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Deformed frogs inspire Duluth native's 'eco-horror' film project

Duluth native Jim Ojala is using his special-effects experience to create realistically deformed animals and makeup for actors for his upcoming film, "Strange Nature." (Photo by Jim Ojala)

Jim Ojala was 18 years old when a group of middle-school students on a field trip in Henderson, Minn., discovered a pond full of mutated frogs. Deformed frogs occur naturally, but the numbers were unprecedented -- one-third of the frogs collected from the Henderson pond had mutations.

He said he still remembers the news stories about the bizarre occurrence.

"It was bewildering," Ojala said.

The 1995 discovery caught national attention, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and individual biologists set to work solving the problem. After years of research, the scientists produced some probable causes, ranging from agricultural runoff to natural predators, but there still isn't a clear answer.

Ojala, a special-effects makeup artist and filmmaker from Duluth now based in Hollywood, decided the deformed-frog mystery was the perfect basis for his first feature film. Ojala is using Kickstarter, a popular crowd-sourcing website, to find backers for the movie dubbed "Strange Nature."

"This is a case of truth being stranger than fiction," he said. "It opened up my imagination."

William Souder, a Minnesota journalist, covered the story in the 1990s and published the book "A Plague of Frogs" in 2000, which dug deeper into the mystery. Souder said the surreal nature of the story caught the nation's attention, and he's not surprised that someone would make a film about it.

"Any kind of deformed animal is compelling or riveting or disturbing to see," Souder said.

In addition, frogs are the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," he said. Frog health can be an early indicator of environmental problems that could affect humans.

"Frogs are vertebrates," he said. "They're related to us."

Ojala, 36, plans to take that concept and run with it in his movie, which he calls an eco-horror film.

"I'm personally amazed that nobody's made a movie about it yet," Ojala said.

His story centers on a single mother who moves with her son to northern Minnesota after her music career fails. While living in an isolated cabin with her father, strange things start happening. After the deformed frogs are discovered, the story veers from reality as bigger animals and even humans start suffering malformations.

Ojala's first experience filmmaking was for the public access channel in Duluth as a teenager. He and a few friends created the notorious "My Three Scums" series about a "dysfunctional family of mutants, monsters and weirdos" living in Duluth.

"That was my life. Seeing people enjoy it was mind-blowing," he said.

He sent one of the episodes to Troma Entertainment in New York City, packed in a giant box filled with balloons bearing the slogan "I love 'My Three Scums.'" To Ojala's surprise, they replied with a letter asking him to be an intern.

"I didn't think getting a letter like that could even be possible," he said.

He headed to New York and worked on the movie "Citizen Toxie," a sequel to the cult classic "The Toxic Avengers." He learned the ropes and quickly moved from an intern to a full-time special-effects makeup artist. He has been employed in special effects ever since, working on the sets of movies, including "Thor" and "Pacific Rim." He said his real passion, though, is filmmaking, and he's made a number of shorts during his career. "Strange Nature" will be his first full-length feature.

The Kickstarter campaign won't be the first investment in the film -- he already has put a lot of work into the movie. He has secured filming locations, built many of the "creature effects" that will be used to portray deformed animals and has actors signed on for roles. John Hennigan, a former WWE wrestler known as John Morrison, and Carlos Alazraqui, who played Deputy James Garcia in Reno 911, both are signed up to be in the film.

Ojala said he has had offers from producers to fund the film, but he decided to crowd-source the money instead so he'd have more control.

"I've had a lot of interest from producers ... but they don't want to take it to Minnesota," he said. Producers have offered to film it in Bulgaria or Louisiana, but he said "this is a Minnesota story."

Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing way of fundraising. If Ojala doesn't hit the goal of $85,000, none of the contributors pay. There are incentives for donating, ranging from a downloaded version of the film to the opportunity to name a character.

Ojala hopes to begin filming next summer. All remaining acting and crew positions will be filled in Minnesota, he said. If the Kickstarter campaign doesn't work, he'll pursue private investors.

The Kickstarter campaign ends Thursday. As of Friday afternoon, the project had 78 backers and had raised almost $14,000.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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