Exclusive: Director Jim Ojala Talks Strange Nature
A creature feature about mutant frogs sounds like something that would be firmly in the realm of fiction, but believe it or not, Strange Nature is actually based on true events. Deformed frogs were first sighted in Minnesota in the ’90s, before becoming a global phenomenon. To date, nobody really knows what caused the deformities, so this is some scary shit.
I decided to track down Strange Nature’s director, Jim Ojala, to understand how the film will handle the mutant frog epidemic.
Dread Central: As the film is based on true events, are you trying to depict the events as faithfully as possible, or are you being more liberal in your approach?
Jim Ojala: We are pretty faithful as to how the deformed frogs were first discovered in Minnesota in 1995. From there we take it in different directions. However, we remain quite faithful to the leading theories of what is causing the deformities without making it a science class. That’s one of the challenges of telling a story like this: educate and enlighten, but entertain with solid characters. I believe we struck a damn good balance.
DC: How did production go?
JO: We had a fantastic cast/crew from Minnesota and Los Angeles, but the shoot was quite difficult. We broke every rule in the indie film book; we had tons of locations, tons of characters, makeup/creature effects, stunts, puppets, animals, kids, even a newborn baby! Our locations in Minnesota were amazing but quite remote. This meant no cellphone or computer communication (much of the time) so that added to an already grueling schedule. It was figuring out how to make a feature like it was the early 90’s. Aside from that, I cannot recommend filming in Minnesota enough. The amount of production value and local assistance we received was awe-inspiring. Also, added state/local rebates totaling 45% of our budget back to us was a lifesaver. I don’t believe we could have made this film on this budget and 18-day shooting schedule anywhere else. We had some major setbacks along the way which threatened to derail the film, but I knew if we didn’t take time to panic and just never stop shooting, we had a chance to finish. By everyone pulling together, somehow we did.
DC: Can you talk about the creature effects?
JO: I’m also a professional makeup/creature effects artist (ojalafx.com) so that was a major aspect of the film. I don’t want to give too much away, but we feature animatronic creatures, puppets, and makeup effects. These were in development for years. When we had some time and money, we would make something knowing it would be used when the film eventually got made. My on-set makeup/effects crew did a phenomenal job, but there was also a lot of finishing I needed to personally do on set. This was extremely difficult as we might be shooting for 18 hours; then I need to plan shots for the next day so call sheets can go out to the cast/crew; then run back to our FX warehouse and work on a creature for the next day; then race back to the hotel and hopefully get 2-3 hours of sleep. I met William Friedkin in LA shortly before we started shooting, and his biggest piece of advice to me was to get solid sleep every night. Hopefully on the next one! The crazy thing is that we didn’t even have time to shoot a lot of the practical effects. The most important thing on location is that we shoot anything location/character-specific. This meant that a lot of the more elaborate, time-consuming FX had to be shot second unit in LA months later.
DC: And you also used some real frogs on set?
JO: Yes, we used real deformed frogs on set. In early stages of pre-production I was figuring out how to make realistic frogs; then it hit me… why don’t we see if we can use the real thing?! I did some extensive research and tracked down one of the leading U.S ecologists studying the cases of the deformed frog phenomenon. He became very supportive of the film, consulted and supplied us with real live deformed frogs to use in the film. To see them in close-up on-screen is truly shocking. I also thought it was important to have the real frogs if possible to help drive home the point that this isn’t some crazy thing I dreamed up; it’s based on a real thing that is still going on. It’s not found in the abundance it was in Minnesota anymore, but it has spread to different areas around the country. In 2013, a population of frogs in Oregon was found to 100% deformed.
DC: Could the frog deformities really happen to people?
JO: These deformities could probably not happen to humans. However, this problem was first discovered just 20 years ago so we don’t necessarily know any long-term effects this water could have on humans. In fact, we still don’t even know what causes the majority of human birth defects. One of the leading theories behind the deformity outbreaks have to do with certain pesticides and fertilizers. Under federal law, pesticides only have to be tested every 15 years… that’s a long time for something to go wrong.
DC: As this is an eco horror film, do you think that it will help people to wake up to the problems of how people are destroying our planet? Several of this year’s Republican candidates even called global warming a myth, which just shows how ignorant some people can be about the issues.
JO: I hope this film will open some eyes as to what is going on with the environment. The frog deformity cases were kind of swept under the rug and research largely defunded when a definite cause wasn’t found right away. Like in real life, STRANGE NATURE attempts to show how flippant people can be towards something like this because “it’s just frogs.” At what point is it alarming? Do we need puppies born like this, more dangerous animals, or even humans before it’s a legitimate concern?
Learn more about Strange Nature here.