In Part 2 of Stories From The Staff, a series highlighting stories of former Sun Valley Resort employees, guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy discusses celebrities, Hollywood action flicks and meeting his wife on the Snowball Special, with former Sun Valley photographer turned Hollywood cinematographer John M. Stephens. Read Part 1 “Marilyn and Me, John Stephens on filming Bus Stop in Sun Valley” here.
As the 1958/59 ski season in Sun Valley came to a close, John M. Stephens left behind his role as the resort’s photographer to pursue his dream job as a cinematographer. But he didn’t leave the mountains of Idaho empty-handed. Alongside a burgeoning Hollywood career, Stephens also picked up a wife.
“Do you remember the Snowball Special that came into Ketchum from L.A.?” Stephens asked. “They sent me down to pick up the first train in, I guess it was Twin Falls, and take pictures of the Snowball Queen. I rode up in the boxcar. Man what a party. And they’d been partying all the way from L.A.”
The Snowball Special was a dressed up Union Pacific train providing service from Los Angeles’ Union Station to Ketchum. Outfitted with a dance floor with bar cars on both sides and two dining cars, the Snowball was a non-stop party train, entertaining its celebrity passengers for the entire 1,100-mile, 26-hour trip to Sun Valley. It was once called “the world’s biggest sanctioned wingding.”
“Anyway, I met the Snowball Queen,” Stephens said. “Her name was Jan McCloud. I took pictures of her and we got married and have two beautiful children.”
Clearly, Stephens made the most of his time in America’s Shangri La.
Once in Hollywood however, Stephens was able to fully embrace his passion for adventure. “There’s more than one way to shoot a bull,” said John M. Stephens in this interview with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1967 titled John Stephens Makes Danger His Business. “Over the horn or under the stomach.”
This theory proved to be correct, propelling Stephens into the realms of Hollywood legend over his 5 decade-long career in movie-making. If you’ve ever watched a golden oldie on Turner Classic Movies and wondered how on earth they got that shot, the chances are, it was first shot by John Stephens. In the golden age of filmmaking, before CGI and green screens, Stephens was the man directors sought out when they needed unusual and exciting action sequences.
His big break came on the Oscar winning Grand Prix. “The picture won an Academy Award for its special effects and it was the electronic pan and tilt head camera I invented that got those close ups of James Garner driving around the track at 160mph.”
It was 1965 and the director John Frankenheimer refused to shoot slow cars and speed the film up, as had been the norm. He approached Stephens and said “How would you like to be the cameraman going 180 miles per hour in a specially built camera car while photographing the actual drivers on the Grand Prix circuit?”
“It would scare the hell out of me,” replied Stephens. Instead he devised the first radio-controlled remotely operated camera head, which captured the thrill of the race from inside the race, capable of producing never before seen shots, such as panning from James Garner’s face to Brian Bedford’s coming up right behind him while speeding along at close to 200 mph. All the while, Stephens was able to view the footage via a remote monitor in the relative safety of a helicopter hovering a few hundred feet above the racetrack.
It’s hard to describe just how breathtaking those hair-raising race scenes are, and you’ll just have to check out the movie (available here) to appreciate the full extent of Stephens’ ingenuity. It’s easy to connect the dots between Stephens’ time on skis barreling down Bald Mountain with camera in hand, to the incredible action shots he devised.
“It was totally a new process and it turned out very well,” Stephens said. “They did a lot of stories [on the new technique]. Popular Mechanics wrote a story about it, I was in all the magazines and I started to get more publicity than the director.”
After Grand Prix and all its related publicity Stephens was in hot demand, an Arctic action flick with Rock Hudson followed and Stephens’ Hollywood status was set in stone.
50 years and over 100 films later, 80 year-old Stephens is slightly overwhelmed by his resume (here‘s the full list). When I ask for some favorites, he replies, “You’ll have to remind me of some of the names!”
“Six Days and Seven Nights, one of the last before I retired – with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche – that was a favorite. We shot a lot of the pictures up in Hawaii for the plane crash, it was a great location. Harrison Ford was great to work with.”
He had worked with Mr. Ford previously, on the classic action flick Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom. “I did all the ski action shots. When the life raft came of out of the airplane and they jumped out and landed in the snow, racing down through the trees and off a cliff into the water. I photographed that. It was about a 6 rating in heavy water. That was quite a challenge, trying to get those pictures in the boat. It was quite a bumpy ride.”
