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Horror Business: Jim Ojala’s STRANGE NATURE

Jim Ojala is a special effects makeup artist, director, and co-host of my new favorite show on Shudder, The Core, which is half horror talk show, half practical effects how-to. The show features amazing guests, such as Leigh Whannell, the Soska Sisters, and the Lord of Darkness himself, Glenn Danzig! It’s a ton of fun for horror fans and even includes topically relevant movie recommendations at the end. But let’s get back to Jim…

Jim is a Troma alum and his latest creature feature, Strange Nature, fantastically reflects the schlocky pedigreeStrange Nature seamlessly integrates Troma’s no-holds-barred insanity with enough grounded plot points and authentic characters for audiences to stay engaged and take the film seriously. Overall, the movie is a bunch of fun and hits you with a very strong, timely message about the dangerous biological implications of industrialism.

Let’s begin, as always, with Jim Ojala’s key suggestions for aspiring indie filmmakers:

  • Use your own skills as much as you can. Jim and his creature effects company, Ojala Productions, made all of the mutant animals (except for the deformed frogs, which were real!). This enabled his low-budget movie to look and feel way more expensive. If Jim had tried to hire a company to make all of his creatures, he would still be trying to raise money. (Damien Leone did a similar thing when he made the effects for Terrifier). Low-budget filmmaking requires you to wear many hats. Figure out which of your professional skills will contribute most to the film’s production value. 
  • Show progress. As he was raising funds for Strange Nature, Jim was already building the creatures for the movie. Investors and producers were excited to see something real and tangible to indicate that the film was really happening. More often than not, filmmakers have nothing but a script or an idea; but to have something—anything—that shows that you are already working on your film is super helpful when it comes to pitching producers and raising funds because it shows you are the real deal.
  • Take a hard look at your script. Jim recounts that there were many scenes and sequences from Strange Nature that he had to cut from the final film because they didn’t work. This was super painful, since those sequences were costly and time consuming.  He recommends that you edit your script mercilessly before you start shooting and shoot only what you need when working on a limited budget. 
  • Get a strong AD. Jim’s first AD (Assistant Director) cracked under pressure and bailed on him, four days into production, which set him back significantly and negatively impacted the crew’s morale. Indie filmmaking requires a different breed of AD: specifically, people with the flexibility, resilience, and resourcefulness to handle the ups, downs and grueling pace that comes with low-budget filmmaking. It is imperative for indie directors to find proven indie ADs who can weather the storms alongside them. This is huge.
  • BONUS: Work at Troma. Jim went so far as to state that Troma is where all aspiring filmmakers should start, because it’s incredibly challenging and forces you to toughen up in all the ways directors need to be tough. It’s also an exciting, fun and highly collaborative environment. Jim’s description of his time at Troma is comparable to a military hell week, but it’s the kind of experience that gives your indie filmmaking spirit the resolve of a Navy Seal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unIoYnDyf10

Dread Central: Jim, how you doing, man?

JO: Good, good.

DC: Let’s talk about Strange Nature. That was a lot of fun. How did the movie come about?

JO: Well, I’m from Minnesota and this real-life phenomenon of these deformed frog outbreaks started happening in the mid-90s. I was still in high school there, and when you see on the front page of your newspaper, all these mutant frogs with extra misplaced limbs, misplaced eyeballs, all this crazy stuff and you go: “Oh, this is happening in our backyard.” So that always had been in my mind.  Then when I was trying to get my first feature going in the early 2000s I kind of checked in on that again, and I found out it’s still happening.

DC: Oh my God.

JO: And I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing thought for a sci-fi eco-thriller horror film.” So that kind of started it all, and then I started reaching out to the scientific community and actually got a lot of support for Strange Nature, because they feel screwed over, not only by the news media but by the government as well, for dropping the ball on this and brushing it under the carpet after most of the funding was pulled in, like, 2001.  There’s been very isolated research on it since then, even though it’s still happening and actually moving across the country.

DC: So this issue is spreading?

