Director James Ojala talks about his new film 'Strange Nature', and how a challenging topic like mutations caught his attention
A lot of things can go wrong with mutation, and when it grows beyond the ponds in Minnesota, it can only mean one thing...murder!
James (Jim) Ojala's directorial debut, 'Strange Nature', is an ecological thriller based around the real-life unsolved deformed frog wildlife discoveries that were made in the 90s in Minnesota and how a small town in the Midwest might react when these deadly mutations move beyond the ponds. As his first, the film deals with an extremely challenging topic which has been well-depicted by Ojala who is well-known for his top-rate vfx work in 'Hellboy', 'Buffy', 'X-Men', and '2001 Maniacs'. The film was already released on September 22.
While the film has already premiered in Duluth and Minnesota, it follows the unsolved wildlife deformity outbreaks. In an exclusive conversation with Meaww, Ojala spoke about the idea of mutation in 'Strange Nature'.
Could you tell us what attracts you the most about filmmaking?
Sitting in a theater and have strangers dig what you created is the greatest feeling ever. I've also experienced audiences with five people in it and they all hate you made - on the flip side, nothing beats how crappy that feels. At the end of the day I'm a huge fan of films and collaborating and problem-solving with talented people is infectious. When an actor comes up with a line that makes yours even better when the FX guy nails the gunshot to the stomach hit just right when the stunt guy says "In addition to the throwing me through the table, throw me through the wall too!" - all of those kinds of moments make filmmaking incredibly satisfying and addicting.
Your film is about mutation. Why did you choose that topic for a film?
I've always been fascinated with mutations, deformities, abnormalities, etc. When I had the idea to create a story that could incorporate that fascination along with a real-life ecological mystery that involves deformities it just felt right. The idea of mutation is also just unsettling to people because the thought of physical unplanned change against your will - especially when it involves mankind is the kind of thing that gets under people's skin and hopefully gets their attention. Plus it was a great chance to create some memorable creatures along with sympathetic characters with deformities.
What do you think it is about thrillers that attract the audience?
It's fun to safely experience and wonder what it would be like to be involved in a small town overwhelmed by deadly mutations or perhaps a jilted lover that now wants to kill you and everyone around you if they can't have you or to be on the run for your life for knowing too much about something and not knowing who to trust. These are things you definitely don't want to have happened to you...but it's fascinating to be in that, "Holy crap, what would I do?!" scenario.
Could you tell us how did 'Strange Nature' come about?
The news of large populations of deformed frogs being found first broke when I was still in high school in Minnesota in the 90's. It's a trip seeing wildly deformed frogs on the front page of your newspaper and on TV. The idea of that stuck with me over the years and when I wanted to seriously try and get my first feature film going I checked in on where that issue was. Surprisingly it still hadn't been completely solved and was not only still happening but had spread across the nation. The majority of research funding was pulled in 2001 by the Bush Administration so not a lot has been done since then. Once I had some support from the scientific community to tell this story, I knew it was worth pursuing. From there, my imagination ran wild with how a small town in Minnesota might deal with this phenomenon once the deadly mutations moved beyond the ponds. After many years of trying to get the film financed independently, we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and based on the strength of that we were able to raise the remaining funds to get the film going.
Where did you shoot the film, and which was your favorite location?
Finding Chuck's cabin was the big one. Our incredible Minnesota based producer, Jessica Bergren, lined that up for us. She said when she scouted it, she cried. It was right down to the detail of having the perfect outhouse and all the interior of the main cabin just like I described in the script. Also shooting the Mayor Paulson scenes in the real mayor's office in Duluth was pretty outstanding. I'm from there and it's where I began making short films. Ironically, when my friends and I had a public access TV series there, a controversial horror/comedy sitcom - MY THREE SCUMS, one of our biggest opposers was the mayor of Duluth at that time. The full circle of shooting my first feature film in his office all these years later is pretty wild.
How did you pitch the idea to your cast and how did they react to it?
Erin Brockovich... with monsters. Well, that's the short version. Even though the story involves all these bizarre elements, deformities, creatures, dangerous rednecks, 80's pop songs - it's still a character-driven story at the heart of it. The story of a single mother dragging her young son back to her estranged father and town and making peace with the past while she tries to figure out the future in the midst of this dangerous mystery. The cast responded very strongly to this. Especially with my background in special makeup/creature effects, it would have been very easy and appealing to fall into using the FX to lead the story. Instead, I made the story and characters front and center. The FX just complements all of that.
Is your film inspired by true events?
Yes, in 1995 large populations of deformed frogs were discovered across Minnesota. Eventually, the deformities spread to surrounding states and pretty much the rest of the nation. Extra and missing limbs along with misplaced eyes and unabsorbed tails were among most of the malformations. There are many theories but none have been proven 100%. These widespread deformities have led to mass die-offs of frog populations. The leading theory involves invasive parasites brought in by pesticide and fertilizer overspray leaking into wetlands, a theory we present prominently in the film. To this day, one of the biggest hotspots for these types of extreme deformities is in Northern California. In 2013, a population was found in Oregon to be 100% deformed - every frog pulled out of this wetland had some type of deformity. That's the first time that has ever happened. Where this will lead is anyone's guess.
As a director which movie makers' works do you look to for your inspiration?
Currently, I'm inspired by the works of Nicolas Winding Refn. 'Drive' is probably my favorite film from the past 10 years. Man, I loved NEON DEMON! What a soundtrack too! Classic inspirations are Martin Scorsese ('Taxi Driver' is my all-time favorite film) and John Carpenter. Especially their earlier films... every one of them you can absolutely tell who made it. I also really love the gonzo indie uncompromising visions of directors like Lloyd Kaufman, John Waters, and Buddy Giovinazzo. James Whale and Tod Browning are up there too. I can't imagine making something as groundbreaking and beautiful as FREAKS and have it end your career.
What more are you planning next?
I have a sci-fi/thriller TV series, 'Uncanny Valley', that I wrote and am currently pitching a couple other horror features. Recently, I wrapped up a bonkers new project with 'Strange Nature's John Hennigan called 'The Iron Sheik Massacre'. I can't say anything more about it now but trust me that it is as awesome as it sounds and it's coming out early next year. Currently, you can see a fun new music video I directed recently for my favorite mutant poultry punk band, The Radioactive Chicken Heads. It's called "Cluck At the Moon" and is our whacked out homage to Michael Jackson's Thriller - Chicken Head style! Also, if you have the horror channel, Shudder, you can also see 'The Core'. It's a fantastic horror talk show that I co-produced and co-host. Horror/Thriller filmmaker, Mickey Keating is the amazing host! We have on everyone from Elijah Wood and Soska Sisters to Glenn Danzig - it's the show I wish was around when I was a kid!