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Upward Spiral: James Johnston and Amy McNutt

Posted 8:00am on Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

How do you plant the seeds for cultural and social change? How do you go about heeding that familiar clarion call to "make a difference"?

On a Wednesday afternoon in early March, just after two o'clock, when the lunch rush should long be over, Spiral Diner on Magnolia Avenue in Fort Worth reverberates with music and conversation: Virtually every table is still occupied. There are office workers in business casual and tattooed artists in skinny jeans, young families with kids and at least one couple who appear to be in their 60s.

The novelty appeal of the restaurant, which serves an exclusively vegan menu in a town far better known for its steak, hamburgers and barbecue, has long since worn off (this location of Spiral opened in 2004). People eat here simply because they like the food, and because they are increasingly flocking to Magnolia Avenue. The neighborhood has emerged in recent years as a little taste of Portland or Austin in a mostly conservative city; a strip whose bars, shops and eateries all owe a measure of their own success to Spiral.

Sitting at one of the restaurant's lacquered-top tables on this busy afternoon, just opposite the soda fountain that only spouts organic, agave-sweetened soda, are Amy McNutt and James Johnston, the married couple who built Spiral into what it is today. She has long, chestnut brown hair that she usually wears pulled away from her face and a sweet, self-effacing manner -- imagine Renee Zellweger's alt-rock younger cousin. He has a shaved head and a husky build, and his beard is the first thing everybody notices about him - a ZZ Top-style bristle that hangs to the middle of his chest.

They are hunched over an Apple laptop, if not exactly planning world domination (they are much too unassuming for that), trying to figure out the next step in an expanding, cultural mini-empire that also includes Johnston's burgeoning film career, and plans to open The Citizen Theater, Fort Worth's first free-standing art-house movie theater in more than two decades.

"I just always felt, if there's something I'm interested in, there's got to be other people who are interested, too," says McNutt.

Johnston adds: "I never stepped back and thought, 'We should move to Austin.'" Frustrated as he sometimes gets by rapid overdevelopment in other corners of the city, or the right-leaning politics of most of the populace, he observes, "For all the problems that Texas and Fort Worth have, I love being here."

What is most interesting about these two is that, separately and together, they are on the cusp of their biggest challenges yet -- projects that could have a considerable impact on Tarrant County and beyond. Johnston is one of the producers of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, an independent feature to be shot this summer and directed by his longtime creative collaborator, David Lowery. It has been workshopped at the prestigious Sundance Institute Labs and has the potential to launch Johnston, Lowery and friend and partner Toby Halbrooks into serious film careers.

Meanwhile, McNutt has been spearheading the development of the Citizen, a $3.5 million, twin-screen theater, three years in the making, that she hopes will soon begin construction on one of the last unoccupied lots along Magnolia. If it succeeds, it could prove to be yet another boon to the Near Southside area and Fairmount neighborhood -- the final piece of a community-building puzzle that has taken more than a decade to assemble.

How do you plant the seeds for cultural and social change? If you're Fort Worth's indie power couple, you combine fervent passion, quiet dedication and a little bit of old-fashioned blind faith.

The early years

"I've never met a more agreeable pair," said Lowery, who was Johnston's roommate in Fort Worth in the early 2000s. "If I wanted to get sappy about it, I've never met anyone who loved each other as much as they do. Whenever my wife and I get in fights, we're like, 'How come James and Amy never get into fights?'"

McNutt grew up in Southlake, graduating from Grapevine High School before moving to Los Angeles to study film at the University of Southern California. A vegetarian since she was a kid, during college she started researching the treatment of dairy cattle ("in some ways, they have it even worse than cattle raised for meat, because their miserable lives are stretched out over many years," she says now). She decided to go vegan, a diet that eschews any meat, fish, dairy or products harvested from insects, like honey. After working with a documentary film crew after graduation, she found herself tiring of Los Angeles and eager to return home and find a professional outlet for her veganism.

