If you’re a movie fan, perhaps you’ve heard of Curt Johnson. The former Dallas resident was credited with an Academy Award in 2002 for his documentary short Thoth. He’s written episodes of television shows such as The X-Files. He’s producing a film, West Memphis Three, a $30 million project set to star Orlando Bloom, Gina Gershon, John Waters, and, possibly, Madonna. Johnson’s work has been touted in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Dallas Morning News. And the Village Voice romantically linked him to actor Rupert Everett.
But if you’ve met him, you probably know the real story: Curt Johnson’s impressive résumé—the TV shows, the Academy Award, the famous lovers— is all lies.
At best, Johnson is a harmless fabulist, a man who deceived the local film community during his destructive tour of Dallas from 2003 to 2005. Many have described him as manic, possibly bipolar, and they pity him. At worst, he is an emotionally unstable thief, someone who tricked well-meaning friends, ripped off those who believed in the projects he zealously promoted. Getting his victims here and across the country to talk on the record is difficult. Who wants to admit to being the victim of a scam? But certain truths have become clear.
Take his contribution to Thoth, the film he used to propel his myth. According to Johnson, he did the music. He edited it. He provided the lighting. He set up almost every filmed shot. An article in the Dallas Voice said that Johnson introduced Thoth, a Central Park performance artist, to Sarah Kernochan, the film’s director. But Kernochan says she simply gave Johnson a co-producer credit in exchange for free t-shirts and PR work. He didn’t actually receive an Oscar. He wasn’t even invited to the Academy Awards ceremony.
The most surprising thing about Curt Johnson is that, by some accounts, he didn’t need to lie to succeed. “The guy is actually talented,” says filmmaker Mike Wilson, who got taken by Johnson when he hired him to edit Michael Moore Hates America. “He didn’t have to lie, cheat, and steal to make something of himself. It’s sad.”
When Curt Johnson first arrived on the Dallas film scene, it seemed like a perfectly scripted match. David Burrows met Johnson at a gathering of the elite organization for the local film community, the Dallas Producers Association. Not many people with Oscar credentials live in our city. The DPA embraced Johnson and even put him on its board (though the organization tries to avoid this fact now).
Burrows is a Dallas native. An early employee of Mark Cuban’s Broadcast.com, he cashed out after it was acquired by Yahoo and started a production company. He’s quiet, soft-spoken, and exceedingly polite. By contrast, Johnson is gregarious, dramatic. But the odd couple shared a dream: they wanted to make movies.
Looking back, Burrows remembers the first sign of trouble—though he didn’t recognize it at the time. The two men had just finished their first official meeting as collaborators. Since Johnson didn’t have a car, Burrows was giving him a ride. They were driving over the brick-paved portion of McKinney Avenue when Johnson, talking on his cell phone, began throwing a tantrum. He was flailing his arms, screaming and cursing at a former lover on the other end of the line who had, it seemed, accused Johnson of killing a pet Maltese. Burrows thought the accusation was too outrageous to be true.
The argument over the dead pet left Johnson homeless. Burrows lived on the edge of Highland Park with his wife and two dogs, and he had a garage apartment for rent. Johnson convinced Burrows to loan him living expenses while the partners pursued projects. Johnson racked up huge bills and borrowed cash, but to contribute where he could, he agreed to walk the two dogs, Bailey and Harley. “He walked the dogs exactly five times,” Burrows says. The normally well-behaved Jack Russell terrier and black Lab went berserk around Johnson. Their odd behavior sparked Burrows’ doubts.
He turned to Google. A search seemed to verify Johnson’s claims, turning up links to dozens of news stories, a lengthy list of credits on the Internet Movie Database, and reported associations with celebrities. But there were stories that were impossible to verify. Johnson said he was the black sheep of a wealthy East Coast family. Then, too, Johnson told a story about growing up as a pitiable orphan. Another time, he claimed to have grown up on a chicken farm.
