Portrait of the Artist as a Young Indiana Jones

by Peggy Neslon

8 October 2004

Chris StrompolosOn June 12, 2004 I caught up with Chris Strompolos, producer and star of the cult hit Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. The Adaptation is a scene by scene recreation of the first Indiana Jones film, shot in backyards, basements, swamps, and submarines in and around suburban Mississippi in the 1980s. Considered to be one of the best tribute, or fan, films ever made, it was shown at a weekend of screenings this summer in Worcester, Massachusetts, as part of Fanzillacon, the first convention by and for the creators of fan films. A project begun in a burst of enthusiasm after seeing Spielberg's hit, Chris and his friends Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb began making The Adaptation at age twelve and kept going every summer until they finished it at age eighteen. Now in his thirties, Chris stepped down from the screen to talk about his life in film from the inside out.

PN: So when you first got the idea to make the Raiders film, where you interested in it as, "I really want to make a movie?", or "I really want to be Indiana Jones, I want to live the adventure?"

CS: The latter. That's what propelled my heart into it. You know, as an eleven- and twelve-year-old kid you're not thinking about the big picture, you're thinking about immediate satisfaction. I don't think there was any little boy around that time that was coming off their Star Wars phase that didn't fully embrace the character of Indiana Jones as a new type of hero. Or a regenerated type of hero of the type that Lucas very successfully did. So I think it came from that place; Indiana Jones was scripted as a more accessible hero. I mean, I probably wasn't as intellectual about it then, or could re-think it like I can now, but psychologically he was like a normal guy who taught at a college. He had a cool job; previously, being an archaeologist wasn't a romanticized thing. It was professorial, kind of dry... but now, if somebody says 'archaeology', it's almost impossible to think of archaeology without: bullwhip, hat, leather jacket, you know? It's just iconic.

PN: Like he was coded by the clothes and the clothes were 'Casual American' which meant, you put 'em on, and you go!

CS: And that's all he needed! I mean, did Indiana Jones ever have any goddamned luggage? Never! He had everything that he needed.

PN: Just hanging off of him...

CS: His hat, and his jacket, and his gun and his bullwhip; and his intelligence. He was flawed, he would get himself into trouble, and get himself out of trouble, but he was impassioned, and he had a goal, and it was noble. The Ark of the Covenant is something that is also beautifully iconic, and that covers all sorts of areas of spirituality. I mean, I'm not coming from any particular Christian or Jewish perspective, the Ark of the Covenant was either a cool gold object or the pursuit of spirituality generally. And it was taken away from the bad guys.

PN: Who all wore very smartly tailored suits and had a lot of luggage!

CS: Yes indeed, all the baggage. And so, I fell in love with the character that way. My good buddy Eric Zala, who was the director and also played Belloq, was the big picture guy. That's why he ended up directing.

PN: So was he the one who said, we're going to do this shot-by-shot, and started talking about the scenes? Or did you start off just sort of filming yourselves walking around and then discussing, "Well, it doesn't look like the movie, so..."?

CS: We agreed at the beginning it was going to be shot for shot.

The young Indiana Jones, adapted.PN: That's a pretty sophisticated way to do a movie when you're twelve.

CS: I guess. I mean, I don't think we had any idea of the path that we were about to take, or how long it was going to take. Eric is funny, he says, "I thought I was walking into a situation where the sets were built, and the costumes were made, and lights were set up, we had a camera, a script was there, and we were all ready to go. All I would have to do is walk in and direct! Little did I know, the next 7 years of my life were going to be spent, just laboring away...!"

And, even to this day, I don't have anybody, creatively, who I have that type of chemistry with. Eric and I work so well together, and did even as kids. I had a certain sort of extraverted charisma, where I would suck people into the project. Eric would keep them there.

PN: Yeah, you need both.

CS: I would find locations and secure locations and get people to agree to things that I don't know how I got them to agree to!

PN: Like that battleship?

CS: Yeah, the submarine! When you ask and ask and ask and ask and ask and beg and plead, and it's no no no no no no no: and then you get a submarine.

