Hot Docs: Raiders! Interview

In the summer of 1981, Chris Strompolis and Eric Zala fell in love with Raiders Of The Lost Ark along with the rest of the world. However, their love ran a little deeper. Despite being a pair of 11 year olds, the duo decided to remake Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ action epic shot for shot. Chris would wear the fedora, while Eric would run the show and for seven years the project consumed every summer vacation of their adolescence. Along with their homespun special effects expert Jayson Lamb, the trio somehow managed to complete the entire project (minus a sequence involving an exploding airplane, which was a little tricky for teens to pull off in their parents’ back yard). Unfortunately, they did so in a pre-internet age, so no one ever really found out.

Of course, a story like that is too good to disappear. Gradually the tale of the homemade Raiders Of The Lost Ark remake grew into the stuff of legend as bootleg VHS tapes circulated throughout the geek community. Around 2004, the video screened at aintitcoolnews’ Butt-numb-athon and the internet exploded. While the VHS remake has obviously never been commercially available, it’s notoriety expanded to the point that the Chris, Eric, and Jayson were able to meet Steven Spielberg and their life story was even optioned to become a movie. Sadly, that never happened. Well until, now anyways.

The legend of the homemade Raiders Of The Lost Ark stuck a chord with the ever-growing fan community that could never disappear. Recently, co-directors Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon (who previously worked on Napoleon Dynamite, The Sasquatch Gang, and other projects) have finally made a documentary about the remarkable story. The duo interviewed the boys (well, men) and everyone in their lives at the time, while also gaining unprecedented access to all of the outtake material from the legendary video production. As if that weren’t enough, they even managed to start the project just in time to see Chris Stompolis and Eric Zala finally shoot the one sequence they could never execute as teens, only now with a budget large enough to build a plane and blow it sky high. 

The resulting movie is just as deliriously entertaining as you’d hope, while also packing an unexpected emotional punch. The kids did come of age while staging their Raiders remake after all and caught many of their major life moments on video between set ups. Backed up with surprisingly candid contemporary interviews from all the subjects, Raiders! is almost like the Amblin equivalent of Boyhood…only…you know…real. For anyone with a sweet tooth for that burgeoning age of blockbuster filmmaking or anyone who ever grabbed a handful of action figures and the family video camera for their own far less ambitious remakes, Raiders! is one of the must-see films in this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival. Gearing up the fests’ launch on April 23, Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with co-director Tim Skousen about his experience shooting this wonderfully strange ode to childhood and movie geekery. 

Dork Shelf: The thing that really surprised me about your documentary was how the Raiders remake was so intertwined with these kids lives that they essentially lived out their entire adolescence through the experience. That was fascinating to watch.

Tim Skousen: Yeah, it’s a backstory that we found really fascinating. The movie isn’t just about these kids remaking Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but how they grew up through that process. It lends the movie themes that we can all relate to like first love and waning friendship. It all applies. 

DS: Did you have any sense of that backstory when you started your documentary?

TS: Well, we did by the time we started filming but we discovered the story over time. We didn’t see their Raiders when there was a big wave of publicity that happened in 2004. We’d just heard about it peripherally. It was kind of an urban legend. You can’t buy it. It’s not on YouTube and when it does get on there they take it down. But it can screen at film festivals as long as the proceeds are donated to charity. My partner Jeremy just happened to go to one of these festival screenings near where we lived and as soon as he saw it, he became fascinated. There is a book that had just been published when we got interested.

So I read the book and I can’t recommend it enough. You’d think a 90-minute documentary would be able to cover all of the crazy stories about this thing, but we didn’t even come close. There was just no time to fit it all in, so that helped a lot. We went into the movie knowing what to ask. But things started to expand once we started shooting. We went to Mississippi early to interview the parents and peripheral friends and we quickly realized that all these kids had domestic problems of some sort. Pretty well everyone’s parents were either divorced or got divorced over the course of the project. So that theme was something that we slowly discovered ourselves and that lead to the sequence where we compared the guys to The Goonies. We recognized that very quickly while we were filming. 

DS: Yeah, I enjoyed that sequence. I found it interesting that these kids connected so deeply to Raiders Of The Lost Ark and then immediately after they would have been the target audience for all the broken family Amblin fantasies that followed like The Goonies or E.T. or Poltergeist. Meanwhile, they were living out their own Amblin movie by making their own Raiders

TS: Oh yeah, there’s a strange commonality between all of those movies and this story. It’s oddly similar and a completely accidental connection that really works. 

