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Indiana Jones Fan Spotlight: Michael

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The lifelong fan’s passion for all things Indy is a family affair in more ways than one.

Earlier this year, Indiana Jones fans from around the world made their way to California for the Hollywood premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023). Among them were the Hills, a family of three from the East Coast of the United States, each sporting a distinctive costume.

The son, six-year-old Henri, was dressed in a pith helmet, trousers, and boots à la The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones when the youthful Indy joins his family on an African safari (Henri’s costume even included Indy’s journal and binoculars). The mother, Diana, appeared as Willie Scott from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) when the strong-willed performer borrows Indy’s tuxedo for their trek through the jungles of India. Michael, the father, wore the iconic fedora and leather jacket of cinema’s favorite archaeologist.

As fellow fans and other premiere attendees interacted with the family, what most of them didn’t know was that young Henri was equally known by his middle name: Indiana.

The passion for Indiana Jones in the Hills family began with Michael, who has enjoyed the stories since his childhood in the 1980s and ‘90s (before seeing the movies, he was introduced to the character in the Marvel comic books). “I am the product of mixed parentage,” he explains. “My father’s roots are British, and my mom is a Dutch Burgher Sri Lankan (a Eurasian ethnic group), so my siblings and I are literally West meets East.”

The island of Sri Lanka, of course, is known to Indy fans as the shooting location for a number of scenes in Temple of Doom, including the Mayapore village, Indian jungles, and perilous rope bridge across a river gorge (the latter specially constructed near the town of Kandy next to the tallest dam on the island, the Victoria Dam). “In 1984, I was still very young but there was a lot of buzz about this new Indiana Jones movie that was filming in Sri Lanka,” Hills explains. “It turned out we had a family friend who was hired as a line producer/production supervisor for Temple of Doom, Chandran Ratnum, so he came and visited our house and I vividly remember him telling the story of how they were using a tea plantation to build this village set. He talked about how they were working with British civil engineers to make a bridge.”

Hills’ first movie in the franchise and formal introduction to Indiana Jones didn’t come until 1989 when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade arrived in theaters. The experience remains fixed in his memory. “I had an uncle who was an ambassador at the time, and he had a real passion for the movies and history, which inspired me,” Hills recalls. “In 1989, our family dog had passed away, and he came to me in real Sallah fashion. He said, ‘Life goes on. Let me take you to the movies.’ I was so intrigued by Indiana Jones. We saw Last Crusade, and I was hooked. That sense of adventure and travel just pulled me in. It set me on the path of being an Indy fan with an appreciation of the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Though initially expected to attend college in the United Kingdom after high school, Hills met Diana at a high school prom, an American who also had Sri Lankan heritage. As they fell in love and planned to marry, Michael followed her to study back in the United States. “I arrived and I was staying with the Chief of the Consular Section of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington D.C.,” Hills explains, “and they asked what I’d like to do for the couple of days before I started college at West Virginia University. I really wanted to see the museums of the Smithsonian. I had read so much about it being ‘America’s Attic.’ So I was dropped off at the Museum of American History, and one of the exhibits I saw was Indy’s whip, hat, and jacket, which Lucasfilm had donated in 1989. That was very profound to be so close to something that Harrison Ford had worn as Indiana Jones.”

Seeing the costume pieces influenced the trajectory of Hills’ fandom, as he became increasingly interested in costume pieces. “The feeling I got seeing the jacket behind the glass made Indy more tangible and personal,” he says. “I think it’s one of the reasons why fans collect props and replicas. It’s the closest connection we can get to these movies, as things you can pick up and hold. I got involved in online forums, and there was some of the basic information out there about the costumes and gear from the Indy franchise.”

Over the years, Hills would meet and interview a number of the craftspeople involved in different iterations of the Indy costume. They included leather specialist Peter Botwright, who was among those to collaborate with costume designer Deborah Naadoolman Landis on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and jacket maker Tony Nowak, who worked with costume designer Bernie Pollack on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). “It was lovely to sit and listen to these people,” says Hills. “They were very generous with their time. I wanted to learn. I am enamored by the clothing. Indy’s costume is something iconic and very American. The evolution of the costume was not thoroughly documented before fans started helping with this research.”

