If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the three pre-teen lads who did a shot-for-shot remake of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark must’ve had director Steven Spielberg blushing for weeks.

Today, trying to capture the epic scale of the film version of Raiders, what with its $20 million budget (about $54 million with inflation factored in) and the virtually non-stop, stunt-filled action filmed in remote locations, would be a near impossible task for most youngsters. Imagine taking on the challenge in 1982 during the pre-internet and digital age where cameras weren’t also doubling as phones and watching a movie generally meant physically going to a theater, and it should start to sink in just how insane of an idea this sounds.

You’d have to forgive anyone for taking seven years to complete the thing, right?

From left: Jayson Lamb, Chris Strompolos as Indiana Jones and director/actor Eric Zala.

What fans will do on their summer vacations…

For Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, 11 and 12-years old back in ’82 and both huge fans of Indiana Jones’ big screen adventures, shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark in their own Ocean Springs, Mississippi backyards just seemed like something fun for them and their friends to do for a summer.

As Raider of the Lost Ark: The Adaption’s director Zala notes 35 years after the fact, “When we started we were young and dumb, and that was a real benefit. I say that because had we known it would’ve taken seven years for most of it we would’ve been terrified. Kids don’t know what they can’t do. As adults we’re all too aware of our limitations, real or imagined. We naively thought it was going to take us a single summer.”

“As director I was guardian of trying to keep the vision consistent from ages 12 to 19. I recall our goal was never to have it be cute or adorable or whatnot. If I’m being honest, we were 11 and 12 respectively; you wanted it to look cool. We wanted it to have people feel excited as we felt seeing it up on the big screen.”

Everything in the adaptation was planned and mapped out, including the various iconic wardrobe changes of Indiana Jones.

Adapting a Hollywood epic takes epic time

What began as a couple of kids getting their imaginations fuelled by what they saw in a movie theater started off simple enough: Strompolos, who initially proposed the remake idea to Zala, would portray the story’s hero, Indiana Jones. Zala would direct and play Indy’s rival, French archaeologist Belloq. Another friend, Jayson Lamb, jumped in to head up the special effects and look after the camera work. They’d recruit some buddies to fill out the rest of the cast, and off they’d go making their Raiders homage. Allowances were saved for costumes and props and what couldn’t be purchased or borrowed was made from hand, like the film’s iconic Ark of the Covenant.

And since the film was not shot in sequence, unintentional charm can be found in seeing characters aging years inbetween some of the grainy VHS and Betamax-shot scenes.

Jump ahead seven summers, 602 storyboards drawn from memory by Zala, a cassette player being snuck into a screening to record the audio of the original film from which to copy the script, 40 hours of footage in the can, 60 kids taking on various character roles including two Marions (some scenes needed to be re-shot after their first Marion moved to Alaska) and a parental-instituted chaperone after a close call following a misstep during the filming of one of the movie’s many stunts and this version of Raiders was almost complete.

Zala had to draw over 600 storyboards-from memory.

When you’re a kid, fire is fun

That chaperone was put in place after Zala, acting as a stunt double for another youngster, donned a fire-retardant raincoat and had his back set ablaze while filming a bar scene in his mother’s basement. Safety precautions were in place, including smothering blankets and a fire extinguisher, but when word got back to responsible adults about what had happened production was suspended for the rest of that summer.

Zala recalls the discussion he and Strompolos had with their mothers after the cat was out of the bag.

“We were brought in and told: that’s it-no more fire. Why can’t Indy just hit the bad guy with a big sack of leaves? Sack of leaves? Mom, you don’t understand!”

It wouldn’t be Indiana Jones without fire, though, so an adult chaperone was put in place to babysit the crew whenever flames were to be used during shooting. What the parents didn’t know but the younger Zala appreciated at the time was that this particular adult got just as caught up in the filming of the adaptation as the youngsters he was supposed to be the voice of reason for did, and can be heard in outtakes instructing the crew where to put more fire for certain shots.

“Looking back at it I’m shocked at how dangerous we were,” says Zala, “but as a kid you lack a basic appreciation of the fragility of the human body.”

“Our approach was largely jump in and do it.”

After nearly setting Zalas basement on fire future dangerous stunts not involving fire were kept secret from the parents, including when Strompolos had to be dragged behind a moving truck.

The summer project gains an audience

After those initial seven years, the Mississippi Raiders shoot was wrapped and a 1989 screening held for 200 friends and family. Zala and Strompolos thought that would be the end of their own Indiana Jones adventures. After copies of their version of Raiders started to be circulated by folks like director Eli Roth and a shortened teaser of the film was screened in a Texas theater in 2003 to a standing ovation momentum behind the film grew. In a story where time seems to mean nothing, another 9 years passed before a book detailing their adventures by Alan Eisenstock was released. A year later the duo were approached by Napoleon Dynamite producer Jeremy Coon about the idea for a documentary showcasing their efforts.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign the final scene needed to be shot was made a reality.

But as was mentioned earlier, this version of Raiders was only almost finished-one key scene remained un-shot due to logistics: Indiana duking it out with a German mechanic while a plane blows up behind them. After discussions with Zala and Strompolos, it was decided Coon would direct (along with Tim Skousen) a documentary chronicling their efforts getting that final scene filmed. A Kickstarter campaign quickly raised the $50,000 needed for Zala and Strompolos to step back into their childhood roles and add the final finishing touches to their homemade epic.

The adaptation cast was reassembled, and as is gloriously illustrated onscreen in the Netflix doc Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made! a teenage Strompolos-as-Indiana Jones steps into the scene almost three years older than Harrison Ford was when he filmed the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lamb, Strompolos and Zala surround their childhood movie making idol, Steven Speilberg.

For Zala, who spent a good chunk of his adult life in the video game industry before the success of Raiders! allowed him to step away from the corporate world, what started as he and some friends taking on a project because it seemed like fun has turned into an ongoing series of life lessons. After talking with educators curious about using the Raiders! story as a tool in their classrooms Zala Detours was set up, a project-based learning concept that teaches perseverance, resourcefulness, collaboration and problem-solving skills (minus the need for open flames in a basement, of course). Along the way, dozens of double-bill screenings around the world of the adaptation and Raiders! have helped raise money for over 30 organizations including Doctors Without Borders and Youth For Human Rights International.

With a meeting with their idol Steven Spielberg having already become a reality for Zala, Strompolos and Lamb as a result of their Raiders work, the benefits of pursuing a passion is one Eric Zala can honestly preach.

“If we had given into that temptation to just quit for various reasons it would have just been a box of video tapes in somebody’s basement. The first and foremost thing is the project that you’re working on, whether it’s a film or a book or whatever creative, active passion you’re endeavouring to create, finish it-even if its imperfect.”