“In the DIY filmmaking world there seems to be this weird competitiveness over how little people have to work with and how much they're able to do,” says Chris Strompolos at Manhattan's Atlas Café on a rainy June afternoon. “'Yeah, all we had was a Polaroid camera, some dental floss, $4.26 and we totally did it, man!' Me, I have no problem with big budgets. If you want to give me money, I'll make something.”
Strompolos isn't belittling low-budget movie production. He and filmmaking partner Eric Zala, respective producer and director (and both stars) of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, respect it more than anyone.
With no foresight that they were embarking on a seven-year shoot and launching themselves into DIY legend, Strompolos and Zala (along with cinematographer Jayson Lamb) bonded in 1981 as eleven year-old Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark enthusiasts in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The trio eventually channeled their obsession into a shot-by-shot VHS remake of the Spielberg/Lucas adventure using the most handy and inventive of homemade strategies: school friends and family members for cast and crew, water heaters for Egyptian statues, small town back alleys for Cairo street markets, dirt farms for desert landscapes and — with permission of the captain of the USS Alabama — a real submarine for a submarine.
Quickly gaining notoriety in 2003 after screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin and an in-depth article in Vanity Fair, The Adaptation has for the last eight years taken the cult film circuit by storm, playing to sold-out screenings across the country, with audiences continually marveling at a group of voice-cracking teenagers proficiently recreating a multimillion dollar extravaganza. Even Spielberg has voiced his admiration.
The tour keeps rolling, with the Raiders remake now screening as part of Everything Is Festival! at Cinefamily this weekend. Do Strompolos and Zala ever tire of the endless phenomenon their adaptation has wrought? “We've reflected, 'Okay, it's the littlest blockbuster that could, but it'll run out of steam one day.' And we keep waiting,” says Zala. “We're excited about our new project as well, but it's still a joyous experience to screen this film we shot in my mom's basement back in the 80s. It's almost too much.”
The new project is What the River Takes, a Southern gothic tale Strompolos and Zala have developed — through their production company, appropriately named Rolling Boulder Films — for several years and are now presenting to investors. Also on the docket is a book about the making of The Adaptation due out next year from Thomas Dunne Books — this out of a movie its makers never imagined would ever be seen by the wider world.
“For many years the Raiders adaptation was something I was kind of embarrassed about,” admits Strompolos. “I wasn't like, 'Hey, look what I did!' I thought it was something I should keep to myself. So it's been inspiring for us to see other people inspired by it.”
Those drawn to Everything Is Festival's lollapalooza of found footage mayhem and low-budg mondo bizarro will doubtless be awed by The Adaptation's old-school brand of mind-bogglingly creative amateur moviemaking. Meanwhile, though certainly not bucking against the brave new world of advanced, affordable cinematic technology, the now proudly professional Strompolos and Zala remain true to the DIY credo that imagination trumps means.
“It's noteworthy that the universally recognized best Indiana Jones is the film of the series on which Spielberg and Lucas had the most restrictions,” says Zala. “We didn't know anything about movies when we started, but the beauty of doing a remake is that it gave us a yardstick by which to measure our skills. It's how we went from being amateurs to bona fide filmmakers.”
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