After 33 Years and an Airplane Explosion, Their Raiders of the Lost Ark Remake Is Almost Complete. Are They?

After 33 Years and an Airplane Explosion, Their Raiders of the Lost Ark Remake Is Almost Complete. Are They?
Illustration by Tim Gabor

Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala had dreamed about the Flying Wing airplane since 1981, the summer the two middle schoolers saw its propellers shred the head off a German muscleman in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Thirty-three years later, they built it: a 78-foot-long, 4½-ton, gray-green beast that loomed like a frozen vulture midflight. It was the world's only full-scale replica of the Flying Wing. And now they had to blow it up. "I feel kind of sick," Strompolos sighs. "But it has to be done — and it has to be done for real."

After three decades, they were finally wrapping the longest film shoot in history.

As children in Mississippi, Chris and Eric had made a pact. They'd film a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Chris, a chipper, chubby idea guy, would star; Eric, who at 11 was the older and steadier of the two, would direct. They bought a spiral notebook and filled it with sketches and plans. Chris titled it Raiders of the Lost Ark: Kids Version. Then he scribbled out the second half and wrote The New Version. Age would not be a factor.

"We didn't want it to look cute, we didn't want it to be 'Aw, that's adorable,'?" Eric says. "We wanted it to be good."

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The boys thought filming would take a summer. It took eight years.

The first summer, they storyboarded and gathered props: a jacket, a hat, a whip. The second summer, they got a camera, found a Marion, enlisted cameraman and effects wizard Jayson Lamb — a classmate hired after he MacGyvered a passable corpse from Brillo pads, caulk and brown paint — and shot the opening jungle scene and the flaming bar fight.

Just before school started, crises struck: Eric's parents announced they were getting a divorce, their Marion announced she was moving to Alaska, and Jayson realized he'd screwed up the camcorder settings and burned a tiny A into the corner of the frame.

Summer three, they started over.

When Raiders needed a monkey, they used Chris' dog, Snickers. When they needed a new Marion, they wooed a pretty girl from church to give up her summers and hang with the geeks. (Says Chris, "I thought she was cool because she smoked cigarettes. Capri Lights.") She was Chris' first kiss and they flirted until she ditched him for an extra playing a Nazi. When they needed an Egyptian tomb, they stenciled hieroglyphics in Eric's basement. When the script called for a bar fire, they poured 36 bottles of rubbing alcohol on themselves and the cellar walls and lit a match. (That move got production grounded for a year.)

Eric, who doubled as the opportunistic French archaeologist Belloq, singed his hair. Before shooting wrapped, he'd also broken an arm and been rushed to the hospital after Jayson used industrial plaster to make a mold of his face. (The ER doctors had to break him out with sledgehammers and chain saws.)

Astonishingly, Chris completed the film unscathed — a wonder, given that he did every one of Indiana Jones' stunts without Harrison Ford's innate athleticism (or four stunt doubles).

"I'm a stubby Greek guy, and he's an angular, 6-foot, 1-inch movie star," Strompolos admits today. But in front of the cameras he was a natural, his puppy fat balanced out by his strong jawline, loose grace and total commitment.

"For Chris, it was wanting to be Indiana Jones and saving the girl. For me, it was, 'OK, what would a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark look like?'?" Eric says. "Tracing the footsteps of the master — what a great learning tool."

The boys built giant test boulders from papier-mâché, chicken wire, bamboo sticks and a giant cable spool, until they figured out Fiberglas was best. They filmed scenes in alleys and dirt quarries and alligator-infested rivers, enlisted every neighborhood kid they knew as an extra, dragged Chris behind a truck, and rigged their own explosives from gunpowder Jayson bought at Mom and Pop's General Store and Gun Shop, even though he was so short he could barely reach over the counter. After a three-year letter-writing campaign, they even convinced a naval captain to loan them a battleship and submarine.

It sounds like fun, and sometimes it was. More often, it was stressful.