Speaking of water and boats, there’s a little film on his resume that stands out to a history, disaster-loving, romantic such as myself. “There’s a movie called Titanic on there,” I said. “That must have been quite the experience.”
“Yes,” he chuckled in remembrance. “I had just got back from Europe where I had been shooting commercials for Mercedes Benz. It was about midnight and I get a phone call from the production manager of Titanic. He asks what I was doing, I said ‘Sleeping.’ He said ‘Well get dressed and join us down in Mexico we need you on Titanic.’ James Cameron, the director, had been called back to Fox because the studio had pulled the plug on him and he wanted me to finish up for him.
“I get down to Rosarito beach at 6 a.m., half asleep. Jim came out and shook my hand. ‘Hi Mr. Stephens, I’m glad you’re aboard with us. I’ve been through all the film clips of the shots you’re going to pick up and finish for me.’ And that was it. That was my meeting.”
He worked on the multi-Oscar-winning flick for 5 weeks, shooting over 160 sequences, mostly concentrated around the famous ship submerging beneath the icy water. Which wasn’t icy, he pointed out. “It was a big heated swimming pool, the size of two football fields, down on the beach. It’s still there.”
“At the preview, Jim came up to me and thanked me for my work. Never heard from him again. When I heard about Avatar I sort of wondered…”
Speaking of working with groundbreaking directors. What was it like working with Steven Spielberg on E.T.?
“Spielberg was very adamant about the particular type of shots he wanted and we’d have to stick exactly to the storyboards,” Stephens said. “There was this one scene where the kids were being chased by the police, they had E.T. in a basket and they were on bicycles going off these plateaus. I figured out, well maybe I could do something a little extra.
“I had my small camera and I thought I could fasten it to the back of the bicycle, right behind where the kid pedals. So I’m building this mount, and I’m down on my knees attaching it to the frame and this gentleman is looking over my shoulder. He says ‘Hmm. That’s an original idea. I don’t remember putting that on the storyboard.’ It was Steven Spielberg.”
“He looks at me and says, ‘That’s a very good idea, I’m anxious to see what it looks like in the dailies.’ And well, we went ahead with the shot. It turned out to be a very exciting shot and he used it in the picture. Later he told me he appreciated what I was able to add over and above what the story boards called for. That meant a lot to me.” He went on to work with Spielberg on other movies, including the first Indiana Jones.
Stephens carved his career out working in the 2nd unit cinematography (traditionally the unit dedicated to high-speed action sequences or other difficult location shooting). He constantly strove to go over and above what the storyboard called for, get something just a little more exciting, something more unusual.
“I really loved doing 2nd unit work, because it’s where most of the excitement is,” Stephens said in a 1995 documentary by Jeff Coffman about his career. “It was the opportunity for doing the type of filming I used to do in the Navy. We do dangerous things, that’s part of our business. 2nd unit photography is very exciting. You never know what’s going to happen.
“I’ve been in this business quite a few years and its been very good to me. I’ve been on many, many major motion pictures, the credits are quite exciting. It’s been a good career.”
After Titanic came Bandits with Cate Blanchett and Bruce Willis (I wonder if they chatted about Sun Valley?), Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson, The Peacemaker with Nicole Kidman and George Clooney in Slovakia, and many more. “I was mostly brought in to do the special shots,” he explained. “When they needed something unique.” One such assignment was Field of Dreams. “I just did the final scene,” he said modestly. Arguably, the most famous shot in the whole movie, the camera does a gravity-defying sweep from watching Kevin Costner pitch a ball to a ghostly Shoeless Joe Jackson, to seamlessly panning out and high up into the sky above the farm-turned-baseball field to reveal a line of cars snaking off into the distance.
For the farm boy from Boone Grove, Indiana, the shot was a fitting tribute to his origins. And speaking of origins, he did manage to make it back to the place he credits for his long and successful career.
“I took Barbara [his second wife] to Sun Valley on our honeymoon. We wanted to retrace some of the steps I had taken. It was incredible going back to where it all started. All the memories. To see some of my pictures hanging on the wall there in the Lodge. It was quite an experience.”