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My Friendship with John Morley Stephens

Through the camera lens of my friendship with John Morley Stephens who passed on June 18th, 2015

John M. Stephens was one of America’s most creative film pioneers in the cinema photography industry, his movies include Grand Prix, Ice Station Zebra, Field of Dreams, Titanic, Indiana Jones, Midnight Run, Conspiracy Theory and ET just to name a few of his monumental movies.

In 1965, a movie director named John Frankenheimer had just completed his box office hit “The Manchurian Candidate” and was excited about making the greatest racing film of all time. In order for him to understand the racing world and learn as much as he could as a driver, he signed up for the Shelby driving school with Pete Brock as his instructor at Riverside Raceway. Pete introduced me to Frankenheimer who congratulated me for winning Le Mans and for bringing home the FIA World Manufacturer’s Championship for Shelby and Ford just a month earlier. I had called Shelby to see if he wanted me to get involved with this guy on a race movie. Shelby, thinking it was going to be a movie about him, excitedly said, “Hell Yeah, do what you gotta do. If he wants to drive with you all day, just do it.” Frankenheimer hired me as the technical advisor to the movie Grand Prix as well as the driver to train all the actors for the movie Grand Prix.

His director of photography for the movie was a guy about my age, John Stephens, who had cut his teeth on the Marilyn Monroe movie, Bus Stop. I thought, “Oh God, this is going to be another one of those horrible Mickey Rooney racing movies.”

As fate would have it, he did not know a thing about racing, driving, or racing terminology. Luckily he could drive a manual. Frankenheimer commissioned me to train him how to drive so he could figure out the best shots. I taught John all about the corners, the apex, coming out of a corner, and passing -everything that the camera needed to capture for the viewing audience so they could feel like they were in the car. He was a very athletic guy and a very quick learner. We became very close during the movie because I personally trained all the actors to drive the cars, then set up every single racing shot for the movie with the drivers. I explained to John what he needed to see through his camera, explained the shot in the drivers meetings and John would go shoot it. Boy, could he shoot it! That guy was the biggest risk taker I had ever seen outside of racing. He was mounting remote controlled tilted cameras to the camera car that Phil Hill and I drove for all the second car scenes, he was creating technology as we were filming. Keep in mind this was 1966 and the things John was doing had never been done before.

The movie was not only filming actors for the story line, but there was lots of actual footage of me racing in my first Formula 1 race series through Europe. Now I knew why Frankenheimer chose me: I spoke English, I could instruct, and I was being filmed in real time as I raced with all the other Formula 1 drivers that he got to engage in the movie with my help. That guy was very smart! As we were racing, John Stephens was hanging out of the helicopter by a thin strap, camera to his eye, and was so close to me in my Formula 1 car that he was lifting my race helmet off my head! Those days it was a challenge for John to even find a helicopter that could go fast enough to keep up with us the Formula 1 cars, but he found one!

One day John was creating the scene where the car was shot out of the cannon into the water. We only got one shot to get that in the can. That car was doing 150 miles per hour from the cannon blast! It looked unrealistic to me as the technical advisor but it was so cool and there were no re-takes so John kept the scene in the movie.

I trained all the actors to drive, including the stunt drivers, 2 of the actors did not even have driver’s licenses – unbelievable! The scene where the tail pipe had come off on the high banks at Monza was one of my stunt scenes. I released the tail pipe that John had rigged up to a wire on the dash of my car. The stunt driver I trained was sent over from California had never been on a race track before! Of course I trained him on how to get his speed up on the high banks first and explained exactly where I was going to let go of the pipe and precisely how to drive to aim his tire to drive right over the pipe. John had rigged the camera on the front of the car, that scene took about 3 times to perfect. The problem with that scene was every new take meant that the Ferrari going over the guard rail was being shot out of the cannon again and again, it got pretty expensive to keep re-shooting that scene but I thought it was one of John’s best dramatic scenes in the movie!

John Stephens, Frankenheimer and I were spending hours shooting, hours in the editing room, hours following the script for the next scene and hours training the drivers for the next scene. It was one of the best times in my life. John and I remained very close friends throughout the past 49 years and visited one another just months before his funeral on Wednesday. He was ahead of his time in his camera work but he was also a man of example in the way he lived his life through the eye of my camera, growing old with a gentleman who never had a bad word to say about anyone at any time. His movies will live forever and so will the way he showed me how to be a true friend.

Your friend,
Bob Bondurant

LOCATION

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20000 S. Maricopa Road, Gate #3
Chandler, AZ 85226

Mailing:
P.O. Box 51980
Phoenix, AZ 85076

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