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Goin’ Back to Indiana

Now-legendary Raiders adaptation is the best kind of child’s play

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At the Belcourt this Thursday night, you have a choice between two adolescent odes to the magic of making movies. You can see two British kids mount a no-budget tribute to the Sylvester Stallone skull-buster First Blood, replete with eighth-grade ninjas and a runaway Jeep. Or you can watch three Mississippi 12-year-olds rock their own shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, outrunning giant boulders, fighting pre-teen Nazis, and even staging their own hell-for-leather fistfight aboard a moving truck.

The difference is that the first movie, the British import Son of Rambow, is a carefully monitored, well-funded professional production—while the second, the now-legendary Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, is a true backyard marvel. A triumph of beg-borrow-but-don’t-steal guerrilla filmmaking, the 100-minute epic was started in 1982 by grade-school pals Chris Strompolos, Jayson Lamb and Eric Zala in Ocean Springs, Miss. It was completed seven years later—by which time the three principals had finished high school, romanced their leading lady, fought and parted and patched up, and almost perished in mishaps with makeup and stuntwork.

Raiders: The Adaptation sat unseen outside of friend-and-family viewings for almost 15 years. Like the warehoused Ark of the Covenant, it might have gathered dust indefinitely if a VHS copy hadn’t fallen into the hands of Hostel director Eli Roth. During a lull in the 2002 Butt-Numb-A-Thon, movie geek extraordinaire Harry Knowles’ annual cult-movie summit in Austin, Roth famously popped in the tape—and a star was born. Through unbelievable twists of fate—including a 10,000-word Vanity Fair profile, movie rights, and a close encounter with Steven Spielberg—the Raiders adaptation has become an international sensation.

“We’re still kind of startled by the reaction to it,” Eric Zala says. The director of Raiders: The Adaptation, who also co-starred and has the scars to prove it, will present the film in person when it makes its Tennessee premiere 7 p.m. Thursday at the Belcourt. To put the screening in perspective, it follows a sold-out engagement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, where it received a standing ovation; coming weeks will take in the Smithsonian, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and Brazil. Zala laughs when asked if touring with the film has become a day job.

“I have no day job per se,” Zala says, “except being a parent, which is a job in itself.”

By now, the making of Raiders: The Adaptation has been covered more exhaustively than that of the original Raiders. How Zala and Strompolos initially bonded over a Raiders comic they shared on the school bus one day. How, in the summer of 1982, 11-year-old Strompolos called 12-year-old Zala out of the blue with the idea to make their own Raiders. How the clean-cut Zala snuck a tape recorder into the local theater to copy the movie, then compiled a list of 649 shots they’d have to duplicate. Before the summer was over, as Jim Windolf wrote in Vanity Fair, the two had fashioned a humongous prop boulder in Strompolos’ room out of bamboo stalks and cardboard—only to find it was too big to fit through the door.

With Strompolos as Indy, Zala as his treacherous rival Belloq (as well as director), and friend Lamb as special-effects master and cinematographer, the adaptation started rolling on a Sony Betamax video camera in the summer of 1983 in Zala’s backyard. Many summers of reshoots followed. Accidents happened—not to Strompolos, as you might expect, but to Zala, who got the brilliant idea to do a fire stunt wearing a flame-retardant outfit splashed with gasoline. (Parental force majeure almost put an end to filming.) Zala also nearly suffocated making the plaster cast for his melting face in the movie’s climax.

He regrets none of it. Indeed, the attention paid to the Raiders adaptation has rekindled his dream of shooting his own scripts. Two years ago, Chris Strompolos “approached me for the second time with a wacky proposition,” Zala says; now they’re developing a feature called What the River Takes, a Southern Gothic adventure for family audiences. (Impressive conceptual art can be found online at VanityFair.com.) Zala quit his job as a videogame tester to plan the movie and spend more time with his kids, Quinn, age 4, and Darcy, 2.

Like everyone else raised on Raiders, Zala eagerly awaited the fourth Indiana Jones movie this summer. “It’s not as great as Raiders,” he says, “but it’s very satisfying—the good far outshone the bad.” Now that the “real” Indiana Jones is back in action at age 65, though, is it weird for 37-year-old Zala to see his 12-year-old self in theaters right alongside him—a yardstick of how much time has passed, and how closely the film is tied to his life?

“Even reflecting on it, it doesn’t seem that long,” Zala says, laughing, “and then you start doing the math: ‘1981, that was—27 years ago? Wow! That was most of my life, actually.’ Life, as they say, keeps speeding up the older you get. I’m just racing to make the most of the time I’ve been given.” In a final stranger-than-Indy twist, producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to their story, and screenwriter/Eightball artist Daniel Clowes has penned a script.

As for his own new movie, scarcity of means doesn’t faze him. “Having remade a $26 million film on our allowances,” Eric Zala deadpans, “we know how to stretch a dollar.”

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