And Eric was extremely methodical and very detailed, and also an incredible artist, and then we just worked hand-in-hand and took on those traditional roles, at a very early age, of producer/star, and director/writer/artist. And it just sort of matched.

PN: I think that's very rare to find someone you can really collaborate with.

CS: It's pretty weird. And you know we had our falling-out, over a girl, and...yeah. (laughing)

PN: How old were you then?

CS: I think I was seventeen. It was right at the end, when we were finishing things up. And Jayson Lamb of course was the special effects whiz, and did all the camerawork. So that triumvirate of creativity and balance just moved us forward.

PN: And then, once you had it done, a couple years went by, you were in college, you were out of college, were you just like, "Oh, that's kid stuff?" Or did you think, "Yeah, I did something really cool when I was younger?" Was it on the shelf, with the band medals...

CS: It sat on the shelf. It was such an achievement, and it had dominated my entire childhood.

PN: Yeah, like you grew up in it.

CS: Raiders of the Lost Ark. People ask me, "Is Raiders one of your favorite movies?" I'm a true film lover, you know, I love movies, good movies and bad movies. I love film. Raiders is not a movie to me. It was my childhood. Raiders represents a portion of my life, a window of my life, that defined me as a kid. Of course I loved the movie, the movie's great. But the connotation is entirely separate, it's a much bigger thing, and it is for Eric as well.

And so, after we finished, we all sort of went our separate ways. Eric went to NYU, and we all went to college, and then afterwards, Eric moved to Los Angeles, then I moved to L.A., and we ended up moving in together. I broke up with a girl and ended up moving out of my apartment and was like, "Dude, let me move in with you," and I got him a job, and we sort of leaned on each other for a little bit. And we got burned out with the industry. The film industry is a vicious industry out there. So we had our ups and downs, and kind of kept growing apart. We would screen it [The Adaptation] for employees at our companies where we worked but, otherwise, no. And Jayson, who is a very eccentric, highly creative, very intense person, went off to Northern California.

PN: Sounds like all my friends from Oakland!

CS: Yeah, Jayson is way out. He's really far out. Eric is now is living in Florida, working as a Quality Assurance Director for Electronic Arts, and I'm in L.A.

PN: So you said you now run a DVD production company?

CS: Yeah, it's not my personal company, I run a subsidiary company. The parent company is Crest National, which is a DVD replication packaging, post production complex. They have a creative division that does DVDs, produces them, designs them, and uses dubs, animation, encodes video. I run that facility.

PN: Do you feel like there's more creative control with making a film on DVD, versus making a film where you have to collaborate with so many people? Or is that not an accurate description of the two fields?

CS: Um, it's different, it's different. In the position that I'm in now, I'm in a managerial capacity. The big picture position. I've got my artists, I've got my technicians, I've got my Q/A guys, and I interface with the executive level when it comes down to doing financial forecasts at the end of the month. I report the bottom line. If the bottom line is good, they leave me alone. If the bottom line is not, they don't, and I have to justify my job: What are you doing? And so it's strange, I've actually moved out of this creative world and just in order to survive in Los Angeles, I've had the good - well, I guess good fortune, just from the survival aspect, of getting into corporate entertainment.

PN: You got kicked upstairs kind of thing.

CS: Yeah, and so that's paid my rent. Which is cool, but creativity is where my heart is. I mean, on the side I've pursued acting in L.A. for four and a half years, that's what I came there to do. I got burned out. I ran my own record label for a year and a half, produced bands and toured, and my hair was down to my ass and I wore leather pants, and had makeup.

PN: I have this vision in my head of the classic cool L.A. rock star...!

CS: (laughing) Oh, I rocked! And you know, you do that, and I went through that phase, and I was in video games, and worked for MGM and worked for ActiVision, and got into the DVD industry early, and that was sort of like my foot in the door. So, you find a way.

But creatively, this thing that I did when I was twelve is something that's opening creative doors for me again. Now that I'm thirty-three! And now that certain doors are open, Eric and I are going to start collaborating again in a serious way.

PN: So what do you think you will do next in terms of a creative project, or have you not thought it through yet?

