“There’s more than one way to shoot a bull” John M. Stephens on his Hollywood career.

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

Jan McCloud, left, posing in front of the first Snowball Special. She met and married Sun Valley publicity photographer John M. Stephens on the famous train.

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.

John M. Stephens worked from 1955 to 1959 as a Sun Valley publicity photographer before embarking on a hugely successful career as a Hollywood cinematographer

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.

Stephens posing with one of the special cameras he rigged up to catch the thrilling race shots in 1966's Grand Prix starring James Garner.

“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…”

Stephens on the set of A Fine Madness with Sean Connery, the first movie he did after Dr. No. The inscription reads "To John, For the one shot you got right. Sean." "We played pool all the time on set," Stephens said, referring to the dedication. "He was quite the practical joker, he always had fun on set."

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.”

Jennifer Tuohy

Stephens skiing in Sun Valley, the place he gives credit for starting his career in Hollywood.

Marilyn and Me, John Stephens on filming Bus Stop in Sun Valley

The Valley Sun introduces a new series from guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy. In Stories from the Staff, she highlights the stories of former employees, talking about their time at Sun Valley and where their Sun Valley experience has led them. In this two-part opener she profiles John M. Stephens, a famed cinematographer who worked as a photographer for Sun Valley from 1955 to 1959. His groundbreaking career included such movie classics as Grand Prix, South Pacific, Titanic, ET, Field of Dreams and Indiana Jones.


John M. Stephens, the famed cinematographer who got his start in Sun Valley.

One evening in 1956 a 24 year-old kid found himself sitting in The Ram drinking with the cast and crew of a big Hollywood motion picture. One of his companions, chatting and laughing along with the grips, gaffers and cameramen of Bus Stop, was Marilyn Monroe.

Since the moment The Lodge opened its doors in 1936, Sun Valley has welcomed countless Hollywood stars. But stories of the ski resort launching Hollywood careers are few and far between. For the young John M. Stephens, sitting in The Ram that night was not only a dream come true, it was the start of a long, glittering and hugely successful career as a celebrated cinematographer. And it all began in Sun Valley.

A few months earlier, Stephens had been just another kid fresh off a Navy ship looking for a job. He knew what he wanted to do, he wanted to shoot pictures. The Navy had given him a valuable skill, the ability to shoot pictures in extreme, hair-raising conditions. So far, he had been able to apply that skill to the sport of skiing – photographing his pal Doug Pfeiffer at the ski resort he founded in Southern California, Snow Summit. But it wasn’t Hollywood.

After being unceremoniously booted out of the Motion Picture Cameraman Union office, with the words “You’ll never work in this town” ringing in his ears, he joined Pfeiffer on a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, where the skiing legend wanted to shoot pictures for his new book Skiing With Pfeiffer.

“I went up there with him,” said Stephens, now 80, from his home in Laguna Niguel. “And while Doug went off skiing I went to the publicity department.” He met with Sun Valley’s publicity guru Dorice Taylor and showed her his book of ski action photography. Within hours he was hired.

“They gave me a room in the basement of The Lodge and tried me out that winter.” he said. “I took a lot of  publicity pictures of the socialites that came up, Hollywood people, shooting pictures to send to hometown papers. I’d follow guests around and do a ski action book for them of their vacation. Skiing all the time with a camera.”

Stephens spent a spell in the Sun Valley hospital after breaking his leg during one of the 3 winters he spent photographing for the resort.

After a few weeks of shooting the likes of Gary Cooper, Leif Odmark and Sigi Engl on skis, opportunity came barreling over the mountain. “When the production crew for Bus Stop came up to Sun Valley to shoot, I was sent up to North Fork to take publicity shots of the production,” Stephens said. “I took a lot of pictures of Marilyn up there around Galena Summit and at the North Fork gas station. One day an assistant cameraman took sick and they asked me if I’d help them out for a few days. Dorice said it was okay, as long as I could still shoot pictures for Sun Valley, so I ended up working for them as a cameraman, holding the slate.”

Stephens captured this iconic image of Marilyn Monroe while she was shooting Bus Stop in Sun Valley. "We got to be friends on the set," he said. "She'd come up to talk to me, she was very friendly and very nice."

While the job wasn’t particularly glamorous, it opened up the closed world of the Hollywood studio system to Stephens. The crew took him under their wing, showing him how to operate the equipment and teaching him the basics of a cameraman’s job.

When another production crew rolled into town a few weeks later, Stephens was ready for them. They were looking for someone skilled and fit enough to ski with a new 70mm widescreen camera that weighed 25 lb, to shoot a promotional film for the first widescreen picture of its kind, Oklahoma. The shots of skiing in Sun Valley feature Trail Creek Cabin, Lookout and some excellent slope and tree skiing down Baldy in the 50s, all filmed by Stephens.


The first 4 minutes of this clip from The Miracle of Todd AO show off Spring Skiing in Sun Valley in 1956, all shot by John Stephens during his first full-time Hollywood gig. Right around minute 3 you can see the shadow of the 25lb camera rig Stephens was skiing down Bald Mountain with, in some cases, backwards. (Video not displaying? Click here.)

With two Hollywood flicks under his belt, he headed back to the union office and walked out with his coveted card. His next stop was to look up his Bus Stop friends at 20th Century Fox. They introduced him to the head cameraman who hired Stephens as 2nd assistant cameraman on South Pacific.

