John Fusco turns 43 on March 21. Two days later, the Vermont screenwriter will turn up at the Academy Awards ceremonies in Los Angeles. He's hoping that his feature-length animation, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, gallops away with an Oscar. It would make an awfully nice birthday present.
The 2002 DreamWorks film is up against a list of nominees that includes Ice Age, Lilo and Stitch, Spirited Away and Treasure Planet. But chances are none of them have scripts with quite as much pedigree. A herd of 22 purebred Spanish mustangs prance on Fusco's Lamoille County farm, where he penned his oeuvre over a period of four years.
Spirit, which opened last Memorial Day weekend, is about a wild bronco in the late 1800s. After being captured by the U.S. Calvary, he escapes with the help of a Lakota brave articulated by Cherokee actor Daniel Studi. Although the stallion himself does not talk, narrator Matt Damon offers insight into the equine thought process. For additional emotional emphasis, Bryan Adams sings his own horse-sensitive tunes on the soundtrack.
The movie earned $80 million at the box office, according to Fusco, "and the DVD sales were through the roof."
When approached by Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, two of three partners who own the Hollywood studio, Fusco was initially reluctant to work on the animated picture. "I had zero interest in that medium," he explains.
But when he learned it was supposed to be an animated Western "from the point of view of the horse," Fusco changed his mind. He simply asked: "When do we get started?"
Given free rein, so to speak, his inclination was to deliver a story that was both historically accurate and respectful of Native American traditions. "I drew from the voices of indigenous peoples to create the narration, making it a kind of sparse haiku while trying not to anthropomorphize," Fusco says. No wisecracking cinematic animals for him.
Hundreds of animators labored on the project, which was predominantly hand-drawn and hand-painted - unheard of in an age dominated by computer-generated imagery. These old-fashioned analogues match the look that had taken shape in Fusco's imagination. "I didn't want a singing-horse cartoon," he says. His own visual inspiration came from artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
Since the success of Spirit, Fusco has been inundated with animation offers, but he's already at work on other projects. The long-delayed Rebels, his homage to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, is likely to start shooting in Vermont and Canada this fall or in early spring 2004. Before that, there's supposed to be a summer start on the remake of Billy Jack, "my radical, updated approach to the  indie cult film" about a mystical Vietnam veteran who defends the people and horses on an Arizona reservation.
Fusco's Dreamkeeper, a mini-series that also has an Indian theme, airs on ABC May 11 and 12. Somehow the guy finds time to turn out books, too; he's currently writing his second novel, which will tap into the ambiance of blues music in New Orleans. The Big Easy is familiar territory: As a displaced Connecticut Yankee, he was once the lead singer and songwriter for a 1970s Southern rock band called the Dixie Road Ducks.
That legacy may be the reason Fusco's "sparse haiku" unleashed his more intense poetic yearnings. "I got a little carried away and also wrote songs for the screenplay" of Spirit, he says. Though this unbridled effort was not accepted by DreamWorks, it did help "inform the soundtrack."
News of the Oscar nod came by telephone a few weeks ago while Fusco was on the Mojave Desert set of Hidalgo, his big-budget Disney film about a late-19th-century American cowboy that opens in October. He took the call while sitting with one of the stars, Lord of the Rings hunk Viggo Mortensen. "It was my agents, congratulating me," the scribe remembers. "Viggo's movie had just gotten, like, six nominations, so I didn't do much bragging."
Katzenberg persuaded Fusco to attend the big awards shindig. If Spirit wins in the long-animation category, the movie mogul might insist the wordsmith accompany him on stage - an appearance typically reserved just for producers. "Truthfully," the countrified caballero demurs, "I just want to stay home and watch it at the Morrisville VFW.