RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE ½
No MPAA Rating, 105 mins.
2016, No MPAA Rating, 105 mins.
A documentary directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen
The title of this documentary is not engaging in any type of false advertising.
To quote it fully, RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE does indeed chronicle the making of the single greatest Indiana Jones fan film – if not greatest fan film…period – ever attempted. It tells the seemingly impossible, but positively true story of a group of Mississippian boys that spent seven summers during the early to late 1980’s making a slavishly faithful, shot for shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action adventure masterpiece RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. These kids just didn’t love the film (as a whole generation of eighties children did), they obsessed over it, so much so that they wanted to become one with the globe-trotting exploits of the most famous archaeologist ever committed to celluloid.
And boy, did they
The kids in
question were Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb, who decided
when they were fairly inexperienced 12-year-old filmmakers to remake
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as meticulously as possible, going to fanatical
extremes to recreate all of the film’s characters, dialogue
exchanges, action beats, props, costumes, settings…you name it.
Since they clearly didn't live in an age of readily available
online content or even home video releases, the lads forged ahead with
their remake by re-envisioning shots from Spielberg’s film…from
complete memory. Their fan
film was shot out of sequence, primarily out of necessity, which
subsequently meant that the actors appeared at different ages throughout the
production. Through a lot of
perseverance – and some awfully considerate and understating parents –
Strompolos, Zala and Lamb finished their film…minus one scene that proved
to be far too elaborate and difficult to shoot.
Nevertheless, they did have a friends/family screening in 1989 upon
the film’s completion, but then the boys went their separate ways (which
was prompted by a love triangle that was forming between Strompolos, Zala,
and their attractive female co-star), went to college, had families, and
Director Eli Roth managed to obtain a low-grade copy of the RAIDERS fan film, which he loved and shared with Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles, who did an impromptu and unadvertised screening of it at his Butt-Numb-Athon – just before a late print of the then released THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS made its arrival to the festival – and the overwhelmingly strong audience reaction to the fan film convinced Roth and Knowles that they had something special on their hands. This led to Roth desperately trying to find a way to locate the children (now adults) and he eventually did, letting them know that an official screening of their work would occur at the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas in 2003. Word of the fan film eventually made its way to Spielberg himself, who was so overcome with joy and appreciation for what the boys achieved during what ostensibly was their entire adolescence that he invited them for a meet-up.
RAIDERS! does an
impeccable job of covering this remarkable story.
Directors Tom Skousen and Jeremy Coon (the later who was a producer
on NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) are equal
to the task of enthusiastically relaying the particulars of the fan film production in question,
but the real tantalizing hook and arc of their doc is not only its
surprisingly candid examination of what happened to Strompolos, Zala, and
Lamb after their fan film wrapped, but also in its exploration of their desires to
return to their film – now men in their forties with multiple adult
responsibilities – raise money, and finally shoot the aforementioned
missing scene that they weren’t able to nearly thirty years ago.
The scene in particular is the bravura action sequence pitting Indy
against a gigantic hulking Nazi near a flying wing.
Not only do they want to fully recreate the plane from scratch, but
they also want to duplicate every punch, kick, gunshot, gory propeller
blade kill, and explosion from this sequence.
In a way, these men are returning to the pleasures of their youth.
presented in an obligatory talking heads documentary approach that
doesn’t reinvent the genre wheel, but it serves its purposes
expeditiously and rather well here. Through
various interviews with Zala, Strompolos, Lamb, the many other child
actors, and their parents, Skousen and Coon create an infectious tapestry
of endless fascination: We learn of the inherent – and obvious – problems that permeated the original production, and some of the beyond
obvious dangers therein as well. The
mothers of the boys speak openly and honestly about the perils of, for
example, setting their living rooms on fire (often unsupervised) to
capture key scenes from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
When it becomes shockingly apparent that these kids have luckily
escaped serious injury multiple times, the parents decide to enforce adult
supervision during the shoot, which leads to the doc’s unintentionally
hilarious reveal that the man in question proved to be arguably less responsible
than even the kids.
One comes out of RAIDERS! with an incredible sense of respect and appreciation for the kids’ artistic drives and limitless ambition, to be sure, but the doc also never shies away from evoking the inherent craziness of their filmmaking aspirations; there's one piece of footage that shows a young actor narrowly escaping being driven over by a large truck while shooting one of RAIDERS’ key chase sequences, which left me a bit uneasy at the thought of what could have happened. Then there’s the whole thorny nature of Zala’s and Strompolos’ feverish drives to finish their film via any means necessary. They do secure funds and donations and create commendably spot-on airplane props for their sequence, all rigged up to explode with planted and controlled C4, but when constant rain shuts down production for days (leading to Strompolos’ employer threatening termination if he doesn’t promptly return to work) and one ill timed explosion during one good shooting day that nearly killed one of the crew…you start to pose questions regarding these men’s mental states. Is what they’re doing really worth it?
RAIDERS! makes an
impassioned case for yes. Rather
astutely, the doc never goes out of its way to paint these highly
determined fan filmmakers as pure saints either.
Zala in particular hit rock bottom during his post-RAIDERS young
adult life, turning towards a chronic drug addiction and hanging out with
the decidedly wrong type of people that nearly ruined him.
The makers' childhood lives were also not especially rosy, seeing
as many of them came from painful periods of divorce in their
respective families, which, in many ways, manifested itself into
Strompolos and company fleeing to their fan film as a form of cathartic
release from their emotional strife.
Oddly enough, watching RAIDERS! reminded me considerably of the
recently released SING STREET. That film dealt with economically impoverished mid-80’s
Dublin youth trying to escape from the harsh socio-economic truths of
their time by pouring their energies into music making.
By direct comparison, RAIDERS! also concerns 80’s youth
that use the arts as a form of soul cleansing therapy…and that’s what
ultimately makes the doc a genuinely uplifting underdog story of
overcoming emotional and logistical obstacles.
RAIDERS! emerges as a love ballad to youthful exuberance and artistic imagination…not to mention that it’s a poignant and frequently moving testament to the inseparable bond that geeks have with pop culture, one that can be used as an agent of positive change in one’s life. Very few films – documentary or not – focus on the limitlessly dense microcosm and minutia of passionate fandom as well as this one does, and it does so with a refreshingly democratic viewfinder that’s neither sarcastically judgmental or pathetically empathetic. It also highlights how creative innovation is oftentimes born out of resource-starved necessity. I’m sure there were days when Spielberg knew that his relatively scant-for-its-time $18 million budget forced him to find inventive solutions to complicated filmmaking conundrums on the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK shoot. He didn’t have it nearly as tough as the greenhorn teenage makers of its subsequent fan film.
Not. At. All.