Writer-Director Jim Ojala Talks Movies, Mutations And ‘Strange Nature’ In An Interview

September 28, 2018

Written by Kelli Marchman McNeely

Kelli Marchman McNeely - Horror Fuel CEO & Executive Producer Email: [email protected]

Jim Ojala has made quite a name for himself in the special effects world working on films like Where the Wild Things Are, Thor, Pacific Rim, and many others. Now, Ojala is making a name for himself as a writer/director of Strange Nature.
I spoke with Jim about his eco-horror film and more and I have to say I was left very impressed with both his talent and his determination, he has spent the past fifteen years building up to make this film. Between its message, great story, and the talented cast it’s a winner in our book.
In Strange Nature, by moving in with her estranged hermit father in the backwoods of a small town, Kim (Lisa Sheridan, “The 4400”) and son Brody find themselves in the middle of a horrendous phenomenon where deadly offspring mutations spread from animals to humans.”
Based on true unsolved outbreaks of wildlife mutations,  Strange Nature marks the directorial debut of FX master James Ojala (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Thor, Tron: Legacy) and stars Lisa Sheridan (“Invasion”), Stephen Tobolowsky (Memento), John Hennigan (Minutes to Midnight), Tiffany Shepis (Victor Crowley), and Carlos Alazraqui (The Funhouse Massacre).

Horror Fuel: “I love your film. There is something about mutations that are disturbing. It kind of makes your skin crawl a bit.”
Ojala: “It’s always kind of been my field of interest as a person and as an effects artist. Mutations, deformities, I always find them fascinating. Stange Nature was a great field to incorporate that.”
Horror Fuel: “You’ve had a fantastic career in special effects. Did those experiences help you while writing and directing Strange Nature?”
Ojala: “I did. It taught me how to write for a budget, how to write for what you have available to you.  Very consciously from the beginning, I didn’t want the effects to drive the story. Yeah, I could make a movie that’s filled monsters and blood and guts. Yeah, I’m an effects guy but to me, more of the challenge was could I direct a solid film with a good story with all these characters and performances? I wanted that at the forefront and the effects to complement it. That’s the driving force behind the characters.”
Horror Fuel: “You did it well. It has a great story.
I remember back in the 90’s that there was a case dealing with mutations 0f frogs in Minnesota, I believe. Was Strange Nature based on that case?”
Ojala: “That is the whole thing. I’m from Duluth, Minnesota. That’s where all of this stems from. The kids that find the frogs in the film that’s based on how it really started. It was a hiking group of kids that first found them. Then it got reported. All of a sudden other people started reporting them. They were in another county, and then another, and another. Before you know it more than fifty counties. Then they found them in all 80 in Minnesota. Then it started spreading to other states. Even to this day, it’s happening. There are hot spots in northern California and Oregon where they are finding large populations of extremely malformed frogs. It’s not going away.”

