Living the fanboy dream: A chat with Eric Zala ahead of FilmScene’s ‘Raiders!’ double feature

Raiders! Double Feature

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

FilmScene — Thursday, Aug. 18 at 7 p.m.

Video still from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation'
Video still from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation’

On Thursday, Aug. 18, FilmScene in Iowa City will be presenting a Special Event double feature of the documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and the titular fan film affectionately titled Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. The special event begins at 7 p.m. and costs $20, and includes both films as well as a Q & A with Eric Zala, the director/co-star of the latter film and one of the central subjects of the former.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, the one directed by Steven Spielberg, is celebrating it’s 35th Anniversary this year and entered the pop-culture lexicon on June 12, 1981 to a rare and explosive success. It universally captured the imaginations of, and defined a sense of adventure for, an entire generation, including yours truly (full disclosure: RotLA is my favorite film of all-time), but most notably three 12 year old boys in Mississippi. Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb would spend seven summers of their lives, from 1982 to 1989, making sets, talking their friends into participating, and yes — even risking their lives, to film a shot-for-shot remake of the first adventure to feature Indiana Jones.

After its one hometown screening in 1989, the young men went their separate ways, off to college. Zala’s relationship to his childhood project was often one of pride, occasionally screening it in a dorm rec room at NYU or for co-workers upon request, whereas Strompolos often felt a little embarrassed by it, considering it, Zala says, “a souvenir of wasted youth.” But a chance screening in 2002 changed the lives of the men involved when word of the fan film travelled through channels of film nerds and cinephiles until reaching an almost urban legend status — the holy grail of homemade films that only an elite few had ever seen.

The three men were as surprised as anyone to receive notice of how popular their little project had become. The immediate cult status of their youthful opus was never something Zala had considered: “To just finish the thing was the loftiest, most grandiose vision that we genuinely strove for,” he says, adding with brief pause, “There was also the pipe dream of, ‘Hey, wouldn’t be cool if one day Spielberg actually saw it and didn’t sue us and loved it?’” (Side note – Spielberg DID see it, DID love it, and has NOT sued them.)

Between 2002 and 2012 the film continued to be screened, producer Scott Rudin purchased the film rights to the boys’ story (a screenplay was written but the project ultimately abandoned) and a book was written. At the 101st screening in Park City, Utah, promoting the book by Alan Eisenstock, producer Jeremy Coon approached Strompolos and, over a couple of burgers, convinced him that the story needed to be told. Coon went on to co-direct, with Tim Skousen, what would become one of 2016’s best reviewed documentaries, Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, lifting its title from the aforementioned book; it currently sits at an 86% percent on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

Allow me, if you will, to now direct this preview into a more editorialized direction. I love the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is, in my eyes, the perfect film and it has defined my love of movies for my entire life and nurtured in me a sense of adventure and imagination unlike anything ever had before and probably since. So when the news of Zala, Strompolos and Lamb hit in 2002, I was in awe of these three guys. They had achieved what so many of us had only dreamed. And to be honest, when someone loves something as much as you do, in this case perhaps even more so, you honestly feel like you understand them on some level. So while I had never met any of these gentlemen, there was always part of me that felt as though I knew them a bit. I nose-dive this article into fanboy territory so that you might understand what a real treat it was for me to interview Eric Zala for this story.

Eric Zala is a nice man. Currently, he, his wife, his two kids and even the family dog are traveling “across America in a 32 foot, Raiders wrapped RV,” on tour with the two films, doing screenings and Q & A. Iowa City will be the 49th stop on the 64-city “Follow Your Dreams” tour. When he answers my questions, he does so without condescension or fatigue and seems genuinely taken aback when told what an impact his film has had on people, even though he has surely been told that many, many times.

He is a fan, and in his voice you can still hear the kid who dreamed this all up in the first place. This is no shameless money grab, or attempt at knocking-off a masterpiece — it is an honest labor of love that blossomed through the unlimited imaginations of three fearless teenagers. Zala, Strompolos and Lamb created something special and, despite the new documentary, the screening tour, the book and the countless other ways it has made them famous, you get the impression that even they don’t fully understand that.

The documentary itself, which premiered at SXSW in 2015, is a real gem. The filmmakers do not lazily take a fly-on-the-wall approach, but rather imbue the film with its own sense of adventure and humor. The film has two narratives: the story of how the original fan film was made, and the team reuniting to film the one scene they had never been able to complete. It’s in these two stories that the film really shines, contrasting an endless summer mentality of children held back only by the limitations of their own imaginations with grown men juggling careers, families, raising money and begging for time off from work to finish what they had started so long ago.

Video still from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation'
Video still from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation’

“We have more resources, but also the stakes are higher,” Zala notes. “But certain things didn’t change. There are certain lessons that we learned as a kids that we clinged to. You have to push out those voices of self doubt that say, ‘You’re never gonna finish, you’re never gonna finish’… heard those as a kid, as much as an adult, and the approach is the same: You just got to face that fear head on and push on through.”

This event at FilmScene will signify a specific moment for a lot of people, when this thing of cinephile legend becomes real and an experience almost 15 years in the making final comes to fruition. Personally, I feel that anyone who fell in love with movies as a kid, who dreamed of adventures, who just did something they loved because they loved it and for no other real gain: Both of these films will speak to you on a level that transcends a purely enjoyable cinematic experience. If you simply want a feel good movie experience, you also need to look no further.

I was excited for this screening, but now, I think I am most excited for the Q & A, for people to enjoy Zala, for him to share stories of he and Strompolos (who now have a production company together with exciting new prospects) and to see that daring to do something special requires only the willingness to try. It’s a message Zala hopes to make clear to his own children as well: “Follow after what you’re passionate about and it will be meaningful for you.”

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