How They Did It: A Shot-For-Shot Remake of the Airplane Scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark

As children growing up in the ’80s in Mississippi, my best friend Chris Strompolos and I spent every summer from age 12 to 19 on our obsession: remaking Steven Spielberg’s 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot for shot.

We called our fan film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. After seven years, we finally finished.

Well, almost. We omitted the Airplane Scene, where the bald muscular German who beats the hell out of Indiana Jones is pureed via propeller before the plane spectacularly explodes. As kids, we had pulled off Raiders hallmarks like the boulder, real snakes, even a real WWII submarine… but to pull off that single scene was out of our reach.

Fourteen years later, our love letter to the original film was unexpectedly discovered, praised by Spielberg, and pronounced by Harry Knowles and other critics as the greatest fan film ever made.

Now in our 40s, we decided to finally undertake the Airplane Scene. As when we were kids, we had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into.

Zala's crew on the set of Raiders: The Adaptation, followed by crew from the documentary

Zala’s crew on the set of Raiders: The Adaptation, followed by crew from Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon’s documentary about their film, entitled Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The last two months have permitted me no more than two or three hours of sleep a night. In Las Vegas, where I work at a videogame publisher, my routine is to wake at 3:30 a.m. daily to nab some hours to collaboratively produce the Airplane Scene. The past 10 days, I’ve been Skyping with Chris at 6 a.m. Mississippi time, 4 a.m. my time. In the final month, Chris flew into Gulfport, Mississippi from Los Angeles, and has been boots on the ground, enacting the battle plan, juggling physical labor tasks (like building the retaining wall in front of the well dune with friends and volunteers, picking up the command tent, etc.).

My work dictates that I am in Las Vegas. It’s a challenge doing this remotely. It seems impossible. But there’s really no time to think about that. So, I organize, prioritize for Chris, who’s moving a million miles a minute down in Mississippi. Make phone calls, send emails. Direct from afar, basically. As much as has been done, there is more, as what one might think of as simple tasks cascade into branching action items and follow-up. Tick-tock. Each day brings victories and setbacks.

Over Skype and coffee, we hurtle through the agenda I’d emailed at midnight, jumpy from lack of sleep. We brainstorm some solutions and make some quick decisions.

Chris jumps off our Skype call to head to the location. I hurriedly comb through 60-odd emails sent since yesterday, parsing out info, copying, pasting… At 7:15 a.m., I gotta run to work, right after e-blasting out to “Team Raiders” our “Priorities” email, including a daily countdown to the first day of shooting…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Saturday, June 7. It’s 7 a.m. I’m standing in the woods in Mississippi, about to direct Raiders: Adaptation again for the first time since 1988. For this scene, we have 124 shots to do, and nine days to do them in. Seventy people are standing within a white circle, looking at me for direction. I haven’t slept in about 24 hours, and have had far too little time to prepare as director (or as the character of Belloq, whom I’ll play, except for growing my hair to a cheesy length). I’ve spent two or three days making notes for each shot. It’ll have to be enough.

We’re back to Tunisia, 1980. The straw hut! The tower! The well exit! The fuel truck! The airplane! The shot calls for a camel. As it happens, we got a camel, free of charge, available for a two-hour window, from the Animal Show at the Coliseum in Biloxi.

Jay and Nicole Phillips of Show-Me Safari Petting Zoo, East Prairie, Missouri. My wife Cassie, who was our production manager

The camel and owners Jay and Nicole Phillips of Show-Me Safari Petting Zoo, East Prairie, Missouri. On the right, production manager Cassie Zala

My wife, who has never been on a film set in her life, has jumped into the fray as our production manager. Her training has been a couple of Skype calls from a veteran local line producer whose incisive mentoring Cass has embraced. My wife is sharp and we’ve always been an amazing team. It’s good to have her here.

Camel: check.
Chris: in wardrobe.
Plane…

I pivot and look upon the great steel bird. It is magnificent. That peculiar trapezoid shape of the original fuselage; the tricky bullet-shape of the engine housings; the vertical stabilizers jutting at the sky. Arched, sheet metal-skinned wings are brazenly long. Wheels are massive. My brain instinctively does a little thrill flutter, recognizing the Flying Wing from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The 1st AD’s walkie crackles next to me. Chris is done with wardrobe and is en route. It’s surreal, seeing Chris in his Indiana Jones costume for the first time since 1988, when I shot him with a Betamax camcorder.

But directing Chris again is like effortlessly picking up an old familiar set of tools. Chris has been in the same boat as I. Producing the Airplane Scene has taken all his available time and energy. To play Indiana Jones, he’s been working with a trainer, getting in the best shape of his life, since Chris is doing all his stunts. He’s been sleeping over at my mom’s house, like back when we were kids.