CS: Well, the next creative project that is in my heart and soul right now is that I'm developing a screenplay with Eric, it's set in the 1950s, in Mississippi, and it's going to be a good, straight ahead, heartfelt action-adventure movie. Because doors have been opened, we can't do something creatively that falls too far from the tree. You know, we're like, 'The Raiders Guys.'

PN: Yeah, they want to package things, don't they.

CS: Yeah, they want to package things. So, I want to write, and I want to produce. And I want Eric to direct it. And, I was an actor first and foremost... everybody wants to act; but, you know, I'm also good at producing. I'm not a director.

PN: Wow, so you know.

CS: Yeah, I know right off the bat, and that's where Eric and I are the yin and yang. And so, really what I want to do is, now that the door is open, I want to break into the film industry, and do it for real. I want my own movie, I want to do my own film, I want to raise the financing and get financing and really break off from working for somebody else. I mean, you are working for somebody else because you're probably under a studio...

PN: But still, they're seeing you as the creative person. They always want something new, even though they think they want something old.

CS: Exactly. And I want to make money! I will readily admit that that is an aspect of the entertainment industry that is extremely intoxicating. But you also have to be highly realistic, being in Los Angeles, of knowing how to go about getting that. Because L.A. is full of trickery and full of a lot of paths - you can get off track.

PN: Or on other people's tracks, if they're highly persuasive?

CS: That's correct. But if you feel like it's a good move for yourself,...

PN: You probably have to keep checking in a lot, though, right?

CS: You do, you do; I mean, L.A.'s a hard city.

PN: How do you keep your ego intact? Especially doing the acting thing. I mean, it seems to me L.A. as a place is a more intense version of our whole culture which is all about external validation. "Do other people like me, does my mother say it's OK, are other people giving it money, and if they say it's OK today, is it going to be the same tomorrow?" And that kind of pressure just seems to have a nexus right at the acting level.

CS: Well, at the acting level ... I haven't acted in years. I stopped acting in '97. But I think that that sort of external validation can be applied probably to any aspect of the entertainment industry. Whether you're doing music, whether you're doing art, whether you're doing video or TV, whether you're writing, whether you're an executive, if you're working on the corporate level: there's validation from everybody. Because the entertainment industry is fueled by fear. And that undercurrent of fear from the bottom to the very very top, is something that is the beautiful weak point of the entertainment industry: if you have conviction, and you have a good idea, and you believe in yourself ...! But you'll soon realize that if you wait to get that validation from people, to find the strength in yourself to move a creative project forward, then you're going to be waiting a long time.

That's why I love Los Angeles. There's so much opportunity, but there's so much emotional politics and corporate politics and financial politics and social politics that go into getting that validation. "So, what are you doing?" "What are you working on?" "What's your last project?" "How much money is attached to the project?" "Are you working?" Even down to stupid things, like, if somebody gains weight (mock stage whisper), "Well, you know, they've gained a lot of weight.'" You know: something must be wrong in their life! I mean, that's so trivial, and that's on the acting level but it goes on everywhere. The more attention you can generate for yourself is what the whole entertainment thing is about, whether you have somebody doing that for you, agent, manager, producer, whoever,

PN: Because it's probably doing it for them in a certain way?

CS: Of course! Everybody wants to be affiliated with the next big thing or next hot thing or a hot project or notoriety. A buddy of mine in Los Angeles told me that when you go into a pitch meeting, not that I've taken a lot of pitch meetings, but when you go into a pitch meeting it's not about you, and your ideas, it's about them. It's about their ego, and their ideas, and selling them on what they can do with your idea. It's not you, it's not about you at all. You think, I'm going to go in there, and I've got the best idea in the whole world: No. You can be passionate about it, you can have a lot of conviction that it may in fact be a good idea; and if it is, that person's going to want to make it their own. Because they're building a foundation in their career because taken them a while to get to where they are, and since the entertainment industry runs on fear, they want to keep that position.

PN: It's so psychologically twisted.

CS: It is. It's why people burn out and go insane.