"I was haunted by a sense of dread," Eric recalls. "?'None of this counts if we don't finish.'?"

When they edited the footage during the graveyard shift at the local news station, where Chris' mother was a news anchor, they made peace with the way that the actors had visibly skipped in age with each scene change: 13 to 17 to 16 to 14. It was as though Indy were leaping in and out of a wormhole. It would have to do.

Still, the most amazing thing about Raiders: The Adaptation isn't that the friends conceived of it. It's that they completed it.

Almost.

They couldn't get a plane.

Without one, Eric and Chris were forced to leave out Raiders of the Lost Ark's six-minute, most complicated action scene. It goes like this: Indiana Jones and Marion break out of an archaeological site called the Well of Souls, where they've been left to rot by the Nazis. Jones spots a Nazi plane — the Flying Wing — and guesses the Ark of the Covenant is aboard. He conks a mechanic and wearily boxes a second, shirtless, macho man.

Screenshot from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark airplane fight sceneEXPAND
Screenshot from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark airplane fight scene

Meanwhile, Marion gets trapped inside the cockpit while the plane starts spinning in circles. Soldiers attack. Marion machine-guns them down, punctures a fuel truck and accidentally ignites a barrel of dynamite. As fire crawls toward the plane, Indiana Jones is knocked to the ground just before a propeller grinds up the German's head. Jones frees Marion and the two heroes sprint to safety as the Flying Wing explodes.

Even if they could have borrowed a plane, what madman would have let children blow it sky-high?

Jayson suggested they use miniatures. Eric, a literalist, refused. If Spielberg had used a real plane, so would they.

Then they realized a weakness in the script. Narratively, the Flying Wing scene was pointless. The Ark was never on the plane. Indiana Jones and Marion had murdered a dozen people for no reason at all. In fact, Raiders: The Adaptation could cut from the Well of Souls escape to Jones chasing down the Ark on horseback without missing a beat.

The young filmmakers wrapped without it. By then, the high school seniors were barely speaking, thanks to a fight over a girl and the sense that the whole thing was kind of embarrassing. They left Mississippi for college and moved on with their lives.

Eventually, Chris and Eric both wound up in L.A. Strompolos formed a rock band and lost much of his 20s to meth; Zala became a manager at a video game company. Raiders was a goof, a childhood fixation stashed away on a VHS tape, given no more importance than the Ark itself, left languishing in a warehouse at the end of the real movie. Their film remained forgotten for 25 years.

 

Chris Strompolos (Indy), left, Angela Rodriguez (Marion), director Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb reunite for the first time in years.
Chris Strompolos (Indy), left, Angela Rodriguez (Marion), director Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb reunite for the first time in years.
Photo by Amy Nicholson

In the iconic opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones slashes through a buried Peruvian temple to snatch a legendary golden idol, which then is grabbed by his rival, Belloq, to be passed on again to the highest bidder. That's kind of how Raiders: The Adaptation was rediscovered.

In 1994, while 24-year-old Zala was living in L.A., his then-roommate secretly dubbed a copy of the film and showed it to friends, who then dubbed copies of their own. Without either Strompolos or Zala realizing it, their hobby had become Hollywood lore. Horror director Eli Roth snagged a tape and gave it to film blogger Harry Knowles, who shared it with Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League in Austin, Texas. In 2003, Roth also contacted Steven Spielberg's office, and the director was so impressed that he penned individual letters to Strompolos, Zala and Lamb.

"Beyond all the mimicry of the original Raiders, I saw and appreciated the vast amounts of imagination and originality you put in your film," Spielberg wrote. "I'll be waiting to see your names someday on the big screen."

Spielberg, too, had started making movies when he was 11. At 12, he convinced an airport in Scottsdale, Arizona, to let him borrow a plane for his World War II short (no explosions required). He spent the next three years fixated on a longer, 40-minute flick designed around a battle scene so epic that he mimicked the effect of dozens of soldiers by convincing the neighborhood kids to run past the camera, circle behind it, and then run past it again.