Chris Strompoulous as Indiana Jones

Chris Strompolos as Indiana Jones

Time to line up the shot. I work with Francisco Gonzalez, our director of photography, and Nick Ramey, our 1st AC, on camera placement. Then with Chris and our mechanic, Ryan Pierini, choreographing the “Monkeywrench Dance,” with the fake rubber monkeywrench that Guy Klender has fashioned.

Except the propellers don’t work. Then the borrowed generators to power them also fail. Both of them.

Then it starts to sprinkle.

We have an idea: We can spin the propellers by hand, just before “action!,” powered by enough momentum to last the duration of this brief shot. It’s a Band-Aid for today; we’ll have to find a solution later.

Even as the charcoal sky looms, we finish the shot. The camel is done! Just in time to return to the Biloxi Coliseum for its scheduled show. As we huddle beneath the port side wing, rain drizzling atop the sheet metal overhead, I get deja vu of the many times we were rained out when we last did all this as kids. Same red clay that turns to mud when it rains, and coats your boots and legs with ferocious tenacity. With a storm approaching, we must evacuate the dirt pit in which we’re filming, and hurry, before the dirt road that leads in and out of this clearing in the Vancleave woods becomes unpassable. Ugh.

Chris likes to say, “If it’s not difficult as hell, then it’s not Raiders!” Today, he says, it was as though the Universe had seen us having it far too good and, waggling its finger, chanted “Uh-uh. No, you don’t.” Day one of nine, down. Shots done: one. A hundred and twenty-three to go.

Eric Zala and DP Francisco Gonzalez on set

Eric Zala and DP Francisco Gonzalez on set

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The next day is Sunday morning. As soon as it’s barely dry enough to get down the muddy path into the valley and location, we use the day to finish the plane. In truth, we could only have shot that one shot the first day anyway—we have cockpit installation, sideguns and a full paint job still on the “Priorities” email list!

Guy Klender and Jason Thompson, our astounding art direction duo, work at attaching the front side guns (created wholly from mundane pieces and parts from the home plumbing aisle from the Lowe’s in D’Iberville). These are the same dedicated, talented guys that, with other friends in Los Angeles, created the well exit: the free-standing stone block structure festooned with hieroglyphics and Egyptian wall carvings. They had pet names for each block. These guys are serious perfectionists and die-hard Indy fans. Meanwhile, production coordinator Karl Preusser works on pretty much everything, from plane construction to rolling the white circle to stepping in as the Mechanic when the actor became unavailable.

The constructed well exit in Vancleave, Mississippi

The constructed well exit in Vancleave, Mississippi

Maria Katsimanis, a tough-as-nails construction gal and one of my oldest, dearest friends, repairs the damage from the latest rain to thatch on the straw hut and atop the tower. In addition to grading the dirt road to the location, contractor Jo Collins built the straw hut and tower. Maria led that charge, working unpaid on her weekends (and birthday) after working construction all week. And killed it.

Six months earlier, Chris found an immensely talented designer in the New Orleans area, who was up for brainstorming how such a gigantic faux Flying Wing aircraft could be constructed from the wheels up: David T. Carambat and Industrial Object. I compiled screengrabs from the original movie, captured months’ worth of our collective brainstorming (e.g. using shop fans for propellers) in notes and sketches and sent them to Carambat.

From this rough fodder, Carambat then wielded his expertise in designing top-of- the-line aerodynamic speed boats to produce CAD files that outline the angle and dimensions to each section and part, specifying recommendations for materials to be used. A precise replica of the fictional Flying Wing airplane (inspired by history but not from it), moveable around an arc, with a 75” wingspan.

Zala's notes for plane designer David Carambat

Zala’s notes for plane designer David T. Carambat

Airplane construction chief Mark Spain is a tank. With Carambat’s blueprints, some steel I-beams my stepdad Dave donated, volunteers and paid joiners, Mark obtained from Gulfport metal shop Register Metals a place to build the plane over a period of months. There, Mark singlehandedly constructed the landing gear and did all the structural welding on the entire plane.

Carambat's blueprints for the airplane

Carambat’s blueprints for the airplane

Once complete, it was dissembled, driven in a convoy of trucks in the wee hours of the morning to this dirt pit, to be reassembled. We rented equipment and let Mark do his thing. Mark got a friend to loan his RV for some form of shelter. When the rain made our location a mud put, Chris called Ingalls, the local shipyard. Local 441 members are piling on to help. Are we going to make it? Mark’s answer never falters. “Yes.”

By the time the sun comes up the next morning, the plane is ready. We shoot the day’s first shots, even as Cheyne Greek (our location supervisor, stuntman, security and construction consultant who fashioned the propellers and the amazing fuel truck from a rusted-out 1949 junker) rolls the top of the plane’s wings with another coat of Olympic’s Autumn Gray.