DS: I get the impression that other filmmakers had tried to make a documentary before, but the guys just weren’t ready at the time. Do you have any idea what it was that led to them wanting to make a documentary now? Was simply it because they were already going to shoot that final airplane scene?

TS: I think there were a variety of things. When they first got discovered, their life rights were bought by someone at Paramount who didn’t end up doing anything but had the rights for three years. They kind of rode a wave of publicity and it looked like their story was going to be turned into a feature film. I think Daniel Clowes even wrote a screenplay. For whatever reason, it didn’t get made. There were a few other people that tried to do a documentary after that, but I think they just weren’t ready. Then when my partner Jeremy saw their version of Raiders, he approached them and let them know that he had produced Napoleon Dynamite and a number of other films. He said that he’d like to do a feature film, but in the meantime suggested doing a documentary. They always wanted to see their story as a feature film, so I think that when Jeremy suggested doing both that really excited the guys. Jeremy and I had already done a feature and some documentaries together. So I think the timing was right and the two of us kind of fit. 

They’d also wanted to do the airplane scene for years. It was typical. Chris wanted to do it, but then Eric had to make it happen. Not that Chris didn’t work on it. He worked like mad, but once they started shooting Chris became Indy and Eric had to deal with all the other stuff. That’s how it was when they were kids too. So, eventually Chris came to Jeremy and said, “If I ask Chris to do this, he’ll say ‘no.’ But if you tell him it’s part of the documentary, he’ll consider it.” So that’s what we ended up doing and Eric didn’t ever find out until the Q&A at SXSW a few weeks ago. It took a few months to pull it together, but they’re the type of people who go all the way when they decide to do something. As soon as they said ‘yes,’ they sent us this huge box with all the tapes from when they were kids and all the press they did ten years ago. Everything. We got a treasure trove of material to make our movie. They’re awesome guys and we felt very lucky right off the bat. It really worked out. 

DS: The airplane sequence obviously turned out well, but I was surprised by the scale that they decided to execute it on. Was there ever any discussion of them doing it in the more homemade style of the original project?

TS: That was a big discussion and we filmed all of it, but we cut it out (Laughs). They talked about putting on the exact same clothes that they wore as kids and even shooting on VHS. But their mantra as kids always was, “We want this to be as good as possible, just with kid actors.” So they decided to take on the same attitude as adults. If they had access to the resources they could get now, they would have used them. So they decided to go that route, but they were torn. They talked about bringing Jayson Lamb back and having him shoot the sequence on VHS side-by-side to the big camera, but Jayson wasn’t into that. And he’s probably right. It would have been weird and it would have been hard to put in the movie. 

At first they were even more ambitious than what they ended up doing. They even talked about shooting on 35mm. Jeremy and I have done a lot of independent filmmaking, so we’d look at their plans and shake our heads. But we didn’t want to discourage them too much. The first pyrotechnics guy that they spoke to was talking about shooting barrels 60-70 feet in the air. We were filming the discussion and thinking, “These guys have no idea how expensive this is going to be.” (Laughs). Their pyro budget alone would have been 90 grand if they’d stuck with that guy. They figured all that out eventually. We didn’t have to tell them anything. They’re really smart guys. They just hadn’t done any filmmaking in 25 years. 

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DS: Yeah, why hadn’t they done any filmmaking since Raiders? Clearly they were passionate about it as kids.

TS: Well, Eric went to NYU and made a student film that’s pretty good and won some awards, but he’s got a different mentality. He wants to work with a team. Even back when they were kids he wouldn’t edit himself, it was always through Jayson. They actually had a big falling out as kids when they were exhausted with editing. They finished the picture and Eric said, “Great now we just need to do sound. It’ll only take 2-3 weeks.” The other guys were like, “What?!” They were so exhausted. Then apparently when they were going to start the sound edit on Raiders, Eric went off on a date and Chris and Jayson just slapped a couple of sound effects and songs on it and left a note on the tape saying, “Eric, it’s done.” Eric then went in at the end of the night at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning expecting the guys to still be working and then found the tape. As he describes it, “With fear I cannot describe I watched the film and it was terrible.” So he raced out to find the guys and they were waiting for him. Eric said, “Come on guys, we’ve spent 7 years on this. In 2 more weeks it’ll be done.” And then Chris said, “It’s over” and pealed away in his car. (Laughs). 