JO: This is real. What started as the biggest hotspot in America, in Minnesota, where I’m from, has spread to northern California now. In 2013, they found a population in Oregon that was 100 percent malformed. That’s never happened in history before.

DC: In just frogs?

JO: Sometimes you’ll find it in salamanders and other wetland creatures, but mainly frogs. Yeah, every one that they pulled out of this population in this wetland had some kind of malformation. So it’s not going away.  It’s just moving and mutating, for lack of a better term.

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DC: Do they have any idea what is causing it? Obviously, it’s all industrial-related…

JO: The main theory is the one that we mostly go into in Strange Nature, which is fertilizer and pesticide overspray leaking into the wetlands, causing these unnatural algae blooms that bring in all these snails that have this parasite. Basically, the parasite gets into the water because the snail gets so close to the water, and then the parasite goes out and finds a developing tadpole, burrows into its limb buds, and basically purposefully handicaps it. So as the limbs grow, instead of forming one regular arm, it might form four arms. They’re all gimpy.

DC: That’s so insane. 

JO: Yeah, they can’t move, right? Therefore, a bird could easily swoop down and pick it up, and the life cycle of the parasite continues when the feces of the bird gets dropped down on shore, and the whole vicious cycle starts again. I did a lot of studying and research on parasites going into this film.  The world of parasites is essential to mankind, but it’s so vicious, too

DC: Isn’t there a parasite that, when it affects a bird, it can literally control the bird’s mind?

JO: Yes.

DC: Like a zombie parasite.

JO: Exactly. It happens in rats, too. It’s this thing called Toxoplasma, which basically causes the rat to run towards danger. It’ll actually run towards a cat.

DC: Oh, shit!

JO: Basically out of control, because the parasite screws with its brain to kill it off so it can continue its life cycle in the feces of the cat. There’s this crazy theory that soccer players in Brazil were actually infected by toxoplasma, which makes them such badass soccer players. They’re fearless, they run to danger, because they’re infected by this parasite. Which is just this bizarre theory, but I’ve actually seen that.

DC: Oh my God, they should give it to UFC fighters.

JO: Right, exactly.

DC: How’s the response been to the film from the scientific community?

JO: Really good. We’ve actually gotten a bunch of kudos. In fact, we recently had a science teacher, that thought a lot of the science in it was really sound and was interested in starting to host it in high school science classes, like screenings of it. He’s like “There’s some f-bombs and there’s some gore and stuff, but we might be able to squeak around some of that to actually…”

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DC: I liked that it had kind of an Erin Brockovich element to it, having someone procedurally investigating all this, and throughout the course of the movie learning more and more about the actual science.

JO: Yeah, and I think we just got people talking about it all. That’s why we started the film with all that real news footage, to establish that Ted Koppel was talking about this on national news in ’96.  This happened.

DC: Other than the frogs, how many of the other elements were true? Were there dogs that were affected, or anything like that?

JO: No, no. I start to take that world and run with it. However, while we were in pre-production, in Minnesota, a wolf had attacked some campers and bitten them badly, and they captured the wolf. It’s so out-of-line; wolves don’t do that in real life. So it was very bizarre. They investigated it, and found out the wolf was deformed. Its mouth was all malformed and twisted up, so it probably couldn’t capture its normal food, so it started going after whatever it could go after. So that was timely.

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DC: Some of the creature makeup in there looks really, really awesome. You and your company did all of it?

JO: Yes, we developed it over time, as we were trying to raise money and doing pre-production and talking to investors, we would do that along the way, so no matter what happened, the train for us was always moving. We would always have something to show. We’d have eye candy, we’d show that we’ve got skin in the game.  

So the crazy thing is originally we were gonna make effects frogs, and we were trying to figure out how do we make these small mutant frogs that move in the right way? How do you fit servos in this little body, and all these things? And then it dawned on me, this is a real issue. Maybe we could get the real things. So we started reaching out to the scientific community.  We got the leading U.S. ecologist that’s on these cases to be our consultant, and through those channels, we were able to get the live deformed frogs.

