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The Story Behind ‘Raiders,’ the Documentary About the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

The Story Behind 'Raiders,' the Documentary About the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Over 30 years ago, a trio of 11-year-olds in Mississippi began making a shot-for-shot remake of their favorite film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a project that continued for seven years and resulted in an all-kid cult classic. Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb chose a Spielberg film with impossible-to-replicate special effects and complex set pieces. For years, the boys requested only costumes and film props for birthday presents, and spent summers reenacting dangerous Indie stunts with their friends and family.

Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News called the “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” a better remake than Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho,” because it was “made with love.” Horror director Eli Roth and actor John Rhys-Davies, who starred in the original “Raiders,” also praised the film, and Spielberg himself invited the boys to meet him.
But the “Raiders” remake never got finished—one scene was missing. Strompolos (who played Indie) and Zala (who directed) didn’t have the resources to pull off the sequence where Harrison Ford fights a muscly Nazi in front of a propeller plane. The plane eventually decapitates the bad guy and blows up. 
When directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen began to follow these amateur filmmakers, now responsible adults, the whole gang got back together to finally finish the damn thing. The result is “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” which debuted at SXSW and is playing this week at the Dallas International Film Festival. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign and their patient wives, children and (often impatient) bosses, the largely non-professional crew built a giant plane and then successfully blew it to smithereens. 

Why did you think this was an important story to tell?

Jeremy Coon: When I first saw their “Raiders” adaptation, about 15 minutes in, I thought “somebody needs to do a documentary about this.” Just watching the movie, you know there’s a huge backlog of stories, and it compliments what a lot of us went through as kids. We all wanted to replicate something as a way to show our love. It was more the question of “what’s really the story behind this?” I wanted to know.
Tim Skousen: Even though it’s a story about kids remaking “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” because it took them seven years, and because it was done from ages 11-18, and they had kind of this extended life after that, it was really a story about growing up. Almost like the real life “Boyhood.” They’re dealing with first loves, they’re dealing with old friendships, they’re dealing with friendships falling apart. We all experienced that growing up. So that’s what it’s about. 
I know Eric and Chris turned down other documentary offers before you guys came along. Why did they accept your pitch? 
Skousen: The timing seemed like it was right. They had this big flourish about 10 years ago when everyone found out about their movie, and they sold some life rights. Nothing really happened with it.
Coon: I remember telling them, “if you don’t work with me, that’s fine, but this deserves to be told. This deserves to be seen. Someone needs to do it.” They’d been talking about finishing the film since they wrapped. Eric was like, “this is gonna take a year. It’s no small task.” And he’s got a full-time job, he’s a game tester and a manager who does quality assurance. 
Eric has such a profound passion for filmmaking. It’s hard to believe he never tried to pursue moviemaking professionally. Why didn’t he?
Coon: You get married, you start having responsibilities. It’s really hard if your dream hasn’t caught some traction by the time you’re in your mid-to-late 20s. You want to provide for your family. I would say, the majority of people fall in that boat. They want to do something, but life gets in the way. And they’re like “well, I’m going to get this job, and have safety and security.” 
Skousen: He’s got the mind to do it, though. If you watch him, that guy for six months slept four hours a night. He would work on the film before going to his job. That takes incredible dedication.
You said at the screening that Eric is thinking about quitting his job and finally pursuing directing, and they’re working on something together…
Coon: They have two projects they would like to do. One is an optioned book, one is an original script they wrote. Anything they do is gonna be easier than shooting the plane scene! 
Skousen: We’ve told them, if you’re really smart, you’ll probably get one good opportunity based on this documentary and on the work you’ve done over the years. Don’t work with animals and kids. 
There’s a lot of dangerous stunts in the kids’ “Raiders” adaptation. In today’s world of helicopter parenting, most children would never be allowed to make a movie like they did. Do you guys think that’s bad or good parenting? 
Coon: A lot of that was just the 80s. I remember in the 70s, kids would ride in the back window of a car, and that was not a big deal. People would go crazy now if that happened. I can’t really fault the parents. I’m just happy the kids are alive, and they turned out OK. I don’t think it’s bad parenting at all. The thing I find really inspiring is, I don’t know if my parents would be cool with me doing what they did… I think you should be into whatever your kids care about, and fuel that desire. That’s good parenting. At the end of the day, the only injury was Eric breaking his arm from an unrelated incident. 
Skousen: And burning off one of his eyebrows. 
Coon: But that grows back.
Skousen: The parents were very supportive. Watching our doc, I hope you get the sense that the parents were there and kind of helped them fulfill their dreams. 
The story of making the movie is almost more interesting than the movie itself. 
Skousen: Yeah, you watch the adaptation and you’re so charmed by it. Obviously it’s kids acting, which isn’t great across the board. You’re kind of waiting for the incredible moments, and you come away from this saying “how did this happen? How did these kids pull this off?” 
Coon: You have docs like “Heart of Darkness” and “Burden of Dreams,” about huge films that were made, and their “Raiders” film is getting the same treatment, just in a different way. 
Skousen: You know what we could call it? “Nerd-en of Dreams.” [Laughs]
True. And they were doing a lot of this stuff when they were just kids. They didn’t have a real film crew. I think that’s what people are most impressed by. Tell me about the other film you guys have at the Dallas festival.
Skousen: “Thunder Broke the Heavens.” It’s a dramatic narrative, about two kids who survive this terrible murder/suicide. Their whole family is killed by one of the family members, and they’re the only two that escape. It’s like “Raiders,” if one of the kids had died along the way. 
What are you working on next?
Coon: We’d most like to do the narrative version of the “Raiders” story. I’d love to do a TV show, like a “Wonder Years,” “Freaks and Geeks” type of thing. It lends itself very well to a TV show, because the storyline takes place over seven years. 
Skousen: And we have some other documentaries. 
Coon: I really like doing documentaries. You’re not beholden to actors. It’s impossible for one or two people to go out and shoot a narrative film; you need to have a cast, the person shooting sound, whatever. But you can legitimately have a couple people and go and do a documentary. The great documentary subjects find you, you don’t really search for them.  
Would you ever want to do a project that lasted so long? 
Skousen: We’re doing a film right now about a high-ranking Tibetan lama. The Dalai Lama is the head, but there’s four schools, and the Dalai Lama of this other school, he and his right-hand man help each other reincarnate. We’re going to follow the story as the next reincarnation is chosen. But it’s going to take five or six years. 
Do you believe in reincarnation? 
Skousen: It’s far more political than I would’ve thought. Buddhism, we hear about these monks living in the mountains. But every reincarnating lama has what’s called a “labrang,” which is a whole administration. It’s like political parties that then try to continue their lineage. This film will expose a little bit of that. Buddhism is not that different from other religions that have a political aspect, with people vying to get positions like bishops. It’s not quite as pure as you would think. 

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