The Limelight Index: Jim Ojala – Writer/Director/FX Artist

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After searching around for interesting projects on Kickstarter, I recently came across Jim Ojala who is making his debut feature film, Strange Nature, behind the director’s wheel. However, he has vast credits of work in the industry and it was an absolute pleasure to catch up with him about his filmmaking career, special effects, the industry and the state of crowdfunding.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

I’ve been a fan of movies since I was a child. I was kind of a loner kid, so film acted as an outlet for me. After graduating from high school, I started experimenting with cameras and took a course at the local public access station. Once I realized that you could put whatever you create uncensored on the air, my friends and I start developing a show. That show was called My Three Scums, a horror/comedy about a family of misfits and monsters that try to get by in (and get back at) society. Sort of Munsters on crack!  Seeing the reaction (both very good and very bad) from the public told me that this is what I need to do. Episodes played in a couple different festivals also. When a film of yours plays for an audience of strangers and they love it… there’s no better feeling in the world. That show got me a crack at working with Troma, which launched my career.

Who are your influences in the industry?

Taxi Driver is my all time favorite film, so early Scorsese is a pretty big influence. Kubrick of course. Some of the lesser known influences are directors like Lloyd Kaufman, which is why working with him on Citizen Toxie was such a mind blowing deal for me at the time. Buddy Giovinazzo is another one. His gritty film, Combat Shock still blows my mind and somehow that guy still has not received his due. Someone who I just discovered over the last few years is Alejandro Jodorowsky. His films are so unique, beautiful and disturbing all at the same time. I really love how his films can be shocking without being mean spirited… in fact they are uplifting. I’m also a really big fan of Romero’s earlier films. Martin is such an honest, scary and heart breaking film, it’s such a shame more people haven’t seen it.

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What attracted you about specializing in FX make-up?

I had already done some experimenting with makeup FX as a kid and on My Three Scums. Every horror movie kid in the 80’s/90’s had either a book or VHS of Tom Savini’s horror FX makeup. On my second day interning for Troma on Citizen Toxie they said there was an opening in the Makeup FX dept. I jumped at the chance! Tim Considine of Direct FX took me under his wing and taught me the basics and I eagerly picked it up quickly and worked my ass off, many times averaging 20 hour work days. By the end of the film, Tim offered me a full time assisting position. I loved working on practical makeup/creature FX, so I thought that would be a great niche to be in while I pursued my filmmaking career.

You got to work with experimental film director Mike Kuchar. Did this open you up to new ways of thinking about the medium?

Mike was awesome. He was teaching at Millennium Film Workshop in Manhattan where I took a course. Mike actually taught me how to shoot on 16mm film. Mike didn’t seem to have any interest in the business side of it… he and his brother are pure filmmakers making films simply because they love to. He reminded me that it’s okay to film something simply because you find it interesting.

What made you finally decide on the move to Hollywood in 2001?

I had a really good run in New York getting to work on Saturday Night Live, Broadway shows and even with horror film auteur Larry Fessenden on his film Wendigo. However, after 9/11, everything stopped. I couldn’t even get a temporary job. It was a really bad scene. I had run out of money and was getting desperate. My girlfriend and I decided to visit friends in Los Angeles for a week and see what it was like. Lloyd Kaufman referred me to Rob Hall at Almost Human FX. I visited them while in LA and Rob had just got the TV show, Angel, he hired me on the spot. I stayed and worked whilst my girlfriend went back to New York to pack up our life there and move out to LA.

You set up your film production company Ojala films in 2005, what is your direction for the business?

My direction is to keep it half film production and half makeup/creature FX with a digital FX person as well.  I’ve directed several shorts and music videos and now it’s time for my first feature, Strange Nature. The film will hopefully lead to more features, which we will create all the FX for in-house.

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Your debut feature film Strange Nature is currently in production. Tell us more about this project.

In 1995 news of deformed frog outbreaks started being reported in my home state of Minnesota. The deformities were hideous; extra misshapen limbs, missing limbs, misplaced eyes, etc. It was something in the water but no definite cause was found.