DC: Holy shit.

JO: So all the frogs you see in the film are real. They’re real live frogs that we took care of for years to basically showcase in the film.

DC: You probably gave them all names.

JO: We did.  If you look at the credits, there’s this big chunk of the credits that all their names are listed in there.

DC: That’s awesome. 

JO: All of them.  And Bud, the big toad that you see with the arm sticking out of his side in the classroom scene, he’s still alive. He actually attended the Minnesota premier as a guest of honor.

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DC: Well, that’s really interesting that you made a point to make the effects and creatures from the beginning, it sounds like it helped to show investors that the film was moving along and that you had something tangible.

JO: Well yeah, I’ve known so many struggling filmmakers through the years doing makeup and creature effects. Usually it’s a guy with a script. It may be a business plan and not much more than that. So it’s like “Okay, this is at least something tangible that I can bring to the table. That I can show. I’ve got something else to offer. I’m not just the guy with an idea, I also have all these skills that I can bring to this at basically no cost.

DC: No, that makes all the sense in the world. Because usually when people pitch a movie, they have a screenplay and they have an idea, and a wink and a prayer, but to show that you’re actually working on something or that you have something tangibly done, I would imagine that must really help in getting your film sold.

JO: Even though this film isn’t centered around the effects, there is enough in this film that we would have had to pay an effects house to make these for us, and we’d still be trying to raise the money. We couldn’t have made this film unless we did it ourselves.

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DC: Gotcha, yeah. It looks pretty awesome, especially that two-faced wolf that’s on the cover.  That thing looked amazing.

JO: Thank you. 

DC: One thing I loved reading about was the way that you pitched Lloyd Kaufman from Troma. Can you tell that story? There’s a lot of really, really good learnings in that. You sent him a package, but you did it in a way that really got his attention?

JO: Yeah, I originally sent Troma a copy of what I thought was our best episode of My Three Scums, our horror comedy show. Never heard anything back, so I’m thinking, They probably get this crap all the time, so let’s do something that I know they have to see. So I get the biggest computer box I can find. Huge, like a Gateway 2000 box or whatever. We put a copy of our episodes in there. I write a letter to Lloyd Kaufman just expressing my interest in working with them, and the rest of the box we filled with flyers from the show and helium balloons with “I love My Three Scums” and all this written all over them. So he opens the box: boom. All of these balloons fly everywhere in the office. 

You have to notice that.  Even if you hate our show, I know you’re gonna notice that. So a month later, we get a letter from Lloyd saying “Yeah, you’re a really talented filmmaker; I dig My Three Scums. Thank you for the balloons, and if you’re ever in Hell’s Kitchen, hit me up.” So I instantly book a plane ticket.

At that time I’m filing medical record charts in a hospital in Minnesota, and quite honestly, I couldn’t afford to go to film school or get grants or anything. So I figured I would do my thing on the weekends and I would probably file medical record charts for the rest of my life. I go out there and I meet with Lloyd –this guy’s the president of the longest-running independent film studio–he drops everything and hangs out with me in his office for half an hour and we just shoot the shit.

Basically, at the end of it, he offers me an intern position on Toxic Avenger 4, which is going to be coming up in the next couple months. I go back, I quit my job, I cash out my savings, and I move to Hell’s Kitchen to see what happens. Luckily, the second day on the job, I got into the effects department. Tim, the head of the company, took me under his wing, and the rest is history.

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DC: That’s awesome. What was it like working with Troma?

JO: It’s where everybody should start. It shows you what you’re made of. If you are weak at all, Troma will destroy you. Like completely. I mean, we’re talking three, four hours of sleep a night, maybe, for six weeks. It’s just so, so tough.

But you’re also encouraged to think on your feet and add ideas to scenes and all these things, so it’s like the ultimate bootcamp. But if you survive (and I saw like half the crew crack and not make it all the way through but if you make it all the way through), you’ll never in a million years ever work on something as hard as a Troma film. It’s really, literally, you can only go up from there.

