Think back to your summer vacations growing up. You probably took a few trips with your family, then moved on to a lame summer job working in a mall or flipping burgers. Some of those memories are probably preserved in home movies that no one – not even you – would want to watch again.
On the other hand, Lincoln Heights resident Chris Strompolos spent his teen summers being shot at, dragged under a truck, and chased by a giant boulder. He had his first kiss, fought off Arabs and Indians, and eventually saved the planet from Nazi domination. The best part is, he captured it all on video and for the past five years, people all over the planet have been clamoring to see the footage.
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If his adventures sound familiar, that’s because Strompolos was starring in a remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark," reenacting the adventures of Indiana Jones. The difference is “Raiders” was directed by the biggest director on the planet, Steven Spielberg, while Strompolos was taking orders from his best friend, Eric Zala, who is only a year older than he is. They were also hindered by the difference in their budgets ($18 million for Spielberg’s, $5000 for the boys'), and having to shoot their entire movie on the fly over seven summers in the backwoods of Mississippi.
On May 14, 2008, nearly 20 years after they finished production in 1989, Strompolos and Zala reunited with their friend Jayson Lamb, who served as editor/cinematographer and effects whiz on the film, to present the Los Angeles debut of “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” on Hollywood’s ultimate big screen at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. The event was a benefit for the Festival of Children Foundation, but it followed five years of whirlwind screenings at film festivals all over the planet and a personal letter raving about the film from Spielberg himself.
And perhaps the most amazing thing of all is, Strompolos and his buddies never even thought anyone outside their small town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi would ever care about what even they saw as rambunctious summer fun.
“My parents didn’t know what was going on. We kept them in the dark. There was one bit where we set Eric on fire, my mom saw it, and we got in trouble and agreed to have adult supervision,” Strompolos recalls in an exclusive PW interview. “We kept our parents separate from it. We made it sound innocent, just saying ‘We’re going off to shoot ‘Raiders!’' and mom would say ‘OK!’ It wasn’t until the 1989 premiere that my mom saw me go under the truck.”
Strompolos and Zala were two bored movie buffs who were utterly obsessed with the original “Raiders” when they met at ages 10 and 11, respectively. They hit it off immediately and decided to see if they could remake the original film, shot-for-shot. Since “Raiders” had not been released on video yet at the time of their meeting in 1982, a year after the film’s release, they had to track down a copy of the film’s script and rely on their memories in order for Zala to draw more than 600 storyboards for the film’s intricate costumes, sets, and action scenes.
Their slavish devotion to the cause led them to bringing in fellow dreamer Lamb and his Betamax camcorder onto the project. Soon there were plenty of other things that the young trio’s parents were unaware of, such as the fact that they staged the original’s big gunfight in a bar, complete with raging fires and flame-engulfed stuntmen, in Zala’s mom’s basement.
“We did it safely, and Jayson had learned in a magic book from library that if you use rubbing alcohol it lights nice but doesn’t consume,” explains Strompolos, who is now 37. “All the fire sets were built underneath the kitchen of Eric’s mom’s house. We were pretty lucky. We built our own sets from plywood and other kinds of breakaway wood that could smash or burn easily, plus there was lots of cement in the basement that kept it under control.”
Other tricks employed along the way included building the six-foot-tall boulder that chased “Indy” out of two fiberglass halves that were then glued together. As the boulder rolled rapidly after them, cameraman Lamb crouched inside a shopping cart and shot Strompolos as the star’s offscreen hands pushed the cart in a mad dash for safety.
The film had its hometown premiere back in 1989 as it was finished. The boys drifted apart as adulthood set in, with Zala taking the final-edit videotape with him to college at New York University’s prestigious film school and showing it for fun to friends on occasion. But it was one of those friends who got the ball (or in this case, the boulder) rolling for the film’s eventual discovery and cult-classic status.
That unknown friend told another young filmmaker named Eli Roth about the adaptation, and Roth was determined to see it. When Roth met with Spielberg at his Dreamworks studio while preparing the release of his own debut film “Cabin Fever” in 2003, he told the master director about the adaptation and Spielberg insisted on tracking it down to watch. Once he saw it, Spielberg wrote the filmmakers – and later worked out an arrangement allowing them to show it as long as they couldn’t profit from it, such as at festivals and for fundraisers. Soon Vanity Fair
magazine commissioned a ten-page story
on the history of the adaptation.
And, in a crazy, almost metaphysical loop of fate, Warner Bros. studio bought the rights to the Vanity Fair article and has been developing a film on Strompolos and his friends’ youthful adventures ever since. Someday, if the cards fall right, he’ll have the surreal experience of watching someone else reenact his reenactment of his favorite film.
While he and Zala are still working together as Rolling Boulder Films, putting together a package for their film “Where the River Ends,” Strompolos already has the satisfaction of having achieved the impossible as a youth.
“We estimated we spent $5000 total, we still don’t know, and we found stuff, built stuff, shopped at Salvation Army and Goodwill while Jayson studied library books to see how magicians did effects and Eric plotted how to coordinate birthdays and holiday to get gifts like hats and bullets just in time for our next shots,” says Strompolos. “There was a lot of planning on the stunts, but we just went for it. And it still gets us meetings to this day.”