Misc. Reviews

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS VERSION OF RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

By • May 24th, 2008 •

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The Summer of 1981- RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the collaborative effort of Hollywood’s Hottest Film-makers – Director Steven Spielberg and Producer George Lucas – wows the world with cliffhanger perils and gripping, exciting death-defying adventures. Indiana Jones, the film’s pure-hearted, fearless hero becomes a cinema icon, mostly thanks to a perfecto performance by hunky Harrison Ford.

Many American boys wished they could be the whip-cracking Dr. Jones, but there were a handful of boys who wanted to be Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford. Eleven-year-old Eric Zala of Gulfport, Mississippi loved the film so much, he got his young friends together to produce a feature length shot-for-shot remake of the Spielberg smash-hit. They used whatever funds were available to this handful of pre-teens (Weekly allowances, etc.) to bankroll this film shot on consumer video equipment. (This was over a decade before digital video came out, so we are talking about those big old cameras that would shoot on VHS.)

Home Video was just beginning to enter America’s living rooms at this time, and it would take nearly a decade for Paramount to finally release RAIDERS to home video. How were Zala and gang going to copy a film that they could only rarely see? “We got everything Raiders that we could get our hands on – magazines, photos, the published screenplay (Zala and the boys made sure RAIDERS screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan got proper screen credit), storybooks, making of publications, action figures, and an illicit recording of the soundtrack from smuggling a tape recorder into movie theatres showing RAIDERS. With the amassed material, and by memory of watching RAIDERS in the theatre, we cobbled together a composite reconstruction of the film, shot-by-shot. I hand-drew 602 individual detailed storyboards that became our blueprint.”

Next came the special effects and the props. The most famous is the more than man-size rolling boulder out to crush a running Indiana Jones (Sidenote: In 1982, European filmmakers influenced by Spielberg had a rolling boulder chase the stars of their sexy, but not very faithful Biblical adventure, ADAM AND EVE VS. THE CANNIBALS.)

For their boulder, Eric and his buddies first made a giant bamboo cardboard and duct tape monster that they could not get out of co-producer and star Chris Strompolos’ bedroom. Later attempts at the ball included a chicken wire prop that blew away in a hurricane and an experiment with a weather balloon.

“Fiberglass was our last boulder.” Eric remembers. “We dug a three foot hole in the backyard, used a plump line, measured and dug it with a hand tool until we had a perfect hemisphere. We did this twice, joined the two half circles together, and voila, at last we had our boulder!”

Another impressive moment in the film is their reproduction of the scene where Indy rides the jackal statue out of the sealed up tomb. “The giant jackal statute was made from an old hot water heater, from the same basement room that we converted into the set for the Well of Souls. Its upraised arms were two black logs, suspended from the ceiling by black cords. Finally, the jackal head was constructed from an overturned flower-pot. I nailed on the eyes, ears and open jaws, lined with rows of little nails. I fit cut pieces of white Styrofoam onto each nail, to complete the teeth, 48 in all.”

These were some of the complications about building a set for a RAIDERS remake. What about location shooting? Zala had a few of those heart-stopping moments that come to any film crew shooting without a permit the moment a police car pulls up. “We only had a few run-ins with local police, surprisingly. For locations such as the Cairo Street Fight Scene, we chose to shoot guerilla-style in the back alleys of the Gulfport, Mississippi business district on a Sunday, when all businesses are closed and the place is like a ghost town. That did nearly back-fire one time, when the owner of a diner wandered into the alley and discovered all these kids setting up Arab merchant stands and a wheelbarrow full of hay… somehow, he got it in his mind that we were shooting a porno film, and promptly called the authorities. I still remember sitting on the curb with Chris, waiting for Gulfport’s Finest to arrive and take us away. Then, as we sat there, the owner of the business on the other side of the alley came out his back door, and asked what we were doing. As we explained, we got a bright idea: We asked him if we could have his permission to shoot the scene in his half of the alley. He said sure. So by the time the Gulfport police arrived, we had moved everything over to that side of the alley, and we could legitimately claim to have permission to be there. The shoot was saved.”