DC: Whoa. I had no idea that they were that grueling considering that they’re mostly low-budget and seem relatively simple to make–but not the case.

JO: Wild guerilla-style running in locations. I mean, we were doing insane, insane offensive scenes in public parks and then running out as we’re getting death threats and bomb threats at the production office. I mean, it’s insane. Some of the stuff I can’t even describe. I would encourage anybody that’s interested, to check out the Citizen Toxie DVD.  It’s a two-disc set, and Apocalypse Soon, the making of, it outlines a lot of that, and you see the works and all. It’s badass.

DC: How long were you there?

JO: I worked on Toxie and Tim basically offered me a full-time assistant position by the time the movie was over, so after that I worked on some Broadway stuff with him. I worked on Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo with him, and then a little SNL, and then after that I moved to L.A., and that’s where I got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and some of those projects, so yeah. I was only in New York like two and a half years.

DC: Nice. So what was the overall process like for getting Strange Nature funded and made?

JO: We got on the news and all these things, but we didn’t get financing, so we came back to L.A. and tried to get financing here. Things would come and go. It was tricky because we were like a mixed-bag film. It wasn’t like a straight-ahead horror film, it was like drama meets thriller meets horror, so that scares a lot of investors and producers away, because they don’t know how to put it in a box. 

That was something I wasn’t really willing to compromise on. I wanted to make this thing that I felt was more complex and interesting to me and stay true to the story. One producer wanted to make it aliens at the end of it and I was just like, “We’re never gonna talk again.”

JO: We did a Kickstarter campaign and that was successful. So that really got us going. We needed way more money than what we raised on Kickstarter, but I knew it was a realistic amount that we could raise if we worked our asses off.  Based on the strength of that, I was able to raise the rest of the film and then self-finance some, and then we were off and running.

DC: Nice.  What were some of the keys to running a successful Kickstarter campaign for a movie like this?

JO: A lot of people that I know that have done Kickstarter campaigns, and they really take it for granted.  They might do a nice video and do a couple posts, and they just expect it to take off. It’s more than a full-time job in my experience. I couldn’t even work, really, during that whole promotion period.  You have to around the clock and be contacting every website, every blogger, every Twitter account, anything that has to do (in my case) with horror films, and get them on your side, get them to re-post it.  Just doing a Facebook update, for instance, no. People can ignore that or act like they ignore that.

So you have to go in there and, let’s say you have 2,000 friends on Facebook, you have to go and message each one of them individually.  They see your name in the message, so they know that it’s not like a BS cut-and-paste message, you’re reaching out to them personally. They can’t ignore it, they know that you saw it. So all of those things took an incredible amount of time, but it counted in the end. So you can’t even take an hour off if you expect it to be successful. If it’s not successful and you didn’t work that hard, you only have yourself to blame.

DC: What was your video like? You must have shown off the practical effects.

JO: Yeah, we showed off the practical effects. Carlos from Rocko’s Modern Life & Reno 911, he’s got a fan base, so he did a little cameo, and then it was really just about pushing the use of practical effects and the fact that it was based on this real-life ecological unsolved mystery. Those were the big selling points.

Another big thing that helped us when we would reach out to independent sites and bloggers, was the fact that they felt that we were doing something different. That made a huge impact. We weren’t making another ghost film or another possession film. They were like, “Okay, this is something I haven’t really seen (in a while at least),” so we got a lot of support strictly because of that as well.

DC: That’s cool. Were people really getting behind the fact that it was driven by practical effects? Was that a major selling point on Kickstarter?

JO: Oh that was, that was. Anybody that was a part of that, that’s interested in that world–obviously I have a lot of friends in the practical effects world that also shared it and spread the word. Yeah, all that, it did make a significant difference.

