Three Imaginary Girls

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Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos & Jayson Lamb in Raiders of The Lost Ark: The AdaptationAs I mentioned before, Raiders had a huge impact on me and was one of the things that cemented my future as a film-obsessed writer chick. After seeing the film, three 12-year-old boys in Mississippi were inspired to create a tribute film: Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation—which I think is the most awesome thing of ALL awesome things.

Thus, I was both excited and nervous to interview two of the guys (Eric Zala & Chris Strompolos)—what if they didn’t think I was a big enough Raiders fan? What if I made some terrible film nerd faux-pas? What if (OMG WHAT IF) I screwed up an easy-to-remember quote from the film???

I needn’t have worried. They’re both amazingly nice guys who made me feel right at home from the second we sat down and started talking about all things Raiders, from the passion to get it finished to actually meeting Steven Spielberg, and caressing the original Ark of the Covenant prop at Skywalker Ranch.

TIG: So how many times did you guys see Raiders of the Lost Ark before you decided to get started on The Adaptation?

Eric Zala: Well, not as much you might think. Because, as you know, it wasn’t available—I mean it was re-released in theaters in 1982 (ed. note: orginal Raiders of the Lost Ark release was 1981) and Chris had roped me into this crazy project then, and so we watched it in the theater and tried to commit as much to memory as possible.

Of course it’s not like today where you can just walk down to Blockbuster and rent it. It wasn’t to come out for years, but we actually snuck in a tape recorder and tried to capture the dialog and sound effects, and burn every frame into our memory cells—and having amassed all this Raiders stuff, spent like a summer drawing over 600 storyboards, which became our blue print. And then it came out on Laserdisc.

So when it came out on Laserdisc, about how much had you shot by then?

Chris Strompolos: Laserdisc came out in ’84, right? So we had shot a lot of stuff over and over again. I mean, we shot the jungle scene over and over again, the bar scenes over and over again, and in those first few years were just kind of teaching ourselves the finer points and fundamentals of filmmaking. The Internet didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a plethora of “teenage filmmaking guides”. We were sort of reading magazines and teaching ourselves, and trying to follow the footsteps of the people we admired; mainly George and Steven.

So, yes, we had started shooting. Whether it was useable footage is another discussion. The thing that we found was that when it did come out on laserdisc and we did re-watch it, was that Eric’s effort that one summer of drawing out all of the individual shots and the shooting bible that he had put together was pretty close.

I was reading all of the stuff you guys went through to get it filmed on your site, and I thought it was pretty incredible for three teenage boys to stay together and finish the project over 7 years. That’s kind of amazing.

Chris: And not only that, but somewhere in the middle of it all, my mom ended up getting remarried, and so I was shipped off to school out of state. So I was actually going to school in New York and then coming back down to Mississippi in the summers and so Eric and Jayson (Lamb) would continue building sets and I would find stuff in NY and mail it back, ad we would correspond with this interesting thing called “a letter”.

Eric: It seems so…almost Victorian age now.

Chris: I know they don’t exist so much anymore, but we actually wrote letters to each other and would correspond that way. You know, “How’s it going? How’s the map room coming?” and Eric would take Polaroids and send me stuff, and so we corresponded that way.

Eric: Yeah, I’d like buy a scimitar from World Bazaar in the mall and over a 7-page letter, trace it—so it was like, “Lay the pages of the letter end-to-end and you’ll see the shape of this cool scimitar I got! You’re gonna love it.”

That’s so AWESOME. You know, it’s interesting: I noticed a lot of kids in there raised their hands that they had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that they thought it was cool. It’s funny how there are those films that stay relevant, and kids still like them no matter how old they are.

Eric: And it’s still—you know, whenever I watch a film from 1981 I’m self-aware. Like, oh, this movie came out the same time as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it looks dated. I called Raiders the Dick Clark of movies, because it seems to not age.

I mean, obviously, maybe—I’m biased. But the special F/X totally hold up, the pacing, I mean it’s timeless. So, thankfully Chris chose the idea well. We’ve reflected a few times on that. I mean, if we’d chosen to remake Smokey and the Bandit, I don’t think we’d probably be talking here today.