"He was very serious about what the result was supposed to be," recalls Mike McNamara, one of Spielberg's childhood extras. "It was unbelievable. It was scary."

Spielberg learned by experimentation. He tied cameras to his dog, spent hours splashing water in the bathroom sink to study sound effects, and figured out how to fake bullets with flour. He stuck to it and became a filmmaker. Strompolos and Zala hadn't.

In fact, the letter was their first sign that Raiders: The Adaptation had been disinterred — a bolt of lightning out of the blue. They didn't know that their adolescent project had become the buzz of Hollywood; that wasn't their scene. At his 10-year high school reunion, Zala had fallen for a former classmate, a lovely brunette named Cassie, married her and moved home to Mississippi. Strompolos was a newlywed, too. At a rock show, he'd met a glamorous goth named Monica, who stabilized his life.

The letter changed everything. They met Spielberg and shook his hand. Tim League premiered the film in Austin and flew in the cast and crew. It was the first time Strompolos and Zala had seen Lamb and Angela Rodriguez, their Marion, since high school. Vanity Fair published a profile. Paramount optioned their life story for its own movie and hired Ghost World's Daniel Clowes to write the script. Their shameful secret was suddenly hip.

"It was one of those things where you go, 'Oh wow, that sounds really interesting, maybe I can watch it for 10 minutes before I get bored,'?" Quentin Tarantino says. "Then they start bowling you over with their ingenuity. Because you know the movie so well, you can't wait for them to do the next scene. 'How are they going to do this? Well, they can't do that!' And then they come up with a way to do it."

Overnight, Zala and Strompolos were dusting off their dreams of succeeding in Hollywood. Legally, they couldn't make money from what was, in essence, Lucasfilm's property. They could only screen Raiders: The Adaptation for charity. But hey, Tarantino had seen their film. Maybe this could kickstart a second act: a grown-up filmmaking career?

Zala quit his job. He and Strompolos took meetings. They pitched their own action-adventure script — an original one — about a man who rescues his father from a river cult. To them, it was a more personal story, a Southern Gothic drawn as much from their childhood in the swamps as from the Indiana Jones heroism they loved. They had an agent and a manager and moderate interest.

Summer rains turned the shoot's “desert” into foot-deep Mississippi mud.
Summer rains turned the shoot's “desert” into foot-deep Mississippi mud.
Photo by Amy Nicholson

But the suits wouldn't let them direct. After all, what had Strompolos and Zala proven? That they had been dutiful, pubescent mimics? The zeitgeist was against them. Before Paramount green-lit its Raiders biopic, two other movies about outsiders remaking movies premiered: the British romp Son of Rambow, about two kids filming an adaptation of First Blood, and Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, a goofy comedy in which videostore clerks Jack Black and Mos Def shot slapdash versions of Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2. Industry interest cooled.

So they kept touring with Raiders: The Adaptation. By 2011, they'd screened it 85 times. They even published a book, Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. Six years had passed and Spielberg still hadn't seen their names on the big screen. By now, they were both fathers. It was time to put Raiders behind them. Again.

Both returned to their old jobs. At the video game company where Zala worked, he'd fallen behind. An employee he'd hired years before had, in his absence, become his boss. He and Cassie and their two kids left Mississippi and moved to Las Vegas. Strompolos stayed in L.A. and was hired as a manager in Sony's DVD department.

In a way, that was fitting. During the eight years that Chris and Eric shot Raiders: The Adaptation, the way we watch movies had changed. By the time they wrapped filming in 1989, the percentage of households that owned VCRs skyrocketed from 3 to 68. Four years later, that number was 90 percent.

Before the '80s, there were only two ways to see a movie: when it played in a theater, and when it played on TV. Either way, a movie was an event.