We stay another hour after sunset, to discuss the next day’s shooting, in the dark. I collapse into bed around midnight, still filthy and sweaty, to get a few minutes additional sleep… before up bolting upright at 3:30 a.m. I must put together today’s shooting schedule. Everyone’s counting on me. Time shoots by in a blur. Push-ups. Shower. Coffee. Laptop. Struggle with my parents’ printer. At 5:20 a.m. it’s time to carpool to location.

My stepdad Dave Jensen installs the cockpits that he patiently crafted with precise detail over months, in the very basement at home where we shot the interiors of RAIDERS ADAPTATION as kids.

Zala’s stepdad, Dave Jensen, installs the cockpits that he crafted in the very basement at home where Zala, Stompolos and co. shot the interiors of Raiders: The Adaptation as kids

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, June 12; the sixth day. Dawn creeps over the treeline as we wind around, sipping coffee. We’ve kept the location a secret from the public, to avoid lookie-loos. The location’s secrecy is aided by its remoteness. However, we foresaw that people are going to get lost, looking for this spot in the wilderness, so we planted signs along the way to guide those meant to be there, its single word being an obscure Raiders reference.

Directional signs to the set of Raiders: The Adaptation

Directional signs to the set of Raiders: The Adaptation

Upon arrival we pile out, set things in motion and say hi to Chef Danie, in charge of catering, who with her family have been there very early, fixing up hearty bacon and biscuits, coffee and fruit.

Action. Chris slips into channeling Harrison Ford with a dash of his own flare. He wearily lowers his head to fuselage as the actor Rob Fuller, playing “Muscular German,” taunts him in German to put up his dukes, I smile. Playing Indy this time around, he doesn’t have to pretend not to be a kid. Come to think of it, we’re both older than Steven and Harrison when they did this.

DP Francisco Gonzalez tracks Rob, assisted by PA David Ashby, as Guy Walker rolls sound

DP Francisco Gonzalez tracks actor Rob Fuller, assisted by PA David Ashby, as Guy Walker rolls sound

My brother Kurt flew in from Boston to reprise his role as Major Gobler. He strides across the tarmac and is saluted by a passing squad of German soldiers. Everyone laughs. It’s the Deutsches Afrikakorps Reenactment Group, a group of dedicated historical reenactors (who do multiple time period impressions) from Coastal Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. They have driven hours and hours to get here, supplying their own gear, including historically accurate-to-the-original-movie uniforms, insignia and costume configurations. Lauren Pursley and her online company, wephaus.com, helped bring to us these cheerful volunteers, and worked constantly with us to reschedule them, on the fly, due to the rain delays that week. They are great to work with.

Our “Marion” is to arrive for her first day. Angela Rodriguez is the cast member that post-screening audiences ask us about often. Even at age 16, Angela had that Marion Ravenwood quality. At 14 I approached her in the parish hall at St. John’s with an oh-so-dubious sounding pitch: “My friends and I are making a movie. Do you want to be in it?” She said yes, thankfully. Having no idea, I’m sure, that she was committing four summers of her life to recreating Marion Ravenwood with these geeky kids.

Angela has a blast on the shoot. As when we were kids, she is prepared, professional and great in her role. It’s wonderful to direct her again.

New Picture (17)

Angela Rodriguez as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders: The Adaptation

On Thursday night, we finish shooting and then do a “Pyro Press Day,” organized by Chris’s mom, Elaine Stevens. This is a pyro demonstration and interviews with local press.

About pyrotechnics: Dan Todd is our special effects coordinator and pyrotechnic supervisor, who engineered the truck’s “water gag”—the mechanics behind the fuel cap popping off and spilling pressurized water. A professional licensed pyrotechnician from Alabama, Dan volunteered to take on the fuel truck with Cheyne, in addition to exploding the tower, fuel depot… and the airplane itself.

On Monday, June 16, we blew up the plane! (What happened when we did that is shown in the documentary Raiders! so I won’t spoil it here. I will only say that it bonded us all, as in cement.)

Storyboards of the explosion sequence

Storyboards of the explosion sequence

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tuesday, June 17. The last day. Due to the plague of rain throughout, nine days of shooting the Airplane Scene has become 11. To make my flight back to Vegas, the last one out of Gulfport, I will need to call print on the last shot by 4 p.m.

We have to finish. None of it matters if we don’t finish. Just like before. I am ultimately responsible for our finishing, through my choices for each day. We shoot every minute that there is sunlight, dry dirt and no rain. No let-up.

I’ve just lost my right-hand guy, the truly fantastic 1st AD Michael Mobley, who had stepped in when our 1st AD Brook left. Michael, a true hero of the production, and a new friend, has had to fly back to Austin last night due to work. I’ve asked PA Barbara Ann Synowiez to take Michael’s place. She’s not been an AD before, but is game.