He went back to Sun Valley for two more winters following his Hollywood breakthrough, and today he says he owes it all to the little mountain town. “It was in Sun Valley that it all got going, Got me into the union and started a career that has been spectacular,” Stephens said.

One of Stephens' skiing action shots for Sun Valley.

“John Stephens has gone where the action is,” said the Society of Operating Cameramen in 1994 when it gave him the Technical Achievement Award for developing the first remotely controlled pan and tilt head camera on the Oscar-winning Grand Prix. “A top second unit cameraman and director he has photographed some of the most exciting images ever recorded on film. From breaking new ground on Grand Prix to the exciting bicycle chase in Steven Spielberg’s ET, John has photographed the action from virtually every kind of vehicle, from lear jets to helicopters. (He has survived three helicopter crashes).”

The summer after his final Sun Valley ski season, he was hired to work on Lets Make Love. On his first day on set he was standing behind the camera when a pair of hands slipped over his eyes. “Well, well,” an unmistakable voice said into his ear. “Now what are you doing here?” It was Marilyn.

Jennifer Tuohy

In Part 2 of Stories from the Staff Jennifer talks to Stephens about his extraordinary career post-Sun Valley and what it was that brought him back here 30 years ago. Among other tidbits, he discusses stepping in at the last minute to help on James Cameron’s Titanic, working with Steven Spielberg and developing that groundbreaking cinematography in Grand Prix. Read the post here.

A Young Festival, Off to an Amazing Start

Sun Valley Mayor Dewayne Briscoe hands Jodie Foster the Key to the City

Sun Valley Mayor Dewayne Briscoe gives Jodie Foster the Key to the City (photo courtesy of SVFF)

On Sunday night, following the Awards Ceremony, the second Sun Valley Film Festival was, as they say in the movie biz, a wrap. Filmmakers, producers, screenwriters and fans gathered at Ketchum’s nexStage Theatre for the presentation of awards including the Vision Award, recognizing “the producer’s ability to keep a feature length narrative in focus during the journey of the project.”

Starlet’s Sean Baker was the deserving winner of the Vision Award and not only got to take home bragging rights and a lovely engraved award, but he also got to share the stage with two-time Academy Award wining actress, director and producer Jodie Foster. Foster graciously presented the award, keeping the attention on Baker, and was heading off stage when the Festival’s Marketing and Publicity Director, Candice Pate, summoned her back.

SVFF founder Teddy Grennan and Marketing & Publicity Director Candice Pate hand over the mic to Jodie Foster at the Awards Ceremony Sunday evening

SVFF founder Teddy Grennan and Marketing & Publicity Director Candice Pate hand over the mic to Jodie Foster at the Awards Ceremony Sunday evening

“Ms. Foster,” Candice laughed, “we’re not quite through with you!”

Back in the spotlight, Foster was introduced to Sun Valley Mayor Dewayne Briscoe who presented her with the Key to the City. Mayor Briscoe thanked Foster for lending her support, credibility and star quality to the Festival.

Party central -- the nexStage Theatre

Party central -- the nexStage Theatre

But the focus really remained on the films at the awards ‘closing ceremony.’ The winner of the Gem State Award was Craters of the Moon by Jesse Millward and Stuck by Stuart Acher nabbed approval with the Audience Award. A full list of award winners is available here. Congratulations to all the award recipients, as well as the lucky audience winner of two round-trip tickets on Alaska Airlines, one of the Festival’s primary sponsors.

The mood at nexStage was celebratory and festive throughout the evening, as Master of Ceremonies Mat Gershater kept the event moving along  — no need for music from Jaws to get these winners to cut short their thank you speeches. Optimism and exuberance were the key words of the night and of the Festival, in general, as it stands poised on the brink of greatness.

In fact, Trevor Groth, Programming Director for the well-established Sundance Film Festival and a judge for the Sun Valley Film Festival, said the vibe and energy in Ketchum and Sun Valley over the weekend evoked a nascent Sundance. Ted Grennan, Executive Director of the Sun Valley Film Festival, was positively delighted with the weekend as he and Candice thanked their loyal and overworked staff, dedicated volunteers, the filmmakers, production crews, screenwriters and everyone else for stepping up to put on such a terrific event.

A large, enthusiastic crowd turned out for the Awards Ceremony

A large, enthusiastic crowd turned out for the Awards Ceremony

Caspar von Winterfeldt, SVFF board member and judge concluded, “The Film Festival has undoubtedly reinvigorated the incredible Hollywood legacy here in Sun Valley.  It is drawing talented filmmakers to the valley and that to me is special. I look forward to many more festivals ahead!”

As I looked around the casual gathering of talented film folk and film buffs alike, I took a moment to think, remember this right now. It isn’t going to last. Chances are, the Sun Valley Film Festival, with the backing of our wonderful community and the amazing talent it attracts, will grow into something truly substantial, truly fabulous. It is exciting to see the beginning of the next chapter of filmmaking, and making film history, in Sun Valley.

Congratulations to everyone who played a part in creating this seamless event. The image of Sun Valley that is inextricably linked with Hollywood and filmmaking is finding a new incarnation, indeed.


Caspar von Winterfeldt presented an award and said he was pleased to see Sun Valley's Hollywood tradition continue

The very charming Caspar von Winterfeldt presented an award and said he was pleased to see Sun Valley's Hollywood tradition continue