"Before VCRs, something like The French Connection opens up in 1971 and plays for years. If you fucked around and you didn't see it, too bad," Tarantino says. "From that point on, unless you see it at a revival house, it's gone — we've lost The French Connection."

Loving movies, as Tarantino and Spielberg did, meant submitting to them. Every Saturday morning, Spielberg's dad would drop him off at the movie theater to watch whatever was playing, no questions asked: sci-fi, Westerns, Tarzan flicks, cartoons and, of course, adventure serials, his memories of which would mutate decades later into Indiana Jones. As for TV, both fledgling directors had no choice but to stay up late to watch movies they wanted to see or, conversely, to watch whatever movie was airing right then, even if they'd never heard of it. Creative influences hit them like shotgun spray: indiscriminate and random and powerful.

With the rise of the VCR, viewers could now "watch whatever whenever" — the tag­line of the Sony Betamax. Audiences were in control. They could tape movies off TV for later viewing, rent movies at the video store and, if they really loved something, buy it on cassette for $80. In one decade, the grand silver screen had been shrunken and domesticated. It could be tamed and stacked. Instead of a roaring lion, it was a house cat.

Naturally, as kids, Chris and Eric had purchased a copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark when it was released in 1984. Everybody did — it was the best-selling cassette of its time. They'd been relieved to realize their recall of the film had been mostly accurate. Some images were flipped — Chris would enter a scene from the right instead of the left — but overall, they were proud.

Still, now that they could memorize Raiders for real, they did. They'd quiz one another. Eric would leave the room and Chris would pause the film on a blurry frame. "?'Is that when the wheelbarrow in the Cairo fight scene blocks the camera?'?" Eric would guess. Yup.

The ability to own a movie changes our relationship with it. A favorite movie becomes a friend, one you invite along when you're feeling social, summon when you're feeling low and command to watch over you as you fall asleep. In return, we become our favorite movies — they're a shorthand to our personality, which we trumpet on Facebook lists and dating sites, as though a mutual obsession with The Big Lebowski is the foundation of a love connection. And perhaps it is.

Hollywood, too, used the VCR to define its catalog. It culled through its archives to convert old movies to VHS, repackaging them as classics to justify the hefty price tag. The VCR allowed the industry to create a fixed canon: Here are the films that deserve a place on your shelf. Instead of an industry driven by fresh releases, now the money came from encouraging people to hoard the past.

Children of the '80s added their new favorite films to the list: Goonies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds and, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In earlier generations, half of those movies would have been lost to history. Thanks to the VCR, they were beatified. This was the first era when every kid in America could create — and catch up to — a shared movie culture. You didn't need to make it to the multiplex the one month The Breakfast Club was in town. You could rent it whenever — no child left behind.

But there's a catch.

Ever felt as if cinema has stagnated since the '80s? The VCR, and its intrinsic fixation on the past, is one reason.

Soon it wasn't just obsessives like Zala and Strompolos watching and rewatching their favorites. It was all of us. And it changed Hollywood.

We're now living through the first era of filmmakers who've been shaped by home video.

Angela Rodriguez as Marion, in a gun turret made in a basement workshop
Angela Rodriguez as Marion, in a gun turret made in a basement workshop
Courtesy of Shelly Stallings

Unlike the randomness that created Spielberg and Tarantino, today's 35-year-old director has controlled his creative influences since childhood. Call it the Great Rewind — these auteurs obsessively locked into his or her own personal canon. That has an effect.

At its best, you get Zala and Strompolos endlessly studying Raiders of the Lost Ark. At its worst, you get a generation with curated myopia that has redefined great filmmaking as everything they loved as a kid — the superhero movies and action flicks that dominate the modern release calendar — while limiting exposure to musicals, romances and grown-up dramas in which people talk about their feelings.

Today we're seeing the effects of the VCR canon not just in scripts but also in how movies are green-lit and shot. As movie fans increasingly devoted a larger share of their dollars to the films of their youth, studio execs sought out projects that would sell as many tapes as tickets.

