Eric Zala's nine rules for making a DIY blockbuster

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In 1982, Mississippi boys Eric Zala (11) and Chris Strompolis (12) embarked on one of the most epic, ill-advised and heroically ludicrous endeavours in the history of motion pictures: a shot-for-shot remake of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. The project would span seven years, destroy friendships, and use up every cent of their pocket money. But the film was eventually finished, and thanks to the endorsements of celebrity fans like Eli Roth and even Spielberg himself gradually made its way out into the world, receiving its UK premiere next week at the Vue West End in London following a series of sold-out screenings across the US. Speaking on the phone from St Louis, director Zala outlines the nine rules of making your own low-budget pre-teen blockbuster…

Rule 1: Just do it!

‘For me as director, I just really wanted to see this. What would a shot for shot remake of ‘Raiders’ with teenage actors look like? And there is only one way to answer that question and that is to make the damn thing. Chris really wanted to inhabit that world, Indiana Jones was something of a father figure. He wanted to crack the whip, save the girl, defeat the bad guys and look cool doing it. Of course we had no idea what we were getting into, and that was probably a good thing because we would have been scared to death if we’d known it would take seven years.’

Rule 2: Pre-production is key

‘We read up as much as we could, coffee-table books on Industrial Light and Magic (the special effects house), books on cinematography. The preparation involved drawing, by hand and from memory, over 600 storyboards. You couldn’t go into a local video store and rent “Raiders”, but it was re-released in theatres in ’82 so Chris and I went and tried to commit as much to memory as possible. I listened to the soundtrack on cassette, I had this big table with photos to try and recreate each scene in my mind.'

Rule 3: Never build your props indoors

‘Our first shot at the famous boulder was made in Chris’s bedroom out of criss-crossed bamboo sticks, duct tape and cardboard. It was heartbreaking, trying to break it apart in order to get it out the door. It was trashed.’

Rule 4: Don’t be afraid to pester the authorities

‘We get asked a lot: “Where does a 14-year-old get access to an authentic World War II submarine?” In our case Chris drove 90 miles to Mobile, Alabama, where there was this retired submarine in the dock. We talked to the captain, and were promptly turned down. We returned the following summer, a bit more mature, and again were told no. The third year Chris turned up in a suit, with all the storyboards and production schedules, and eventually the captain threw up his hands and said, “Fine, fine, yes, leave me alone. But we’re not shutting the park down.” So we shot amongst amused tourists that day, who didn’t quite know what to make of us running around in Nazi soldier uniforms.’

Rule 5: Do not fear the mockery of your peers

‘If people at school mocked me about it, and I’m sure they did, they never did it in front of my face. And I was able to recruit kids, saying, “Hey, do you want to be an Arab or a German soldier this weekend?”. Some people said no, but some said yes, and I’m happy to say that however geeky it was in high school, being able to travel to London this month to show it… no regrets.’

Rule 6: Never, ever play games with industrial plaster

‘My character was Belloq, the evil French archaeologist, who blows up at the end when the Ark is opened. We were going to do the effect the same way Spielberg did it, by making a plaster mould of my face. So I’ve got a shower cap on my head, two cut straws stuffed up my nose and a piece of pear wedged in my mouth to hold a screaming expression for the half-hour it’s meant to take for the plaster to harden. Chris and Jayson (Lamb, special effects designer) mix up this plaster concoction, slap it over my face and the world disappears from view. ‘About five minutes in. I start to feel this tremendous heat. Turns out we made a mistake, Jayson had used industrial plaster which has a heating agent to speed up the drying, so my head was being baked. 30 minutes later it had hardened – it was three inches thick, as hard as a rock. The guys reach around my head to prise it off and all of a sudden I’m in this excruciating pain around my eyes. Turns out we made a second mistake: always, always put Vaseline on the eyelashes and the eyebrows. I have no way of telling Jayson or Chris any of this, I have a pear in my mouth, which is fermenting pretty good about now. So I grope out of the darkness and I feel for my eyebrows, they go off and mutter by themselves, and a few minutes later they come back with a hammer and a chisel and say ‘okay Eric, lean back,’ and they slam this hammer and chisel into my face. Amazingly, they succeed in breaking through the plaster around my nose; what’s more, they stopped short of driving the chisel up my nose and into my brain. ‘Cool air rushes in, but it’s still not coming off, so someone dials 911. A police car pulls up in the driveway, and I hear “Damn, boy, what you got on your head?”. They take me to the emergency room. I’m told by Chris and Jayson there were 20 people in there, and all of a sudden the electric doors whiz open and there’s a kid with this immense plaster husk on his head. The doctors used one of those saws they use to buzz casts off with. In the end, I’m missing half of one eyebrow, all of the other and all my eyelashes. I actually had to borrow my mom’s eyebrow pencil to fill in my eyebrows. So that was my brush with death.’

Rule 7: Keep your parents in the dark

‘I have a son now, and I’m not looking forward to the time when he can see the film that Daddy made. I’m going to have to have a hard time taking the moral high ground and saying “No son, don’t set yourself on fire.” ’

Rule 8: Only work with guys you can trust

‘Around the age of 17, I got my first high-school sweetheart. Chris flirted with her, and she flirted back, and I found out afterwards that they had carried on a correspondence. I confronted Chris over the phone and swore a blue streak at him, and we didn’t talk for nine months after that. The whole fate of the film hung in the balance – were we ever going to finish? We’d been going five years by that point. But the following summer we both kinda cooled down and patched things up enough to move on. It’s water under the bridge now, we can laugh about it, but it was very serious business back then.’

Rule 9: Just keep going

‘There were plenty of times when it was just not fun anymore, you’re cranky and you’ve seen enough of your friends. But the funny thing is, every summer there wasn’t even a question, it was vacation, out of school, time to do ‘Raiders… ' again. We didn’t know that what we were trying to do was impossible. As adults we’re all too aware of our limitations, either real or perceived. But had we not finished, it would just be a box of videotapes in somebody’s basement.’
Go to www.myvue.com/raiders to get tickets for next week’s charity premiere at London’s Vue West End: the filmmakers will be in attendance, and there’ll be food, drinks and special souvenirs for every ticket holder.

Author: Tom Huddleston


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