Michael Ojeda found the perfect, secluded motel he'd been looking for in Superior, Arizona.
He asked the clerk if he could stay in the corner room.
Fact vs. fantasyDes Plaines native and Maine East High School graduate Michael S. Ojeda said his gritty take in movies ("Lana's Rain" and "Savaged") might be influenced by the five years he worked as a cameraman for NBC's Channel 5 news.
"Remember that scaffolding fall from the John Hancock Building?" he asked. "I was the first on the scene. It was a very disturbing thing to see.
"I covered that train wreck that killed people in Indiana. I have witnessed the real atrocities of life. Real pain and suffering. But also the victories, like the Bulls.
"It was a great experience, but I never had the gene to be a journalist. I wanted to create new worlds. I wanted to create fantasies. That's what I wanted to do."
"Oh," the clerk said, "I should tell you that the room you want, well, someone was murdered in it last year."
"Perfect," Ojeda said. "I'll take it!"
And that's how this Des Plaines native came to write the screenplay to his new horror film "Savaged."
"It was the perfect place to be inspired to write about a woman possessed by the spirit of an Apache warrior," Ojeda said. "I actually found this place after watching Oliver Stone's thriller 'U-Turn.' I thought, 'Where is this town?'"
"Savaged" will have its Chicago premiere as the last feature shown at Bruce Campbell's Horror Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24, at the Muvico Rosemont 18 Theater, 9701 Bryn Mawr Ave., Rosemont.
The horror fest is part of Wizard World Chicago Comic Con at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont Aug. 21-24.
Getting "Savaged" scheduled as the festival's big finale marked a coup for Ojeda, 45, who grew up in Des Plaines, graduated from Maine East High School and studied filmmaking at Columbia College.
"I was not the best student in the world," Ojeda said. "I was so passionate about achieving this goal, to become a movie director, that I neglected my other studies."
So, exactly where did this passion come from?
"I was very young and my mom took me to see the James Bond movie 'Live and Let Die.' I was like 3 or 4. It made a great impression on me. I became a Bond fan and I became obsessed with making movies."
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in Ojeda's professional life occurred the day he found a Super-8 movie camera in his mom's dresser drawer. He asked his mother, now Helene Sussan of Lake Zurich, if she would buy him some film. She did.
"Pretty soon, in my room there were all these strips of film hanging all along the walls," Ojeda said.
He traded in his Super-8 for a Hi-8 video camera as technology evolved. He used 16 mm and 35 mm while making films at Columbia College. Now he shoots in digital HD as many indie filmmakers do.
Ojeda took up shooting news footage for Chicago's NBC Channel 5 News and hiring himself out as a freelance cameraman.
After working on his first feature film for four years, he released the 2004 movie "Lana's Rain," an immigrant drama about a brother and sister from the war-torn Balkans. They arrive in Chicago and must survive the mean streets of the Windy City.
An artistically sound decision almost killed Ojeda financially.
"You'd think a movie about the immigrant experience would be something audiences overseas would want to see," Ojeda said. "But those markets wanted American movies, and they thought 'Lana's Rain' was a foreign film."
Why? Ojeda shot the first part of "Lana's Rain" using subtitles. That made perfect narrative sense. But international dealers wouldn't touch his movie. They said they could never sell it to foreign markets.
And those foreign markets, Ojeda said, are where indie filmmakers recoup a great deal of their costs.
"Great. I made my first feature," he said. "Time to head off to L.A. to make it big time."
Or so he thought.
"It was hard to make friends," he said. "Out there, nobody cared that I made a feature film. It only mattered if it was a blockbuster movie. I struggled three or four years to get on my feet, to feel strong enough to focus on something new."
Freelance jobs shooting for National Geographic, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and Spike TV (where he directed segments of "The Deadliest Warrior" series) sustained him.
"It took me seven years to get to the point where I felt strong enough -- with enough friends and contacts -- to get another feature going."
That's where "Savaged" comes in.
"I wanted to do a genre film because that has the best chance of making your money back," he said. "It was important to my investors that the movie perform. That's why I chose it."
"Savaged" belongs to a horror subgenre known as the "rape and revenge" movie. Ojeda said he coupled this with a Native American possession theme after becoming inspired while driving through the American Southwest.
"I wanted to do something that's fresh, or at least not been seen in a while, something that's a void in the marketplace."
Ojeda lives in North Hollywood with "Lana's Rain" star Oksana Orlenko and their Lab/German shepherd dog, who appears in "Savaged."
"I think I'm always going in the right direction," he said. "I take comfort in seeing the goal at the end of the rainbow. I'm always fighting, always searching, always hungry to get that next project going.
"It keeps you young. I wouldn't have it any other way."
-- Dann Gire
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are looking for Northwest suburbanites with showbiz careers. If you know anyone who would make an interesting story, contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.