"When an art form becomes increasingly enclosed, it confines itself to within itself," says Dean K. Simonton, a UC Davis professor of psychology who studies creativity. "This happens to most art forms: It reaches the point that it stops being creative because there's just too much history behind it. The movie producers themselves can't get out of the rut of thinking of all the videos they saw when they grew up, which informed how you make a movie to them."

Young directors now have 100 years of film history at their fingertips to tell them how to stage a scene. By contrast, the first wave of great directors had to think for themselves. "You had a lot of innovation because people like Orson Welles came out of the theater, and they had totally naive attitudes about what they could do," Simonton notes.

In his backyard in Scottsdale, young Spielberg figured out how to fake airplane crashes and zinging bullets. Decades later, Strompolos and Zala simply had to figure out how to imitate him.

Yet Strompolos and Zala's Spielberg imitation hadn't earned them Spielberg's career. Then they met the ultimate Raiders superfan: Guy Klender.

In 2008, they held a Los Angeles premiere of Raiders at Mann's Chinese Theatre. Klender showed up at 9 a.m. — 10 hours early. A fast-talking, lanky, bald bartender, he knew even more about the franchise than they did.

At 12, Klender had bought a $5 bullwhip in Tijuana and tried to use it to swing over a ravine. He fell 25 feet. His mom had cracked, "Well, you're not Indiana Jones." As an adult, he tried the stunt again in Kauai, where the scene was originally shot. This time, he fell 100 feet and got stitches in his head.

Klender even made extra cash as a consultant for a toy manufacturer. The company would show him a mock-up of an Indiana Jones action figure and he'd tsk-tsk, "You've blended four costumes together — in Temple of Doom, the crown of his hat is slightly different, plus the color of the band. His jacket changed, and he no longer wears a dark brown belt."

At the Q&A after Zala and Strompolos' movie, Klender shot up his hand and asked about the Flying Wing scene. Would they ever go back and film it? Clutching the mic, he volunteered to play the doomed German himself: "I'll grow a mustache and hit the gym hard."

The muscular German (Rob Fuller) menaces Indy (Strompolos)
The muscular German (Rob Fuller) menaces Indy (Strompolos)
Courtesy of Shelly Stallings

Strompolos and Zala said no. They wanted to tell their own stories, not finish telling one that was three decades old. But gradually, Strompolos realized that a finished Flying Wing sequence would be the ultimate sample reel: a glossy, Rube Goldberg–ian fight scene with four explosions and plenty of wow.

Strompolos pitched the idea to Jeremy Coon, the producer of Napoleon Dynamite, who agreed to fly to Mississippi with his filmmaking partner, Tim Skousen, and shoot a documentary if the guys gave them a good hook.

Zala was reluctant.

"Mentally, he wasn't there," Strompolos says.

"I've got gray hair," Zala says. "Instead of this endless summer, you've got mortgage payments to worry about."

Doing the scene right meant raising money to build the Flying Wing, locating a suitable desert, getting costumes, wrangling Arab and Nazi extras, tracking down vintage trucks, erecting a guard tower, renting a camel, carving the Well of Souls and then blowing up the whole set.

That was just what they'd have to capture on film. Now that they were adults, they also had to follow the rules: insurance, good cameras, a sign-off from the local fire marshal, even craft services. "If we're really doing this, we have to deliver," Strompolos says. "No excuse being young, dumb kids." 

Klender agreed to produce, provided he could also play the pilot — a role that Raiders producer Frank Marshall had played in the original. He even convinced luxury cosplay designer Todd Coyle to donate thousands of dollars worth of costumes, perfect replicas of everything from Indy's jacket and Marion's torn white dress to Belloq's pale linen suit.

Even with Klender and Coyle on board, Zala estimated it would cost more than $50,000, 10 times the budget of their original Raiders, and a year's worth of work, all for six minutes of film, which would start with teenage Strompolos smashing through the Well of Souls and emerging a 42-year-old man.

