Out with a Bang

The explosive finale to the most epic fan film of all time.

Story: Michael Stewart
Photos: Shelly Stallings, Jennifer Stockert, Guy Walker

In the center of an expansive dirt lot in Vancleave, Mississippi, sits a full-scale replica of a 1930s-era flying-wing aircraft. It has a 78-foot wingspan, weighs 9,000 pounds, and took a team of over two dozen people six months to design and build. Now they’re about to blow it up.

This is a big moment for Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos, otherwise known as the Raiders Guys. When they’re finished here, they’ll have completed production on a project they began as children, a full 32 years ago: a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark. They started in 1982, and after spending every summer of their adolescence working tirelessly, they finished their first cut of the film in 1989. It wasn’t until much later, though, that people took notice.

“Honestly, I was sort of embarrassed by it for a lot of years,” says Strompolos, who plays Indiana Jones in the film. “I don’t think I enjoyed our project until Eli discovered it and we were showing it at the Drafthouse.”

Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb, the third Raiders Guy, in 1988.

“Eli” is director Eli Roth, who acquired a dubbed copy of the film while he was in film school. He was so impressed that later, in 2003, he tracked down the Raiders Guys and organized an official screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. The inventive adaptation quickly became a cult classic; duplicated VHS tapes were the primary form of distribution. The film even made its way to Spielberg, who sent the team a letter saying he “appreciated the vast amounts of imagination and originality” they put into it. The Raiders Guys went on tour, hosting screenings to benefit a range of charities. But audiences kept noticing and asking about one missing scene, arguably the original film’s most memorable.

In the missing sequence, Indiana Jones and the film’s heroine, Marion, escape from an underground tomb called the Well of Souls onto a makeshift Nazi airfield. Marion knocks out the flying wing’s pilot, accidentally starting the engines. Jones brawls with one burly, shirtless German, who’s eventually and unceremoniously dispatched by one of the plane’s propellers. In the process, the plane knocks open a fuel truck, spilling gasoline across the tarmac, which ultimately erupts in a giant fireball. The Rube Goldbergian series of events is incredibly complex. And when you’re blowing things up, you only get one shot.

Zala and Strompolos did have some ideas for how they might replicate the scene. In fact, Zala, the film’s director, first storyboarded the sequence back in 1983, when he was just 13 years old. At the time, he was drawing from memory — a home video of Raiders wouldn’t be available until later that year, and even if it had been, video rental places were few and far between. (Blockbuster wouldn’t be founded until 1985.) He also planned the scene around anticipated limitations: he pictured a single-engine prop plane, one he thought they could jump a fence to use on the sly.

Storyboard for the flying-wing scene, as drawn by Eric Zala at age 13.

Back then, teenage Zala and Strompolos concluded that the scene didn’t advance the story. It was a thrilling sequence, but if it was going to look fake anyway, it didn’t seem necessary.

Now, though, the Raiders Guys, both fathers in their forties, have returned to Mississippi to do something they’ve long joked about: finish the film. Jeremy Coon, the producer of Napoleon Dynamite, is making a documentary about them, and this — the long-considered completion of the airplane scene — will be its centerpiece. The wisdom and resources that come with age have Zala and Strompolos confident that this time around, they can do the flying-wing sequence right. And the model plane they once planned to detonate with a firework was indeed a far cry from the four-and-a-half-ton behemoth that sits before them now.

Laird Malamed stands at attention in period military garb while generators hum in the background. He’s on set talking to Dan Todd, the film’s Special Effects Coordinator and Pyrotechnic Supervisor, who’s explaining what it will feel like to die. (“It’s going to feel like a real bad bee sting.”) Malamed backed the Raiders Guys’ project on Kickstarter, and his reward is a glorious on-screen death by machine gun. Movie magic dictates that he’ll actually be shot with a paintball gun. But first, Todd needs to make sure the ground is properly rigged for the gunfire effect. “Today,” he says, “because of mother nature and the Mississippi mud, we must improvise.”

Improvisation is a longstanding theme for Raiders: The Adaptation. Part of the reason the film has developed such a cult following is the sheer creativity of its filmmakers. As children with limited resources, they nonetheless managed to capture many of the film’s most awe-inspiring moments. To do so, Zala and Strompolos used every birthday and Christmas for seven years as a way to acquire props for the film. That worked for things like the fedora and the bullwhip. When it couldn’t be bought, it was made — like the film’s enormous rolling boulder, for example. When it couldn’t be made, they’d find a suitable compromise. That’s how a motor boat replaced a biplane for the film’s early river escape, and Strompolos’s dog, Snickers, wound up playing the film’s monkey. “We didn’t shy away from things,” says Strompolos, “just because I don’t think we had any idea it was going to take seven years to do. We thought we could probably knock it out in a summer.”

