In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, writer/director Jim Ojala talks about the thrilling mutant deformities in Strange Nature, starring Lisa Sheridan and John Hennigan. Movie lovers will want to know how this creative filmmaker put together a bone-chilling movie, with eye-popping makeup effects and a solid cast, on a low budget.
As we mentioned in our review, by moving in with her estranged hermit father in the backwoods of a small town, Kim (Lisa Sheridan) and son Brody (Jonah Beres) find themselves in the middle of a horrendous phenomenon where deadly offspring mutations spread from animals to humans.
With Strange Nature in theaters now, Ojala and I break down the film’s scariest moments, the makeup effects, and analyze the film’s message. If readers love behind-the-scenes tidbits, and if filmmakers want to know how to direct child actors, then you’re going to love our in-depth commentary.
Villain Media: Strange Nature has a Frogs vibe, a cool twist on the eco-horror genre. Tell me how the inspiration for Strange Nature came about?
Jim Ojala: 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.
VM: Tell me about Lisa Sheridan. Her character, Kim Sweet, has to be a struggling single mother and a badass fighter at the same time.
JO: Lisa Sheridan is the only actor that came in and nailed every aspect of that in her audition. She was likable and caring, but had a natural edge to her too. I thought Kim being a broke single mother, with a ailing father, made this whole adventure more of a challenge for her character. That’s where we needed several convincing scenes of Lisa going from being embarrassed of her past, to confronting and apologizing to seriously investigating what’s going on. So by the time we get to the end, and she’s blasting a shotgun in the name of protecting her family and town, we really believe she could and would do that.
VM: Johnny Mundo is my favorite wrestler. Tell me about John Hennigan. Was it a challenge for John, who’s a great live performer, to do multiple takes?
JO: John is awesome! I wasn’t quite sure how he would be coming from performing in a ring in front of thousands of people, but he was really able to subdue his performance and made a lot of fantastic subtle choices, especially for close ups. That scene in his house where he’s looking at his wife and child, and wondering what to do when his friends come by…brilliant. I believe every second of what’s going on in his head.
VM: What was more of a challenge, directing child actors, like Jonah Beres who plays Brody, or the adult actors?
JO: Jonah was a dream to work with. Even though he was a kid, he was a total pro. He could be goofing around during breaks, then immediately be back in the headspace he needed to be for the scene. The real struggle was not having time to do proper rehearsals and really work with actors at times; sometimes you just have to move on. During the big crane shot, when the kids first discover the frogs, we had the crane moving up from the ground and up to the kids then…a kid would fart. All the kids laugh; complex expensive blown take. I get it, it’s funny and most of these kids weren’t actors and were just hanging out, but I had to get a little harsh with them at one point so they took it seriously. From then on it was all good.
I’ve found that if you don’t treat kids like they’re dumb and you expect the importance from them that you expect from adult actors, they respond positively. It gives them responsibility and lets them know you take them seriously.
VM: Not only is Strange Nature about a family trying to reconnect, I noticed there’s also social commentary about small town secrets and pollution. Tell me about the themes you wanted the movie to come across.
JO: First and foremost, I was interested in how a small town really might deal with this phenomenon, if it moved beyond the ponds, and there was no one there to say everything is going to be okay.
Second, I really feel like the environment has taken a major backseat to every other topic for many years now. If we can just get people talking about this topic or other environmental topics I think it’s a big win. As far as the fate of the frogs go, we continue to see wetlands with >50% and up in malformations year after year, which is almost certainly leading to population sinks on the landscape.
Frogs are one of our most important bio-indicators of a healthy environment. If something man-made like certain pesticides are contributing to massive die-offs, we should probably be concerned.
VM: How can readers find your movie?
JO: If you’d like to see it in the theater, STRANGE NATURE is playing Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale from September 22-27 and makes its festival premiere at the Twin Cities Film Festival on October 19 in Minnesota where it all began! Then a theatrical run at Zinema in Duluth, MN starting October 21. The film releases on Redbox/Walmart/Amazon in October as well! You can keep up to date with the film at http://www.strangenaturemovie.com as well as FB at http://facebook.com/strangenaturemovie , Twitter: @strangenature1 and Instagram: @strangenaturemovie.
VM: Tell me how Strange Nature changed you as an artist.
JO: It taught me that you have to take everyone in your life seriously and treat them well. Work peers, friends, clients, etc. A lot of people that you swear will have your back, won’t. Then again, a lot of people that you never suspected will be your biggest champions and open doors for you that would otherwise remain closed.
VM: What are you working on now?
JO: The Iron Sheik Massacre! A bonkers film that I’m actually working on with Strange Nature‘s John Hennigan and David Mattey. I can’t say more about it now but it’s pretty wild, bloody and fun. Also, make sure to check out THE CORE, a horror talk show that I do an FX segment on and co-produce on Shudder! Trust me, this is the talk show you always wish was around when you were growing up!
A music video I directed, “Cluck At the Moon,” for my favorite mutant chicken punk band, The Radioactive Chicken Heads, is also being released in the next couple weeks so keep an eye out for that. It’s a really fun ode to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller!”
Aside from that, I’m writing a new horror film that includes some very nasty bed bugs as well as a new sci-fi thriller TV series that I wrote and am currently pitching. Oh yeah, and doing a bunch of crazy projects at our special makeup/creature effects studio, Ojala Productions (ojalafx.com). Keeping crazy busy is the only way I know!
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]