Horror Fuel: “Did they ever find out what caused it?”
Ojala: “The leading theory is what we present in the film, parasites. But the parasites aren’t just going to do that on their own. The snails basically bring the parasites down to the water. The parasites get into the water and get into the developing limb buds of tadpoles and purposely screw it up so that when the frog grows legs, instead of normal legs they grow like five legs or doesn’t grow any legs. When it matures and goes on land hopping around, falling all over the place, a bird can easily swoop down and pick it up and in the stomach of the bird, the life cycle of the parasite starts over again in the feces of the bird and the whole vicious cycle starts all over again. The only reason you have so many parasites is due to unnatural algae blooms which they believe are caused by herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizer overspray that are getting into those wetlands. It’s a vicious cycle that connects a lot of dots. That hasn’t been proven one hundred percent across the board, but that’s the leading theory right now.”
Horror Fuel: “That is so scary. With pollution being at the level it is now and it’s going to get worse, so many terrible things could happen.”
Ojala: “Absolutely. It was back in ’95 when they were first found. That wasn’t that long ago. We still don’t know what the longterm ramifications are or if they could affect other animals or humans. We still don’t know what causes most human birth defects today. It’s a little scary.”
Horror Fuel: “I’m glad that you are bringing it to the worldwide public’s attention. And your film feels very real, very believable.”
Ojala: “Cool, thanks. I really wanted to keep it grounded on planet earth so that it feels like it. Even though fantastic, incredible things are happening, I wanted it to feel like this could actually happen.”
Horror Fuel: “I stayed up late the night I watched it, thinking. My husband works in the grain industry. And I’ll be honest, it made me wonder about the chemicals he has to handle.”
Ojala: “Really? I’m glad it was effective.”
Horror Fuel: “The frogs looked so real in the film. How did you accomplish that?”
Ojala: “A lot of people think because of my background that those are special effects, but those are all real. They are one hundred percent real deformed frogs.”
Horror Fuel: “Really?”
Ojala: “Really. When we were in early preproduction that was the first thing, ‘how do we make this small animatronic, leaping frog and how do we make it move right?’ I don’t care who you are, it would be extremely difficult to do. And then I was like ‘Maybe we could get the real thing.’ I started reaching out to the scientific community and we actually got a lot of support because a lot of people on the case feel like they have been swept under the carpet by the government, by the news media. As soon as this wasn’t a hot, sexy topic anymore nobody talked about it anymore even though it was still happening. We got one of the leading US ecologists to be on as a consultant, because of that we were able to get the real, live, extremely malformed frogs in the film.”
Horror Fuel: “Okay, the film just got a lot more disturbing. It’s one thing to see a prop, but a whole other thing to actually see the real thing. Those frogs looked horrible. Those poor things.”
Ojala: “Exactly. I thought it was important for the cast and crew to see them. It wasn’t some crazy b.s. I made up, it’s the real thing. It’s right there in front of you.”
Horror Fuel: “Wow. I’m sure that had a big effect on them. What do you think it is about mutations, be it caused by environmental issues, radiation, or birth defects, that causes that fear in us?”
Ojala: “I think that it’s something especially scary because it’s something that we can relate to. It’s like a very fun, macabre funhouse mirror where it kind of looks at us and it kind of looks like your child or your puppy, but it’s a grotesque version. We relate to it and it’s something that we can potentially care about which makes very unnerving.”
Horror Fuel: “I agree. Those puppies got to me.
By any chance, will we ever see a feature version of your Marvel Zombies?”
Ojala: “Oh man, I’ve been asked about that a lot over the years. I would love nothing more than something along those lines, but Marvel in fact shut us down because we were getting too much attention. We were on Attack of the Show. We were the number one thing on the internet at that time. It got out of control and Marvel contacted us and shut us down. But I would love to see that happen at some point, but I don’t see it in the near future. They are doing interesting things to their properties, so maybe that something they would consider.”
Horror Fuel: “We would love to see you do it. I think both horror and Marvel fans would love it.”
Ojala: “Absolutely. It would be a hit if it was done the right way. Even if I wasn’t involved I’d like to see that.”
Horror Fuel: “Do you already have your next project in mind?”
Ojala: “I do. I’m in the middle of writing my next feature right now. It’s very freaky. I can’t tell you too much, but I will tell you that it does involve bed bugs. There’s that and I’ve got a series that I’m pitching and I just wrapped up something with John Hennigan, the pro wrestler who was in Strange Nature and plays Sam. It’s called The Iron Sheik Massacre. I can’t tell you much about that one either but it is completely bonkers. I can’t wait to show everybody that. Then I have a music video I directed for the Radioactive Chicken Heads, a crazy, wild LA band and that’s coming out in the next week or so. Everybody can also see me on The Core, it’s pretty much the coolest horror talk show ever. It’s on Shudder. It’s the show I wish was around when I was growing up. I’m a co-host and co-producer on the show. Every episode we take you behind the scenes and show effects segments and show how certain effects were done.”
