When 13-year-old Eric Zala, along with his friends Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb, set out to make a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Ocean Springs in the early ‘80s, he probably never imagined he’d still be talking about it 40 years later.
But such is the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, as their fan film is known. The project captured the essence of so many things: from the sincerity of childhood fandom, to the adventurousness of amateur filmmaking to the sheer creative ingenuity of a group of kids with too much free time on their hands.
The story of the three, collectively known as The Raiders Kids, is told in the 2016 documentary Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. The documentary brought them back together to Mississippi to film the plane scene, the only scene they couldn’t make happen before they wrapped their original seven-year filmmaking odyssey in 1989.
This Saturday, March 18, at 4:15 p.m., the Capri Theatre in Jackson will present a special screening of the Raiders documentary, and Zala will be in attendance for a Q&A following. The event is presented in conjunction with the Mississippi Film Office as part of their 50th anniversary celebration and serves as a fundraiser for the Crossroads Film Society. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. The Capri Theatre is also screening Raiders of the Lost Ark this weekend, with showtimes on Friday and Saturday. Visit caprimovies.com for details.
We chatted with Zala recently about the lasting appeal of Raiders and how being a kid from Mississippi with big dreams made it all possible.
With a fifth film coming out this year, it seems like Indiana Jones is as popular as ever. What do you think it is that captured your imaginations as kids and continues to do so for audiences today?
Indiana Jones is a great character. And Raiders of the Lost Ark, specifically, what a perfect film. It’s a masterpiece from the dual minds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Kind of lightning in a bottle.
But part of what makes it great, I think, is the atmosphere that Spielberg created on set. The crew felt open enough to offer ideas. Here’s a bit of obscure trivia for you: in the classroom scene when the girl is flirting with him, flashing her eyelids with I love you written on it, that’s not in the script. That was from the first assistant director who shared the idea with Spielberg that morning. And it’s a million little details like that, I think, that combined in the film that we know and love.
Has anyone ever asked you if had they cast Tom Selleck as Indy as they originally planned, do you think your life would have turned out the same?
(laughs) No one has actually asked that one before! It’s up to question, right? It would have been a radically different character. Things work out for the best.
How have audiences responded to the documentary since it was released?
When the doc was first released, I did a 65-city tour around the country first showing the documentary and then our fan film. I got the opportunity to see so many audiences and their live reactions. It was just a thrill. Because when we were kids, I mean, just finishing the darn thing was the highest aspiration that we had. If someone would have told us Spielberg would have loved it, that there would be a documentary about it, we would have just laughed.
I made a point during that tour to always sneak into the theater to catch people’s reactions to the airplane scene. Because us reuniting the cast after 25 years in the documentary to finally do the airplane scene was a wonderful and surreal experience.
In some ways, the Adaptation could only have existed before the internet. But it’s also a lot of things that are a big part of internet culture now: fan films, amateur filmmaking, etc. And it was the internet that first shared your story with the world and helped fund the plane scene in the documentary via Kickstarter. What has the internet meant to the Raiders Guys?
When we finished in ’89, as you may know from our strange but true story, the film kind of sat on our bookshelf for like 14 years until it was accidentally discovered and we were invited to have a proper world premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Austin, Texas. This was back in 2003. There was a famous internet critic, Harry Knowles, who wrote the first ever review and I remember the following morning reading all the comments posted, people who had been there the night before, people who hadn’t. Some thought it was so cool, some thought it was nonsense. At one point we were accused of being a hoax. (laughs)
That was our first experience with the internet discovering our film. But what a wonderful thing. Then from that we started getting these invites. People would track us down and invite us to this film festival or that. And so began a period in which we traveled for over 13 years around the world screening this little film we shot my mom’s basement and our backyards here in Mississippi. We screened it everywhere from Sitka, Alaska, to Sydney, Australia.
So yeah, the internet, it’s been huge. I think probably the biggest thing is when we were kids, as far as we knew, we were the only ones in the world that were doing anything like it. And while our experience was unique, hearing from all the fans and the folks that I spoke with over the years of screenings, it turns out a lot of kids were inspired by Indiana Jones and played in their backyard and rolled under the closing garage door just in the nick of time like we did (laughs). The Internet made us realize that we were not alone at all.
You now run Zala Detours and continue to share your story. What can you tell me about that?
Zala Detours is kind of a catch-all for what I do these days. Sometimes I travel and do screenings such as the one this week at the Capri. Sometimes I do workshops on filmmaking for the beginner, usually for young kids. I also have a website where the storyboards that I wrote over an entire summer from memory for the Adaptation are published, along with a book that came out about us and more. The website also makes our film and the documentary available to folks. After the documentary, a lot of folks were wondering where they could see the fan film itself. The website is theraiderskids.com.
I’ve gotten asked, how did you stick with it for all those years? How did you overcome these obstacles? Where did you find a location for the Sahara Desert in Mississippi? How did you remake a Hollywood blockbuster on your allowance? I seek to answer those questions and hopefully pass on some of what I learned from the experience of growing up a Raiders kid that I’m very grateful for.
You mention finding a location for a desert. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has such a variety of locations, like in your hometown of Ocean Springs. Was that something that occurred to you when you were originally making the fan film?
Right. As varied a climate and landscape as we are fortunate to have here in Mississippi, we didn’t have a desert, but we did compromise. And after weeks and weeks of searching we finally found this dirt farm with the elusive dunes that we were looking for—even though there were trees in the distance, kind of a very non-desert like look (laughs).
Which, incidentally, when we later did the airplane scene, it might have made more sense for me to film where I was at the time, Las Vegas, literally in the desert. But we wanted to be consistent, so we came back to Mississippi to shoot and found a place with matching red clay. And with the magic of CGI these days, we could have easily erased the trees from the background of our newly found airplane scene. But I said, no, leave the trees in! It may not really look like a desert, but it just seemed right to stay consistent.
So indeed, there was only one scene not shot in the state of Mississippi. And that was the submarine scene just over the state line in Mobile Bay at the U.S.S. Alabama and the U.S.S. Drum Tourist Park.
What else do you think it was about growing up in Mississippi that led you to undertake such a seemingly impossible project?
As a kid in Mississippi you kind of had to find your own fun. And it was a conducive environment, being left to your own devices. It kind of creates a blank canvas. I also think growing up here, specifically where nature is not so cowed into submission, had a lot to do with it. I know if we grew up in Brooklyn, for instance, we might have been less inspired to imagine swinging from tree to tree if there were no trees around. For myself anyway. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become aware that nature and the beauty that we have here, it sparks the imagination, certainly in the young.