Page 1 of 3If you’ve been around Fort Worth’s film festivals or screenings of local filmmakers’ work, you’ve probably seen James Johnston. the barrel-chested 38-year-old with a shaven head, scraggly beard, and tattoos running the length of both arms cuts a distinctive figure among the young urban hipster artists as well as the older, more genteel crowd that tends to gravitate toward art-house films. Fort Worth Weekly wrote about him five years ago (“Out of the Box,” Jan. 18, 2006), when he had just made Deadroom, a feature-length anthology of shorts. Johnston produced the film, and he and three filmmaking friends directed its segments. since then, Johnston has gone from neophyte artist to a central figure in the city’s filmmaking community, but his ego apparently has not grown along with his role. the biography on his web site reads in its entirety: “I produce and direct films. I was born and raised in Fort Worth TX.” There’s much more to his story than that.
James Johnston was born in Fort Worth.
Anyone expecting an incendiary, temperamental, difficult artist will undoubtedly be disappointed upon meeting Johnston. He is a pleasant, open person who speaks softly and articulately about a wide range of issues. Among these are the reasons why he became a vegan (“I felt that if I couldn’t kill an animal myself, I shouldn’t be eating them”), but he emphasizes that he doesn’t want to push that lifestyle on anyone who’s not so inclined. Among his colleagues and acquaintances, the same words tend to come up repeatedly to describe him: He’s gregarious, even-tempered, chill, laid-back, a people person.
Curtis Glenn Heath, a songwriter for the alt-country band the Theater fire, has known Johnston for at least 15 years. “In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve maybe seen him upset once or twice,” Heath said.
Johnston is also known for his sense of humor — a few years ago he posed for a series of photos by his musician-filmmaker friend Nick Prendergast spoofing American Apparel ads. (One of those pictures can be seen on Johnston’s now-defunct blog — he’s continued the blog on his new site, but the photo’s only on the old site.)
Of course, Johnston is a fixture in the Fairmount area due to the highly successful vegan restaurant Spiral Diner, which he co-founded with his wife Amy McNutt. After graduating from Carter-Riverside High School, he spent some years casting about for things to do involving his interests in film and music. (He had a short-lived career as a rapper, calling himself the Dark side. Sadly — or maybe not — there are no recordings from this part of his life.) He met McNutt through a mutual friend, and they bonded so quickly over their shared interests in veganism and film that they were married within two months.
A native North Texan, McNutt is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s prestigious film studies program. “Los Angeles was a culture shock in a good way, and I love it,” she said. “I just didn’t want to live there. It’s too crazy.”
The couple started the Spiral Diner in the Fort Worth Rail Market in 2000; it moved to its current location two years later. It was McNutt’s project more than Johnston’s, but he curtailed his filmmaking projects drastically to help get the restaurant off the ground. He points out, however, that the decision was a practical one. (The restaurant business can be fickle, but it’s usually a better financial bet than filmmaking.)
The Spiral has been successful enough to spawn a Dallas location as well and to allow Johnston and McNutt to leave the day-to-day management of both establishments in the hands of trusted managers who operate like franchisees. “I’ve had offers to expand into Austin,” said Johnston. “I think we’d do well there, but we’d have to move down there for six months. we don’t want to open another location unless we know everything is being prepared the right way.”
Johnston and McNutt don’t have just their business in Fairmount. they make their home there as well. over the years, they’ve seen the area become a magnet for other restaurants, bars, and businesses. “I’m not too humble to say I think [the Spiral has] helped this neighborhood become what it is,” Johnston said.