The reason I tell that story is because that’s what Eric is like. I asked him why he didn’t finish the sound on his own and he said, “It never occurred to me.” Eric likes having a team around him. I think that’s why he never made a film after college. He came to Los Angeles thinking he’d write a script, pitch it to a studio, get $10 million, and make his first film. That was his plan, but that’s almost a fairy tale. It only happens to one in a million. But we think he might go for it at this point and make a movie. We told him, “You’ll have one shot. You’ll get some notoriety off of your film and the documentary. You could probably raise a couple hundred thousand dollars, so be careful.” We’re hopeful he’ll do it, but that’s up to him. 

DS: Is he back in partnership with Chris now? Would they be working together? 

TS: Yeah, they formed a production company together called Rolling Boulder Films. They’ve got two projects that they’d like to do. One of them is called Where The River Takes that’s an original script set in the bayou area. It’s a father quest movie and they need $6 million to make it, minimum. They also optioned a book that’s set in the south as well. Even though neither of them live in Mississippi anymore, they’ve got a real dedication to shooting there, which I think is admirable. Chris is basically trying to get those projects going full time, while Eric is still working at his job at a video game company. So we’ll see what happens. 

DS: How much outtake footage from their Raiders shoot did you have access to? I was amazed that material even still existed. 

TS: Yeah, we really lucked out. It’s almost as if Jayson knew that we were going to make this documentary one day. Jayson, even as a kid. wasn’t that interested in remaking Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He’s only seen it once or twice in his life and he actually thinks that their film is better than Raiders Of The Lost Ark. As he put it, because it’s a remake with kids it’s automatically a more interesting movie, which is kind of funny. He’d get bored shooting all the time and just turn the camera around and start asking people questions. That’s how we got footage of him asking, “What do you think of the movie so far?” And the kid says, “It sucks.” That’s just what was in Jayson’s mind at the time. For him it was more interesting to talk to the kids about stuff.

So we had this whole treasure trove of outtakes that was actually in higher quality than the original film. They probably lost 6 out of the 35 tapes. There are certain things that are lost forever that I wish I could find. There’s a story in the book about when they started filming with Angela [who played Marion]. The first scene they shot with her was the kissing scene and then the next day they did the scene where she changes.

DS: Of course they did…

TS: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. So they shot that right away and apparently two of their friends positioned themselves in the stairway to catch an eyeful, which they didn’t reveal until years later. So I went back to find the outtakes from that day, but those tapes were gone. But that was how most of the best footage we got from those tapes. We were wondering what was going on when they were filming the fire sequence and then found all that footage of [parental approved adult supervisor] Peter Kiefer telling them to light everything on fire while holding a beer. That was a result of Jason thinking to capture those moments. We were just lucky he got all that stuff. There were a lot of little miracles along the way that allowed us to tell this story.

DS: Did you ever try to reach out to Steven Spielberg to get his comments on the remake or was it just not worth the hassle? 

TS: We did. He requested a copy of the film and its been watched by his publicist so far. He’s in the middle of shooting three films back-to-back-to-back right now. We’re hoping to get an interview. We’re going at him from seven different directions, including Ernest Cline who you seen in our film sitting in his DeLorean. We premiered the movie in SXSW a few weeks ago and Ernie came along and enjoyed it. He wrote Ready Player One, which this amazing book filled with references to every aspect of 80s pop culture you could imagine. He told us he had sold the movie rights and we were wondering who could possibly have the muscle to clear the rights to all that stuff. Low and behold, guess who signed on five days later? Spielberg. So Ernie is going to ask for us as well. We told him we’ll go anywhere in the world and we just want fifteen minutes. We hope it will happen, but that sort of thing just takes time. 

DS: Do you think there’s any chance of their Raiders remake ever getting released? I was quietly hoping it would be on the Indiana Jones Blu-ray box set, but obviously that didn’t happen.

TS: [Laughs] Right now you can actually get a copy by donating to Chris and Eric’s website because they are still trying to recoup some of the costs from shooting the airplane scene. The scene ended up costing 100 grand, so they had to borrow money from family and Eric had to leverage all his bonuses and that kind of stuff. But right now if you go to their website Raidersguys.com you can get a copy by donating to their site. It’s the completed version with the airplane scene and all that stuff. Will it ever come out commercially? Maybe. They’re talking to a distributor about setting up a series of special screenings where they would show the documentary and then their remake after. So, that’s a possibility as well. But I don’t think it will ever just be available on amazon or anything like that because of all the rights conflicts. 

Read our review of Raiders! here.

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