Please help me welcome Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, co-owners of Rolling Boulder Films and the subjects of RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE (Thomas Dunne Books/St.Martin’s Press, November 13, 2012).
As teenagers, Chris and Eric wrote, produced, directed and starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation, a full-length fan film which reproduced (scene by scene, line by line and effect by effect) Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the 25 years since the film’s release, Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation has acquired a large and devoted following, along with the well-deserved reputation of being the best fan film ever made.
RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE chronicles the history, making, and success of Chris and Eric’s first joint film, takes a close look at an unshakable thirty-year friendship—and tells the story of two kids’ impossible dream that came true against all odds.
“An amazing, one-of-a-kind book about a triumphant, one-of-a-kind film production.” — Booklist (starred review)
My husband met Eric while working for a video game company in Southern California many years ago, and I’m delighted (and honored) that Chris and Eric agreed to let me interview them here on the blog. And so, with no further ado, on with the questions:
1. The two of you have been friends since childhood. How did you first meet one another?
<ERIC>: In elementary school in Mississippi, back in the early eighties. I was this nerdy, quiet kid, Chris was the brash class clown. Seemingly opposites, we were the most unlikely of friends, let alone best friends. But, we shared a love of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bus ride to school was an hour each way, lots of time to kill. Chris had this Raiders comic book. I asked to borrow it. That’s how we met.
That – and that Chris liked my acting and invented character in my class Super 8 film project – led to him looking me up in the Yellow Pages and calling me up, saying that he was remaking Raiders, that he was playing Indy – and did I want to help?
Thought about it for about 5 seconds, a blend of pragmatic logistics and geeky fantasy flitting through my head — and said yes.
We met at my mom’s house, I showed him the basement as a potential DIY soundstage. Over an LP of cheesy horror-movie sound fx playing on an old turntable… we decided then and there – we would remake Raiders together. We had no idea it was to take 7 years and our entire childhood to complete, or certainly what was to follow.
<CHRIS>: Riding on the school bus together on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the 80s. Alan goes into lovely, visceral detail about the old school, the bus rides and how we all met. Felt like I was right back there.
2. What inspired you to completely re-create Raiders of the Lost Ark, and what did you find most challenging about re-creating a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster on a much smaller budget and scale?
<CHRIS>: I wanted nothing more than to play Indiana Jones, live out that fantasy and create that world for myself to play in. Totally born out of a fantasy. Then I approached Eric with the idea. All captured beautifully in Alan Eisenstock’s book about us is how Eric ventured into the world of film earlier than any of us. That’s why I approached him.
<ERIC>: I know that for Chris, he was inspired by wanting to be Indy, embody those heroics onscreen. For me, as director, it was different: I was captivated by answering this question to myself: What would… a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark… entirely starring teenage actors… look like? Imagine for a moment… That seems like a wildly exciting prospect to me. Fun. Helluva lotta work, I recognized that at the beginning. But it seemed… worth it. I had to see this movie. To do that… we must make it.
There’s plenty of competition for most challenging in our strange little production… from how we were going to come up with the giant boulder… to how exactly are a couple of kids going to get their hands on a WWII submarine to shoot… to the fire stunts… to pulling off all the special fx… Those are a few of the obvious ones.
Then there’s ones that crop up after a few years, such as: It’s challenging to direct kids who want to chuck their traditional Arab costume and go home the first time we’re rained out. Or things like, after the first year, our actress playing Marion and her parents moving away to Alaska…
Then there’s the challenge that takes the longest to emerge, and that is: You change a little bit between ages 12 and 19… what’s important to you changes, as you discover girls and who you are as a person… What’s cool to you at 12 may not be at 18… And overcoming the conflict between Chris and I throughout our 30 year friendship… it was Yin-and-Yang at times… and at others, it was the War of the Opposites. Ultimately what made it work, our complementary strengths, our differences… almost kept it from being made, even as we were finally over the 7 finish line…
3. Did making the movie create your close friendship or did your close friendship create the movie?
<ERIC>: Both. Really and truly… both. An image of an ouroboros comes to mind! Both tracks developed over the course of years, of growing together, of enduring setback and failure, as well as some thrilling victories, as when we got the perfect sunset silhouette shot, or the boulder made. I used to wonder if, after we finally finished – if we ever did – would our friendship survive our success, of actually finishing? Would we be friends after Raiders?