"I was 21 years old, and I didn't have anything holding me back," she says. "I knew Fort Worth didn't have any kind of vegan place, and I had a support group here with my family."

With $50,000 from investors, and not much in the way of self-consciousness about the fact that she had never before run a restaurant, McNutt opened Spiral Diner at the Rail Market, a collection of shops, restaurants and a farmers market that launched with considerable fanfare in 2002 at the southeastern tip of downtown Fort Worth. (A partner with whom she started the restaurant dropped out of the operation after just a few weeks.) And although the Rail Market never entirely caught on, closing in 2005, Spiral Diner found an almost instant and devoted following.

One of those early adopters was Johnston, the outlier in what he describes as a "staunchly blue collar, unconcerned with the arts" family, the male members of whom were usually encouraged to enter the military. Rudderless after graduation from Amon Carter Riverside High School, working assorted hourly-wage jobs at restaurants and fast-food joints, he one day stumbled upon a flier announcing that Spiral Diner would soon be opening.

The first encounters between McNutt and Johnston sound like a scene out of some Jim Jarmusch-directed remake of You've Got Mail.

"We started e-mailing each other back and forth," recalls Johnston, who had recently gone vegan himself and reached out to McNutt to tell her that he was excited that the restaurant was opening. "I thought for sure that a filmmaker who's a vegan is a lesbian."

"I thought he was gay," McNutt chimes in. "I was like, 'Awesome, I'm going to have a new gay friend.'"

Yet even after they both figured out the other was straight, it took awhile for anything to happen -- McNutt was too busy at Spiral Diner to even consider a relationship. Only after mutual friends kept arranging "accidental" meetings between the two did things take a more serious turn. They began spending time together every day, often watching movies after the restaurant shut down for the night. They married just a few months later, in February 2003, eloping while on a road trip through New Mexico.

Soon after that, Johnston came aboard full time at Spiral Diner, cooking and developing new recipes. And whereas most couples who work together quickly find themselves scratching each other's eyes out, they struck an easy balance, devoting their mutual energy to McNutt's vegan business in the hopes that it would one day free up Johnston to focus exclusively on filmmaking.

"It's not like we ever sat down and made a deal," says Johnston. "It just kind of made sense."

Adds McNutt: "If I didn't have James those first few years, Spiral never would have made it."

A matter of timing

By late 2003, Spiral Diner was ready to expand. McNutt and Johnston were particularly taken by a building on Magnolia Avenue that they would pass each morning on their way from their house in Fairmount to the Rail Market. There was a hole in the roof, it seemed to be falling apart -- but something about it called to them.

"To use the gardening metaphor, the soil on Magnolia was being fertilized and prepared," says City Councilman Joel Burns, who represents the Fairmount district, and who notes that civic-minded homeowners had been buying and refurbishing old houses in the area since the 1990s. "And then James and Amy planted their seeds at the perfect time."

"We definitely had the sense that there was something brewing in this neighborhood," says Johnston. "You couldn't put your finger on it, but we saw new people moving in, we saw things were starting to build up."

The Magnolia Avenue location of Spiral Diner opened in August 2004 -- and though there were the occasional lean weeks at the start, it was soon regularly packed. Over the next few years, a number of other businesses that didn't quite fit the traditional Fort Worth model began sprouting up all around it, usually in refurbished old buildings like the one that houses McNutt and Johnston's restaurant.

In 2006, Nonna Tata -- a tiny Italian restaurant with just a handful of tables and a menu of fresh-made pastas -- opened on the corner across from Spiral. Next-door-neighbor Lili's Bistro arrived in 2007. In spring 2009, the high end, locally-sourced eatery Ellerbe Fine Foods opened across the street. A few months after that, Brad Hensarling -- a co-owner of the Chat Room Pub, also on Magnolia -- joined with partners to launch the craft cocktail lounge, The Usual. Avoca Coffee, the independent coffee shop, followed in March 2011.