When it came time to make my first feature film I looked into those cases again as it is a great catalyst for a story. I was shocked to find that to this day the deformities are still being found with no definite cause yet. In fact the deformities have spread across the country. This year a research team found a population of frogs in Oregon 100% deformed… a first.

When I discovered no one has made a film about this phenomenon I knew I needed to. Strange Nature is an Eco Thriller that shows the dangerous places this may lead. All of this is seen through the eyes of a single mother and her 11-year-old son. I also knew I needed to bring my FX talents to the table to help the project stand out. That way I’m not just another guy with a script.

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The film is currently raising funds on Kickstarter, was this always the intended route for funding?

No, but a bigger film studio won’t touch a project like this. In fact if you aren’t making a film that is a sequel, remake or based on some type of existing franchise you are probably not going to be financed anywhere. It’s pretty sad really, filmmakers are actually discouraged today from original material. I’ve had interest from independent producers to shoot the film in Louisiana and even Bulgaria for the tax breaks/cheap labor, but I’m sticking to my gun that the film is a Minnesota story and that’s where it needs to be shot. Crowdfunding is a way that will allow me to keep complete creative control of the project.

What is your opinion on the recent surge of celebrities using the independent crowdfunding platform?

Honestly, I think it will be part of the downfall of crowdfunding. Little guys like me kill ourselves to get any kind of media attention while celebrities can simply announce their project and they instantly get the front page of every entertainment site and are pretty much guaranteed to make their goal regardless of how big it is. Indie filmmakers simply cannot compete with that, so we have to take to social networking to get our word out and it’s becoming saturated.

The unfortunate fact is that most people are just not interested in your project unless there’s an A-list celebrity attached. I believe within 2 years tops, crowdfunding will change dramatically. My prediction is that film studios will start using crowdfunding to get their films made. Why risk their money if they can just charge the fans to pay for it? That way they win twice.

You recently got a chance to do special effects on Pacific Rim, what exactly did your role entail?

I was working for Legacy FX Studio. I mainly worked on molding the robot suits and running their parts. I also worked on Thor and The Watch at Legacy.

Any big dates planned for Strange Nature, or any other projects we should know about?

The Strange Nature Kickstarter campaign ends on October 10th, 2013. We have 30 hours to go and we are 74% funded! Please take a look at the campaign here and consider pledging. Rewards range from your name in the credits to actually getting one of the deformed animal puppets from the film.

There’s also a very cool horror/comedy themed TV show that I’m directing a pilot for and will be shopping around in January. Unfortunately, I can’t talk more about that, but when I can you’ll be the first to know.

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Any parting advice for young filmmakers out there?

Independent film investors have dried up. Don’t wait. If you have a good unique project and you have a solid social network then try getting your film crowdfunded. However, if you don’t have any big celebrities you should try to keep your goal as close to $10,000 as possible. Very few ever make it above that. If you’re just starting out wanting to get in the film industry I highly suggest interning on a film. You’ll make valuable contacts and if you work hard and learn fast then those contacts will come in handy very soon.

Thanks Jim and good luck with the campaign! 

Link to Jim’s Kickstarter campaign here.

Find Strange Nature on Facebook and Twitter.

Visit http://www.strangenaturemovie.com for even more info.
I think it’s really interesting what Jim mentioned about the Kuchar brothers telling him that it’s okay to film something just because you find it interesting. I think, this is the notion that you should make art to be happy with it yourself, don’t worry if others don’t buy into it. Also, shoot lots of stuff, don’t limit yourself to specific shooting schedules. This is the documentary approach I guess, but can nevertheless always be entwined into narratives.

Also, the opinion that studios will dominate the crowdfunding platforms is becoming more widely acknowledged. It’s a scary thought what Jim picks up on, but I have hope that it may swing the other way and bring more people to the limelight of independent filmmakers. Surely, more traffic can be good traffic? Lets hope so.

Jim has obviously worked hard to get to where he’s got, so give him a couple of dollars towards this invigorating project. It’s only a bit of pocket change!

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