Eric Zala, the Incredible Life Story of an Ocean Springs Native

The 80s…it was when technology began to take us places we never thought possible. The home computer was introduced, and nothing would ever be the same. Kids now had an impressive assortment of playthings at every level of sophistication. This new market catered to the little darlings, to the tune of over 13 billion dollars in sales. The digital age had revolutionalized play time. Kids became glued to television screens, sitting for hours on end to save the world from Space Invaders or help Donkey Kong jump over barrels. Thankfully, three very resourceful, imaginative and bright little boys in South Mississippi decided they would spend the decade making a movie instead! With little more than allowance money to buy props and costumes, as well as using whatever they could find, they created a nearly shot-for-shot remake of the 1981 blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark. To date, the film has been screened all over world to sell out crowds…and that is just the beginning.
  Eric Zala grew up in the little city of Ocean Springs during the 80’s. He was always a creative and adventurous fellow, with a wonderful mother who encouraged his unique take on things and his self expression. Eric particularly loved comic books. His imagination soared while reading about his favorite super heroes foiling evil deeds. He would sit for hours and draw elaborate comics on the back of envelopes, to illustrate his own storyline. The art was always important to Eric, but it was the story that enthralled him. He dreamt of being a comic book artist one day and working for DC Comics.
In 6th grade, Eric was introduced to the subject of film making through a class project. He completely immersed himself in it and discovered that he had stumbled upon another medium that he flipped over. A fellow student saw the finished product, he was a 5th grader named Chris Strompolos. He was very impressed with the little film and approached Eric to congratulate him. “He thought I knew what I was doing,” Eric said. “But I had absolutely no idea!” The two began a friendship during a long bus ride home one day. Eric noticed Chris had a copy of the Raiders of the Lost Ark comic book, and asked to borrow it…this single moment would change the lives of these boys forever.
Chris had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark when it first was released in May, 1981. The movie was the most fantastic, exciting and fun thing he had ever seen. “Chris told me that it split his brain open! He said he had no idea that movies could have that affect on anyone,” Eric said. At his first opportunity, Eric saw the movie too. “It was such an amazing ride. It made me see the power of cinema…that giant boulder barreling through the cave at Indy…It was like, Oh My God! This is the coolest thing ever!” There was no turning back, Eric was completely smitten with all things Indiana Jones and Chris felt exactly the same way.
The following summer of 1982, 11 year old Chris called 12 year old Eric with a brilliant idea. He wanted to do a remake of the movie and offered Eric the chance to help. It took all of five seconds for Eric to take him up on it. He thought that Chris had everything in place and was ready to go but it turned out that the only thing Chris had done so far, was to purchase a copy of the screen play from the local mall bookstore! The boys met at Eric’s house to talk things over. It was a big, rambling old place with a huge, sprawling basement. They decided it was the perfect location for the sound stage. All the rooms and the garage provided just what they needed for filming many of the scenes. Massive oaks surrounding the house were laden with Spanish moss as well.
A combination work plan/play date ensued. During that fateful afternoon, Eric and Chris made a pact to be partners. Eric would serve as the Director and Chris would play the principal character, Indiana Jones, and be the Producer. Soon another friend, Jayson Lamb, would join as Cinematographer and Special Affects man. Together they would remake the 22 million dollar, Lucas/Spielberg blockbuster…on their allowances. It would also be finished by the end of the summer.
Eric’s mother allowed the boys free reign to develop their ideas. Chris and Eric were very different, yet they complimented one another and got along famously. “I am very visual, a perfectionist and was an introvert. Chris, on the other hand has always been outgoing, gregarious, very energetic and charismatic. We were both captivated by fantasy which is why Indiana Jones was the perfect film for us,” Eric said. “As much as I loved Raiders, I never would have thought to do this but Chris is a starter and I am a finisher. Most neighborhood kids would have loved to play Indiana Jones for an afternoon, but to come back year after year and see such an ambitious project through…that is extraordinary,” Eric added.
