“I got the recipe from a bad kid at school,” Eric Zala says speaking about, of course, a pipe bomb. No, Zala is not referring to a rebellious anarchic teenage plot; he and his friends had bigger plans. Zala, along with Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb were in the midst of filming a shot-for-shot recreation of Steven Spielberg’s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The time had come for the young filmmakers to do their version of Raiders’ famous airplane scene.
Between the danger of recreating an airplane propeller death and blowing that airplane up, the scene ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the teenagers. Eventually they’d get that scene in the can, but it took 25 years to get there.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made details how Zala, Strompolos, and Lamb found notoriety with their fan film while also documenting the filming of that elusive airport scene. The 2015 documentary lands this month on BitTorrent Now.
Back to the pipe bomb. Zala recounts that story in response to a question about how their lives would’ve been different had they been able to finish the film back in 1989. After a lengthy explanation of how he thought they could shoot the missing scene before the whole thing was scrapped, Zala explains that he “wouldn’t have wanted things to work out any other way.” That’s an optimistic thing to say because during the break in filming, Zala and Strompolos had a falling out, which is explained in the doc, and their paths diverged. Drug problems, families, good-but-unfulfilling day jobs took them further from their dream. Reuniting got them back on track, and now the prospect of an alternate path is quickly dismissed by Strompolos, “That’s like asking ‘what if Raiders of the Lost Ark never came out?’ ‘What if Eric and I never met?’”
The story of how the guys came back together to finish the film is just as engrossing as the story of them actually making it. Whether you want to call it kismet, inevitable, or something owing to a higher power, it will surely go down in movie lore.
Director Eli Roth had gotten his hands on a copy of the bootleg VHS and started spreading the word. This was before Roth had established himself: “His email said ‘horror director Eli Roth’ and this was right before Cabin Fever came out,” Zala says. That eventually led to the band reuniting for proper screenings in front of ravenous audiences, with a copy of the adaptation eventually making its way to Spielberg himself, whom Zala, Strompolos, and Lamb got to meet at his office on the Universal lot.
So what made the amateur film so endearing? Ubiquitous film fanatic and blogger Harry Knowles puts it best in the documentary when he says “it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark made by kids, and it’s awesome.” Strompolos has another explanation for the response: “People see energy at work.” He couldn’t be more right.
There’s a charge that goes through you seeing young Strompolos decked out in full Indy regalia executing the iconic boulder booby-trap escape. It’s obvious that the kids were coming from a place of love and good intentions, and watching their passion play out so long after the fact bears that out. The inspirational component is proving to be a common takeaway from audiences. “It re-invigorates people to do whatever their dream is,” says Zala.
They’re once again just as committed to filmmaking now as they were during those summer shoots in the ‘80s.
But the most inspiring thing is the way film, as it so often does, brings people together. Roth’s out-of-the-blue email led to Zala and Strompolos rekindling their friendship and getting both men on a happier track. The way old footage is cut with the documentary footage results in unexpected payoffs. After seeing what the teen versions of Zala, Strompolos, and Lamb went through, it’s good to know that the boys who started to sour on each other by 1989 make it back to a happier place. The importance of friendship is inherent in an undertaking like this, but it’s also something that is easy to take for granted and the documentary does well to reinforce this theme.
With the release of Raiders! there is a sense of things coming full circle for the guys. They may be older and more experienced but they’re once again just as committed to filmmaking now as they were during those summer shoots in the ‘80s. As the adaptation makes its way around, the enthusiasm from audiences endures. Says Zala: “From the first screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in 2003 [in Austin, Texas] to the screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin last week, the reaction hasn’t changed much.”