In 2003, Eric Zala was working in his office in Orlando, Fla., when he got an e-mail that changed his life.
The message was from Eli Roth, a film director who had just gotten a distribution deal for his movie “Cabin Fever.” Zala didn’t know who Roth was, so he was skeptical when he got to the part of the e-mail that said Steven Spielberg wanted to meet him.
“I’m thinking, Come on, who’s pulling my leg?” Zala says. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life.”
His leg wasn’t being pulled, and the story leading up to that e-mail is incredible. It involves three teenagers embarking on a seven-year quest to film a shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Their film eventually gained a cult following, led to a lengthy article in “Vanity Fair” and an upcoming book.
It has also resulted in public screenings of the movie, officially titled “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” including one at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on Aug. 26.
Back in 1982, Zala was growing up in Ocean Springs, Miss., when he received a call from Chris Strompolos, an elementary school friend. Strompolos wanted to remake “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the 1981 movie adventure sensation directed by Speilberg and produced by George Lucas.
“He had seen a classroom film project I had done and mistakenly thought I knew something about filmmaking,” Zala says. “So after seeing ‘Raiders’ and letting it kind of gestate, he hatches this hair-brained scheme to remake ‘Raiders’ shot for shot.
“Little did I know the only things that Chris had done at that point was buy the published screenplay from Walden Books at the mall and cast himself as Indiana Jones, as any good producer will do.”
The two friends, both 12 at the time, met at Zala’s house and began their collaboration by deciding to turn his mother’s basement into a soundstage.
“We just clicked,” Zala says. “We’re total opposites, I’m introverted, quiet, a perfectionist, artistic. Chris is outgoing, gregarious, charismatic, and we both shared a love of Indiana Jones and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and were both just captivated by this world.”
They thought they’d finish their project by the end of that summer. Instead, it took seven years. They were college sophomores when they finally finished. Zala says that if they had known how long it take, it would have scared them to death.
“But kids don’t know what they can’t do,” he says. “And trying to remake a $22 million on your allowance is impossible. Good thing we didn’t know that or else we wouldn’t have done it.”
Kids have a tendency to come up with grand ideas, and not follow up on them. When asked if he had any doubts that they’d ever finish their version of “Raiders,” Zala replies, “perpetually.”
“Whenever you step out there and dare to try something really ambitious, really epic, really big, it’s either going to be the greatest success in your life or the most embarrassing failure,” he says. “So we risked that. Even as kids we had that nagging voice of doubt in our minds and certainly as the years — year three, year four, year five — (went by) and kids at high school were saying, ‘Hey you ever going to finish that movie?’ ‘Uh, yeah this summer.’ ‘You said that last year and the year before.’”
But they did finish, and based on the first 10 minutes of the movie, which is available on YouTube, the results are a hoot. The famous opening of ‘Raiders’ is recreated with ingenuity and affection, complete with spiders, a stone wall that closes threatening to trap Indiana Jones and, most impressively, the famous boulder that chases Indiana out of an ancient tomb. The movie also reportedly recreates moments like a face melting and features an authentic World War II submarine.
They started filming with a two-piece Betamax recorder and finished on a then state-of-the-art VHS macine. The shoot reportedly resulted in broken bones, surgery and getting grounded. (According to the “Vanity Fair” article, the young filmmakers waited for a day they know Eric’s mother wouldn’t be home to film a scene set in a bar that required setting the basement on fire.) And then Zala and Strompolos’ friendship had its ups and downs during the filmmaking and beyond.
They finally finished in 1989 (the same year Spielberg and Lucas released “Indiana Jones and the last Crusade”) and the movie got its world premiere at an auditorium in Gulfport, Miss. They invited about 200 friends and family, wore tuxes, drank champagne and rode in a limo paid for by Chris’ mother.
“It was a glorious night, it was great closure, very cathartic to finally finish it,” Zala says. “For the longest time, in my head, if I could have asked God one question, it wouldn’t have been What’s the meaning of life or What am I going to do with my life but Are we ever going to finish this?”
The night of the premiere seemed like the end, but it was actually the beginning. When he lived in Los Angeles, Zala showed a roommate the movie. The roommate made a copy, which led to other copies, one of which ended up with Roth.
Then Roth had a meeting at Dreamworks and gave them a copy of the movie, which Spielberg eventually saw and loved. Word got to Roth that Spielberg wanted to write to the filmmakers, leading Roth to a Google search and the e-mail to Zala.
Neither Zala, Strompolos or Jayson Lamb, the third member of the crew, had any idea any of this was going. Eventually the film was shown at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon, an annual film festival in Austin, Texas, hosted by Harry Knowles, founder of the movie website AintItcoolNews.com. As the filmmakers arrived at the theater in Austin for the screening, they saw a long line of people waiting to see their movie. Zala wondered if those ticket-buyers realized they were paying good money to see a movie shot in his childhood basement.
“I started to be really scared and take note of all the fire exits in the theater in case I needed to make a break for it,” he says.
But the crowd loved it.
“When it ended they gave us a four-minute complete standing ovation, and we took the stage to do our first-ever but far from last Q & A. And I think my first words were, ‘This was never supposed to happen.’”
The screening in New Brunswick will also feature a Q&A with Zala and Strompolos, whose friendship and partnership remain intact. Zala is married and living back in Ocean Springs, working as the executive director for the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center. He and Strompolos formed a production company, Rolling Boulder Films, and are seeking funding for their first finished screenplay titled “What the River Takes.”
The only way to see their ‘Raiders’ movie is at a screening, like the one at the State Theatre. It’s been seen at more than 80 venues, including at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. and at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. It’s also been shown in Alaska and Australia.
“This little film has enabled us to see the world and meet some amazing people,” Zala says. “We can’t wait to be out there in New Brunswick.”
The movie, which they thought would stay in the bottom of their closets for eternity, has led to appearances on the “Today” show and the “Late Late Show” when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn. The story of the making of the movie has been optioned for a film, and a book about their adventures is expected to be published by St. Martin’s Press next year.
Oh, and Zala did indeed get that letter from Spielberg, his wife took pictures of him as he opened it. And eventually, the filmmakers got to meet the man himself, going to his office, talking for a while and seeing an outtake reel from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
“It’s really something to meet your boyhood hero and find out that you picked your hero well,” Zala says.
A decision made almost 30 years when they were 12 led to a movie with a life of its own, and taught them not only about filmmaking but offered some life lessons as well.
“We couldn’t take the easy way out and that forced us to produce a film high on creativity, low on budget,” Zala says. “So there were times, particularly for some of us, where it wasn’t fun anymore but you have to push through those moments when it’s not fun. The creative process isn’t always going to be fun, in fact, it’s often painful. But you have to keep your eyes on the prize and those lessons of tenacity and determination and keeping your eye on the prize, I still call on those today, even as an adult here in my 40s, these lessons that we learned when we were kids.”
“Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” will be shown at the State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick on Aug. 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20. For tickets and information, call 732-246-7469 or go to StateTheatreNJ.org.