Although McNutt and Johnston can't necessarily be credited with singlehandedly transforming this once-desolate area, there's no mistaking that Spiral Diner provided an anchor for the makeover.

"One of the reasons that I wanted to stay on Magnolia is because of the success of Spiral Diner," says Hensarling. "It became apparent that you could do things on Magnolia that couldn't be done elsewhere in the city."

He adds, "They were able to tap into an unspoken-for community in Fort Worth."

Made for movies

It's unseasonably cold and pouring rain on the first Saturday of the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, but a capacity crowd is nonetheless on hand at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, for a program of short films by emerging Texas directors. In the minutes before the screening, Johnston wanders around the lobby, wearing one of what seems to be an inexhaustible supply of short-sleeve plaid shirts. McNutt is already inside the auditorium with a group of friends.

Most directors are usually nervous presenting their works at a prestigious film festival. But Johnston -- whose short film Knife is the third entry in the nine-film program -- mostly just looks gratified to be invited to the party.

"I wanted to do something where the craft and technique were recognizable," says Johnston. "So people could look it at and say, 'This guy could do something bigger.'"

Johnston first got hooked on movies as a teenager, when he would drive to a store in Haltom City that would rent you a VCR and 10 VHS tapes for the weekend. But it wasn't until his early 20s -- when a friend who was attending the University of Texas at Arlington showed Johnston a VHS tape of short films that he and his classmates had made -- that Johnston realized he could actually make films here in Texas.

He met David Lowery when the director was advertising for people to work on an indie film called Lullaby. Johnston was the only member of the ragtag crew who showed up every day. The result was amateurish -- Lowery refers to it as "a film that no one will ever see" -- but it was a start. Soon both men were making short films together, working on each other's projects at every stage of production.

The 12-minute Knife was shot during four days in the summer of 2010. It's an elliptical, dialogue-free drama that requires you to piece together its story of a man who commits a brutal act of revenge after his family's land is taken over, presumably by eminent domain, for gas or oil drilling. (Lowery edited the film and plays a small part.) Its producer was Alec Jhangiani, the director of the Lone Star International Film Festival.

"When I met James [in 2007], there were all these mumblecore movies," says Jhangiani, referring to the indie film genre which often focuses on urban, self-absorbed 20-somethings. "And James said, 'I want to make movies about men of action, and men who stand for something.'"

For her part, McNutt hasn't necessarily taken an active role in the production of Johnston's films -- though she is credited as executive producer on a number of Johnston's shorts, and she provided craft services for Knife. But the success of the restaurant has freed her up so that she has time to travel to festivals alongside Johnston. She's happy to take a more supporting role as her husband's ambitions take center stage in their lives.

"He had to put filmmaking on hold for a couple of years," she says.

As accomplished and striking as Knife is, however, it's Johnston's work as the producer of Lowery's films that is presently generating the greater buzz.

Lowery's newest screenplay, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, was accepted into the prestigious Sundance Screenwriter's Lab. Johnston and Toby Halbrooks were then invited to high-profile producing labs, one at Sundance and the other in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The film is set to shoot in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this summer. Considering its pedigree, it has a good chance of turning up at next year's Sundance Film Festival and becoming one of the most anticipated titles there. (See related story.)

Regardless of what happens with Ain't Them Bodies Saints, though, Johnston emphasizes that he has no intention of abandoning home for the glamorous pastures of Hollywood. For him, filmmaking has become yet another means of deepening his roots and building a sense of community.

He says, "I love now, when I go places, people know that I'm the guy from Texas -- this creative person is from Fort Worth, not Dallas, not Austin."

A different direction

Back on Magnolia Avenue, on a sunshine-suffused afternoon in April, McNutt and Johnston are standing in an unmowed grass field on the southwestern stretch of the street, conjuring up visions of their latest, and most expensive, labor of love.