Youth is a wonderful thing. You think you are invincible, that nothing is out of reach, and you enter into life experiences with wild abandon. Eric, Jayson and Chris did exactly that. They had absolutely no idea what they were doing…all they knew was that they were going to do it!  Backyard play can manifest itself into wondrous, magical moments that shape who we are and what we will be.
To gather actors, Eric got on the telephone and went one by one from a handwritten list, calling friends and neighborhood kids to be in his movie. “Hey Jimmy! We’re filming this weekend – how about joining us…yeah, it is going to rain but it will be fun!” There was never a shortage of actors.
In 1982, the boys worked on pre-production. Eric drew hundreds of story boards by hand that illustrated each scene, frame by frame. These drawings and directives would become the bible for the young film makers. Eric and Chris were able to go and see the movie only twice, so they had to memorize as much as they could of the dialog, locations, costumes and sets. One time they snuck into the theater with a big, clunky tape recorder hidden under Chris’s shirt, hoping to record all the sounds and conversations to review later. It did not turn out as they hoped, and they also got into trouble with the usher.
They began shooting the next year. When they looked at the footage, they were very disappointed. It was poorly executed and under lit, blurry and off center. “It was a great learning experience but the film was so bad that we threw away every inch of it and decided to start from scratch. The following year, we really improved and were finally getting usable footage. We shot some of the same scenes many times until we got it right. Film making on the fly allowed us to study our mistakes, and each time we got better and better. We learned about the technical aspects and the nuances of acting. Only when we were completely satisfied with a particular scene, did we move on to shoot another,” Eric said.
Whatever they needed, Chris and Eric would figure out a way to make it happen. Initially, they thought it was a great idea to apply spray paint to costume pieces so that they would look just like the real thing. It didn’t work too well, but they learned what was best through trial and error. They used Raiders of the Lost Ark specialty books, magazines, calendars, the musical score album, trading cards and whatever else they could find as sources of information to build upon. For birthdays or Christmas, the boys only asked for things that pertained to the movie. Whatever props they couldn’t make, they would go shopping, having saved every penny themselves from mowing lawns, doing household chores and delivering pizza. “We did this because it was cool. We loved the character and it was so much fun. We wanted to BE Indiana Jones, the good guy who always punched out the bad guys and saved the girl. We had no other motives, no thoughts of the future but we knew we had to finish what we started,” Eric said.
Stunts are the most important component of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Throughout the movie, death defying action is coming at you left and right, from beginning to end. Eric and Chris had no qualms with recreating these incredible scenes for their adaptation. Once again they used ingenuity and self reliance to copy what was in the original however, it is a miracle they were not killed or maimed in the process. These young boys thought nothing of the dangers involved when they doused Eric in gasoline and set him a blaze or smothered his face in plaster for the sake of art. They never imagined what could happen as a result of smashing through a windshield or rolling under a moving truck. When they filmed the famous bar scene in Eric’s basement, they almost burned the whole house down.
Almost all the interior shots were filmed in Eric’s mother’s house, and mostly in the basement. “We went to the local K-Mart and bought as many bottles of isopropyl alcohol as we could afford because we knew it was very flammable. For safety, I wore a fire retardant rain coat under the costume, so I figured I had covered all the bases. Then one day, I decided to ask the guys to pour gasoline all over my back because I figured it would work even better! The scene began, someone yelled ‘Action’ and they lit me with a torch. My fake beard, the turban on my head and my costume were immediately engulfed in flames,” Eric said. Every time the ‘special affects’ guy tried to put the fire out with a blanket, the flames grew higher and even more menacing. The kids had a Plan B in place for such emergencies, which was to grab the fire extinguisher. Chris sprung into action and saved the life of his friend by blasting him with its contents. “When our moms found out about what happened, they shut us down for the whole summer and we were forbidden to work with fire again,” Eric said.
