I had the good fortune to interview the “focus puller” — assistant cameraman — on “The Revenant.” One of those small world things. He’s the son of Diane Goble, who freelances for The Nugget Newspaper, which I edit. Diane knows a good story when she sees one — and she also knows that frontier history is a passion for me. The following is the story I wrote for The Nugget.
‘The Revenant,” which comes to Sisters Movie House on January 8, was inspired by the epic saga of mountain man Hugh Glass. Mauled by a she-grizzly in 1823, Glass was left for dead and forced to crawl more than 200 miles to a fur trading outpost on the Missouri River.
Filming that story became an epic in its own right. And John T. Connor was an integral part of a crew that brought the story to glorious life on the screen. Connor, the son of Sisters resident Diane Goble, was the “focus puller” or assistant cameraman on the arduous shoot. He visited Goble in Sisters this week and sat down with The Nugget at Sisters Coffee Co. to spin a tale of rugged wilderness, frayed tempers, and one of the toughest film shoots in the history of the medium.
“The Revenant” is a passion project of Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Everyone involved in the picture knew the shoot was going to be exacting — both in terms of meeting the director’s artistic vision and in coping with wilderness conditions. According to Connor, there was a deliberate mission to make the filming arduous, epic — and legendary.
“The whole idea of it was tough,” Connor told The Nugget. “Everything around the movie was tough.”
Too tough for many. Some got fired; others walked away, unable to cope with the conditions or after butting heads with the visionary director.
“It was very grueling, to say the least,” Connor said.
Connor came on as focus-puller to replace someone who had left the picture.
It took a lot of persuading. After a career that included work on the first “Star Trek” movie and the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, he had taken the step up to Director of Photography and was not interested in returning to assistant status. But the production really needed him. And they were willing to meet his terms, because, as he put it, “no one in the world — the world — would do the movie.”
The focus puller is responsible for making sure every shot in a movie is in perfect focus. It is precise, exacting work — and obviously a role that no production can get by without.
Connor’s work started in Vancouver, British Columbia — in the rain. The unpleasant conditions took a toll on equipment and personnel. Then they moved to Calgary, Alberta — and winter hit.
“The winter came really hard, really fast,” he said.
“The Revenant” was shot according to the chronology of the story, not in different pieces. That caused huge continuity problems when two feet of snow fell overnight between days of shooting one scene.
Then, after dumping snow on them and plunging temperatures down to as low as -29 degrees, winter abandoned the production.
“We came back in January, and it was the warmest January and February on record,” Connor recalled.
The production had to shut down for three months, then head south — way south — to film the end of the movie in southern Argentina.
Connor’s work was significantly complicated by the wilderness conditions. Extreme cold messed with the focus point of lenses, so he had to run tests at night after a grueling day of shooting in order to determine how to get the correct focus on the next day’s shot.
And Iñárritu insisted on shooting the film entirely with natural light.
“That was a huge pressure,” Connor said.
The film crew would drive for an hour-and-a-half to a spot near the filming location, hike in with their gear, set up, rehearse and go for a shot in the narrow window of opportunity Mother Nature provided. It didn’t always work out. Sometimes they just couldn’t make it happen — which felt like a stinging defeat.
“That happened a few times, when we didn’t get the shot,” Connor said.
Yet all the hardship and tumult has yielded a picture that is, by all accounts, a visually stunning masterpiece. Those who have seen advance screenings have been blown away by the shots Connor and the rest of the crew struggled so hard to get.
“I get a text every day from somebody just going, ‘Wow!’” Connor said.
“The Revenant” is Connor’s swan song as a focus puller. It may prove to be a legendary song, at that.