A generation of would-be filmmakers was ignited by the release of Star Wars in 1977, but it was Raiders of the Lost Ark, arriving four years later, that prompted arguably the first real wave of homemade Super 8 and video tributes. “This is just one that they actually finished,” says Tim Skousen, director (with Jeremy Coon) of Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, opening Friday (June 17). “I’d guess that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of five to 30 minute fan films of Indiana Jones out there—maybe even in your basement. But I don’t know that there’s very many that redid the entire film at an hour and 40 minutes.”
In ’80s Mississippi, schoolkids Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos were gripped by an insane compulsion to make a shot-for-shot remake of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster, costing them seven consecutive summers and their friendship. About a quarter of a decade later, in 2002, their passion project found its way (thanks to Eli Roth) to the Butt-Numb-A-Thon at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The response to a 10-minute clip was so ecstatic that organizers had to delay a sneak preview of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to screen the entire thing.
“It’s hard to imagine what it was like in 1982,” says Skousen, joining Coon on the phone from Los Angeles. “They maybe saw the film three times before they started shooting. It’s not like the film came out in ’81 and 90 days later it was available at Blockbuster on VHS and they’d go and reference it and watch it over and over again and get their performances just right.”
Skousen and Coon’s documentary depicts a remarkably resourceful young duo, who brought in a third collaborator, an eccentric kid called Jayson Lamb, to provide the film’s (frequently very dangerous) special effects. Domestic turmoil forms the backdrop to their lives—no small irony, considering the suburban Spielbergian dreamland inhabited by Zala and Strompolos. But Raiders! offers even more to chew on when the two old partners, now facing the same disappointed middle age as the rest of us, decide to tackle the one scene they never managed to complete: a set piece involving a punch-out in front of an exploding flying-wing aircraft.
“When they decided to do the airplane scene, as experienced filmmakers, we knew, ‘Oh boy…’,” says Skousen with a chuckle. “It was wild, man. It was a really wild time to be in Mississippi.”
It’d be wrong to reveal what happens, but suffice it to say that old conflicts and Zala’s fuming boss (the shoot goes way over schedule, of course) ended up being the least of anyone’s worries. It gave Skousen and Coon a great new angle for their doc, despite what Coon describes as a “pretty horrific” moment or two. But ultimately, Raiders! is an affectionate tribute to the creative energy of youth, broadening the film’s appeal well beyond movie nerds who came of age in the ’80s.
“I think that’s the low-hanging fruit,” says Coon, with a touch of self-deprecation, “but our favourite audience, I think, are kids who go see it and who are inspired to go and follow in their footsteps. That’s the most exciting.”