TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: STRANGE NATURE + Interview with writer/director James Ojala

An eco thriller based on a true story AND it has a Minnesota connection? Well, even in a throng of fantastic indie feature films playing at the TCFF, this one is definitely a must-see!

The film is an eco-thriller, the first to cover the deformed frog phenomenon that began in the mid-90’s in Minnesota. The story examines how a small Midwestern town copes with the deadly malformations when they move beyond the ponds.

Writer/Director: Jim Ojala
Starring: Lisa Sheridan, John Hennigan, Stephen Tobolowsky, Carlos Alazraqui, Tiffany Shepis, Bruce Bohne, David Mattey, Justen Overlander and Jonah Beres.

Strange Nature‘s FX Supervisor/Writer/Co-Producer/Director

Based on the success of My Three Scums, his Duluth, MN horror/comedy cable access TV series, Jim Ojala landed his first film job with Troma Studios in New York on their film, Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger 4. Upon completing the feature, Jim was offered a position in the special makeup effects dept. of Tim Considine’s Direct Effects where he went on to assist Tim on features, commercials, photo shoots and theatre. While in New York, Jim also attended the Millennium Film Program working with experimental filmmaking pioneer, Michael Kuchar.

Making the pilgrimage to Los Angeles, Jim has worked on the makeup/creature effects for commercials, TV series such as The Shield and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as numerous features including Where the Wild Things Are and Pacific Rim. In 2005, Jim opened the doors to Ojala Productions, which produced the internationally distributed short film, The Incredible Torture Trio as well as co-directing the viral video hit, Marvel Zombies The Movie.

Jim Ojala on the set of ‘Strange Nature’

The short was also featured as #1 online video to see on cable TV’s G4 channel “Attack of the Show”. Ojala Productions’ makeup/creature effects continues to be a strong force in the independent film world providing makeup fx for the critically hailed indie hits, DEADGIRL and PROXY, as well as television series such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show and Comedy Bang! Bang!

Currently, Ojala Productions wrapped up FX creations and co-producing, co-hosting the Shudder Channel hit show, The Core, their second season of Verizon Go90 sci-fi series, Miss 2059, and is now releasing Jim’s debut feature film as a writer/director, eco-thriller – Strange Nature.

Strange Nature‘s official website

FCInterviewBannerInterview with writer/director Jim Ojala

Q&A questions courtesy of Andy Ellis

Q1: Where did you find out about this story?

It was on the front pages of our local Duluth newspaper when I was still in high school.  The images of these hideously deformed frogs, what might have caused these malformations and how it could spread instantly captured my imagination.  When it showed up on Nightline with Ted Koppel you really got the feel that there was no end in sight.  

Q2: Why did you go the route of a thriller?

I’m a huge life long fan of thrillers and horror films.  I felt like we really needed the horrific and terrifying potentials of this story along with the dramatic aspects to really drive it home and get people to pay attention to it.

Q3: What was the most challenging part of filming this movie?

The most challenging part of the shoot was by far contending with Nature. As the entire film is shot outdoors, we dealt with bugs, rain, heat, wild rivers, storms and dense forests. In many moments it felt as if we as a team were on an expedition into a dense wild forest as well. Thankfully a little less toxic than in the film.

Q4: What was your favorite part?

I really liked filming the “Sweeter Than Kandy” music video. There’s a lot of heavy, serious stuff in the film but after all that we just got to have pure fun making a wacky late 80’s music video starring Simone Beres, sister of STRANGE NATURE star, Jonah Beres. What better person to play a really young version of his mom? Also, the big day of the home invasion on Joseph’s house really stands out. It was a total ballbuster of a day but it was such a unique challenge to have all of these characters in this cramped, beat up trailer and then throw in kids, stunts, breakaway props/sets, makeup effects, blood gags and a lot of intense acting. I had never directed something before with so many moving parts. I’m really happy with that scene and it took everyone being super focused to bring that all together.

Q5: Was it shot in Minnesota?

It was shot about 90% in Minnesota (Grand Rapids, Bovey, Coleraine and Duluth) and 10% in Los Angeles. A lot of insert shots of the puppet creature effects were shot in LA due to time limitations during principal photography. We also added a scene once we got back to LA and looked everything over.

Q6: It looks like there were plenty of practical effects used. How long did those take to plan and create?

Special makeup/creature effects are what I do for a living so we would just work on those aspects of pre-production while we were trying to find investors. We first started trying to get the film going in 2003, so the practical effects were worked on from around then right up to when we began shooting in 2014. Normally these type of effects would be very expensive but doing them on our own dime over time made it affordable and allowed us to show investors we had our own skin in the game.

Q7: Was there a scene that stood out to you the most while shooting it?

The night we filmed Judy’s baby being taken really got under everyone’s skin on set. There was just this creepy heaviness in the air that made you feel uneasy and kind of disturbed. I knew if that feeling translated to the screen, we really did something right.

Q8: What do you want people to take away from this film?

That one person can make a difference. That person doesn’t need to be a politician or in the military or a doctor. There’s no reason why someone wouldn’t and shouldn’t care this much about their environment. These large outbreaks of frog malformations are still happening in different areas of the country. Atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides can turn male frogs into females yet is considered totally safe for humans even though it has been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes in infants. Frogs are one of the first bio-indicators of a healthy environment and these deformity outbreaks are resulting in massive population die-offs. Are these deformed frogs trying to tell us something? Time will tell.

Strange Nature’s cast & crew in Duluth, MN

Thanks Jim for talking to FlixChatter about your film!

(Special thanks to producer Jessica Bergren for facilitating the interview!)

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