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Raiders of the Lost Ark: The £3000 Version

It's difficult to explain just how brilliant it is.

by VICE Staff
30 November 2009, 8:39am

In 1981, I went to Majorca with my parents. One night, there was a fancy-dress contest for the kids in the hotel, and my mum spent an hour or two making what might be the worst Darth Vader costume any child has ever been made to wear: basically she wrapped me in a load of black paper and fashioned a light saber out of silver foil. My dad told me to parade around the room, sticking the light saber in people's faces. I didn't win.

The same year, three elementary school kids from Mississippi saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and were so taken by it they decided to make their own version of it, word for word, shot for shot. By themselves. Chris Strompolos cast himself as Indiana Jones, got his friend Eric to direct, and weird kid Jayson was put in charge of the effects. This was before the age of home video, so they went back to the cinema to see the film again, recorded the audio with a tape recorder, took notes, then went home and began the process of storyboarding and pre-production.

Filming on Betamax in their mums’ basements and gardens, they padded out the cast with neighbourhood kids, made a boulder out of fibreglass, pulled a burnt-out car from a swamp, hassled a farmer for permission to shoot on his dirt farm (for the desert scenes), and harassed a naval base captain for three years to let them shoot on his submarine.

They did everything for real, including all the stunts and effects. Eric got plaster cast seared to his face, suffocated and lost his eyelashes and an eyebrow. For the Nazi monkey who does the "Sieg Heil" in the film, they cast a dog and lifted his paw up with fishing wire. They finished the film seven years later, by which time they’d stumbled through adolescence and told each other to get fucked. Then they made up again. Years later, by way of chance, Hostel director Eli Roth got his hands on a copy, organised a screening and people loved it. Spielberg heard about it, invited them to his place, and they hung out. Ghost World creator Dan Clowes wrote a screenplay all about it, to be made into its own film, produced by uber-producer Scott Rudin. Now these geek legends travel the world showing their remake at one-off screenings. If you ever get a chance to go to one, do it.

I had a chat with Chris Strompolos about his painstaking remake.

VICE: It was you who came up with the idea for the remake, right?
Chris:
Yeah, I was obsessed with Star Wars; I had the figures and ships, Yoda soap, Luke Skywalker underwear – called 'Underoos'. You could buy all the different characters. I had Chewbacca Underoos.

I don’t know if they made their way over to England.
Maybe not. Anyway, I was particularly focused on Han Solo – I loved Harrison Ford. And when Raiders came out, in 1981 when I was ten, it absolutely completely split my brain in half, and changed me. After the screening I wanted nothing more than to: 1) be Indiana Jones, and 2) make movies. It was like an axe had come down into my forehead. I was called to it. So I bought the comic and started crafting my own script.

How much had you thought this plan through? You were only ten.
Oh, I hadn’t thought it through at all. One of the beautiful things about being a child is that you don’t know that you can’t do something, you don’t have that limited perspective. You don’t see the obstacles before you. So no, not much. I was just consumed with the fantasy. I called Eric up and said, “I’m remaking Raiders, do you wanna help?” and he said, “Sure.” I’d bought the comic and cast myself as Indiana Jones, and we started from there. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

How come Jayson managed to get all those effects done, how did he know what he was doing?
Jayson was eccentric, he was creative. At 11 years old he was the first militaristic vegetarian I’d ever met. He was into shamanism, he was into puppetry, he was into American Indian medicine bags, he was into weird, weird shit, and on top of that he was into special effects. So, he set up in the garage in the back of his mum’s house and it was like his laboratory. Whenever we needed an effect he’d ask for a couple of days and would experiment and read books and go to the library and do things in the garage. And then he’d come back with explosives and melting heads.

One of the most exciting and endearing things about the film is the realism in it: your screen kiss was your first real-life kiss; you really did set yourselves on fire; and that really is you getting dragged from the truck. It’s a blast to see you going through all this stuff, and in that sense you even have an edge over the original.
Yeah, and I wasn’t quite aware of that energy until we started screening it. I just knew that on the day of shooting we had to do something and we were too reticent to let any other neighbourhood kids do any stunts – we did the dangerous stuff because we didn’t wanna get in trouble if somebody else got hurt. So yeah, we were doing it by ourselves for the first time, and that’s the charm, that’s what’s captivating, there’s this fresh innocence on our faces. And people at screenings who know the original are sitting back with folded arms going, “OK, they pulled that off, how are they gonna do the next scene… my God, they actually lit the room on fire!” And you see this building energy in the cinema, and by halfway through the audience are completely locked in and rooting for us, and by the final credits people are cheering. The first time that happened, there were tears in my eyes. I had no idea what we had before that.

You've done amazingly well to keep the film off the internet.
It hasn’t been easy, trust me, it’s been a battle. I’m sure there are rogue copies of it on torrents, it’s almost impossible nowadays. But we’ve worked very hard to keep it off, we keep copies under wraps, we never give out press copies. It's worked to our benefit because it maintains a sense of mystery about it, and in a day and age where you can get anything you want, whenever you want it and download it onto your watch, the old-school notion of being inaccessible adds to the joy when you finally get to see it.

What’s the best thing this experience has done for you?
Well, it’s allowed me to revisit and re-examine that window of my life in such a different way. When you’re a kid growing up, you go through all the pain and aggravation of yourself, your parents, social things, figuring it all out and I certainly had a unique experience of growing up inside the walls of Raiders. But I think for many years there were many aspects of myself and my personality and my love of Raiders, and the fact that we did that movie for so long, that actually I was embarrassed about. I think there was a subconscious part of me that was enshrouded in a little bit of shame; I got married and my wife didn’t even know that I was an Indiana Jones fan. She had no idea that I had ever done this movie; I kept it tucked away, locked in a box, away from everybody and never displayed my Indiana Jones stuff.

Now, with people getting so much joy and inspiration from watching it, it’s so great and it puts that chapter of my life into context in a more positive way. And not to mention all the positive work we've done – we've raised thousands of dollars for charity and education, we've lectured on film education to teenagers, we've turned kids on to movies and given them the confidence and notion that they can go out and do it for themselves.

Everybody wins! What a brilliant ending. Thanks, Chris.