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Documentary Quickshots #3

Elstree 1976 (2015; Directed by Jon Spira)

Elstree 1976 is a modest movie about modest actors and extras whose modest film careers included bit parts in an immodestly successful and influential movie called Star Wars. Crossing paths one unseasonally warm English summer at London’s Elstree studio, they donned goofy costumes to make an odd science fiction movie (okay, I know, space opera, thanks) that some thought was a low-budget TV film but others more versed in the genre recognized as something potentially special. They moved on from there, some to the surprise megahit’s two sequels, others to prolific background careers, still others back to the respectable theatre roles that they took a break from to play exotic aliens or foot soldiers in a galatic conflict. But as the cultural profile of Star Wars grew to saturating proportions, many were sucked up in the maelstrom of its dedicated fandom, and began making lucrative appearances on the convention circuit.

I’m not at all certain what Elstree 1976 ultimately adds up to. Its subjects are too diverse, their experiences with both the film and its decades-long comet trail of fan enthusiasm both too variant and too samey to land any sort of impactful statement. There are internecine controversies in the geek-movie bit-player convention-circuit world, we are told. Cast members listed in the credits resent the uncredited extras who claim an equivalent mantle of fleeting notoreity and occupy autograph-signing booths next to them at fan events. One extra’s claim to be the infamous clumsy stormtrooper who bumps his head on a rising door on the Deathstar (certainly no laurel-draped honour) has even faced multiple counter-claims from other background players.

The most prominent cast member interviewed is clearly the towering English strongman David Prowse, who played megavillain Darth Vader in all facets except his voice. Prowse, whose mild West Country accent earned him the snickering behind-the-scenes nickname “Darth Farmer”, had his line readings later iconically overdubbed by the inimitable James Earl Jones, which he is paradoxically flattered and irritated by, seemingly at once. Prowse is also glad to have been involved in Star Wars and to continue to derive an income from it in his advanced age, but reserves some bitterness towards Lucasfilm and defied its corporate controls just enough to get himself banished from officially-sanctioned franchise events. One doubts that he’ll be invited back into the Vader suit for this year’s Star Wars film, Rogue One, which includes at least a cameo appearance by Darth.

Prowse himself may have been a rich enough subject for a documentary, but the group of veteran thespians, former models/bartenders, and flaky entertainment world hangers-on interviewed by director Jon Spira provide curious colour as well. All seem more than a little bemused at their continued relevance to Star Wars superfans, whether they were cool alien bounty hunters like Greedo or Boba Fett, the stormtrooper who gets an assist from the Force in realizing that these aren’t the droids he was looking for, or briefly-glimpsed Rebel Alliance honour guards. Fan obsession has given them a chance to cash in on their momentary brush with history, and they’ll take the opportunity with a smile.

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015; Directed by Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon)

A no less obsessive but far more creatively active facet of movie fandom is witnessed in Raiders! The enthusiasm that the throngs who line up for the autograph of the unglimpsed actor playing a stormtrooper or bounty hunter in a galaxy far, far away was likewise felt by a trio of teenaged boys in 1980s Mississippi for the daring adventures of rough-and-tumble archaeologist. So inspired were Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb by Steven raidersSpielberg’s 1981 action-adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark that they decided to make a film of their own. Or rather, they decided to remake that same film, shot for shot, starring themselves and their friends, over nearly a decade, with a scraped-together budget approaching a final figure of $5000 and loads of brazen inventiveness.

The dedication, ingenuity, and sheer juvenile recklessness involved in this long-term project is more than a little astounding and more than worth the documentary feature treatment. Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure blockbuster fare: impressive sets, cutting-edge special effects (for its time, anyway), thousands of extras, and, most of all, thrilling stuntwork that would be extremely dangerous for even trained professionals to attempt. These plucky teenagers tackle it all: they’re chased by rolling boulders, beset by a tomb full of snakes, and dragged behind a truck (albeit one without an engine). They even set themselves (and the basement of one of their parents’ home) on fire. The resulting giddily amateur fan film, entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, has been touring the U.S. to cheering film geek audiences for a decade since cult filmmaker Eli Roth sprung an old VHS copy of it upon the attendees of Ain’t It Cool News‘ annual marathon film festival, creating major internet buzz and earning the film its own packed screening at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Theatre (whose production arm oversaw this documentary). Spielberg himself even came across the fan film, and set a meeting with its three creators as adults to praise them for their efforts and tell them how they inspired him further as a filmmaker.

The best moments of Raiders! involve the reminiscences of the principal trio and the legion of family members and friends who participated in the venture, but there’s more to the film than stardust memories of misspent youth. But there’s more to the film than that, even though the incredible stories of the years-long production could fill an hour or more on their own. Intercut with the backstory of the Raiders adaptation is the documentation of Zala and Strompolos’ current-day attempt to raise necessary funds and surmount the necessary challenges to film the one sequence from Spielberg’s classic that stymied their teenaged resources: the explosion-filled white-knuckle fight scene between hero Indiana Jones and a towering Nazi muscleman beneath a life-sized prototype airplane.

Both the high production values and standard behind-the-scenes challenges that Zala and Strompolos face to complete this sequence are far out of step with the DIY aesthetic that made their childhood re-creation so charming. But the struggles that they face as adults – Zala with a family to provide for and a demanding boss insisting that he return to his paid work, Strompolos to find direction and stability after struggles with poverty and drug addiction, even Lamb to reconcile with the duo of friends whom he felt minimized his contribution to The Adaptation – put the more whimsical obstacles of their youthful moviemaking into context. The documentary’s juxtaposition of these challenges is a fine exemplification of the nature of maturation and conforming forces of American society. But the film’s postscript – Zala leaves his constricting job to start a film production company with his childhood compatriot Strompolos – suggests that in the creative class that springs from and feeds on the energy of fandom, the conventional narrative arc of “growing up” can have unexpected detours.

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