Even on a big budget film starring adult actors, a kissing scene can bring about some tension. But what if your smooching actor is a teen experiencing his first ever kiss. One can imagine what went through Chris Strompolos’ (as Indy) head when he had to rescue and kiss his leading lady. “While I don’t recall Chris letting on at the time, I know now he was nervous as hell. He was later to name this as the scariest scene to shoot– not dragging underneath a moving truck, nor riding a giant jackal statue through a breakaway wall. Kissing a girl! For the first time! In front of a crew, videotaping it all!” recalls Eric. “Still, it was one of the first scenes with our new actress playing Marion (Angela Rodriguez), which was something that Chris asked for. To make our actors more comfortable, I insisted on a “closed set”. Meaning I kicked my little brother Kurt out of the room. As Harrison did in the scene, Chris had to play the scene shirtless, which further heightened anxiety at that ultra-self-conscious age. Angela was about three years older, and more confident it seemed. After a few set-ups, the time for the kissing shot had come. No rehearsals, we went into it. The tension helped their energy, I think, building up to the release of the actual kiss. They kept the lip-lock after I called cut. So I’d call it a success, on more than one level.”

After seven years of on and off production, Zala’s RAIDERS was completed. (At about the time he and his friends were entering college.) It got some local showings, but one thread leads to another and finally, the big man himself, Steven Spielberg, found out about the remake, and was able to catch up to a copy of the film.

Spielberg was pleased with the film, even taking the opportunity to meet up with Eric Zala and chat film talk. To date it is not known if Spielberg’s cast (Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, etc.) have seen it. “We hear through a friend who knew Alfred Molina (a Spielberg cast member) that he really wanted to see it.”

I told Eric Zala his film actually has some improvements over the Spielberg original. At times, it seemed more focused on characters than setting (Settings cost money, and they need to be plastered on the screen) I asked Eric if he felt his film has improvements over Spielberg‘s.

“Oh geez, I couldn’t say. I can’t be objective about my own work. And I’ve admired the original RAIDERS from such a young age that in all likelihood I can’t be objective about that film either. As an adult now, I’m able to perceive flaws in films that I absolutely love — but not the original RAIDERS. My awe at its craftsmanship is too hard-wired.”

Spielberg often copies shots from other directors (we all do!) as he did in RAIDERS (For example, Indy’s first on-camera appearance is identical to the first shot of Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO. Indiana Jones’ youthful sidekick, Short Round, in the sequel INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) shares the same name as a young boy in Samuel Fuller’s THE STEEL HELMET (1951). I asked Eric if doing a RAIDERS remake make him want to seek out the films that influenced Spielberg?

“Definitely. We were invited to screen our RAIDERS at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, in Rochester, New York. They kindly offered to allow us private screenings of any film in their considerable collection. We chose THE SECRET OF THE INCAS (A 1954 action thriller starring Charlton Heston), which more than any other single film, Spielberg and Lucas drew upon for inspiration, to the point of screening it for the RAIDERS crew during pre-production. It’s completely out of print, not available on DVD, VHS or laserdisc, impossible to find. So we could scarcely contain our excitement when we were told that they had a 16mm print. While it lacks the kinetic action of RAIDERS, the template for Indiana Jones and the Peruvian sequence is clearly there. It’s fascinating seeing the origins of things.”

As for the future of Zala’s film career. “We never did shoot the Airplane Fight Scene in Raiders, so maybe we’ll have to get together again and finally do this right. No, seriously, I’ve given up trying to book-end this. We continue to receive invitations to screen by independent cinema owners and film festival programmers who succeed in tracking us down (We don’t advertise). So I expect we’ll have the good fortune to continue our travels across the country with our little film under our arm, and meet more amazing people. (A continually updated list of confirmed screenings can be found at an Indiana Jones fan-site: http://www.theraider.net/films/raiders_adaptation/screenings.php “The interest level will probably reach its crescendo with the release of a major-budgeted Scott Rudin movie about our childhood remaking RAIDERS.”

Zala left his corporate job to form an independent film production company based in Mississippi, called (appropriately enough) “Rolling Boulder Films”. “Chris and I have been working full-time on new film projects. Our first one out of the gate is an original script, a southern gothic action-adventure, WHAT THE RIVER TAKES. We plan to shoot it in our home state of Mississippi, reprising our roles on RAIDERS: Chris producing, myself directing. We’ve just begun pitching it around Los Angeles, and so far, the response has been great. So it’s a very interesting time.”

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2 Responses »

  1. So pleased you have given credit to SECRET OF THE INCAS, the real precursor of Indiana Jones movies. See my fan site devoted to this great movie at:

    http://www.secretoftheinas.co.uk

  2. Wonderful that SECRET OF THE INCAS is credited. Far as I know that film was only run once on AMC 2001 I think.
    Great piece on this amatuer film!!

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