Even now, the flying-wing scene is a clever assemblage of elements of varying authenticity. The wardrobe consists of film replicas, graciously provided by a California costume shop. A local petting zoo has donated two hours of a camel’s time. And for the plane itself, both the cockpit and turret were carefully crafted over months by Dave Jensen, Zala’s stepfather and a retired Air Force colonel, in the same basement where they shot much of the film 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the plane’s front side guns are made of parts from the plumbing aisle of a Mississippi Lowe’s.

Strompolos is back in the full Indiana Jones costume for the first time since 1988. He’s been working with a trainer and he’s in the very best shape of his life. He’s got to be. Just like the first time around, he’s doing all his own stunts. Fortunately for him, no one is dragging him behind a truck this time.

Also returning is Strompolos’s counterpart, Angela Rodriguez, as leading lady Marion Ravenwood. Back in the mid-’80s, she was the older, cooler girl at St. John’s High School; now she’s a mother, living in Minnesota and working at IKEA. The gang reconnected at a Minneapolis screening in 2007, after 18 years apart. Recently, the guys approached her about reprising her role one last time. She had her reservations, as anyone familiar with the heat and humidity of a Mississippi summer would. Ultimately, she relented. After spending four summers of her childhood shooting the film, what was a few more days? “It feels kind of the same as when we were kids,” she says, “except I’m really digging walking barefoot in mud. I don’t remember that, but my feet seem to.”

There’s one clear issue with picking up a film shoot where it left off 25 years ago: The actors have aged. They are, in fact, now full-grown adults. Returning to shoot this scene would normally be a script supervisor’s worst nightmare, but the team long ago abandoned the idea of seamless continuity. In fact, one of the most charming elements of the adaptation is how the scenes occur atemporally. Throughout the film Rodriguez’s hair is long, then short, then long again. Strompolos’s age fluctuates and, thanks to puberty, the depth of his voice does as well. This is what happens when kids shoot a film over seven years: they’d have a scene in the can for a while and later find out they had goofed, or else just figure out a better way to shoot it, and then they’d start all over.

In some ways, the protracted production allowed them to be perfectionists.

Here in Mississippi, though, time is incredibly limited. The actors now have real jobs to return to, families waiting, and places to be. They’re also leaning heavily on volunteers and borrowed gear. To make matters worse, the production has encountered every conceivable roadblock. On the first day, the plane’s propellers failed. So did the borrowed generators intended to power them. Rain has plagued the set, destroying equipment and turning the red clay lot into a muddy trap. “The physical brutality of the environment that we shot in was extraordinary,” Strompolos says. “It’s amazing to see a 10,000-pound steel airplane sink in the mud.”

The entire shoot was scheduled to take nine days. On day ten, friends, family, and backers finally gather on a nearby hillside to watch the big moment. Dan Todd spends the morning stuffing the flying-wing with vast quantities of explosives. Well into the afternoon, with the help of a number of volunteers, they finish. Strompolos and Casey Dillard, Rodriguez’s stunt double, take their positions near the plane.

On action, they dart across the tarmac. The fuel truck detonates brilliantly behind them. The plane, however, fails to blow. Something has gone wrong. With one of the wings on fire, Todd approaches the plane to investigate. The fire spreads, and the crowd grows anxious. Todd hesitates. There’s a deafening explosion, and it sends a fireball 100 feet into the air, knocking Todd clean off his feet.

He’s quickly dragged to a safe distance by a member of the documentary crew. After regaining consciousness, he asks, “Did we get the shot?”

Three days earlier: “There is no danger here at all,” Todd says, showing the cast and crew a patch of ground rigged with explosives to simulate machine gun fire. Malamed stands nearby, in costume, watching Spielberg’s version of his 1.2-second scene on repeat, studying his character’s movements. A short while ago, someone noticed that the original sequence has a dead Nazi in the back of the frame, so the 19-year-old son of a crew member was grabbed, rushed through wardrobe, and now lies face-down in the dirt.

There’s some last-minute reframing, and Malamed steps into position. Camera is rolling, sound has speed. The slate snaps shut, scene 67, take 2. (The first take, sans gunfire, was a rehearsal.) Everything is ready to go, and there’s a long silence. Nearly a minute and a half passes, which feels like an eternity for Malamed as the scene replays in his head. Remember to raise the gun, remember to bend your left leg, he thinks. Finally, Zala shouts “Action,” and a moment later Todd calls “Fire.”

The ground pops in front of Malamed, sending plumes of pink dust into the air. He shuffles sideways as a series of loud cracks, like fireworks, ring out. He shoves the gun in his right hand up into the air. His left leg collapses as he thrusts his chest out, falling back and to his left. He hits the ground and lies still, playing dead. Dust settles, and he waits patiently for Zala to call, “Cut.”

Story based in part on scrapbooks, production diaries, and audio recordings by Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Laird Malamed.