Despite the fantastic and sometimes conflicting stories, Burrows put aside his doubts and worked with Johnson on a number of projects. The first was a documentary on a minor character involved with the JFK assassination. A Dallas family had come across old boxes containing long-lost Kennedy-related material. Burrows and Johnson met with the homeowner to review the aging photographs and other documents. By late afternoon, a pile of brittle old rubber bands and tattered twine had accumulated on a table. The family’s cat participated in the meeting, too, by brushing up against Burrows and Johnson, begging to be stroked. Burrows was in and out of the room and at one point returned to find the cat in distress, choking.
“What happened?” Burrows asked.
Johnson sat motionless at the table. Sheepishly he responded, “It looks sick.”
The cat coughed up a wad of rubber and string. Later, as the two men left, Johnson told Burrows, “I just wanted that f—ing cat to leave me alone.”
Months later, Burrows would learn that original photographs, part of a family’s history, had been taken by Johnson that day. “I don’t know why I trusted him,” Burrows says now. “Looking back, there were so many things that didn’t add up.”
Burrows agreed to work on a feature film with Johnson, West Memphis Three, the story of three misfits convicted of a grisly triple child murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. Two of the men are serving life in prison. One man, Damien Echols, sits on death row. But legal experts are taking a closer look at the case, and a grassroots effort is under way to free them. “Curt became obsessed with the West Memphis three,” Burrows says, “especially Damien Echols. He would call his wife all the time. He told me that he knew he would get to do the film because he made her cry, and he pretended to cry. He laughed about it.”
On another occasion Burrows himself witnessed how his partner operated. Johnson was on the phone, drumming up “development money,” while Burrows stood unnoticed in an open doorway. “Hold please for Mr. Marraccini,” Johnson said in a chipper Midwestern accent, putting the phone on hold. He drew a breath and picked up the line again. In a gruff New York accent, Johnson said, “This is Mark Marraccini.”
But his tactics paid off—to an extent. In August of 2005, a story ran in Variety, the bible of the industry, reporting Johnson’s $30 million deal for the film. Burrows was amazed by Johnson’s knack for getting publicity on projects that were little more than hen scratch on a legal pad.
But for all the constant meetings and phone calls, Johnson seemed unable to put together an actual deal. “After a while, I was so annoyed by him, but I felt sorry for the guy,” Burrows says. “He was goofy, entertaining, and sort of lovable in a pathetic way.” Sometimes Johnson, like a child, would excitedly recount every detail of his day to Burrows and his wife while sitting on their living room couch, rocking back and forth, clutching a pillow: what time he awoke, whom he talked to, what he felt, where he went—on foot. At other times, Johnson was unkempt and dirty. Burrows once found him dull-eyed, wandering barefoot in the alley. He seemed to have the highest of highs, and lowest of lows, sometimes separated only by hours.
It all finally ended when Johnson fired his landlord from the West Memphis Three project. Burrows had had enough and exploded. Johnson retreated to the garage apartment, and Burrows spent the afternoon tallying his losses, some $28,000. Later that evening, Johnson knocked on Burrows’ back door. He offered him a film credit in exchange for the back rent and the money he’d borrowed.
That was it. After 14 months of freeloading, Johnson had worn out his welcome. Just to be rid of the guy, Burrows gave him another $1,000 and bought him a plane ticket to Minneapolis, where he said he had a project waiting for him. “We took him to the airport, and he was supposed to come back within a couple of weeks to pack his stuff,” Burrows says. He never did.
After leaving Dallas, Johnson went on to weave ever more intricate, overlapping scams. He did, in fact, have a job in Minneapolis. The filmmaker Mike Wilson had hired him to edit Michael Moore Hates America. And Wilson acknowledges Johnson did a good job, eventually, of getting the rough cut of the movie into shape.
But there were problems from the start, and they quickly got worse. Johnson told Wilson that he had been mugged the night before he left Dallas. Wilson used his credit card to check Johnson into an extended-stay Marriott but found it odd that Johnson presented the desk clerk a New York ID with six $100 bills wrapped around it. Eventually, Wilson learned that Johnson stole money from him, ringing up $5,000 on his credit card. He fired him. In trying to dispute the charges, he found that the hotel staff protected Johnson by screening his calls and visitors. Johnson had hoodwinked the entire staff. “He’d told them that he was a big-time producer and wanted to do a reality TV show on them,” Wilson says. “He told some kid at the desk that he had a great look and could make him a star. He’s without a conscience.”