"Chris was, like, 'Noooo!' But it's accurate," Zala says. "It's a different thing going into it knowing the price, literally and figuratively — knowing how fragile the human body is and how much can go wrong."

The Flying Wing shoot had been a nightmare even for Spielberg and Lucas. On the set in 1980, former Washington Post reporter Nancy Moran described the original's Tunisian disaster, which started with the entire cast and crew being stricken with food poisoning. "Steven is sitting on the tarmac under his Flying Wing and saying he wants to go home. He says it's 120 degrees inside his head. Everyone is sick. George is looking more like Howard Hughes every day. He will be arriving with his feet in Kleenex boxes soon."

The local supervisor in charge of the Arab extras avoided giving them anything to drink. When the Tunisian fire department poured water on the ground, hundreds of people tried to lap it up. Later, the department's hose pulled apart at the joints and, in the ultimate irony, caught fire.

"The fire department had to put out their own hose," producer Frank Marshall recalled. "It was like a slapstick comedy."

Lucas told Spielberg he was heading home. "I need your support," Spielberg pleaded. "I need your moral support, your immoral support." Left alone, Spielberg paced the set, stroking a snake from the Well of Souls like a string of prayer beads.

Day player George the Camel with his handler, Frankie
Day player George the Camel with his handler, Frankie
Photo by Amy Nicholson

Still, compared to Zala and Strompolos, Spielberg had it easy. He had a studio budget and hundreds of helpers. More importantly, he had creative freedom. If a shot wasn't working, he could change it. If a stunt failed, he could scrap it.

By contrast, The Adaptation was manacled to Spielberg's caprice. Strompolos and Zala committed to matching even the near-impossible and nonsensical. If you watch the Flying Wing scene carefully, Spielberg makes a lot of mistakes. Rocks and barrels shift in the background. In one shot, an Arab extra lies unconscious just feet from where Indy and Marion exit the Well of Souls — the leftovers of a fist fight Spielberg edited out. When the German punches Indy on the right cheek, Ford whirls in the wrong direction. And when Klender freeze-framed every shot of the wooden crate containing the Ark so he could hammer an exact replica, he noticed something odd: Spielberg hadn't used one crate — he'd used five.

Mimicry can be even harder than the original. Just ask Gus Van Sant, who released a near-identical remake of Psycho in 1998 — what he calls a prank gone wrong.

"It was a passive-aggressive idea," Van Sant admits.

Frustrated that, at meetings, studios were pressing him to direct sequels and remakes — "their favorite things'' — Van Sant had suggested shooting a shot-for-shot redo of Psycho; it was half joke, half poison pill. "I thought if it worked, it could be a virus that infected the whole studio. It would get the studios in this even worse embroilment of remaking their own stuff."

He kept bringing it up for eight years. "It was amusing to me," Van Sant says. The studio heads would laugh. But after he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, the execs got serious.

"The answer came, 'We think that's brilliant, we can't wait,'?" Van Sant says. "I thought, 'Oh shit.'?"

 

Building the world’s first replica of Steven Spielberg’s original 78-foot-long custom plane
Building the world’s first replica of Steven Spielberg’s original 78-foot-long custom plane
Photo by Amy Nicholson

Though Van Sant says he tried to re-create Psycho faithfully, even watching a DVD of the original before every take, from the first scene, his version is different. Van Sant's Psycho is a fascinating experiment in how casting can change a whole movie. Janet Leigh had such a scary sex appeal that her Marion was able to rattle Norman Bates (and his mother) just by inviting him into her room for a sandwich. But in the remake, instead of the sandwich scene goading Norman to kill, Anne Heche plays it like a goof, upending the entire film's psychosexual dynamic.

"If somebody holds a camera and takes a picture, and then has somebody else hold the camera and take the same picture, they're still different because there's an energy that makes tiny, slight, little decisions that affect the subject," Van Sant admits. "Even though you're copying something, it was impossible to copy."

