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State of the Ark

How three 12-year-olds re-shot “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in their backyard in the ‘80s and won over Steven Spielberg years later.
The crew finished their seven-year project 1989, editing the movie at the local ABC affiliate, WLOX-13.
Image by Rolling Boulder Films
The crew finished their seven-year project 1989, editing the movie at the local ABC affiliate, WLOX-13.

What: “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” with co-star Chris Strompolos

When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: Riverview Theater, 3800 S. 42nd Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $8


Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala hatched an idea most kids might abandon soon after. The two friends set out to film a meticulous adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” complete with their own Indiana Jones running from a giant fiberglass boulder.

In the backyards of Ocean Springs, Miss., two kids filmed a blockbuster movie for an estimated $5,000 over a period of seven years. Throughout their teenage years, Strompolos and Zala created an obsessive homemade remake.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t realize that you can’t do something,” Strompolos, the former Indiana Jones actor, said.

Problems continually plagued production, especially in the summer of 1983 when the two decided to film a battle set in a burning Nepalese tavern. In the original scene, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones ends up in a fiery battle with Nazis on his search for the Ark of the Covenant.

Zala decided to douse his back in gasoline in an attempt to recreate a villainous figure’s fiery death.

“Their moms ultimately saw the scene of [Eric] going up in fire, and they shut down the production for the summer,” said Alan Eisenstock, author of “Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made.”

In his book, co-authored with Strompolos and Zala, Eisenstock chronicles the behind-the-scenes milieu down to the 600-plus pages of storyboards and pirated audiocassettes the kids treated as scripture throughout the grueling production.

Halting production for the summer couldn’t kill the whole project — they would just have to be more careful about the footage they released to concerned mothers.

“They were afraid that terrible things were going to happen,” Eisenstock said.

“Terrible things” include the budding filmmakers’ use of industrial plaster on Zala’s face in an attempt to make a life-size head explode in the film’s finale. As layers of plaster hardened around his face, Zala could only breathe through straws the two friends fit up his nose. Eventually, Strompolos called 911 while his friend frantically scribbled on a piece of paper, “Hospital.”

After the two finally premiered the backyard epic in 1989 to neighbors and friends, the friends largely forgot about the 100-minute adaptation.

“It was something I wasn’t necessarily proud of,” Strompolos said. “I was almost sort of embarrassed about it. I kept it hidden for a long time.”

Zala never hid the tape. After casually sharing his backyard masterpiece to fellow film students at NYU, the movie ended up in the hands of young filmmaker Eli Roth. Intent on finding a wider audience for the adaptation, Roth eventually urged the film’s inclusion in theAlamo Drafthouse Cinema’s 2003 Butt-Numb-A-Thon. Fans quickly revered the unhinged adaptation, now a cult-classic. Born out of Strompolos and Zala’s childhood enthusiasm, audiences related to the enormity two Mississippi boys undertook.

“They took on this project that was really so over their heads. But they had no idea,” Eisenstock said. “The fact that they completed it is one of the things that just really connects to the audience.”

The adaptation feels genuine to jaded fans numbed by the fakery exploited in bloated Hollywood box-office franchises. You root for Indiana Jones alongside Strompolos in the remake — the film documents his first kiss through Indy’s romance.

“It’s their childhood — you seem them grow,” Eisenstock said. “Chris [Strompolos] is 13 in one scene and 17 in another.”

Eisenstock points to the cinematic world of Indiana Jones as a place of refuge for the two. Both Strompolos and Zala grew up under single mothers; both were inordinately obsessed with the fictional mythology behind “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“It was such a real world that I just wanted nothing more than to be Indiana Jones,” Strompolos said. “It was really born out of a role-playing fantasy.”

Through the 60 hours of outtakes, Eisenstock revisited the infamous scene showing Zala’s basement in flames. With his best friend’s gasoline-soaked back ablaze, Strompolos rushed to smother the flames, still in character.

“There’s this moment where Eric [Zala]’s on fire, and [Strompolos] actually becomes Indiana Jones for a second,” Eisenstock said. “He runs in — you see it in the outtake — and sort of saves his friend. He starts patting him with a blanket, and his back goes out.”

Meanwhile, Eisenstock recalls another child on camera in the outtakes, reading the instructions to a fire extinguisher aloud while flames keep rising.

“It really brings you back to a time in the ’ 80s where everything is more innocent, simpler and less technical — when they started, they didn’t even have a camera,” Eisenstock said.

Through “Raiders!,” he details how the movie united the two friends in the beginning and later, after a period of discord, brought them together once the adaptation gained a new appreciation. “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” even reached Spielberg, who wrote a letter to the two in appreciation of the tribute.

Through his company, “Rolling Boulder Films,” Strompolos now seeks to transform his childhood passions in the hopes of highlighting his home state of Mississippi on the big screen again. The former Indiana Jones actor is currently developing several films.

Strompolos’ summer-camp film school, “Raiders” primed him for life in independent film.

“It’s helped me appreciate what I want to do now,” Strompolos said.

Strompolos and Zala’s adaptation culls nostalgia among current audiences, capturing the coming-of-age triumph of two boys making their own version of an $18 million movie.

“Along with the nostalgia, it’s a living, breathing, active example of something [fans] always wanted to do,” Strompolos said. “They feel this allegiance to us and our film because we did it.”

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