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New book tells the wild story of two boys who set out to remake ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb in 1988 on the set of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.’

There’s a name for kids who sit in a basement listening to sound-effects albums. Fanboys. In 1981, before that term entered the popular lexicon, you’d probably just call them obsessive movie lovers.

But Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos weren’t just fans of movies. They wanted to make movies. Well, they wanted to make one movie in particular. After seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with his father in 1981, Strompolos fantasized about being the fedora-wearing, archaeologist adventurer.

“It took me in the first viewing,” Strompolos said recently by phone. “I wanted nothing more than to play Indiana Jones.”

With little more than an indefatigable self-confidence, fifth-grader Strompolos approached sixth-grader Zala about making a shot-for-shot remake of the Steven Spielberg crowd-pleaser.

The two Mississippi residents would spend the next seven years forming (and intermittently chiseling away at and rebuilding) a close friendship while undertaking the Herculean task of recreating an instant classic that featured dangerous stunts, pyrotechnics and snakes.

More than a decade after they finished the film, their creation, “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” would go on to become a cult hit, buffeted by the support of filmmaker Eli Roth, AintItCoolNews.com’s Harry Knowles and Alamo Drafthouse owners Tim and Karrie League.

Now, almost a decade since the movie played a sold-out run of shows at the original Drafthouse, a book has been released that details the friendship of Strompolos and Zala and the labor of love that they never expected to be seen by anyone.

Alan Eisenstock’s “Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made” relies on exhaustive research and interviews with the guys, their families and friends to help recreate the timeline of this minor movie miracle.

On Friday night, the Alamo South and BookPeople will host a screening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” and a book signing with all three men in attendance.

The story of Strompolos and Zala earned national media attention a decade ago with an article in Vanity Fair, but Eisenstock’s novel, released in November by St. Martin’s Press, expands on the grueling process of getting the movie made and the filmmakers’ lives from childhood to present day.

The book uses a journal-entry style to present stages of production, using datelines and locations to guide readers. The story of the boys’ meeting is told in the present tense with huge chunks of dialogue retold through the voices of Strompolos and Zala.

“Alan, like myself, is something of an obsessive guy, so he jumped at the opportunity to fly down to Mississippi and stay at my mom’s house (our ‘Raiders’ headquarters),” Zala said. The author toured shooting locations, interviewed cast members and devoured 40 hours of outtakes from DVDs, even using some of the dialogue in the book.

Like many childhood friendships, the “Raiders” boys were a study in contrasts. Strompolos was the charismatic class clown. But he knew little about movies outside of the fact that he wanted to be Indiana Jones. So he approached straight-A student Zala, who had appeared in a sixth-grade student film. The two had initially bonded on the school bus when Zala spied and then borrowed Strompolos’s “Indiana Jones” comic book.

As with any childhood endeavor, the boys’ mothers would bear the burden of their sons’ ambitions over the better part of the 1980s.

“Probably like any other mother, initially they were sort of cheerful and supportive,” Strompolos said. “But as we sort of got into it and showed our obsessive vision of it, both moms really stepped up. They never doubted us. They were very supportive.”

For Eric’s mother, that meant turning the basement of her house over to the pint-sized visionaries, who almost burned the place down during the fiery Nepalese bar scene near the beginning of the movie. Using a script they purchased at Walden Books and an audio copy of the movie that Zala bootlegged, the boys went about piecing together the film scene by scene, with Zala drawing more than 600 storyboards.

They used large chunks of John Williams’ score as their soundtrack, and for the sections not on the original release they borrowed liberally from the “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade” soundtracks.

The guys would spend almost every day of their summer vacations from 1982 to 1989 trying to see their vision through to completion. The book details the more difficult points of the production process, such as building a believable boulder and securing automobiles they could destroy.

The production challenged the friendship of the two guys several times, most dramatically when Zala accused Strompolos of trying to steal his high school girlfriend. Eisentock’s book recreates the combative scene between the two and the subsequent making of amends. They would have another falling out in the editing process, but by the end of the summer of 1989, their movie was complete.

They figured that was the end of it. The guys went their separate ways before joining up again in their 20s in Los Angeles. Zala began a successful career in the video game industry, and Strompolos chased the dream of a music career while dealing with a destructive drug problem and a wildly dysfunctional relationship.

The two drifted apart again as Zala moved to Florida and Strompolos battled his demons before finding clarity and love. Then, in 2003, they received an email that would change their lives. It was genre filmmaker Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever.”) A copy of the adaptation had landed in his hands through six degrees of separation from one of Zala’s New York University classmates. Roth loved the movie and brought it to Austin in 2002, where he screened a portion of the film at Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon at the Alamo before the unofficial world premiere of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” The audience loved it. The Leagues loved it.

And Roth had even bigger news for Zala. Spielberg loved it. The legendary filmmaker wanted their contact information and eventually sent a letter to the guys saying how impressed he was with their “very loving and detailed tribute.” The two would meet their filmmaking hero at his offices in 2006.

“It was everything you’d want it to be in meeting your boyhood idol,” Strompolos said of the almost hour-long talk with Spielberg, who told the guys that their movie even inspired him.

Knowles and the Leagues invited Strompolos and Zala (and their third partner, cinematographer and make-up artist Jayson Lamb) to the Alamo in the spring of 2003. After the sold-out shows in Austin, the guys took the film on the road and have screened it at approximately 100 venues across the country and overseas.

After the Vanity Fair article, a literary agent contacted the guys, who chose to work with Eisenstock on the nonfiction book that reads like a novel. “Raiders!” should have strong appeal not just to those who are already fans of the film, but those new to the story of Strompolos and Zala. It is a tale of adventure and imagination. But at its heart, the book, which is part “The Wonder Years” and part “Stand by Me,” is a story about friendship and perseverance. Two kids conquering setbacks and fall-outs to create something they never imagined would endure.

“We just made the movie for ourselves and never dreamed it would turn out to be the Cinderella story that it has been,” Zala said.

What: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation’ and ‘Raiders!’ book signing, with filmmakers and author in attendance