A Conversation With The Subjects Of 'Raiders!: The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made'

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is one of the most purely entertaining documentaries you will see this year, a tribute to the joys of cinema and the agonies of childhood. Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen tell the story of Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, two childhood friends who set out to remake Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. When they were eleven years old. In 1982. Their efforts resulted in Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, which has found a cult following over the years. Raiders! pulls double duty, exploring the making of the original fan film and the modern attempt by Strompolos and Zala to actually finish what they began as children and complete the one scene they never managed to film: the famous brawl on the German Flying Wing.

With the film currently touring around the country for the rest of the summer (you can check out the schedule and purchase tickets here), I sat down with Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala to talk about their experiences in making "the greatest fan film ever made," their future filmmaking endeavors, and whether or not they're sick and tired of Raiders of the Lost Ark at this point.

One of the key moments in the film involves your adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark screening at the Alamo Drafthouse. And now, you're back in Austin and back at a Drafthouse theater to show the documentary. That must be pretty surreal.

Strompolos: It feels amazing. We feel very much part of the family. It's like a big warm hug. It feels like we're coming home in the best way possible.

Zala: It's very fortunate. This tale is sort of like a Cinderella story. There have been ups and downs but it's turned out perfectly. And with [Drafthouse Films] being the distributor for the doc, it's turned out perfect.

Strompolos: Perfect match.

The first time I watched the doc was at Fantastic Fest last year, where it was a huge crowdpleaser. How does it feel to see your childhoods transformed into something so purely entertaining and cinematic?

Strompolos: I'm thankful for it. I think the overriding thing that I am grateful for is that the film is honest. Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen did a great job telling an honest tale and the adaptation has a certain...people use the world purity. It has a purity about it that is entertaining and people find it entertaining. At the end of the day, when you're sitting in a movie theater, that's what it's all about.

Zala: Yeah, to have the best bits of your childhood put in order and set to John Williams and watch it on the big screen with hundreds of raucous strangers is a pretty joyous thing. It never expected it. This was never supposed to happen. But I'm very grateful for having spent my childhood in a most unusual way. I think of myself as a storyteller, but I never expected to be the story itself. It's kind of odd.

I'm glad you brought up how honest the movie is. It would have been easy to whitewash the entire film and just deliver a fun look at kids remaking a famous movie, but it pulls no punches. It's a true portrait of you guys growing up and the struggles that come with that.

Strompolos: I think that had a lot to do with the tone that was set by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen at the onset. It's one of the reasons we trusted them at the beginning to tell the story and embrace the darker components and put our lives on display. We knew that they would handle it well. There was a safety there. There was a comfort level there. After that, Eric and I made the pact that this was going to be warts and all and we were going to share everything and get into the ins and outs of our life because that's the truthful path that happened. We both felt instinctually that it would serve the doc better. We didn't want it to be a fluff piece. It could have been happy happy Raiders and everything's great and we grew up great and everything is great in the end, but then people wouldn't be left with anything outside of "eh, it's cool." You know? But there's a resonance that's woven into the documentary because of those honest elements.

Zala: When we said as much to Tim and Jeremy, they were delighted and said that they wanted it to be warts and all, too. They made that very easy in terms of creating an environment where we could bare our souls, as it were. It's a very naked feeling, having your life laid out for the world. It's a big act of trust. Those guys have integrity and they made it easy to trust them.

I'm curious about one of the supporting players in your story: your make-up and effects guy, Jayson Lamb. He's often the Greek chorus of the movie, saying what nobody else wants to say even when the truth hurts. Has he seen the movie? How's he doing?

Zala: You know, I actually don't know his reaction to the doc. We toured with Jayson for years and it can be thrilling to tour with the fan film, but also kind of emotionally exhausting. Jayson took kind of an emotional sabbatical. He joins us periodically, but I haven't heard yet what he thinks of the doc.

Strompolos: As far as Jayson's personality and the way that it is presented in the documentary, Eric and I love Jayson for that. That's what we grew up with. It doesn't really come as a shock and we accept Jayson for who he is. We don't know what he thinks about the documentary, but there is nothing that is altering or surprising in it.

Zala: No surprises after 33 years.

On the timeline of events, we have you guys making the fan film as kids, the fan film being discovered, a book about your experiences being written, and now this documentary. At what point during all of that did the filmmakers approach you?