Horror Fuel: “It all sounds fantastic. You hear a lot of reports these days about bed bugs. Creepy crawlies always have a way of getting under your skin. I’ll watch it, and I’ll probably want to burn all my bedding afterward [laughter].
Ojala: “It’s pretty gnarly. A couple of friends of mine actually work in extermination so they were able to tell me a lot of real-life horror stories. It’s messed up. There are no boundaries. It could be low-income housing or some rich guy who gets them from a hotel and brings them home. Now you’re infested.”
Horror Fuel: “That’s true.
I saw you rip a head apart on The Core during the Halloween episode. It was really cool how the head was made.
Between films, series, you’ve been a busy man.”
Ojala: “That’s the only way I know how to do it. It’s the only way to survive when you are working in entertainment. You have to do several things, do them well, and do them constantly. You can’t take a break, ever.”
Horror Fuel: “Out of all your projects with special effects what has been your favorite?”
Ojala: “Special effects wise, in the big studio system, by far Where the Wild Things Are is my favorite. That was my favorite book as a child. It was amazing to work with the Jim Henson Creature Shop on that. Bringing the creatures to life-size was amazing. It was a great studio to work for. That was definitely the coolest big studio project. The on a more independent level, doing Dead Girl was a big deal for me. It got me a lot of attention. I liked the way that came out. On a more personal level, making the mutant wolves (for Strange Nature), the two-headed wolf is one of my favorite things ever. Even if I wouldn’t have anything to do with it, just seeing that thing is one of my favorite things ever.”
Horror Fuel: “Yeah, they were gnarly. I also love the message in the movie about people who look different.”
Ojala: “Joseph, the big deformed father, and his daughter were basically our Boo Radley. I thought that was an important sideline in the film.”
Horror Fuel: “I love films that are unique and have a message. Strange Nature definitely does.”
Ojala: “That’s great. When we started going down this road, I didn’t want to make another home invasion or possession movie. That’s what the majority of films were at the time. I felt we had a chance to do something very different but still in that world.”
Horror Fuel: “We’ve been calling it ‘eco-horror’. Something that could potentially happen in real life is far scarier than any ghost or demon movie out there. Especially when it is a movie that makes me sit up late worrying.”
Ojala: “Exactly. Then it’s done its job. I’m glad that we had a chance to hit home then. ”
Horror Fuel: “I’ am so glad that Strange Nature is doing well. We need movies like this.”
Ojala: “Thank you for the support. This is one of those things. We didn’t have a big studio backing us. My wife and I produced this and after trying to get it made over 15 years, it’s finally here, it’s finally done. It’s been a major uphill battle. It was extremely expensive and time-consuming. But it became a community effort, every one of our friends pitched in one time or another. They were helping make the wolf back in 2007 and pieces along the way. When we got to Duluth, Minnesota, the mayor of the town went on TV and told the entire city to get behind me. We filmed in his office. In the film when they are in the mayor’s office we were really in the mayor’s office. With that type of support that’s the only way to get something truly independent done.”
Horror Fuel: “Indies are big these days. That’s where all the creativity is coming from.”
Ojala: “Exactly.”
Horror Fuel: “Between all this talk of mutants and bed bugs my skin is crawling [laughter]. I like it. Films rarely do that to me anymore.”
Ojala: “Perfect [laughter]. Perfect.”
Horror Fuel: “Does Strange Nature have any social media pages?”
Ojala: “Yes, you can follow us on Instagram, there’s a lot of behind the scenes. We’re on Twitter and we have a Facebook page where people can learn about upcoming events. And then we have our website StrangeNatureMovie.com. There are things like the backstory, photos, and videos. We release nationwide this October. We will be making our festival premiere at the Twin City film festival on October 19th in Minnesota, right where all this began. Then we head to theaters in Duluth, Minnesota starting October 21st. For any of your readers, we are showing in Los Angeles right now at the Glendale until the 27th. We just had a big cast Q&A. It was a big success. If you get a chance to see it in theaters, that’s the best.”
Strange Nature is definitely a film you don’t want to miss. Keep an eye out the film in theaters and for Jim Ojala’s upcoming projects. The best way to do that is to follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and to visit StrangeNatureMovie.com.
Tune in to “The Core”, now Streaming on Shudder, to see Ojala in action as he explains the special effects on some of horror’s greatest films and to watch him do things like rip a head apart layer by layer.


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