'Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made'
In the strange and mysterious days before YouTube, fan films were an odd commodity. Created by friends with no hope of distribution beyond VHS swaps and possibly bootlegs, they were made with passion and nerdiness, destined for obscurity. However, one fan film was so bizarre and ambitious that it grew to the stuff of legend – a VHS shot-for-shot remake of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ made by a group of kids who visibly aged from ‘tweens to teens over the marathon 7-year-production.
Some sort of unholy mix of kiddie parody movie and ‘Boyhood’, it’s a fascinating oddity. Of course, the story behind the homage was always more interesting than the final product. Now, after years of trying to get a fictional feature made about the strange saga, we have a pretty great documentary about it. ‘Raiders!’ is a hilarious and touching ode to youth, movie obsession, fractured friendships, lessons in fire safety, dead dreams and living fantasies. For anyone who would have a remote interest in watching a doc about a group of teens remaking an Indiana Jones flick, the film is an absolute blast and surprisingly touching.
The tale begins with two friends and movie buffs: Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos. Like so many youngsters of their generation, they were obsessed with Steven Spielberg movies and were particularly enthralled with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. In an age before video rental, the pair saw the film endlessly in theaters and memorized it to the point that they decided to remake the movie shot-for-shot over the summer at the tender age of 11. Eric was the budding director, so he held the massive VHS camera. Chris took on the role of Indy. The project was obviously a bit ambitious for a summer holiday, so they kept working on it through every summer until they graduated high school. Their talents and ambitions grew. Jobs were taken to pay for the production. An oddball genius was eventually hired for the homemade special effects. The kids aged on camera throughout production and also became more talented. However, they also grew apart and by the end were barely even speaking to each other beyond arranging meetings to finish the endless afterschool project.
Years later, bootleg versions of the movie circulated through Comic-Cons and the film community. Though the kids had moved out to Los Angeles and eventually given up on their filmmaking dreams, they suddenly found themselves courted for interviews and screenings. Eventually, they even met Spielberg himself, who was a fan.
The doc picks up a few years after that. Co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen (who made the underrated quirky comedy ‘The Sasquatch Gang’) spent a while trying to adapt this strange story into a fiction feature, before finally making a documentary instead. As a result, the filmmakers got quite close to their subjects before sticking cameras in their faces. ‘Raiders!’ features some remarkably candid discussions of the in-fights that caused problems throughout the childhood production and the icky addictions, compromises and failures that filled the hopeful boys’ lives in adulthood.
The filmmakers also came up with an intriguing gimmick to add more to the doc than remembrances and stock footage. There was only one scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ the kids never remade because they needed a full-sized plane to pull it off. So, now they finally get to shoot that scene as adults on a massive scale with full pyrotechnics. As you’d imagine, it doesn’t quite go as planned.
Though the story is so specific and rooted in nerdy middle class movie obsession, the documentary is surprisingly all-encompassing. Coon and Skousen didn’t just dig up old copies of the ‘Raiders’ remake, but also found hours of outtake VHS footage from family garage archives. The kids rarely turned their cameras off, so they have wonderful footage impossible to recreate. Strompolos’ first kiss came on-camera as Indy, with delightfully awkward behind-the-scenes footage of him building up to the big event. Early fire stunts involved pouring gasoline on their backs, which predictably went wrong. An “adult” is then brought in to supervise the next fire stunt and he’s shown shirtless, swigging beer and demanding more fire. It’s hilarious stuff, showcasing the creativity and insanity of the high school project gone out of control.
The footage shows the kids grow up as well, with all the splintering of childhood friendships that comes with it. The footage of the making of ‘Raiders’ is almost more compelling than the surprisingly accomplished remake itself, and seeing the boys as men recall those days through nostalgia and maturity only adds to the hilarity and resonance.
It’s a special little story, one that certainly could have been beautifully adapted into fiction, but it has a special added kick when shown as reality. The staging of the plane sequence serves as a great lynchpin as well, with the former friends bonding again doing what they love and also begging bosses for time off to finish a passion project that once again goes too long, costs too much, and features far too much fire. That material is both slapstick and moving, as is the documentary as a whole.
As unique as this story might be, it touches on a variety of universal themes about coming of age and engaging in the willful insanity of creative passion. ‘Raiders!’ plays primarily towards comedy and movie nerd love, yet slowly builds up to an unexpected emotional payoff that’s well earned and true. There might be documentaries released this year about more important or high profile subjects, but it’s hard to imagine there will be another one as entertaining and richly emotional as this.