The swede smell of success
“We did it simply for ourselves. We had our pipe dreams for this,” explained Chris Strompolos, the 37-year-old director of the now-famed Indiana Jones remake, “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.”
Together with two middle-school friends, Strompolos, then just 12, started filming a shot-for-shot remake of the original “Raiders” in the backyards of their Mississippi homes in 1981. Eight years later it was completed; fourteen years after that, it was screened; and today, Strompolos and another “Raiders” collaborator own their own movie production company.
In their quest to make the adaptation, elaborate as it was, Strompolos and his friends were the unwitting progenitors of today's so-called “sweders”--amateur moviemakers who, spurred by the release of a new movie, “Be Kind Rewind,” recreate their own hyper-shortened, cheap adaptations of movie favorites.
Most of these new amateur directors still only dream of the kind of recognition Strompolos and his friends eventually received--Strompolos has a congratulatory letter from Steven Spielberg himself hanging on his wall--but YouTube and inexpensive digital video equipment have made it possible for an untold number of amateur filmmakers to remake movie classics in an even more homegrown and intentionally kitschy way. Many do it for fun, while others harbor dreams of Hollywood glory.
“The idea is to bring people together to use the technology communally,” said S.T. VanAirsdale, the newly-named editor of defamer.com, the Hollywood gossip site. “A good way for people to do that is to look at the movies they love and bond over making their own.”
Amateurs, of course, have been shooting movies since the medium’s genesis. A young Steven Spielberg, for example, shot a 140-minute feature, “Firelight,” the story of a small-town alien abduction, on a budget of $400 when he was just 16 years old. The movie would later become the basis for his 1977 smash “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
With sweding, however, the film director Michel Gondry has endowed a new validation toward this smaller strand of burgeoning filmmakers in his movie “Be Kind Rewind,” and coined a new term in the process.
(In the movie, two video rental store clerks--played by Jack Black and Mos Def--begin shooting their own versions of famous flicks after their entire stock of rentals was destroyed. The two charge higher rental fees as a result, because the new, remade movies are from Sweden, they explain. With this, a neologism was born.)
Gondry’s tightly-defined idea of sweding has produced an increasing number of amateur Spielbergs, most of whose shorts run two minutes or less. Even Hollywood is starting to take notice, with a big screen adaptation of the story behind “Raiders: The Adaptation” in the works. In addition, a movie by filmmaker Garth Jennings about his experiences as an 11-year-old in 1980s Britain seeking to remake a version of “Rambo” will be released in June.
Back on the ground, sweders like London-based Claudia Yusef, Freya Elliott and Josh Elliott will continue to do things the layperson’s way. Freya and Claudia's two-minute “Thelma and Louise” reproduction was runner-up in a contest sponsored by Gondry and his movie, and Freya and Josh's two-minute “Willy Wonka” remake has been viewed more than 8,000 times since being posted to YouTube three weeks ago.
“I’m convinced the main appeal of sweding for my sister is to get me to do ridiculous things at ungodly times of the day and for ludicrous durations,” Josh Elliott said. In “Willy Wonka,” Josh alternately plays Charlie Bucket, Veruca Salt, and Wonka himself, replete with various colored wigs and costumes to fit each character. The three said they shot their movies with a 2001 Panasonic DV camera, and edited them with iMovie, the free movie-editing software that comes with any Mac computer purchase.
For Paul Hurley, a 38-year-old information technology consultant from Robertsbridge, England, sweding could be his first step toward a career in movies. Hurley entered and won Gondry’s sweding contest with an adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's psychological horror classic “The Shining,” featuring his wigged fiancée as Jack Nicholson’s victimized wife, and Hurley as the crazed Nicholson himself. (Yusef, co-creator of the “Thelma and Louise” remake, cited Hurley’s “Shining” as her favorite sweded movie to date.)
“It was like a 24-hour film school,” Hurley said. “We shot it in two days and edited it in one.”
Hurley said his budget consisted of just enough money to buy a black wig for the Shelley Duvall role, and after borrowing a video camera and editing the movie on Microsoft Windows Moviemaker, not another dime was spent.
The success of his “Shining” adaptation--the 120-second movie has been viewed almost 25,000 times on YouTube--has gotten him and his fiancée thinking bigger. He said that he plans on not only sweding the rest of Kubrick's movies, but also filming a serious short this summer.
“We are huge film fans,” Hurley said. “Film directing would be our dream job.”
For Josh Blake, a 16-year-old high school student from Culver City, Calif., making movies intentionally bad is part of the process.
“We tried to make it look kinda crappy,” he said of his movie, a 52-second re-shooting of “Goldfinger.” His short features a soundtrack he sang himself, a shot of a paper cutout instead of the inside of a gun barrel, and transparently fake British accents. “It didn't look like we put in a lot of thinking,” Josh said, :but we put in a lot.”
Like Blake, most sweders did their movies for fun and attention, with just a vague ambition of future Hollywood stardom. But a few of them have managed to attract Hollywood's attention, even if the big studios seem less interested in the sweded movies than the stories of sweders themselves.
Scott Rudin, who this year won an Academy Award for producing “No Country For Old Men,” has signed on to produce a movie version of the story of Strompolos and his two "Indiana Jones" collaborators, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb. Strompolos said the script was finished and that the movie was in pre-production.
In June, “Son of Rambow,” Garth Jennings’s semi-autobiographical story about his and his friends' attempts to shoot a version of the action flick, will be released in the United States and Britain. Jennings said that “Son of Rambow,” his second full-length feature after “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 2005, would be different from the movies he made when he was young.
“When we were kids,” Jennings said, “we always ended up with something utterly nuts.”