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Strange day at the newspaper office

Director Jim Ojala, leaning over the reception desk, filmed a scene for his ecological horror film "Strange Nature" in the Duluth News Tribune lobby on Aug. 29. (Photo by JoAnn Jardine)1 / 3
Design for a T-shirt sold to fictional tourists in the movie. (Illustration by Randall Kaplan)2 / 3
Poster for the upcoming film "Strange Nature."3 / 3

On Friday, Aug. 29, Budgeteer editor Naomi Yaeger stepped into the office lobby to find it filled with over a dozen people and a woman she did not recognize at the reception desk.

"Can I help you?" the receptionist said.

"Yes, I work here," said Yaeger.

"That's okay," said the receptionist. "I was just practicing."

The receptionist was actually an actress. The rest of the people were the cast and crew of a movie being filmed in the Duluth News Tribune headquarters on West First Street, which also houses the Budgeteer.

The film is "Strange Nature," an independent horror film directed by Duluth native Jim Ojala.

Aug. 29 was the last of approximately 20 days of local filming. Production now goes back to Los Angeles for editing and special effects.

As a youth, Ojala delivered the Budgeteer. He graduated from Duluth Central High School in 1995 and worked as a medical records clerk. He also became involved in Duluth Public Access Community Television (PACT), through which he created "My Three Scums," a series of horror comedies. One episode was filmed partly in the now-closed Last Place on Earth and featured owner Jim Carlson.

Ojala's work on the "Scum" films landed him a job with Troma Entertainment in New York City, a production company known for similarly over-the-top films such as the "Toxic Avenger" series.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he found work in New York to be scarce and moved to Los Angeles. He became successful doing make-up and creature effects for TV shows such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" and films including "Hellboy II," "Where the Wild Things Are," "Thor" and "Pacific Rim." In 2005 he launched his own production company.

"Strange Nature," his first feature, was financed through Kickstarter, where he raised $46,088 on a $45,000 goal. (Note: Writer Richard Thomas donated to the Kickstarter campaign.)

The movie was mostly shot in Duluth, Itasca County and the Iron Range, with scenes in the Duluth mayor's office, Uncle Loui's Cafe, the KBJR-TV Channel 6/11 studio and the place where Ojala got started, the PACT studio. Local actors appear in many roles.

The plot is based on the true case of deformed frogs found in Minnesota beginning in 1995.

The deformities have continue worldwide, but the cause has yet to be determined. Theories range from parasites, chemical pollution and the thinning ozone layer to the more natural explanation of dragonfly nymphs preying on tadpoles.

In 2012 Judy Helgen, a former research scientist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, published "Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist's Quest," in which she charged that agency bureaucracy hindered research on the frogs.

Post-production is expected to be complete by January. Then the movie will be shown in film festivals and, with fortune, picked up for wider distribution.