<CHRIS>: The former. What we went through over those seven years forged a friendship like no other. And what a feat Alan pulled off, managing to cover the scope of our decades of friendship – and not just like a meandering grocery list.
4. Please tell us a little about the process of writing Raiders! – How did you work with Alan to create the book?
<CHRIS>: Alan sets one immediately at ease, we sat and chatted together and separately over many weeks. Alan captured everything over a few weeks, he took a trip to our old stomping grounds and then caved up and wrote the book. He is incredibly talented and what he captured on the page resonates so close to home, it’s uncanny. A fantastic writer… and now, a good friend. He knows more about me than most people. Well, until the book comes out. And even then….
<ERIC>: It was really fun. The best part of this surreal business (to include having your literary dramatization of your life and innermost thoughts subject to contractual ancillary publishing rights in Tanzania) was the creation process of working with Alan. Part of that is probably because it appears that Alan and I both subscribe to a total immersive creative process. No half-assing it.
For example, when I offered to Alan all of the outtakes transferred from Betamax to DVD…all 40+ hours worth, Chris asked me, “Do you really think Alan’s gonna watch 40 interminable hours of “Classroom — long-dialogue shot, #42?” I thought that Alan would. And turns out, he did. I remember getting an email from Alan, excitedly reporting that, deep into watching the outtake DVDs… that they enabled him to be a fly on the wall, to witness us interact, during extreme highs and lows… Alan told me: “I got your voices down now! That’s half the battle…”
I enjoyed receiving “writing assignments” from Alan… How we came to find our Marion… How we did the Truck Scene… many more. Alan took the best of my most accurate memories, and sculpted the material. Alan also flew down to Mississippi, to where we shot our Raiders, stayed for a week in the very house which we took over for 7 years (bless my Mom’s patience), visited the actual locations we shot, interviewed the Moms and others involved.
A close second – and possible tie — was getting to read the actual book. The wife and I took turns watching our kids to eagerly gobble up the tome. Glorious. Not because it’s flattering – sometimes it is – but it’s truly warts and all… Just as Chris and I signed up for. It’s as precise a document of what happened, the emotional journey of all this, as well as the adventures and dangers of it… from when I nearly died from being set on fire, or later, nearly suffocated in plaster… to Chris and I’s falling out’s – which we referred to as “Ice Ages”. Non-fiction, scrupulously accurate – and yet, reads like a novel. That’s a strange and wonderful feeling.
5. Did anything about Alan’s process surprise you? Did you agree with what he chose to put in the book and what he chose to leave out?
<ERIC>: Recognizing Alan as a fellow obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, I wasn’t surprised at the lengths Alan went to capturing both the facts and the authentic flavor of the story. The crazy OC process he described to me of organizing the hundreds of pages of interview transcriptions and notes, of recreating the chronology of this wacky adventure and coming-of-age journey. Of dealing with the challenges of what Dan Clowes, who wrote a screenplay of our story, likened to creating a succinct history of how the pyramids were built.
That’s a challenge I feel like Alan fully met, and so I do enthusiastically agree with Alan’s choices. Reading the finished book… it works… on me, and more importantly – others. Powerfully so, so that feels like confirmation that my confidence in Alan’s choices was well-placed. J
<CHRIS>: 100% Our approach was pull out all of the stops, don’t hold back at all and give Alan absolutely everything he needed to tell a great story – gritty details, ghosts and all. And trust him 100%. Except, there’s this one thing….
