of friend does something like that? It’s practically evil incarnate! And yet, that was Chris telling the story “warts and all.”
AX: How did original LOST ARK star John Rhys-Davies come into the film? And what did he think of the ADAPTATION. Did you try to get any other of the original ARK filmmakers or actors to take part?
JC: John was performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir back in 2013 in Salt Lake City where Tim and I are both based. It occurred to me earlier that week that we should try to get an interview with him while he was in town. I called his manager and about an hour or two later a got a call from John saying to come by his hotel and he’d give us an hour which was amazing of him. He’s really one of the nicest guys around. His interview was the first thing we shot and we had no idea how the doc was going to be structured at the time so our questions were general. It was only later on in the editing process that our editor Barry Poltermann worked his interview in as a de facto narrator and it works wonderfully.
TS: To our surprise, John didn’t know much of the story about the ADAPTATION. The interview delved into cave drawings and ancient storytelling and all kinds of esoteric ideas about culture and humanity. When the interview was over, I turned to Jeremy and said, “Well, we probably won’t use any of that.” But we always loved the interview, and Barry basically turned him into a de facto narrator for the documentary. It was brilliant and we ended up getting to have our cake and eat it too.
AX: You’ve got a fun orchestral score from Anton Sanko for RAIDERS! Could you talk about collaborating with him on a soundtrack that would capture its own adventurous spirit?
JC: This was really hard. We wanted our own original score for the documentary and have it in the same vein as the original John Williams score. Yet we also didn’t want it to be just a knock off. We owe everything to the talent and patience of Anton to pull it off and are very happy with the results. Anton went back to some of the original music pieces that helped inspire John Williams tonally back when he was scoring to get in the right mindset. It’s the first time I’ve been able to have a full orchestra score with 80 musicians for a film I’ve done. It’s the only way to get that rich, full sound to the score.
AX: What do you think makes RAIDERS! more than just a film documentary?
JC: First of all, it’s such a bizarre and unique story that you can’t believe it really happened. What makes it special is that as different as it is, the root of their story is something many of us can relate to. A large number of us grew up watching Indiana Jones and have seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK literally dozens of times. Everyone dreamed of being someone else when they were a kid. This documentary is more about seeing two people follow their dreams and ultimately succeed. The making of the film just serves as a function to that greater goal.
TS: I think it’s the connection the story has to growing up and real life. RAIDERS: THE ADAPTION is like a real life BOYHOOD 30 years before BOYHOOD was made. You are literally seeing them grow up before your eyes. Then, when you add in the behind the scenes stories, you realize you aren’t just watching a documentary about the making of a film, you are watching a documentary about life itself. About dreams, youth, challenges, first love relationships, friendships, overcoming the odds, perseverance, domestic problems with parents and school. It’s all there in the story of making this remake of a beloved film. And the airplane scene has it’s own real life themes like deciding between the safety of a good job and the risk of following your dreams. The burden of responsibility for a family, being a father and husband. This is more than just a documentary about making a film.
AX: Could you talk about the tour you’re taking the movie on?
JC: Chris and Eric are both totally studs and they don’t do anything halfway. They jump in and give it their all. Currently 30 cities are lined up for the tour with a double feature of both the documentary and rare screening of THE ADAPTATION afterwards and Chris and Eric are doing Q&As at all the stops. Check out raidersguys.com for the latest stops and dates. If you don’t see your city, feel free to reach out and help bring it to your town.
AX: What can you tell us about your upcoming documentary on John Rad, the filmmaker behind the infamous DANGEROUS MEN?
JC: This short documentary is called “That’s So John Rad” and was a fun one to do. Back in 2005, Tim and I with another friend were the only people in the theater at that screening to see DANGEROUS MEN. It was one of the craziest theatrical experiences I’ve ever had and after that we felt that it was never going to be heard of again. About 6 months later, it started to become a midnight classic in LA and it was revealed in an LA Weekly article that only something like 7 people saw the film in it’s initial theatrical release. We had thought about doing a doc on it, because we were three of those people. It was impossible to find a copy of the film and I tried for years. I was even going to pay $500 for a bootleg copy with time code at one point, but they guy went dark on me. Tim and I would talk about it, but it became more of a memory.
TS: It’s an extra feature on the DANGEROUS MEN double disc DVD. We are hoping that Drafthouse will put it out online at some point so more people can see it. We loved taking a quick break from RAIDERS! and doing that film.
AX: On that note, there seems to be a trend amongst hipster revival houses to host screenings of movies they know are godawful, then to invite their filmmakers and stars up on stage to “celebrate” their work. To me, it seems like condescending bullying. But what do you think makes the original THE ADAPTATION different, given that it’s not professionally done or acted by its very nature?
TS: Well, two things. They were kids when they made it. And THE ADAPTATION is actually pretty entertaining in a good way. So it’s not really in the same class as BIRDEMIC or DANGEROUS MEN or THE ROOM because it’s a fan film made without the intention of the film ever being seen on a large scale. All those other “so bad they’re good” films were made by people who, deep down, wanted to be praised for making their films. So, they reap what they sow, even if it is not in the way they intended. John Rad was not particularly happy that people laughed so much during the screenings of DANGEROUS MEN that he attended, but he loved the adulation he got afterwards. Tommy Wiseau is pretty similar with THE ROOM.
AX: Given how much professional moviemaking software is available to very young filmmakers, do you think it’s ever possible to recreate the charm of the original ADAPTATION if a bunch of kids set out to do a shot-for-shot reshoot of say, a Captain America film?
JC: I don’t think it’s possible. Part of the charm of THE ADAPTATION was that it was extremely difficult to find any video camera much less shoot scenes and edit it all together back then. Most kids now have a phone that can shoot HD or even 4K and a computer that makes it much easier and not so special. It’s too convenient now. It was a more simple time back in the 1980s and the nostalgia of grainy VHS footage helps remind us of that time. Also, as good as CAPTAIN AMERICA is, there are very few movies that are good enough to not only warrant the effort, but is also familiar to so many people where they know every scene in the film. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is definitely on that short list.
AX: What do you think is ahead for Chris and Eric in terms of realizing their own, unique creative dreams, and how do you think RAIDERS! will help them?
TS: They can definitely make a movie. They understand the difficulty of production. I was so impressed with their “can do” attitude, that I’ve approached them about helping me make a film with them as producers. We’ll see how it goes, but I am very excited for their futures and I know that they will be successful.
AX: Do you think RAIDERS! could see a fictional movie being made about THE ADAPTATION?
TS: YES! But we think it could be an even better television series. THE WONDER YEARS meets the first 20 minutes of SUPER 8. There is more than enough back-story to create several seasons of episodes. Let’s do it!
See when the RAIDERS: FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS ROADSHOW, beginning June 2, rolls into your city with the original Indy fans by clicking RAIDERS!.
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Article: Interview: RAIDERS! directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen