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


Dr. Jones, I presume.

Dr. Jones, I presume.

(2016) Documentary (Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Stompolos, Jayson Lamb, John Rhys-Davies, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, Chris Gore, Kurt Zala, Casey Dillard, Rob Fuller, Ryan Pierini, Scott Lionberger, Ernest Cline, Tim League, John E. Hudgens, Karl Preusser, Mark Spain, Guy Klender, James Donald, Michael Mobley, Angela Rodriguez. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen

Florida Film Festival 2016

The dreams of our childhood are often set aside in favor of those things that as adults we are required to do; to create a family and home of our own, to earn a living, to raise children. Those dreams don’t die completely; they stay with us, often as regrets which is what unanswered dreams generally become.

For a trio of boys in Mississippi in 1981, that dream was the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark. This tribute to the serial pulp adventures of the 1930s really captured the imagination of these boys and inspired them. For Eric Zala and Chris Stompolos, the solution was simple; make their own version of Raiders but shot for shot like the one Spielberg directed. And, that summer, they set about doing it themselves.

For seven more summers and several winter breaks as well, they did just that. Stompolos, who played Indiana Jones, aged from age 12 to 19 onscreen; Zala (who played Belloq and was director for the venture) went from 11 to 18. They were joined by Jayson Lamb who also stayed mainly behind the camera and did much of the special effects.

They were aided by many adults who gave the kids serious leeway, allowing them to follow their dream although later on when some saw the results of their labors accused their mothers of “bad parenting,” particularly in lieu that one fiery scene set in the Nepalese bar owned by Marion Ravenwood that they created in the basement of the Zala home nearly burned the house down.

What is striking is how the boys, with zero filmmaking experience, managed to think outside the box to make things work. For example, they substituted the family dog in place of the “Sieg Heil” spider monkey that is used in the Cairo scenes. The boys were too young to drive in the truck chase, so they got someone to lend them a truck without an engine and had someone who could drive (a parental chaperon as it were) haul the truck (you can see the hauling  vehicle in a couple of shots).

The boys eventually got every scene in the movie filmed but one – the scene after Indie and Marion escape the Well of Souls and stop a Flying Wing airplane from carrying the Ark to Berlin, blowing up the plane and creating general mayhem in the process. At seven years in and their friendships frayed to the breaking point (Jayson had already left the project), they decided to call it quits.

But the idea stayed with them and it bothered Zala and Stompolos to a lesser extent that they’d pulled the plug so close to completing their dream. They took the footage they had and edited it together, made a videotape of it, staged a world premiere in their hometown and went on with their lives.

The funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they refuse to die on their own. A copy of the tape made its way to actor/director Eli Roth of the Hostel franchise. He was blown away by what he saw and arranged to have the movie shown during a meal break at Harry (Ain’t It Cool News) Knowles’ annual birthday celebration and film festival the Butt-Numb-a-Thon at the Drafthouse Theater in Austin – Tim League, the influential owner of the Drafthouse was also in attendance.

The audience was so enraptured by the adaptation that they booed when the projectionist stopped the film to prepare for the world premiere showing of a Peter Jackson Hobbit film, no less – and gave the film a three minute standing ovation. League and Knowles were both impressed. The buzz about the movie began to circulate and a cult film was born.

Eventually word got back to Zala and Stompolos, both living separate lives and the two old friends decided to get the band back together again and raised a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of the final scene in their hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Even so, it wasn’t easy; Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the very pyrotechnic-heavy scene proved more difficult to stage than they’d anticipated, even with a professional pyrotechnician calling the shots.

There is plenty of footage from the Adaptation as well as outtakes and interviews (I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Adaptation twice, once in the backyard of a friend’s house and the second time as part of a Raiders! Event at the Enzian) and while it’s true that the footage of the Adaptation is crude, you do get a sense of the love and care that went into it. Because of copyright laws, it is next to impossible to view the Adaptation theatrically, but it can be done so if you’re interested, contact your local art house theater and have them look into it.

The movie is about the heart and soul of a dream. Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who has distinguished himself as being one of the most clueless film reviewers in the country, sniffed that the venture is like “rewriting Moby Dick in crayon.” For one thing, he oversimplifies the difference between copying and adapting. The boys with no training at all proved to be resourceful and persistent, both traits that should be encouraged rather than torn down. They showed their love for a film that by paying tribute to it, putting their own stamp on it at the same time. Both of them, since this documentary was completed, have formed a production company of their own and quite frankly I’m eager to see what they turn out next (Lamb also works in the industry). Either way, this is the kind of movie that may inspire others to follow their dream, be it remaking a beloved movie shot for shot or making a movie of their own.

REASONS TO GO: One of those movies that sneak up on you and lift your spirits. Fascinating story.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will get why this story is inspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zala for awhile lived and worked in Orlando for EA Sports as a game developer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: March of the Living

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Fanboys


Fanboys

Fanboys on the outside looking in.

(2008) Comedy (Weinstein) Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell, Carrie Fisher, Danny Trejo, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Allie Grant, William Shatner. Directed by Kyle Newman

Fans have a kind of sweet madness. I’m not talking about the people who follow something on a casual basis; I mean the full-out, balls-to-the-wall, obsessive, dangerously knowledgeable super-fans; the kind that show up at conventions and name their kids after characters in the movies.

This specific fandom that Fanboys is examining is the Star Wars fans. The movie is set in 1998, just prior to the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and arguably the best time to be a fan of the series – when anticipation had fans jumping out of their skins waiting for the new movie, the first in more than 15 years.

Four school friends who hadn’t been together since graduation meet up at a party; Eric (Huntington), the lone respectable one who was working for his dad’s car dealership which he was expected to take over some day; Hutch (Fogler) who lives in his mom’s “carriage house” (read: garage), Windows (Baruchel) a computer nerd who has a thing for a chat room geek he’s never met and Linus (Marquette), who is somewhat angry about the way things turned out.

It turns out he has plenty of reason to be angry; he has cancer and won’t live to see the next movie in the franchise released. Eric, who was once his best friend, resumes that role and decides that his friend WILL see the movie before anyone else does. The four of them – and Zoe (Bell), a very cool friend that frequents the comic book store Hutch and Windows work at and quite possibly the only girl that could hang with these guys – will drive from Ohio to Marin County, California where Skywalker Ranch is located, break in and watch the movie. Windows’ online crush even claims she can get them the plans to the Ranch which is legendary for its security.

They take off in Hutch’s tricked out van, a kind of rolling convention on wheels, and head vaguely West. On the way they will encounter evil Star Trek fans, the all-knowing Harry Knowles (of Ain’t It Cool News fame) and William Shatner himself as they race the clock to get their dying friend to the ranch. Will it be worth the trip?

Of course, we all know at this point in time that The Phantom Menace was a disappointment but back then the possibilities were endless. The world of fans was anticipating what they thought would be an epic movie and nearly every fan website was in a dither. It was a kinder world.

However, the story of this movie might have made a good movie of its own. The movie was completed back in 2007 but was shelved by studio head Harvey Weinstein who felt the cancer subplot was too grim for the comedy he wanted; he also felt it appealed to a niche audience and not a general one. Both are legitimate points.

Director Newman fought the changes and Weinstein eventually assigned director Steven Brill to reshoot some scenes and re-edit it. Fans went ballistic, launching a campaign to stop the changes, opening MySpace pages (“Stop Darth Weinstein”) and threatening to boycott Superhero Movie en masse. I’m not so sure that was a threat so much as a relief.

Eventually Weinstein relented and allowed Newman to re-cut the movie a third time…only he gave him only 36 hours to do the work. The movie bounced from release date to release date over the course of three years until it finally got an extremely limited release in February 2009 and, as you can see from the box office performance below, died like the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi.

It’s kind of a shame because the movie isn’t too bad. It got a critical shellacking which, frankly, illustrates why critics are out of touch with the audience that comes to the movies. People do get involved with their favorite franchises. Laugh and make fun if you want to, but it fulfills something in people, be it Trekkers, Star Wars fan or Twilighters. Those who judge the lifestyles of these people are the ones who really need to get a life.

For the most part, the performances here are okay although there’s nothing here that’s going to supercharge any careers. Baruchel is sweet as Windows and Marquette has some nice scenes as Linus. Mostly, the star power is in the cameos and there are plenty of those, from Star Wars vets Fisher and Williams to Shatner and Rogen (who is amusing as an overbearing Trek fan).

There are a lot of asides that will have knowing fans nodding in satisfaction; I can see how audiences not super-familiar with the Star Wars saga might feel left out a little. However, the movie really isn’t for them anyway. The DVD extras on several occasions call this a love letter to Star Wars but I don’t think it actually ends up that way. It’s more a love letter to the fans, and not just of Star Wars but of all things that excite the imagination and promote obsession. It’s sweet-natured and while not everything works, I am positive that the love is sincere. I’d much rather see a movie like this one than a thousand big budget big star comedies whose sole reason for being is to fatten the bank accounts of those involved. Sincerity trumps budget every time.

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet homage to fandom, particularly that of Star Wars. Some of the cameos are actually well thought-out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit gratuitous in places and the humor – well heck the whole dang movie – is going to appeal to a very limited audience; some of the references will go right over the heads of ordinary folk.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of crude humor, much of it sexual (as you might expect from a bunch of guys who don’t get laid much). There’s also some drug use in the movie, as well as a heaping helping of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The guards at Skywalker Ranch wear uniforms from THX-1138, one of Lucas’ early films (and one he references regularly in subsequent films). The head guard is played in a cameo appearance by Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some webisodes that were available before the movie’s release, as well as a character study but really, most of the extras are relatively mundane as these things go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $960,828 on an unreported production budget; the film was undoubtedly a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Answer Man