DP Stephen St. John On “Killing Kennedy” And His First Emmy Nom

The camera crew preps a scene with director Nelson McCormick on the set of “Killing Kennedy.” Photo credit: National Geographic Channel.

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Stephen St. John has been steadily flying under award recognition radar for thirty-eight years. St. John kicked off his career as a steadicam and camera operator, working on films such as “The Goonies,” “Raising Arizona” and “Unforgiven.” He continued working on films after transitioning into the role of cinematographer (“Holes”, “Mission Impossible III”) and eventually settled into television (“Lost”, “True Blood.”) This year, he received his very first award nomination – an Emmy nomination in the category “Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie.”

“I got a call from the show’s first AD at 6:00am, and I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” said St. John. “It’s fantastic to be recognized by your peers. It’s as good as or even better than winning!”’

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St. John’s nomination comes for his work on the National Geographic special “Killing Kennedy.” St. John was asked if he’d be interested in the job by associate producer Tom Moran, whom he knew from having worked together on several of director Tony Scott’s films. St. John was surprised to learn he was one of the first DPs called, and even more shocked to learn he had the job after his first interview with director Nelson McCormick. “It’s usually a two to three day process. I got the call that night!”

St. John enjoyed the research process that enabled him to view archives of the events surrounding Kennedy’s time in the White House, his personal life in Hyannisport and the events surrounding his assassination. He was particularly surprised to see how close the press was able to get around the president as well as Oswald after the assassination, and looked forward to recreating those pivotal moments. Prior to production, St. John met with McCormick to discuss shooting schedule and create a shot list. The DP was impressed with McCormick’s organization and ability to map out coverage.

“What often happens is it’s a loose interpretation of what we’ll take,” said St. John. “What we laid out was close to what we used. It was unbelievably helpful. There was no time to waste once we were on location.”

Organization was essential to every element of the production that was slated to wrap in eighteen days. The first hurdle would be finding experienced crew on the Richmond, Virginia set. Due to budgetary constraints, St. John couldn’t afford to populate the camera department with the individuals he’s frequently worked with over the years. With only a gaffer and two other staffers he’d previously developed shorthand with, he relied upon the expertise of producer Larry Rapaport.  Rapaport was able to pull together a solid local crew based on his previous experience in Richmond shooting “Killing Lincoln.” St. John also credits assistant director Michael ‘Jocco’ Phillips with creating an efficient schedule that enabled them to maximize the twelve hour days and keep to their 18 day shooting schedule.

Location scouting was also crucial to keeping the shoot on schedule. St. John was surprised there were neighborhoods that were period accurate with structures requiring little modification. Rapaport lent a great deal of support in securing local buildings, such as the Richmond Capital Building that doubled for White House meeting rooms.  In many cases, one location was used for multiple setups.  After shooting the Dallas sixth floor book depository set, the crew rolled the carts to the far end of the same floor and shot the Minsk USSR factory set.  These setups not only saved time by minimizing travel, but allowed St. James to do multiple equipment presets.

“We were using condors through windows, so we were able to pre-place and define the source and make sure it was working,” said St John. “With this type of preset we’d be ready to shoot in half an hour. It’s unbelievable, one minute you are in a factory, the next you are in Russia. In a feature we would be using an entirely different location a day later. ”

In pre-production, St. John knew he wanted to have a warmer, summery tone whenever Jackie was on screen, and a darker, wintery feel when capturing Oswald. To achieve these visual styles, St. John used multiple cameras. The primary camera was the Alexa used with a variety of older lenses to soften the images. To recreate news footage, St. James used a Philips LDH – 26 – a black and white video tube camera used in early CBS location trucks. He also decided to include Super 8 film into the mix.

“I wanted it to be loose and fun, with an amateur look. I reached out to Pro8 Camera in Burbank; I’ve used them for eight years. They immediately got reversal film. The contrast was appropriate for the period because it was before 1965, and Super 8 hadn’t been invented yet,” said St. John.

St. John feels his experience as a steadicam operator has aided his ability to efficiently light a scene. A steadicam can pick up roughly 300 degrees of visibility in a room; he has the for thought of where to place lights so they won’t be caught in the camera’s scope. St. John was excited to have Chris Haarhoff shoot some steadicam scenes on “Killing Kennedy.”

“Chris came directly to us after wrapping ‘Birdman’, he was doing three to four minute takes, he was the best there could be. I’m so glad he could come and do this picture with us,” said St. John.

St. John is appreciative of the experience he had working on “Killing Lincoln” and credits the top notch crew to the show’s success . While the thought of an eighteen day shoot seemed daunting, efficient team work and creative vision kept everything running smoothly and on schedule. In reflecting on his initial research period, St. John still remains shocked at the loss of footage that has occurred over the years of this pivotal event in U.S. history.

“Most of the original footage was destroyed or recorded over, and a lot was lost in the 80s and 90s,” said St. John. “I found an affiliate station in Dallas that had some original footage, not the multi-generation poor quality. It’s sad to see how much of the original material is lost.”

To learn more about Killing Kennedy, please visit:
http://www.kennedyandoswald.com/#!/premiere-screen