Through Wilson, Johnson met Maura Flynn, a young Virginia-based filmmaker who also worked on Michael Moore Hates America. And through Flynn, Johnson met another mark. Rick Berman lived in Dallas in the ’80s and worked as a general counsel for Norman Brinker. Now he works in Washington, D.C., where he operates the Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization focused on protection of personal freedoms. Berman hired Flynn and Johnson to make a film exposing hypocrisy in the animal rights movement. The film had a $300,000 budget.
Johnson promptly helped himself to some of that money, to pay for his hotel room and to prop up perhaps as many as three other projects he had in the works—one of which was a collaboration with the Barbi Twins, of Playboy fame. Shane and Sia are animal-rights activists, the very people Berman would disagree with.
In the end, the Barbi twins accused Johnson of lying to them and using their celebrity to gain access to other celebrities. They also say he stole tapes from them, and they’ve filed a police report. Flynn, too, accused Johnson of stealing master tapes from her and had to enlist two off-duty Minneapolis cops to retrieve the tapes from his hotel room, though she never filed charges. And Berman got a film that was the exact opposite of what he expected. Your Mommy Kills Animals is actually sympathetic to the animal rights movement. It ends with a vulgarity-laden music video featuring a rapping transvestite.
Berman filed suit in federal court, and in September 2007, Johnson was found liable for a slew of claims, including fraud.
Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Burrows began doing some real digging into the background of his former tenant, who had left the garage apartment in total disarray. Strewn across the studio were dark conspiracy movies, serial killer documentaries, disturbing photography, scads of erotica, stuffed animals, and his own press clippings. So Burrows repeated his Google searches for Johnson—only this time he contacted every person associated or linked to the man. It was then that the full picture came into focus.
Curt Johnson did indeed grow up on a chicken farm in Delaware. His farm chores included euthanizing sick or weak chickens by hitting them with a lead pipe. He dated a man named Mark Marraccini before moving to New York. Johnson used Marraccini’s identity for more than publicity stunts. He opened accounts in his former lover’s name. Marraccini is still struggling to clear his name. After 9/11, Johnson set up a nonprofit called Art for America to benefit victims’ families. It was another scam. In the ensuing investigation by the State Attorney General of New York, Johnson fled to Dallas to be with another lover.
While here, in Burrows’ garage apartment, he continued to use his Marraccini persona to great effect. As Marraccini, he would tip a reporter to some juicy gossip. Michael Musto’s Village Voice column in New York read, “I hear frisky Rupert Everett has found a boyfriend—Curt Johnson, who co-produced last year’s Oscar-winning documentary short, Thoth … .” Then Johnson, as Johnson, would contact another publication. “He called me and was just, like, ‘Oh, Michael Musto just wrote about me in the Village Voice, and Jane Sumner [of the Morning News] did something on me, and I live here,” says Dallas Voice lifestyles editor Daniel Kusner.
I was able to track Johnson to that same extended-stay Marriott. Initally, he was eager to drum up some PR for his newest film, which he talked about at length. His voice was high, loud, and exuberant. But after 30 minutes, when confronted with his past—his scam in Dallas, his own admissions in a deposition for the Berman lawsuit—Johnson’s voice fell quiet. He admitted to all of it. “I know it looks bad,” he said. “Are you going to put that in the story?”
When asked which version of the truth he wanted to see in print, the yarn spun in the phone interview, the fake media hype, or the collection of personal effects left behind in Burrows’ garage apartment, Johnson zeroed in on another issue. In a whisper, he said, “David told me he didn’t have my stuffed animals. He lied to me.”
As for David Burrows, he continues to chase his dreams. Through his Barking Harley Productions, he has produced a number of television commercials and documentaries. He’s working on new films, new ideas, and has a new company: Fzzz! Media.
And Curt Johnson? His current whereabouts are unknown. Two days after our interview, he was kicked out of his hotel. The manager said Johnson had an unpaid bill of $4,000.
Write to Amanda Tackett at [email protected].