I love fan films. I remember the very first fan film I ever saw: Hardware Wars (a Star Wars spoof). I’ve been hooked ever since. They’ve come a long way since then, some of them nowadays boasting a production value that almost rivals Hollywood productions. When I watch, for example, the Piano Guys’ Cello Wars (which in essence, is still a fan film), I’m amazed how much fan films have evolved, but my favorites remain the older ones, like Closet Cases Of The Nerd Kind (who can forget those singing mailboxes?).
But while some fan films of that era were happy to simply parody blockbuster movies, in 1982, two kids from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Chris Strompolos (11 years old) and Eric Zala (12 years old) set our to produce a faithful remake of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. This fan film, titled RRaiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation, was not a parody, a condensed version, or a salute; Strompolos and Zala set out to recreate Raiders Of The Lost Ark, scene for scene. Ambitious? Yes, indeed. And did they succeed? Yes − for the most part.
Over the course of seven summers, they devoted their time, energy and resources to this project. Some say they wasted their youth on making this film. They built sets and props (including a fairly realistic giant rolling boulder), secured costumes, recruited an ingenious special effects young wizard (who could do wonders with very limited resources), and they did it: every stunt, every dialogue, every shot − well, almost every shot.
In the end, they were missing only one scene: the memorable fight between Indiana Jones and the huge muscle-bound German on the airfield that climaxes with the explosion of the flying wing. That scene was challenging even for a full-blown Hollywood production, so it’s understandable that a couple of kids on a shoestring budget could not manage to pull it off.
But the film worked, anyway. It screened in select venues over the years, and, like the movie that inspired it, it became a cult classic in its own right. It eventually attracted the attention of people like Harry Knowles, Eli Roth and even Steven Spielberg, who met them in person.
In 2013, it was revealed that Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation had inspired Jeremy Coon (the producer of Napoleon Dynamite) to produce a documentary on the making of the fan film. (Coon actually optioned the book called Raiders! by Alan Eisenstock that documents the making of the fan film.) Coon intended to make two movies, the first being a documentary and the second a retelling of the Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation.
And this is the documentary.
What is fantastic about Raiders! The Making Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is that it is not only a record of the making of the original fan film; it also documents Strompolos and Zala’s efforts, thirty years later, to complete the project by getting that one last shot produced.
In the first moments of the documentary, we see Strompolos and Zala, now middle-aged men, trying to convince someone to “invest” in the movie. The investor does not seem convinced, but the amateur filmmakers end up leaving with a $5,000 cheque.
The duo set out to renew with old friends and acquaintances, recruit some of the original cast, and retain the services of skilled craftsmen to build an impressive set, including a very faithful recreation of the German Flying Wing.
These endeavours alone would have provided sufficient material for an engrossing documentary, but the film doesn’t stop there; it also documents the making of the original film. Original footage, recent testimonies and new material are woven together, sometimes chronologically, sometimes casting a look backward in time, but in an order that flows very naturally towards a climax for both production shoots (the original and the new), and that grabs the viewer’s attention completely for an hour and a half. It is a professionally made documentary film, but it is so close to its subject material that it nearly screams fandom at the viewers. As such, it stands as a fan film in its own right, and that made me enjoy it even more and want to see it again.
There is something particularly appealing about The Making Of documentaries and books, especially for those fans among us who dreamt of being filmmakers as teenagers, but when it’s about kids who actually tried and succeeded, albeit in a limited fashion, to make their filmmaking dream come true, such documentaries take on an almost magical quality. You can almost taste their satisfaction when you see Strompolos and Zala’s picture with Spielberg. You can envy them to the point of resenting the hell out of them, or you can admire them. Either way, the film provides a very strong emotional response for fans who grew up on Raiders Of The Lost Ark and blockbusters of that era and, hopefully, for younger fans too.
There are better fan films out there − I mean, in terms of production value. The film starred kids, starting with Strompolos himself as Indiana Jones, and it was shot over a seven-year period. Not only did the kids grow significantly during that period, the scenes were also shot out of sequences, but for some reason, that does not take away from the pleasure of watching the movie, in fact, it only adds to it.
For example, when you see Alan Stenum, a diminutive kid, trying to step into John Rhys-Davies’ shoes as Sallah, wearing the worse fake beard you can find in a Halloween costume store, you immediately suppress any instinct you might have to ridicule the effort. Maybe because of your love for the original material, or out of respect for the incredible determination of those would-be filmmakers and actors to tackle such an ambitious project, or out of simply embracing it for the sheer fun of it, or for all three reasons put together. What’s more, there is a reverence for the source material that shines through, that you can’t help but feel.
It’s especially impressive to see those would-be filmmakers, thirty years later, willing to set aside the dispute (over a girl!) that created a breach between them and spelled the end of the original shoot, get together to finish their project.
The vision is still there. In one of the most emotionally charged scenes, Zala calls his employer to get a few more days off work to complete the film (which is running behind due to bad weather and other complications). Zala knows at this point that he is facing imminent termination, but he stills asks for an additional two days’ leave.
In a candid conversation following his phone call (while his employer “thinks about it”), his wife asks him what he feels is more important: fulfilling his dream, or going back to work and seeing his spirit crushed. Zala quickly answers that not seeing his spirit crushed is what counts the most for him. Fortunately, his employer grants him an additional two days, but you do get the feeling that Zala would not have allowed his job to prevent his dream from coming true. It’s a particularly moving scene, because most of us can relate to Zala at that moment. Many of us will have had our spirits crushed in a similar decisive moment in their lives. We’ve all wanted to be Spielberg, or Lucas, and most of us couldn’t. This is just a fan film, but you find yourself rooting for those guys just as much as you did for Indiana Jones.
Without giving anything away, they do finish the film. During the opening sequence, an off camera voice says, “Why would you want to watch a bad version of Raiders?” Well, I can’t answer for everyone, but I’d watch this movie, again and again, and given a choice, I’d even watch it over a number of the blockbusters that came out this summer. Why? Maybe because I too, one fine summer during the 80s, bought a Fedora, wore it, and wished I had ended up behind a camera to pursue my own dream.
Update: Raiders! will now be getting a cinematic release in the summer of 2016, courtesy of Drafthouse Films, that’s picked up the worldwide rights.
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