Filming commenced each June, just like a summer camp. The moms were known as “the studio bosses,” and the boys decided they needed to prove to them that they understood fire safety and would never again get into such trouble. An adult chaperone was chosen to monitor the rest of the film schedule, however, this person was even less responsible than the kids were! The pyrotechnics continued, and guardian angels obviously watched over the youngsters, because they lived to tell the tale.
The ambitious team shot every scene in the Raiders movie, with the exception of the airplane scene. By the time they were ready to attempt that shoot, they were nearing their late teens. They were wiser and more cautious now, and no matter how they tried to work it out…it never felt right. Every other scene is in the movie. “I had the most unique and amazing childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My mother was so patient and supportive. She basically let us take over her entire house for all those years. We could have never done any of this without her. Chris’s mom drove us to every location until we were old enough to drive ourselves. She also gave us constant emotional support and never stopped believing in us,” Eric said.
  In 1988, at the age of 18, Eric graduated from Ocean Springs high school and then moved to Manhattan to attend NYU Film School. He was awarded a scholarship and majored in Film and Television Production. He graduated with honors in 1992, and was presented with the prestigious “Consistent Excellence in Filmmaking Award” upon completing his studies. Making the transition from growing up in such a small town to living in heart of New York City was quite a culture shock for the young Mississippian, but he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In his Senior year at NYU, he wrote and directed a drama for his thesis and garnered over 20 film festival awards. “An Early Twilight” also won 1st Place at the National Media Owl Awards, The IAC International Medallion, and Best of Show at the Council on International Non-Theatrical Events.
The remake of the Raiders of the Lost Ark wrapped in 1989. In August, the Allen Beverage Auditorium in Gulfport was the setting for the original “world premiere” of the film. Chris’s mother, Elaine Stevens (head of marketing at the IP Casino Resort Spa), hosted the event and generously rented the venue for the occasion. It was a magical evening, with two hundred in attendance, including many members of the cast. The crew was now ready to close the book on a job well done. Chris was going to the College of Wooster in Ohio and major in acting. Jason went to northern California to an Arts and Sciences college, and Eric went back to New York to finish his studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
In 1994, Eric moved to Los Angeles to work in the video game industry. He lived with a roommate at the time, who had also been a fellow student at NYU, Frank Reynolds. Frank asked to watch the tape of the Raiders remake and when it was over and he took the film and made a copy of it. Frank showed it to someone else who also loved it and made another copy. This happened quite a few times, but then a copy wound up in the hands of Eli Roth.
Roth was a horror movie director, who was on the fast track with his film, “Cabin Fever.” It had just been picked up for distribution by Lionsgate. Eli loved Eric’s movie and is so impressed with it that he brought it along with him as he is taking meetings with some of the biggest players in Hollywood. While Roth is pitching his movie to Dreamworks, he eagerly offers the battered and old bootleg copy of Raiders to Steven Spielberg’s team, and urges them to watch it.
The head of Production at Dreamworks is skeptical but takes the movie home anyway. He enjoyed it so much and knew that it was important for Spielberg to see it too. When Steven Spielberg watched the film, he was so moved, and felt so honored for the tribute that he insisted on acknowledging Eric, Chris, and Jason with a personal letter of appreciation, but had no idea how to locate them. Through the credits at the end of the Raiders Adaptation, and with the help of the information super highway, Jayson was found first and then the rest of the crew. They all received a beautiful, heart felt letter of thanks from Steven Spielberg. Nothing could have meant more to them because the praise came from their boyhood mentor and idol.
At the same time, another copy of the Raiders Adaptation wound up in Austin, Texas, once again courtesy of Eli Roth. It was being shown at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The venue is a Mecca for film lovers and a magnet for movie buffs. Each year during the Fall, a very special 24 hour movie marathon takes place, where a carefully chosen, very eclectic selection of movies is offered for viewing. A brief look of the film came across the screen, and the audience went wild. Hundreds of people stood up and cheered, and didn’t want it to end.
