Jim Ojala, writer-director of Strange Nature, was able to convince his cast to do his mutated amphibian movie by pitching it to them as ‘Erin Brockovich… with monsters’.
-PH: When did your filmmaking career begin, sir?
-Jim: Many years ago after high school, some friends and I began a public access television horror/comedy series, My Three Scums, in my hometown of Duluth, MN. We gained a local following as well as a lot of enemies that didn’t dig our show’s offensive punk rock sensibilities about a group of monsters that try to get through (and get back at) society. We attained formidable opposition from the mayor, police chief, citizen groups and even death threats BUT it also lead to Lloyd Kaufman at Troma noticing us and offering me an internship on my first feature film, CITIZEN TOXIE: THE TOXIC AVENGER IV. The rest is history.
-PH: Was it always the dream to make movies?
-Jim: Honestly, not until I was working on My Three Scums. Creating it and showing it in a theater of strangers that loved it was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had to this day. I grew up kind of a trouble kid without much self esteem and no discernible future. In a lot of ways, having a creative outlet like public access TV (remember this was way before YouTube) and My Three Scums really saved me.
-PH: And how did Strange Nature come to be?
-Jim: The idea of the deformed frogs outbreak has been rolling around in my head since 1995 when they started being discovered in my home state of Minnesota. Seeing these wild mutant looking frogs on the front page of your local newspaper totally felt like sci-fi/horror come to life. When it was time to attempt to make my first feature I knew it should have some element of special makeup/creature effects since I was already doing that professionally and could bring those skills to the table at a lower cost. Plus I was shocked that these massive concentrations of deformed frogs were still being found in different areas of the country but no one was talking about it anymore. From there I started writing about how a small town might deal with this phenomenon if the deadly deformities started to move beyond the ponds.
-PH: Where was it shot?
-Jim: About 95% in Minnesota with a few pick up shots in Los Angeles. Minnesota was always the way to go. It’s a beautiful state with a lot of different looks especially for a film about a small Midwest town and thanks to the state’s Snowbate filming rebate we gained 25% of our budget back that was spent in Minnesota PLUS we filmed mostly on the Iron Range area that offered an additional 20% so much of our filming budget came back to us at 45% which is the only way we were able to make a film this ambitious with this many locations. Luckily our Minnesota based producer, Jessica Bergren scored with locking in amazing locations and a lot of talented, hard working local crew.
-PH: The movie is very grounded in real fact. Is it hard to ground a genre movie?
-Jim: It can be. One producer said I should end the movie with the reason for the deformities being aliens. I never talked to that producer again. Even though fantastic things happen in the film, everyone involved was very conscious that for the story to work it needed to be firmly planted on planet Earth.
That’s one area where damn good actors are extremely important. If anyone in the cast overacted or phoned it in we would lose that grounded quality. That’s another reason we really take the time for you to get to know the characters so it feels like real people that you believe live together in this small town. I resisted the temptation to jump into the horror/action/jump scares right away and instead took the time to set the world up. Not long ago I met Dee Wallace at an event to celebrate the soundtrack to CUJO (which is fantastic!). She encouraged any filmmakers in the audience to please, please write real characters and let them breath even if they’re making a genre film. Dee acknowledged that CUJO probably couldn’t be made now with that much character development before you get to the horror. In fact, she said the studio originally wanted to cut out all the “boring character stuff” and get to the killer dog quicker. After trying that they found the test audiences didn’t like the film as much anymore because guess what?? Now they didn’t care about the characters!
-PH: How did you pitch the film to your cast? What interested them?
-Jim: “ERIN BROCKOVICH…with monsters.” The fact that I wasn’t trying to do an exploitive type horror film really appealed to the actors and the fact that the actors weren’t playing second fiddle to the horror or the FX creations. In fact the horror and any FX happen very organically and come directly from the situation and decisions made by the characters.
And the look of the film, based on the trailer, suggests a similar tone to classics of the Reagan-era.
-PH: That intentional?
-Jim: It wasn’t intentional but I’m an 80’s kid and super influenced by that work so it just kind of organically happened. All of the most memorable films to me come from the 70’s and 80’s. Environmental issues took a backseat to most other issues at that time and I feel like we’re in the exact same situation now so there’s that correlation.
-PH: What is it about scary odd creatures that interests audiences, you think?
-Jim: It’s the funhouse mirror. Especially when something visually freaky is derivative of a human or animal form it’s really fascinating and disturbing because it’s something that we not only relate to but also can care about.
-PH: When did you watch your first cut?
-Jim: In mid-2015 the first cut was 125 minutes and I thought it was perfect. Over time your eyes get a little more honest and you realise all the pieces that can be trimmed. Several really good scenes were cut eventually because either they weren’t essential or they slowed the pace down.
Did the distributor change anything when they came aboard?
No, to ITN’s credit they liked the film exactly how it was.
-PH: When’s the release?
-Jim: The film opens theatrically at the Laemmle Glendale in Los Angeles on September 22 and will also open at the Zinema Theater in Duluth, MN on October 21. In October the film releases on vodRedbox/Walmart/Amazon.