There’s a good reason why TV and movies have adopted the disclaimer “Remember kids, don’t try this at home.” As inventive as they were impressionable, pint-sized super-fans Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb nearly killed themselves on multiple occasions attempting to remake the first Indiana Jones movie, breaking it down shot-for-shot and filming each scene as best as their limited resources would allow over the course of eight summers. The result has become the stuff of fan legend, inspiring magazine articles, movie deals and what feels like the perfect Hollywood ending, which the geek-bait documentary “Raiders!” reveals for the first time, as the original trio reunite a quarter-century later to finish the airplane scene they deemed too difficult to film as kids. Often poignant, occasionally pathetic, but never short of entertaining, “Raiders!” captures the obsessive hold movies have on young people’s imaginations, as exemplified by such pics as “Son of Rambow,” “Super 8” and the upcoming “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
Today, Zala’s son is roughly the age his father was in 1981 when he and best friend Strompolos hatched their ambitious fan-film project. “I think it’s amazing that Steven Spielberg needed $20 million to make ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and my dad only needed his allowance,” the kid says in the documentary, which clearly shares that same charitable affection toward a project undertaken in total earnestness and executed with almost reckless naivete.
It would be easy to treat Zala, Strompolos and especially Lamb (their truly eccentric vfx maestro) as comic figures, the way “American Movie” and “The Disaster Artist” presented their inept indie-filmmaker subjects. For directors Jeremy Coon (a producer on “Napoleon Dynamite”) and Tim Skousen, however, “Raiders!” represents something more than an excuse to poke fun. These two seem genuinely inspired by the kids’ story and eager to do it justice, balancing a respectful retelling of how the project came to be (supported by amusing anecdotes and priceless outtakes) with genuinely encouraging coverage of the amateur filmmakers’ most dangerous stunt yet: their decision to complete “the lost airplane scene” all these years later — the one where the bald Nazi backs into the propeller and gets sprayed across the cockpit of the Flying Wing, before everything blows sky-high.
In many ways, the story behind the “Raiders” adaptation has outgrown the film itself, which is sampled somewhat sparingly. Back in 1989, Strompolos’ mom organized a small public screening of her son’s home-movie tribute in Mississippi, but the boys’ friendship was already on the skids — for personal reasons which the documentary explores, doing a remarkable job of not shying away from the double-crosses, drug addiction and disappointments that followed (nor the divorces, abuse and psychological motivations that likely enabled it in the first place). The trio had closed the door on that chapter in their lives when Eli Roth got his hands on a VHS copy of the film and brought it to Butt-Numb-A-Thon, Harry Knowles’ 24-hour binge-viewing geekstravaganza, in 2002.
Considering that the revival began in Austin, Texas, it’s fitting that the “Raiders!” documentary should be premiering there all these years later at SXSW, where die-hards may actually feel the film skimps on key details. (It mentions the fire that nearly burned down Zara’s house, for example, but skips over the failed attempt to make a plaster face cast that ended with Lamb being rushed to the hospital, as described in Alan Eisenstock’s book.)
For other viewers, however, the sort who might sample a movie like this on Netflix, there’s no reason for “Raiders!” to run longer than 90 minutes, and a tighter cut than the current 105-minute version might be a good idea. This one features a wee too much gushing from the likes of Roth, Knowles, Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League and others responsible for elevating this backyard tribute to cult status, along with a bizarre interview with John Rhys-Davies, who’s shot head-on, gut-first like a character in a Wes Anderson movie. The other talking heads get slightly more flattering coverage, including one guy who’s filmed sitting in a DeLorean.
Still, both Coon and producer Scott Rudin have expressed an interest in making scripted versions of the “Raiders” adaptation story, and the docu digs deep enough to show where the heart of such a project could be. As cover versions go, this amateur tribute can’t touch the original “Raiders” (though the airplane scene, which unspools over the end credits, is a huge improvement over the VHS footage they shot as kids), but there’s no question that it boasts a much better behind-the-scenes story — one whose divided-family dynamic and corny group-hug ending further echo Spielberg’s unmatched influence on a generation of filmmakers.