Right now, the only thing here is a heavy wooden sign marking it as the future home of The Citizen Theater. But renderings have been drawn and the interior design process is well under way for what would be the first movie theater in Fort Worth devoted exclusively to independent and foreign cinema since the Ridglea Theater stopped showing movies in the early 1990s. (The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth regularly shows art-house titles but screens them only on weekends.)

"With Spiral, we've definitely had a lot of people who have become vegetarian since they started eating there," says McNutt. "I'm hoping that the same thing will happen with the Citizen -- people will come out of the woodwork, and watch things that they've never watched before."

In 2008, McNutt and Johnston sold franchise ownership rights to Spiral Diner to longtime manager Lindsey Akey. The same year, another Spiral Diner franchise opened in Dallas, owned by Sara Tomerlin. McNutt and Johnston are still owners of the company, but they aren't involved in day-to-day operations. And although they have had plenty of offers to further franchise the Spiral brand, they don't think their employee- and community-friendly style of doing business would necessarily translate to a much larger scale.

Instead, they've turned their attention to the Citizen, an idea McNutt has had ever since her college days, when she regularly attended revival screenings at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. With a name inspired by Orson Welles' seminal Citizen Kane - "and the idea of wanting to be a good citizen," McNutt adds -- the theater is planned as a twin-screen, two-story venue that will have an eclectic mix of programming, akin to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin or the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.

The budget for getting the theater built and running is approximately $3.5 million, about 80 percent of which McNutt and Johnston say they have been able to raise so far. (See sidebar.) They're hopeful they can begin construction in the coming months and open next year.

The risks of launching an art-house theater, of course, are considerable: For one thing, moviegoers have become increasingly accustomed to consuming entertainment via Netflix or on-demand services; the movies they go to a theater to see tend to be the "event" blockbusters such as The Hunger Games or The Avengers.

For another, Fort Worth moviegoers don't necessarily have a proven track record of showing up to see independent films in their own back yard. Screenings at the Modern, for instance, rarely attract more than 50 or 75 people.

Tearlach Hutcheson, who was part of the team that opened The Magnolia in Dallas in 2002, and who teaches a course at Southern Methodist University called The Business of Film Exhibition and Distribution, says the biggest challenge the Citizen may face will be striking the right balance in programming. Art houses usually survive, he says, because of "four or five indie films that hit each year" -- titles like The Descendants or Midnight in Paris.

If The Citizen isn't able to land such films -- or if the theater has to wait until they've already played in Dallas -- Hutcheson thinks it could be a problem. "Are people going to want to wait, or are they just going to drive to Dallas as is already their habit?" he asks.

McNutt and Johnston say they are approaching the Citizen just as they have approached their previous projects: Heads down; attention rapt; and with the firm belief that if they build it, someone will come.

"We're not in a super hurry," notes McNutt. "The biggest thing from the beginning was to maintain control of the business, and not have to sign away things to get it financed."

Regardless of whether or not the Citizen proves as successful as Spiral, what can't be disputed is the couple's commitment to their causes and their art, their neighborhood and their city. They live in a house that's within walking distance of their restaurant, with a gaggle of rabbits and cats. They point with pride to the fact that a number of rental houses in Fairmount are shared by staff members at Spiral, who have taken to living and working together. They brood about the rapid growth in other parts of the city, such as the West Seventh district. ("The rest of the city could learn from Magnolia," says McNutt. "The growth has been slow and steady. Not a lot of businesses have gone out of business here.")

Observes Lowery: "They're among the few people I know who've made a change for the better in the world around them. Working in film, you meet so many people who are focused on themselves or their own projects, and they have this solipsistic, microscopic perspective. But Amy and James look beyond themselves."

McNutt and Johnston resist any such grandiose pronouncements, or even the suggestion that they might be trailblazers.

"I just couldn't picture myself doing anything else, really," says McNutt. "And you have to make a living."

Adds Johnston: "When you have a passion, you don't really consider other alternatives."

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