Hills’ interest came full circle when he graduated from George Mason University with a degree in History. With a passion for research, Hills would return to the Smithsonian in 2009 when he inquired about opportunities to work behind the scenes at the National Museum of American History. “I wasn’t expecting to hear back, but instead, the entertainment curator reached out and graciously asked to meet with me!” Hills says. “I learned that more than 6,000 volunteers work at the Smithsonian and they have more items in the collection than could ever be displayed in a lifetime. I was able to become a volunteer research assistant in the archives and started going in one day a week. Most people didn’t get what I was doing, but Diana was really supportive. History is really my passion and that comes from Indiana Jones.”

As Hills continued volunteering at the Smithsonian while pursuing a career in early childhood education, he and Diana planned to have a child. “Indiana and the backstory about George Lucas’ dog being the inspiration for the name was something I loved,” Hills says. “For years, I thought that if I ever had a son, he would be named Indiana. But I also wanted there to be a connection to a furry family friend. We got an American Cocker Spaniel, and even though he looked like a little Wookiee, we called him Indy! When Diana became pregnant, we discussed what our son would be named. I explained that I would really love for her name to be in his name somewhere. How about ‘In-Diana’? Indiana! [laughs]”

With his middle name officially “Indiana,” Henri (spelled the same way as Henri Defense, Indy’s alias in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones), arrived in 2017, and as expected, he quickly developed a love for Indiana Jones. That shared passion has proved meaningful in more ways than one. “We always knew that Henri had his own way of approaching things or thinking about things,” says Hills. “While we naturally exposed our son to our interests, not everything took hold like Indy did. Indiana Jones has been one of those constants in his life. When he was struggling to keep up with his age appropriate reading level, my wife and I worked with him using the DK ‘Beginning to Read’ series, Indy’s Adventures, and he’s made leaps and bounds because he was able to relate. And so Indy has been part of that journey too. The character and stories are his world and at times his refuge.”

The chance to attend the Dial of Destiny premiere in Hollywood was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” as Hills says. “Henri was speechless. We had tried to explain the fact that he was going on a trip to this premiere, but I don’t think it dawned on him until we showed up in Los Angeles. He’s been traveling since he was very young, so he’s very accustomed to it, so it didn’t really hit him until we were there and fans were asking him for pictures. He’s never attended a convention or anything like that.

“I’ve been collecting Indy costume pieces for years, but when you become a parent, the fandom takes on a whole different twist,” Hills continues. “I had to make a costume for him too! When it came time to do the premiere, I asked him what he wanted to be. We were thinking about doing a Temple of Doom theme. I’d be Indy, Diana would be Willie, and he could be Short Round. But he didn’t want to do that. He said, ‘That’s not Indy. I’m Indy. That’s who I want to be.’ He wanted to be like young Indy from the TV show. So we had to put together an accurate pith helmet and knee-high socks and period-correct suspenders and everything!”

As cast and crew made their way down the red carpet, many of them took a moment to say hello to the Hills family and their fellow fans. “I had met John Rhys-Davies in 2019 at Pensacon, and I had told him that my infant son was named Indiana,” Hills explains. “As most people know, he is very giving and spends lots of time talking with the fans. I asked him if he would write his famous line, ‘The dog? You were named after the dog?’ and sign his autograph, to which Davies asked for my phone, and he said, ‘I want to leave your son a message.’ He left this beautiful message saying that Henri would discover many great things, and as his friend and devoted follower Sallah, he couldn’t wait to share in them. It was an amazing moment.

“So years later we’re at the premiere,” Hills continues, “and he comes up to all of us on the red carpet. I said to him, ‘You probably don’t remember, but we met at a convention and I explained that my son was named Indiana.’ He actually remembered that he had left that message, and he spent quite a bit of time speaking with him and asking him questions. And of course, the whole time, Henri was thinking, ‘This is Sallah, this is Sallah!’

“Henri kept talking about the premiere after we got back,” Hills says. “This kind of seminal experience is something he can always reflect back on. Our role as parents is to try and give him as many of these kinds of experiences as we can so he can hold onto them. I think that should be one of the goals of any parent. But it has a really deep meaning for our son because he was a child who struggled with building meaningful relationships with his peers. So for him to be invited to the biggest party of the year to celebrate the fandom that he was named after was truly special.”

The adventures continue for the Hills family with new travels and discoveries as Michael plans to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. “I would like to see myself in some kind of research, and I think that wakeup call is because of Indy,” he says. “Dial of Destiny is about time and what you have done with it. For me, this will remain a dream unless I act on it. I feel like I’m gambling a bit, but when I roll the dice on Indy and this passion, it usually works out.”

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