Re-creating a film is like a mathematician trying to reach absolute zero. The closer you get, the more you realize you'll never be close at all. Take the canyon blooper in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when a stray fly buzzes into Belloq's mouth. Spielberg himself could have shot that scene 200 times and it wouldn't have happened again. Or the rat that runs in circles by the Ark, as though transfixed. Its trainer later conceded it was a beautiful accident — the rat was deaf and had an equilibrium problem.

Unlike Van Sant, at least in the beginning, Strompolos and Zala couldn't rewatch the first film before every take. In 1981, they didn't have a VCR. Neither did 97 percent of American households. Instead, Strompolos and Zala re-created the film from research: the script, comic books, 45 records ("When you hear the sound of the bullet, turn the page!" Zala jokes), magazines and even a muffled audio recording surreptitiously made in the theater.

"I think Eric has a photographic memory," Lamb says. Young Zala spent that first summer drawing 602 storyboards.

They had something more important than an exact template: the freedom of imagination. 

"Before there were videocassettes you could rent, if you really liked a movie, the one thing you could do other than see it again and again and again and again in theaters was buy the soundtrack album," Tarantino says. As an 18-year-old wannabe filmmaker, he'd bought a copy of John Williams' Raiders soundtrack. "I'd go home and put on the music for the truck chase, and then I would remember the chase: When the horns do this, that's when that happens, and that's when this happens, and it was like watching the chase all over again."

He then took it further and concocted his own movies.

"Eventually, I started coming up with my own scenes for these pieces of music," Tarantino says. "Scenes I came up with in my bedroom, I've actually done!"

But in 2014, Zala and Strompolos found themselves chained to the literalness of a DVD that they'd memorized, frame by frame.

In Mississippi, Strompolos and Zala faced their last shot at screen perfection, and there were Kickstarter backers — $58,273 worth, more than they'd asked for, less than they realized they needed — expecting them to deliver.

Chris Strompolos, as Indy, delivers a kick to the Mechanic (Ryan Pierini).s
Chris Strompolos, as Indy, delivers a kick to the Mechanic (Ryan Pierini).s
Courtesy of Shelly Stallings

"Here we are still doing Raiders in our 40s, it's like, 'Jesus, what's the mark they're going to hit?'?" Strompolos admits. Now the bar was much, much higher. "It's cool in concept that we're putting the band back together and going to our hometown to create this missing scene, but we need to earn the same reaction as watching us kids light ourselves on fire and drag me behind a truck: 'Holy shit, I can't believe they did it!'?"

Disaster stalked their set. The plane was a week late, thanks to pounding thunderstorms that in minutes turned their "desert" — a clay quarry — into an 11-inch-deep mud pit. Then the propellers didn't work. They'd have to use CGI.

The production started behind and stayed that way. The moment the first raindrops fell, everyone stopped filming and raced for their cars. Even when the rain stopped, the shoot had to be scrapped for a day for the ground to dry.

Strompolos had prepared to play Indy by hitting the gym and losing 45 pounds. But his childhood Marion, now a stocker at an Ikea in Minnesota, had become embittered toward the project. She refused to send Coyle her measurements and threatened to show up with her hair bleached blond. Her first day in the makeup trailer, she snapped, "I'm not a real actress, bitch."

The local special-effects experts were all busy with larger films. Finally, Strompolos found Dan Todd, a veteran with an Alabama drawl, a small-time crew and a big stash of explosive black powder. Todd couldn't wait to blow up the plane. And the guard tower. And the truck. And anything else they'd let him detonate.

The other people they hired were ambitious but easily discouraged. Zala's wife, Cassie, a charming schoolteacher who had to step in as production manager, tried to keep spirits high.

Still, they lost most of their production assistants after the first hard day, and their assistant director soon after. Between takes, the Arab extras talked about breaking into the business and griped when Coyle asked them to smear mud on their robes. Someone snuck into a trailer and stole Chris' iPhone.