6. You currently co-own a production company, Rolling Boulder Films. What kind of films do you most enjoy making now, and what draws you to those projects?
<CHRIS>: Our mission is to produce films in our home state of MS and bring to the screen all of the types of mythological elements which get our blood pumping and inspired us as kids – and now as adults. Action, adventure, Southern Gothic tales. Our first big original project is called What The River Takes.
<ERIC>: Chris and I’s second film together is called WHAT THE RIVER TAKES. It’s a Southern Gothic-Action Adventure — an unusual mix — drawing about the rich dramatic elements of the Deep South spiked with the kinetic thrill ride of the adventure genre, a genre that is wonderful, and oddly, very rarely well-done the past few decades. We feel like our background helps us understand both genres.
7. Were you surprised to learn that Steven Spielberg had seen your remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark? How did you feel when you heard that he called it a “loving and detailed tribute” to the original?
<ERIC>: Those words actually came to me in the form of a physical letter, arriving in the mailbox one day, return stamp: “Dreamworks – SS”. My wife took photos of me in the various stages of extracting and reading the letter. Looking at that letterhead… and the words, “Dear Eric,…”
It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before or since. My boyhood idol… Steven Spielberg… who made RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK… is praising something that I did? Whose work thrilled me so much that I gave my entire childhood to it? Who wrote:
“…But beyond all the mimicry of the original RAIDERS, I saw and appreciated the vast amounts of imagination and originality you put in your film. Again, congratulations. I’ll be waiting to see your names someday on the big screen. All my best, — Steven Spielberg”
I don’t think that I can adequately articulate how I felt. Alan did do a remarkably accurate job of understanding and translating that sensation into words, in the book.
<CHRIS>: Steven. 🙂 Yes, it was mind blowing. Still is. He has given us an astounding level of support not only for our adaptation, but for the book as well. We are thankful.
8. What did you find most difficult about participating in writing Raiders!
<CHRIS>: Nothing difficult about it at all. Alan did all of the writing. I simply downloaded all of my stories and answered his questions. Remember some of the hard details, but I rely on Eric for the granular. The hardest part about it is working out the details of launching the book, collaborating with all of the various teams. Promoting it, developing campaigns and promoting it, pushing pre-sales… all of the commercial aspects, etc. That was / is the hardest part for us. Alan’s talent is astounding to me. It’s impossible for me to think how one sits down and churns out a book as fast as he did. An inspired, accurate, emotional tale of friendship and adventure set against the backdrop of remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a beautiful book. I am in awe of Alan’s talent. The only other difficult part was when Alan used to hit me with a riding crop during the interviews. That was pretty tough. Man he’s a stickler for detail.
<ERIC>: The interminable months after Alan concludes his information-gathering phase and entered his creative bubble, waiting for him to emerge with the completed manuscript to read. I got so anxious to read it, especially in the final days before Alan emailed it to us to share…well, as Chris puts it, I felt like I was going to gnaw my own arm off.
9. Raiders! doesn’t attempt to whitewash either of you as people. In fact, it paints you in a very human (and sometimes fallible) light. For example, Chris reveals a “dark side” that includes drug abuse. Why did you choose to be so revealing? Was it difficult to open yourselves up so much?
<ERIC>: It probably should have been more difficult than it was. What I mean by that is, I trust Alan.
You kinda have to, right, if you’re going to do this right: Disclose EVERYTHING – even details in your life that are human, embarrassing, flawed…to a complete stranger… who has free reign to define how your life story will forevermore read, hereafter. That any dramatic license will outlive memory and become the Truth, whether it really is or not.
In that sense, the Author becomes the god of your life story. It’s odd, looking back now, how I didn’t have… well, any anxiety about that, actually. Probably because we clicked, from that first conference call we had with Alan.
The book does have some dark parts, just like it has abundant laugh-out-loud moments, a skillful balance. As a storyteller myself… the story’s the thing. Both its accuracy – and its dramatic power. Is it a good read… and also the truth?