So you finished the film, and then you released it in 2003?

Chris: We didn’t release it, really. It was discovered. We had finished in ’89 and had a little hometown premiere with friends and family, we went off to school. Eric went to NYU Tisch, I went to a school in Ohio, and Jayson went to the CA College of Arts and Crafts, and so we all kind of went our separate ways. We showed it here and there, and had some ups and downs through the years, but all in all, the movie was just kind of sitting on our shelf.  We weren’t really doing anything with it.

So, in 2003, director and filmaker Eli Roth had an old beaten-up VHS copy from his NYU days, and it was being passed around—so when Eli’s movie Cabin Fever got picked up in Toronto, he took our movie to his pitch meeting at DreamWorks, and at the same time sort of in parallel, he had passed a copy on to Tim and Karrie League who run the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and Harry Knowles, who of course runs Ain’t It Cool News. And we hadn’t really chatted with each other for years, and Eli tracked us down…Eric, you pick it up from here.

Eric: So, Eli has this battered VHS bootleg of the film passed from a friend to a friend to a friend—and Cabin Fever is picked up, and he’s taking meetings all around Hollywood, including at DreamWorks, Spielberg’s company. So his brings this bootleg of our film to his own pitch meeting, slides it across the conference table and says, “You really oughta check this out.” So the head of production takes it home, watches it, calls Eli and says, “This is great! I’m gonna pass it on to Steven”. Calls Eli back and says that Steven loved it, and wants to write the guys a letter of appreciation. What are their addresses?

Well, Eli has never met us, but through the internet he tracks one of down (Jayson) who passes our emails on to Eli—and that’s how on one otherwise ordinary day in 2003, I get an email out of the blue, “Hi Eric, you don’t know me, but my name is Eli Roth. I’m a filmmaker and this might sound strange, but Spielberg has seen your little Raiders movie and he loves it and wants to write you a letter of appreciation.” And my reaction is, come on. Who’s pulling my leg? I mean, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life.

But, each of us, Chris, Jayson and I—we all talked to Eli, and it dawned on us: this was for real. And we gave him our addresses, and sure enough about a week later, each of received in the mail an envelope, return address SS; a letter from the man himself thanking us for a very loving and detailed tribute. And I thought, Wow. It just can’t possibly get any better than this, but I was wrong. Tim and Karrie League invited us to have a proper world premiere in Austin, Texas (also in 2003), and we were reunited after years of being apart and kind of picked right up from where we left off.

Then Harry Knowles of Ain’t it Cool News did an amazing review, and that’s when things really changed. All of the sudden this little film that wasn’t so much as a rumor on the internet, people are talking about in Vietnam, in Holland. People were arguing online, who had never met us—never seen our film, “It’s a hoax”, or “This is great” or “No, this is terrible!” – back and forth. That in turn led to Vanity Fair wanting to do an exclusive 10,000 word article on us, which in turn led to Scott Rudin of Paramount Pictures optioning our life rights, which led to us being in Los Angeles about a year later, and we get the call that Steven Spielberg wants to meet us in his office.

We show up on the Universal lot, and go through these big Jurassic Park gates into Amblin, and we walk in and I say the most absurd words I’ve ever said, “Hi, we’re here to see Mr. Speilberg.” We met with him for about 45 minutes and talked to him about Raiders, movies, life, and he was extremely warm and open and gave us some great advice; even showed us the blooper reel from Raiders and Temple of Doom. Afterwards, we kind of wandered out into the sunlight and said, “WHAT just happened?”. It’s really great to meet your boyhood heroes.

So then after that, you decided to have your own screenings?

Chris: Well, with all the press, it sort of launched a World Tour, essentially. It sounds a little dramatic, but a worldwide interest in showing the movie. Because of copyright regulation, we couldn’t necessarily take the film on the traditional route of theatrical distribution, so the way that we positioned it is that we worked with organizations, film festivals, museums, universities, high schools, etc. to use it as a tool of sorts—and to preach “kid power”. That term is probably kind of strong, but to skew it towards a younger audience and use it to raise money for education.

