Monday, April 27, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Art

Most people have films that inspire them, that they revisit for the rest of their lives and which occupy a special place in their heart. Not many, however, decide to remake them...

But in 1982 this is exactly what three schoolboys did, and the result, a 100 minute shot- for- shot homage to Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, called Raiders of the Lost Ark: an Adaptation, will receive its London premiere tomorrow night in Leicester Square.

Chris Strompolos, Jayson Lamb and Eric Zala, three friends who first met on the long bus journey to school in Mississippi, were just eleven when Spielberg's film came out but there was no doubt about the effect that it would have on them. "Coming down" from the Star Trek phenomenon, Indiana Jones, the rough and ready adventurer was exotic and yet somehow accessible, a true hero for teenage boys everywhere.

Indeed, it was probably their youthful exeuberance and, some would say, naivite, that enabled them to overcome the small hurdles of absolutely no budget and no filmmaking exerience to persevere with a project which would end up taking seven long years to complete.

Substituting money for imagination and sometimes pure chuztpah most of the scenes in the film were shot in and around Mississippi, enlisting the help of most of the local youth as stand-ins and extras for the crowd scenes. For example, the Cairo street scene was filmed in the Gulfport business district where the trio were almost arrested after a local businessman assumed they were making a porn movie. Interior scenes were shot at the boys' homes, usually without parental consent. These included a faithful replica of the Well of Souls aswell as the burning bar scene (hilariously, in one of the out-takes, a pre-teen is seen studying the instructions on one of the fire extinguishers as flames spread through the basement of Eric's house...).

Given the financial and technological constraints of the film don't expect it to look all that slick; shot on a Betamax camera, the visuals are shaky and grainy and the audio track sometimes inaudible but despite this, and maybe because of it, the love for the source material always comes through.

The seven year process and $5000 total budget almost ended the boys' friendship for good, but in 1989 on its completion it received an enthusiastic reception at a small hometown premiere before being consigned to the vaults.

Fast forward to 2003, and through a six degrees of separation type happenstance, the film made its way into the hands of producer and director Eli Roth who then made two of the most influential decisions he could have: first he gave a copy to Harry Knowles (of Ain't it Cool fame) and second, he gave a copy to Stephen Spielberg himself. Bearing in mind the complete and flagrant disregard for copyright that the film demonstrates (including its illicit recording at the cinema in the first place), it would not have been surprising if Spielberg's response would have been to slap a law suite on the trio. Instead, he wrote them all letters describing the film as the nicest compliment he and George Lucas had ever received and invited the trio to meet him.

In an ironic twist of fate with a particularly American flavour, the producer Scott Rudin bought the life rights of all three filmmakers in 2004 with a view to making a film of their lives. The screenwriter Daniel Clowes is now on board and Paramount in place with funding.

Thanks to the growth of concepts like You Tube, we now tend to have a rather cynical view of the whole premise of DIY filmmaking and it might therefore be tempting to downplay the enormity of what these three guys have created. It is only when we place it in context, that of two and a half decades ago, that the true wonder of their achievement shines through. It's just a shame we don't all start that young; as Zala himself has been quoted as saying: "(Kids') motivations are the purest, and they aren't unduly swayed by commercial considerations or a Teamsters strike or even the mortgage. It's about the love of the story."

The Making of an Adaptation:

All Images including title image via

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