At least the site looked fantastic. Every detail was in place: the plane, the white circle around the plane, the thatched-roof shack, the skinny guard tower and, of course, the Well of Souls, which Klender and his friend Jason Thompson had meticulously replicated brick by brick at a warehouse in California, even having requested Mississippi soil samples so the paint would match the ground. They also found an outstanding beefy German: Rob Fuller, a former stripper and straight male hairdresser from Missouri, who gamely bleached his eyebrows and mustache for the part. 

The first time Strompolos and Zala had the entire thing just right, they embraced.

"This is our movie set," Strompolos grinned.

Zala, ever the logician, corrected him with a smile: "Well, it's somebody else's movie set."

Now, the only thing that could screw up were the humans. Before each take, they'd play that fragment of the Flying Wing scene on a computer monitor, memorizing every flailing arm and wobbly ankle. It was right there next to their own cameras, goading them toward impossible perfection. They'd get close but never exactly right.

The first days of the shoot, Zala struggled not to waste time while filming six, eight, 12 takes. Toward the end, knowing he could lose his job if he didn't fly home on Tuesday, he and Strompolos accepted that it just needed to get done and made peace with their flaws.

Stunt double Casey Dillard prepares for the explosion.
Stunt double Casey Dillard prepares for the explosion.
Photo by Amy Nicholson

And then on Monday, the day special effects expert Dan Todd was supposed to blow up the plane, none of his helpers showed.

The 9,000-pound Flying Wing was supposed to explode before lunch, early enough that all the Kickstarter backers and family members could applaud the filmmakers' final triumph from a hilltop before the temperature broke 90.

Yet at noon, Todd and Klender and a few untrained volunteers remained under the plane, stuffing it with dynamite and cans of gasoline.

They were still at it at 1. And at 2. The crowd was sunburned and sweaty. Everyone was on edge.

Finally, Todd took his makeshift detonation team members safely behind a hill and led them in a prayer circle. This was it.

They lit the barrels on fire as Strompolos and stunt double Casey Dillard stood unnervingly close to the plane — by then, a bomb — and readied themselves to run as soon as Zala yelled action. They only had one take to get this right.

The plan was straightforward: When they sprinted across the white circle, the fuel truck would explode. When they reached the final barrel, the Flying Wing would blow.

Zala called action. They ran. The fuel truck exploded. They passed the barrel. A tiny plume burst from the wing. Nothing else.

Up on the hill, a few people cried. Below, the crew panicked.

Chris Strompolos and Casey Dillard, seen on far right, run as the fuel truck explodes — but the plane does not.
Chris Strompolos and Casey Dillard, seen on far right, run as the fuel truck explodes — but the plane does not.
Photo by Amy Nicholson

"I can make it go!" Todd yelled into the walkie-talkie. He had to. He strutted to the flaming plane.

He was under the wing when a tire burst. The flames grew.

Everyone screamed at Todd to get out of there. He shuffled back a step, then considered his next move.

The Flaming Wing exploded.

After 33 Years and an Airplane Explosion, Their Raiders of the Lost Ark Remake Is Almost Complete. Are They?
Photo by Amy Nicholson

The fireball was more than 100 feet high. The shock somersaulted Todd backward, one, two, three rotations. He lay there, unconscious, as one of the documentary cameramen ran up to drag him to safety.

The Flaming Wing exploded again. Then again.

Now it was total panic. The on-set fire trucks, figuring this was part of the scene, hadn't moved. Finally, they caught on and sprayed down the flames.

Only then did Todd, now safely 60 feet away, open his eyes. "Did we get the shot?"

Zala ran up the hill to hug his weeping son and daughter and collapsed. "My heart is going to start again sometime next week," he panted.

After 33 years, Raiders: The Adaptation was complete.

It wasn't perfect. But it was good enough.

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