We’ve raised a lot of money for everything from tsunami relief to cancer research, and we put 18 kids through a film program in Portland—those sorts of things. It’s worked in our benefit as well, and allowed us to travel and meet members of the filmmaking community and go to the festival circuit, and go to some pretty darn cool places. So, we have selected those things very carefully.

So that all led to you guys quitting your corporate jobs to pursue your own production company?

Chris: In the beginning, yes. In 2003 when it started to really speed up, Eric had been married, I was recently married, and Eric was building a family and was in a very professional career in the gaming industry. I was working for a DVD production company in Hollywood. So we were settling down, so to speak. And then the Raiders thing started to happen, and in Driggs, Idaho, at a film festival called Spudfest—Dawn Wells, you know, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, it was her festival—and I just got this tickle in the gut. The same sort of idea; like Raiders. I don’t necessarily think it through, I think big—and then Eric and I sort of hash out the details.

Here were are in the middle of lives, and we’re getting deeper into things we really don’t want to do, and here our little movie is bringing us back into focus, in terms of the love and passion that we experienced for film when we were kids, and that was our calling. So why don’t we go back into it and try to go for it again. And that’s a big move. So after much deliberation, Eric chatted with his wife, I chatted with mine, and Eric was far more strategic and methodical in terms of extracting himself from his job. I just ended up getting fired from my job. It’s totally fine—that’s my track record; abrupt and chaotic.

And so we founded Rolling Boulder Films, harkening back to the thing that inspired us, and started developing a slate of original projects. Our main one right now is called “What the River Takes”. It’s a Southern Gothic Action Adventure movie set in Mississippi. It’s a river adventure, and it’s gonna be very dark and very exciting—and in the place that we love, our home state of Mississippi. So we’ve been developing that and looking at some literary properties, and raising capital.

So you mentioned that Spielberg was very kind to you—did you ever encounter any problems from George Lucas?

Eric: No, not at all. One day, Chris gets a call from Lucasfilm, and Chris is like, “Oh no, here’s the call…”, but actually it was just to request a copy for their library. And normally, we say no, but obviously we made an exception in this case. We were actually screening it in San Francisco, and were approached by some employees of Skywalker Ranch to do an employee screening. So we ended up doing a private screening at the Ranch, where we got to take a wonderful tour including the props building—the archives building. Where we got to touch the Ark of the Covenant prop…so we dispensed with any pretense of cool as soon as we got there.

Chris: And…Indy’s jacket, and Marion’s dresses.

Eric: We geeked out pretty hard.

Chris: The woman who runs it was very nice, but you know, this is obviously movie history. It’s cinema that has shaped all our lives that we all know. So Lucas has this crazy staff that are all like double PhDs, and museum curators, and archival systems. They’re pretty serious. And here I am, in there going “WOOO HOOOOO”—rubbing my hands and my face in Karen Allen’s dresses, and like touching Harrison’s jackets, and freaking out. Rolling on the floor next to the original Han Solo in Carbonite…you know, lying next to it. So the woman was like, “Nonononno! No no!” It was SO AWESOME. We got a tour of the ranch, and went to the library…

Eric: They even took us to the place where they store all the movies, and they’d even threaded up an outtake from Raiders and screened that. So we actually got to hear Spielberg yell action and cut, and hear him off camera. It was really quite remarkable. During the Q&A there, one of the questions we got was, “Will this be available for release?” and we just sort of exchanged a look and Chris said, “Well, ask your boss.”

Lucas was in Japan at the time—we have not spoken with Mr. Lucas, but we’re certainly grateful that he permit us, graciously, to screen our film, and we hope that it’s inspired a new generation of DIY filmmakers, who make films that are high in creativity, and low in budget.

Very nice. I love what you guys are doing, and I’m excited to finally see it.

{For more info on all the trials the boys endured making the film—including almost burning down their parent’s basement—see TheRaider.Net. For information on Rolling Boulder Films, friend their Facebook Page}.