It was for those reasons that Chris and I volunteered, during that first phone call with Alan, that we were committed to a book that was “warts and all”. The relieved happiness I heard in Alan’s voice at that told me what I needed to know about his integrity in not doing some fluff piece, but instead a dramatic yet honestly revealing telling of what happened. Because that’s what’s interesting to read, to me.
<CHRIS>: For me, nope, not at all. I know my demons, what I’ve struggled with, who I’ve struggled with and all of the chaos and joy I’ve journeyed through in my life. It wouldn’t be an honest book unless I gave Alan an open view of who I was. What’s the point of hiding things or leaving things out? It does no one any good and compromises the integrity of the book. If you just know all of the pretty stuff – rainbows, bunnies, sunshine – then it’s imbalanced and can be frightfully boring.
10. Did the finished book teach you anything about yourselves that you didn’t know before?
<CHRIS>: No. Well, maybe about how book deals work and how difficult the publishing world is.
<ERIC>: Yes, I actually learned things about my best friend of over 30 years that I didn’t know. Personal history, emotions… I feel like I actually know Chris better having read the book. That’s remarkable.
Even though Chris and I provided a wealth of detail to Alan in the writing of this book… I was still surprised to the degree that Alan so accurately captured, vividly, what it was like to shoot our Raiders remake in Mississippi in the eighties, through all those changes. He writes like he was there, like an observer in our heads.
11. Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?
We sure do!
- Friday, November 9, 7pm: Book Signing & Screening, Biloxi Saenger Theatre, 170 Reynoir Street, Biloxi, Mississippi. How to buy tickets: In-person: $10 — walk up ticket sales available at all S&S FF venues: The Biloxi Saenger Theatre box office , the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs, or Beau Rivage Hotel & Casino Theatre. Online: advance purchase Film All Access/All Venue pass available for $45.50. (www.sunandsandfestival.com/buy-your-tickets)
- Saturday, November 24, 3-5:30pm: Book Signing & Screening, Palisades Branch Library, 861 Alma Real Drive, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272; (310) 459-2754 Free to public!
- Saturday, December 1, 7-10pm: Book Signing & Screening, The Comic Bug, 1807 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, CA 90266; 310.372.6704 (www.thecomicbug.com)
- Sunday, December 7, 7-9:15pm: Book Signing & Screening (afterparty at 9:15pm to follow) Where it all began Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – 1120 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704 (512) 476-1320 http://drafthouse.com/austin/south_lamar
- Saturday, November 10, 7-9:30p: Book Signing & Screening, The Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania Street, New Orleans, LA 70115; (504) 891-2787 (www.theprytania.com)
- Friday, January 4, 8pm: Book Signing & Screening, The Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton Street, Rahway, NJ 07065; 732-499-8226 (www.ucpac.org/html/box_office.cfm)
- Saturday, January 5: Book Signing & Screening, Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003; (212) 505-5181 (anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/buy-tickets)
And now, the speed round:
– Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
<ERIC>: Coffee. Black and hot, in the early morning.
<CHRIS>: Yes. And as much as possible.
– Socks or no socks?
<CHRIS>: Socks. I hate to have my feet exposed. Ugh.
<ERIC>: Socks, except when at home.
– Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
<CHRIS>: LA has required me to be a cat person. I grew up with dogs, but something in my personality has shifted towards cats. Love reptiles. Unlike Indy, I dig snakes. I had a snake in college and used to bring her to parties cause I thought it would make me cooler and help me pick up girls. It didn’t result in either of those two desired outcomes. I still like snakes though.
– For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
<CHRIS>: Depends on mood, day of the week, before a party? After a party? So many questions… This is like a math problem.
<ERIC>: All good stuff… if frequency rules… burgers.
BIG Thanks to Chris and Eric for joining me today and sharing their insights into RAIDERS! – the book and the film! I can’t wait to read the book and learn even more.
And tune in next week for even more RAIDERS! fun as I interview Alan Eisenstock!