Sunday, October 07, 2007

'It's not the age honey, it's the mileage'

As someone who was obsessed with all things Indiana Jones growing up (including the seldom-seen arcade game that featured one button: "whip"), I was fascinated a few years ago to read about the shot-by-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark that a few adolescent friends put together in Mississippi. The Vanity Fair article (PDF file) that introduced most of us to the project dove into the elements that make this story almost too good to be true: a homemade film that took 8 years to make, made by friends who put everything they had into the film's making, and a finished project that even impressed Steven Spielberg.

Raiders: The Adaptation
is also a movie that few will see, because due to licensing restrictions it will likely never be on DVD, and it's even tricky to get it into private screenings. Thanks to the Idaho International Film Festival, I was finally able to see the adaptation and learn even more about its tremendous back story. Talking to one of the festival's organizers before the movie, she said not to expect it to be like an actual movie, especially the sound recorded on a BetaMax camcorder. The film has not been touched since its final edit in 1988 (rightfully so) and is pretty raw. While it's true that it's not like an actual movie, Raiders: The Adaptation is also one of the most unique movie-watching experiences I've ever had.

The sound is so garbled that probably 80 percent of the dialog is indecipherable, so if you have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark beforehand, you'll get a little frustrated trying to follow things. But that's where a lot of the fun comes in -- because John Williams' score is used throughout, the film takes on a hybrid-silent quality. Luckily they were dealing with a fairly simple story that relies little on dialog to drive it (we're not talking Glengarry Glen Ross here). But the raw sound does little to hamper the kids' enthusiastic acting, notably the energy of Angela Rodriguez as Marion. Eric Zala, Chris Strompolous and Jayson Lamb fill in most of the male roles (and almost every crew position), but Rodriguez is probably the strongest performer and really brings the adaptation to another level.

The main reason the adaptation took 8 years to produce was a commitment to high-quality stunts, sets and special effects, and the end result is sometimes startling (considering the circumstances). In a Q&A session afterward, Strompolous explained that most indoor scenes were shot in one of their basements -- including the pyrotechnic-laced barroom shootout. Once the movie gets going, you find yourself wondering just how they will accomplish the various memorable scenes, and they only skip past them in a few instances (such as the large scale 'Flying Wing' sequence). In all other cases, they turn to their youthful creativity -- the Ark setpiece looks nearly identical to the original's, they were able to film in a decommissioned submarine in Mobile, Ala. (after three years of haggling), a small dog is substituted for the monkey in Marrakesh, Indy gets away from the dart-shooting natives via motorboat and not airplane, and the famous map travel interludes are accomplished with stop-motion animation. Probably the most impressive scene is the famous truck chase, which is presented more or less in full, with the Nazis riding in a Volkswagen SuperBeetle instead of a Mercedes, and Indy commandeering an old Ford truck. I kept waiting for Indy's risky stunts underneath the truck to be cut, but there it was -- with a 15-year-old kid hanging on for dear life.

One of the biggest surprises was how fun it was to see the credits, where the makers went out of their way to credit each and every contributor -- meaning their own names were listed no less than 15 times. The final credit reads: "This is the end," -- The Doors.

Raiders: The Adaptation has no peers, and no genre. There are innumerable examples of this kind of tribute on YouTube, but today's kids have so much more at their disposal than simply a BetaMax camera. Strompolous talked of coordinating each friend's birthday and Christmas wish list to relate to what their production needed, and any allowance they got went straight to the movie. There were even a couple times where the boys went a couple months without talking to each other, and at one point it looked like the project was put to bed for good ... until Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out. The third entry in the trilogy provided all the motivation they needed. By then, all three friends were 18 and dealing with a project that had consumed their entire childhood. After working endless hours at a local television studio to finish the final edit ... it was done.

The story goes that each friend went his separate way for college, and Zala ended up at NYU where a certain student named Eli Roth watched the adaptation one night, and began spreading the word. Soon, Spielberg had seen it and the Vanity Fair article was in the works. In 2004, it was announced that a documentary of the adaptation's production was underway (still TBA). All three eventually quit high-paying jobs in the entertainment industry to focus again on their childhood film, touring around film festivals with it. Strompolous spoke of a screening last year in an Eastern Idaho town I had never heard of, so they clearly get around to every corner of the country with this thing. He also told me that while working in the DVD industry, he pitched the film to Paramount as an extra in the Indiana Jones Trilogy. They smiled and said no.

At the Boise screening, the theater was packed with families, and even kids who obviously hadn't seen the original before seemed captivated. In a way, it's the ultimate kids movie. The message here is this: if Raiders: The Adaptation comes to your town, don't miss it -- it might be your only chance.

Note: Visit for an extensive history of the adaptation.


Damian Arlyn said...

Cool. I had never heard about this. It sounds absolutely fascinating. When I was younger I wanted to do my own shot-by-shot remakes of some of my favorite films (Star Wars was one I actually tried to develop at one point, but it never came together). I'll definitely try to check this out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Adam.

Adam Ross said...

Damien, you would love it. It would be helpful if the guys had a Web site showing what film festivals they were going to, but it looks like you'll just have to cross your fingers.

CPC's Dreams said...

Just saw this tonight in Nashville. It was awesome, and frequently hilarious. How they got through the filming without burning the house down is beyond me.

Yamamabad said...

Pardon me, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is by far the better film, across the board, in action, in story, and in acting. I would go to great lengths to see this adaptation. It sounds like a monumental achievement for teenagers.