PN: So speaking of psychology, I think films are how we deal with meaning in our culture. Films are how we deal with questions of meaning, how we imagine how we can be, how we sort of dream while being awake, and create our own reality, because we can't do things unless we've already imagined them.

CS: Right.

PN: And the way you pursued the Indiana Jones thing when you were young, and sort of growing up through it, you became that meaning process through your formative years.

CS: Absolutely.

PN: I mean, I don't know anybody else who's 'lived' it. In a really healthy way. Not like somebody just being obsessed by it later, which turns into a neurosis.

CS: And that process of manifestation, those formative years, and manifesting that fantasy for myself was one of the things that actually formulated me, as a boy. I mean, you can psychoanalyze it, in retrospect. I have a different take on Indiana Jones, it's a passionate aspect of myself. I'm still a huge fan. But the thing is, this [Fanzillacon] is the perfect example. When they were asking me to do this festival, I initially turned them down and it wasn't something I was interested in. But this had an inspirational slant, and, you know, it was cool, it was fun. But, one of the things they wanted me to do, is dress up.

PN: They did???

CS: The role-playing, dressing up like Indy, and having the whole thing; there's nothing in my soul anymore that propels me to do that.

PN: Right. It's done.

CS: It's complete. It's done. And though I love the character and still would love to be on those adventures, and what have you ... but there's a whole fan-world that I've tapped into, with the Raiders thing, and people are still buying the whips and going to Indy Conventions where everybody dresses up like Indy.

PN: An Indycon thing!

CS: I can give you some fan sites that will blow. your. mind. And they're wonderful people! They're just like the people here. They're friendly, they're open, they're accessible, they're peaceful; they're not caustic people. They're passionate about what they do, they are functioning on the fringes of the social arena, but they've found their way, and they dig dressing up! And I don't have anything left in me that will ... it's like, that chapter is done. But it still keeps following me around in different evolving ways. The second coming [of The Adaptation] has taken on a whole other life; I mean, it's still evolving.

PN: Were you kind of ambivalent about it when it first started to happen? Or were you just like, "This is great!"

CS: I was surprised. Because I thought to myself, well, Eli Roth picked it up, and Harry got ahold of it, and he just thought it was the cat's meow, and invited us down, and I ... the thing I thought was, "I don't see why anybody would want to watch this." Why would you want to watch this?

PN: You really thought that?

CS: I honesty thought that. I thought, "This was just a Raider's film tribute that we did when we were kids, why the hell would you want to watch this? Wouldn't you be bored?" And I'm still surprised, every time people cheer and laugh and hoot and holler and stand up and give us a standing ovation, or whatever they do; I'm like, "God, they really liked it!"

PN: Yeah. They love it!

CS: And it's cool! That to me is satisfying. Harry Knowles said to us, "Guys, you just have to trust that you have a cool thing on your hands." And I thought, well, that makes me feel a little better. There was so much thrown at us in the beginning, with going down there, and the Premiere, and the review, and then Vanity Fair, and then Scott Rudin, and then NBC, and Craig Kilborn, and all that kind of stuff, it's exciting. But you have to process it.

PN: Or you fall right into the trap again.

CS: Yeah, yeah, because, you don't want to pat yourself on the back every two steps, you want to maintain clarity. So going back to your initial question about ego; I think, in terms of ego, and sorting out the ego in this whole thing, that it's an ongoing process. This is not the kind of movie that you stand behind and champion yourself, whereas most fan filmmakers will do that, they go out and promote their movies. This whole movie has completely evolved, totally on its own, without us having anything to do with it.

PN: Yeah, it's kind of alive, creeping around, out there...

CS: Honestly, people get ahold of it and they ask us. That puts us in a cool position, because we can do what we want. It's not a blockbuster film, it's not visually splendid: it's the story. And the charm. And the nostalgia!

[ Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, Chris has left the DVD company to devote himself fulltime to independent filmmaking. 'The Raiders Guys' have been taking The Adaptation out on the festival circuit, and Chris and Eric are moving ahead with plans for their next film project. Chris will be in San Francisco in February, 2005, as part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. Stay tuned! ]

(Peggy Nelson is a painter and writer for Otherzine.)