Strompolos: I was on a book tour after the book by Alan Eisenstock came out. We were promoting it, just on a much smaller scale than what we're doing right now. We were going from city to city, screening the adaptation to cross-promote. I met Jeremy in Utah and he bought a copy of the book and inhaled it overnight. He loved it. That was the foundation from which Tim and Jeremy cultivated the vision for the documentary. It was really off of Alan's book. [We] resuscitated the idea of the flying wing scene to have a present day narrative to serve as the cornerstone of the doc and it was a nice match. Everyone was in agreement after talking it through. And that's how it started.

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So here's the big question – are you guys tired of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Zala: I guess it's kind of a good thing that Raiders wasn't available on video when we first started to do this back in 1982 because we would have watched it to death back then. But it wasn't. Instead, we tried to commit as much to memory as possible. As a result of touring, we've seen our own film, our own Raiders film, about 100 times for every one time we've seen the original. A bizarre side effect from that is that the original now feels like a big-budget remake of our film! The amazing thing is that Chris and I went and saw [Raiders of the Lost Ark] when it was released in IMAX a couple of years back. The movie still has secrets to give up. We still saw little minute details that we never have seen or noticed in all these decades of living Raiders. That still gives us a thrill to pick out those extra details.

Strompolos: To make it extra special, during that screening Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford were there doing a Q&A and that's a rarity. You can't help but fall back on your geeky childish self and relish that along with a massive theater filled with all of the biggest Indiana Jones fans in the world. I was sitting next to the man who came up with the concept and the full execution of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We talked about that. It was all just super cool. The film stands up. It's still really enjoyable.

If a home video version had existed at the time, would you guys have still made your movie?

Zala: Sure, sure. We would just wouldn't have had to rely on memory and the few continuity errors we did make we would have gotten right, gosh darn it! No, that would have been a help.

Did the original video release change your filmmaking process in any way?

Zala: It came out on laserdisc a couple of years in, a year or two after I finished drawing the storyboards from memory, 602 of them, and having cobbled together everything Raiders we could get our hands on. It was fun and we would occasionally check it for reference. We'd even have this goofy geek game of "Hey, you think you know Raiders? I'm going to pause it at a random moment where the screen is obscured and you have to identify which scene I've paused." Pretty geeky stuff, but that was how we'd utilize it when it finally did come out. And we'd watch it occasionally for re-inspiration.

You don't really know how to make a movie until you are actually on set with a camera and trying to make things happen, so your childhoods were really a crash course film school. Was there anything you learned during that time that directly came back and helped you out when you set out to the film the flying wing scene?

Strompolos: Absolutely. Everything we did learn doing the adaptation growing up together and working together and knowing each other and all of the trials and tribulations we went through together was the very foundation that we relied upon in doing the plane scene. You're out there and the tsunami of adversity that kicks your ass...you can't help but struggle and flail, and those things ground you and make you stronger and give you stability. It's the things that we learned while doing the adaptation that gave us focus. "Don't give up" and "we can figure this out" and "there's always a solution" and "stay focused" and "rely on your team, communicate, re-organize and re-strategize." The resources are there. Push, push, push. The level of fatigue that Eric and I extended ourselves to was beyond anything that either of us have ever gone through.

Zala: It's true. Those lessons that we learned as kids saw us through. It was like yeah, we've done this before. We had to not forget those lessons.

Strompolos: It's a physical memory. A sense memory, where you go back to that place where you just become almost a machine.

Eric, correct me if I'm wrong, but you have left your job to concentrate full-time on filmmaking with Chris?

Zala: Correct.

So what are you guys working on now? And are there plans to adapt this story to a feature film? I can definitely see something in the Amblin mold.

Zala: I'll answer the second question first. Thankfully, it's not in our hands in terms of what's next for our story. I'm a little too close to that and I think I can speak for Chris. The documentary filmmakers, Jeremy Koon and Tim Skousen, would very much love for this to be a narrative film or even better, a TV series, the sort of sprawling timeline might lend itself better to that storytelling format. With those guys at the helm, it would be thrilling.

Strompolos: It would be awesome.

Zala: But I certainly wouldn't want...people always ask, "Who would you cast as yourself?" and I'm grateful I don't have that. It would keep me up at nights. Our focus is on the original stories we want to tell. There's an original we've been working on for years called What the River Takes, a Southern gothic action/adventure set in our home state of Mississippi. Southern gothic action/adventure is sort of an odd hybrid that sort of includes all of the things in our cinematic DNA that thrill us and make us want to tell stories. There is also a book called Gone South and we have a relationship with the author and are interested in developing. We were also recently approached by Tim Skousen and we will be producing a new original film that is a cerebral post-apocalyptic tale of survival. We have multiple irons in the fire.

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Visit Drafthouse Films to find out when Raiders! will be playing near you. You can also learn more by paying a visit to TheRaidersGuys.com.