When the “sneak peak” main movie came on, which was the tremendous, soon to be released, The Lord of The Rings The Two Towers, the audience booed and got very vocal because it interrupted the Raiders film. They wanted to go back to the little kids from Mississippi and find out what was going to happen next! Almost immediately afterwards, the internet was buzzing about the piece of film people saw in Austin, and they wanted more. They were insisting on being able to see the entire thing.
The owner of the Drafthouse Cinema contacted Eric and offered him the opportunity to have a proper “world premiere” of the Raiders Adaptation. Chris, Eric, and Jayson had not seen one another in years, having gone their seperate ways. “Chris and I had a serious falling out as well. We hadn’t spoken in a very long time. But when we saw eachother again, we hugged and let it all go. Our friendship was more important,” Chris said. The line for the premiere, wound through three city blocks. The men were dumbfounded, and began to have a case of the jitters. He continued,”We couldn’t imagine what all the hoopla was all about? I made note of where all the exits were, in case we had to run for our lives when it was over!”
Once again, the film was recieved with open arms, and the audience loved it from beginning to end. A five minute standing ovation was the culmination of the evening. Eric and his partners could barely speak when they were introduced on stage because of the thundering applause.
As a result of the excitement and demand for this movie, the gentlemen have been besieged by amazing opportunities and and over the top experiences. They met with Steven Spielberg in his office at Dreamworks, and they had a premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theater in L.A (formally Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where the stars have their handprints and footprints immortalized in cement). They did a screening at Pixar which resulted in a standing ovation, and also did a private employee screening at Skywalker Ranch. During that visit, they were treated to a tour of of the archives building where they revelled in the joy of being able to touch and feel and simply sit beside the many famous props from the Indiana Jones movies. Eric said, “We did not play it cool. We could barely speak to be in the presence of these things…it was so great!” Although they have not meet George Lucas as of yet, he did request a copy of the Raiders remake for his library, and they were honored to oblige.
Paramount Pictures and mega-producer, Scott Rudin, have purchased the rights to the life story of Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb. A script has been written and it will eventually be made into a major motion picture. They were consultants on the script and are delighted with what they have seen thus far. In addition, a book is being written by well known author, Alan Eisenstock. It will tell the entire story of the remarkable journey of these three little boys who grow to manhood while making their homage to Indiana Jones. The first manuscript will be finished this summer. “Alan told me that it is really intense. It examines our friendship and fully covers all the human aspects of what we did, not just the hijinx,” Eric said. The book will be published in the summer of 2012 by St. Martin’s Press, one of the largest publishers in the country.
Since then, the film has been screened all over the world, at over 80 venues with no signs of losing it’s appeal. The invitations keep coming, and every screening is a sell out. “Because we were kids, and knew nothing about the laws of copywriting, we had no idea and never addressed the issue. We have been offered hundreds of dollars for a copy of our film, but we always decline, as it’s important to remain respectful and non-exploitive of the original film. As such, we only screen for charities and non-profits to inspire new young filmmakers. We are so honored, and thrilled to be able to show our remake to audiences all over the globe,” Eric said.
This amazing story doesn’t end there. Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos (who now lives in Los Angeles) formed their own film production company called “Rolling Boulder Films.” They have a project in development which is a southern gothic adventure called, “What The River Takes.” The script is locked, locations have been scouted, a budget and shooting schedule are complete. Chris and Eric are putting the final touches on a Private Placement Memorandum for consideration for investors.”We have reached out to Morgan Freeman, Kristen Stewart, and Viggo Mortensen’s people, but nothing has been confirmed or locked in as of yet,” Eric said. Everything will be shot exclusively in the state of Mississippi. In the meantime, Eric is the Executive Director of the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center of Arts and Education (lovingly known to most as the Mary C). He and his wife live in Ocean Springs with their two children.
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