He won an Academy Award, directed a blockbuster hit and worked under George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. But to casual movie fans, Joe Johnston might as well be any other Joe.
"I've always said that fame is fleeting, but anonymity can last a lifetime," says Johnston, whose man-and-a-horse tale Hidalgo opened Friday.
With a resume that includes the $181 million-grossing Jurassic Park III (2001), Johnston, 53, is one of Hollywood's most respected action-adventure directors. To him, that beats being one of its most visible. Johnson lives with his wife and 7- and 9-year-old children in Santa Barbara, 90 minutes north of the show-business epicenter.
Hidalgo features The Lord of the Rings hero Viggo Mortensen as Frank T. Hopkins, who rides his aging mustang Hidalgo in a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert. It's an 1890s-set Western/Middle Eastern, with one chase scene that might evoke memories of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a dazzling remnant of Johnston's previous career in special effects.
In the mid-'70s, he parlayed a summer job sketching Star Wars story boards for Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic company into a shared Oscar for special effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg's first Indiana Jones movie. Sandwiched around that, Johnston served as art director for visual effects on the next two Star Wars installments, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). He is credited with designing Yoda, the syntax-challenged green gnome that became an audience favorite. All the while, Lucas encouraged Johnston's ambition beyond his fantasy factory.
"He would call me into the cutting room," Johnston says, "and it was like going to this super-condensed film school."
Johnston got bored with sketching after 10 years, so Lucas gave him a sabbatical with salary and paid his tuition to a real film school, the University of Southern California, even though Johnston was a relatively advanced 34 years old. Johnston made a student film, and a friend got him an interview with Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was looking to replace the director on a movie called Teeny Weenies.
Katzenberg called him a few days later to tell him he got the job. "Was it my student film?" Johnston recalls asking. "No," Katzenberg replied, "we're hiring you in spite of your student film."
Johnston earned a union-scale $105,000. The movie, which Katzenberg wisely renamed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), earned nearly $131 million. That catapulted Johnston to the helm of notable if not always successful films that took advantage of his ability to mesh fantastical stories with effects, such as The Rocketeer (1991) and Jumanji (1995).
"I'm not going to take a show unless I'm not sure I can do it," he says. "You have to have that sort of adrenaline."
With Hidalgo, Johnston says he took pains "not to let action-adventure overwhelm the personal story. Hopkins is running from himself, denying who he was."
While facing prejudice from his Arab competitors - with their purebred horses - and suspicion from a sheik (Omar Sharif) who thinks Hopkins might have defiled his daughter, he must come to grips with his own Native American ancestry.
Johnston and writer John Fusco ran the script by Arab and Islamic organizations so as to be sure not to offend. After one adviser suggested Muslims might take umbrage at the display of a Quran, Johnston cut away from it.
The $90 million movie was shot at five locations over six months, concluding in February 2003. Johnston and Disney delayed an expected summer release so it would not compete against another horse picture, Seabiscuit. Then the Christmas field looked too crowded. Besides, Johnston adds, Mortensen's identity as Aragorn, the king-hero in the biggest release of the season, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, would have been too embedded in the public's mind.
Now Mortensen's celebrity is soaring. Johnston is glad for the boost it will give Hidalgo. But do not expect Johnston to clamor for more attention.
"What if somebody recognized me?" he says.