Also making things interesting: I’m directing myself as Belloq. I’ll have to make guesses as to how the shots look, because at this point there is no time to squint in the sun at the video playback. There is no time left for another take anyway. It’s been like that every day: a runaway rollercoaster ride into greater and more dire—and sublime—highs and lows. Reaching a crescendo.

My shots are all on this last day as a practicality, minimizing time spent cleaning my white linen suit tailor-made by Todd Coyle. For the first time, I sit in the makeup trailer, and makeup artist KC Mussman shapes my hair into that windblown ’80s style worn by Paul Freeman in this scene.

On Friday, it had gotten down to whether we could manage to pull off a highly complex shot filmed aboard the moving plane rotating around its arc, with a fire trail from burning supply depot to the leaking fuel truck in the background, while Chris shot the hatch and pulled Marion out. We had to get this in one shot, or or write off completing all the plane’s shots in time to blow it up. We made it. But it was so damn hard. Later, Michael told me over beers after we finally got the shot, he had to sit down and weep. I knew how he felt.

Greg Suelzer, standing in for Guy as Pilot. Casey Dillard (Marion’s stand-in), Eric, Chris, Nick (1st AC).

(L-R) Greg Suelzer, standing in for Guy James Walker, as the pilot; Casey Dillard (Marion’s stand-in), Zala, Stompolos, 1st AC Nick Ramey

Back to Tuesday. It’s the first shot of the day: Chris falls to the ground, at Rob’s feet. It’s both their wrap shot. Next, a big one: following Belloq, Dietrich and Gobler, in a tracking shot around the cooled-off airplane wreckage. I’m to be in the shot so I ask Chris, now in civvies, to stand in for me.

Cher, our casting director and 2nd 2nd AD, and I direct the Arab extras. Then the same process for blocking the German extras. Then together. We’re behind schedule.

I run over to the video monitor that 2nd AC Marco Colosimo has set up. A run-through. Action! Everyone—Mike as Dietrich, Kurt as Gobler, extras—begins walking around the smoking wreckage of the plane, as Francisco dollies around the track, and soldiers and extras mill about. Except for Chris, who roots himself, immobile.

Me: “Chris, why didn’t you go?”

Chris: “You didn’t give me any direction.”

Back to square one. I take my place as Belloq, skipping the video live run-through for my eyes—no time. Got to hope for the best. We get it in three.

Next: the tower explosion. My friend Maria is present, bringing her band of Jo Collins co-workers to see the craziness. Their work, the tower, is gloriously destroyed. I see real joy in Maria’s eyes. Another shot done.

One more, and it’s time for lunch. Despairing, I don’t want to ask these people to skip lunch to finish. Everyone’s pulled hard. DP Francisco insists, “We will work through!” The cry goes out: Everyone’s in—we’re working through, to make 4 p.m.! I’ve such an amazing crew.

Team Raiders in 1988 and 2014

Team Raiders in 1988 and 2014

The day continues to see-saw sickeningly through such highs and lows. I will later tell Cass that the experience in a way reminded me of living through Katrina and its aftermath. Extreme experiences bring out the very best and worst in people.

Last shot: I burst out of the Command Tent, shouting, “Stay with the Ark!” and run toward a towering column of black smoke, amid Mike Bales reprising his role as Col. Dietrich, German soldiers and Arab extras. Francisco jokes that we’re going to be so tight, that once I start running, I should just keep going, all the way to Cass, and hop into her car, revving for the airport.

We get it. The last shot. I check my watch: 4 p.m. on the nose. Just enough time for a quick round of hugs and byes, and my arm is being pulled by my wife, who’s come to whisk me away to make today’s last flight out of Gulfport. I must be back in Las Vegas in my office at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

Driving out of the dirt pit for the last time, I’m elated that we did it, though I know that it’ll never come together in exactly the same way as before—those wild days together.

Settling into my window, we taxi and lift off. The plane arcs over the verdant Mississippi landscape; amazingly, it passes over Vancleave, right over where we shot. Goodbye, Omar’s. I’m back home. As I wash the dirt out, I miss it all already. We left a part of ourselves there, in that dirt pit. It has changed me.

Team Raiders, Chris and I cannot express adequately the gratitude that we feel for your getting up early each of those 11 days, enduring rain and heat, in the dirt pit until dark, to make the dream real. For your hard work, patience, passion and commitment, thank you, thank you, thank you. A 30-year-old dream was fulfilled at last, at the hands of you all. Glad you were there, riding the roller coaster with us. Thank you! MM

Raiders of the Lost Art: The Adaptation, now with the finished Airplane Scene, is now touring across the country with its filmmakers in attendance, screening in double feature with Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon’s documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, courtesy of Drafthouse Films. See the complete tour schedule here.

Photographs by Shelly Stallings. Storyboards by Nick Adducci.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.