DC: Nice. So having made the movie and spent the time that you spent on it, retrospectively, what would you have spent more on and what would you have spent less on? I don’t necessarily mean money; it could mean time, energy, focus, whatever…

JO: Probably one of the biggest lessons for me is I would have flown out an AD from L.A., an assistant director that I had worked with, that I knew and trusted, because we had a grueling shoot. We had an 18-day shoot, tons of locations, tons of characters. There were days when we had three company moves in one day, and we still had to make our day.

So the original assistant director that we had, cracked. He couldn’t do it and he quit on us, like, on day four. Anybody that’s made an independent film, like an ambitious independent film, knows how important a strong AD is. We’re scrambling, and we’ve pulled in our script supervisor, Cathy, because she’s assistant-directed a short film before. She did a great job, but that really threw us for a loop because you start to lose some of the confidence of people. And I just knew we needed to keep shooting, no matter what.

Don’t take time to panic; just don’t stop shooting. So that would’ve been a huge plus if I would’ve brought an AD that I already knew, that I could have pre-planned with from L.A., that would’ve been a big deal. And another thing, I would’ve taken a really super, super hard look at the finished script and been really tough with myself, before we started shooting: “Do I need every one of these scenes? Are they absolutely essential to the finished film?” Because there’s a lot of scenes we ended up cutting, but we spent a lot of money and time shooting.

That would have made a world of difference, because, for instance, if we would’ve had all that time that we shot those scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, we could’ve actually had time to do great rehearsals. We didn’t have time to do any rehearsals; we would do a quick blocking and we would shoot. Those kind of things would have made a massive difference, so that’s a big thing I would encourage people to do. I know everybody thinks their script is genius and it’s their baby and it’s brilliant the way it is, but take a hard look and see if there’s anything you could possibly cut out before you start shooting.

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DC: Cool. Get an AD you can throw into battle.

JO: If you’re lucky enough to already be working in the entertainment industry, you probably already worked with an AD–so somebody you already know and know they can handle it–get that guy or girl.

DC: Awesome. Was there anything that you came across, either courses or books, that helped you as a director?

JO: Yes, actually. There are two books that were incredibly helpful: Save The Cat and Your Screenplay Sucks. And I’ve been watching Aaron Sorkin’s Master Class. I’m also finding that very helpful.

DC: What’re you working on next?

JO: I am working on this sci-fi thriller series that I’m pitching on Candy Valley, as well as my new feature script, which I can’t say too much about, but it involves class warfare and bed bugs. So yeah, it’s guaranteed to kind of get under your skin.

I have close friends in Minnesota that are exterminators and they’ve told me horror stories–going to places and pulling back people’s sheets and they’re covered in dots of blood from them feasting on your leg while you’re sleeping, super gross stuff.

Then also we’re finishing up this project with John Hennigan who is the pro wrestler, and Johnny Morson who was in Strange Nature, called The Iron Sheik Massacre. That’s gonna be coming out later this year, and yes, the real Iron Sheik is involved, and it’s amazing.  It’s gonna be bonkers. It’s one of those dream projects for an effects guy. It’s so cool.

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DC: Oh man, that sounds great.  

JO: So that’s gonna be coming up soon and then also, Strange Nature is out there now, it’s on Amazon Prime, you can get it at Red Box, you can order the DVD on Amazon or Walmart.com, and it’s on iTunes. And if anybody has Shudder, the horror channel, we have a show on Shudder called The Core.

DC: I love The Core!

JO: Yes, I co-host it and I co-produce. Mickey Keating is the host and Gabe Roth, Eli Roth’s brother produced it, and it’s so awesome. It’s like we’ve had Elijah Wood, we’ve had the Soska Sisters and Glenn Danzig on as guests, and it’s like the ultimate horror movie talk show that I wish had been around when I was growing up. It’s so cool. So I encourage people to check that out too.

DC: Nice, and what’s the best way for people to follow you online?

You can find more about the film on strangenaturemovie.com and we’re on Instagram, @StrangeNatureMovie, then we have a Facebook page as well, and my personal Instagram page is @OjalaFX.

DC: I really, really appreciate it. This was a lot of fun! And congrats on Strange Nature.

JO: Thank you, I appreciate it.

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Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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