Leon Vitali finally gets his due in Filmworker: 'He learned to take his self and merge it with Kubrick's creativity'
One of the traditional purposes of documentary film is to right wrongs -- political, social, environmental.
The new documentary Filmworker, which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, rights a wrong from the arts: the shocking absence of appreciation for the critical role Leon Vitali played in the cinematic achievements of Stanley Kubrick.
The relationship began with Barry Lyndon in 1975 -- Vitali memorably played the timorous aristocrat Lord Bullingdon opposite Ryan O'Neal. He largely abandoned his acting career to become Kubrick's chief amanuensis for the rest of the director's career, occupying an extraordinary role behind the scenes on The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. He essentially served as Kubrick's external hard drive -- the repository of everything the filmmaker needed to bring his vision to life.
Even his kids didn't know what he did. Nobody knew.
Filmworker, directed by Tony Zierra and produced by Elizabeth Yoffe, creates a compelling psychological portrait of a man who sacrificed everything -- his time, his health, his family -- to fulfill a master's artistic mission.
"He really stepped into the role of the assistant, of the one who is there to serve the higher purpose of Stanley's vision -- his vision in film, not Stanley himself -- but what they represented together," Yoffe told Nonfictionfilm.com over sparkling water at the Grand Hotel in Cannes. "He loved Stanley but it really was about 'we're working together towards this incredible creation of timeless movies.' He learned over time to really take his self and merge it with Kubrick's creativity."
The title of the documentary comes from a word Vitali once wrote on a form to describe his profession. In his case, "filmworker" encompassed an exceptional array of activities: casting director, coach for Kubrick's actors, creative sounding board, color corrector, second set of eyes, secretary, intermediary with Hollywood executives, and a good deal more. At one point, at the director's insistence, he even had to set up a remote video feed so Kubrick could monitor the condition of an ailing pet. In short, he did everything Kubrick demanded, working inhuman hours for years on end.
It was almost as if Leon himself didn't exist in his own psyche because he was used to talking about Kubrick only.
Yoffe and Zierra said getting Vitali to agree to the documentary -- and then to open up -- proved a major challenge.
"I think Leon got trained, if you could put it that way, over the years, to really keep himself in check. Tony had to do a lot of convincing. A lot," Yoffe recalled.
"It was almost as if Leon himself didn't exist in his own psyche because he was used to talking about Kubrick only," Zierra continued. "So when you got him to talk about Kubrick he could go on -- and he would wear you out. But once you go, 'Let's talk about you,' he just didn't know how. It was gone."
Zierra shot part of his film in Vitali's apartment in Los Angeles, where the actor-turned-Kubrick assistant moved after the director's death.
"He was living in I would almost call a messy Kubrick exhibit. So many bags, so many boxes," Zierra said. "When he moved from England he never unpacked. The only thing that was organized was the books -- floor to ceiling. It is fascinating to film him in the middle of this big mess. I noticed he was overwhelmed. So I figured, you know what, volunteer, be the cleaner, be the organizer, be his assistant. Open all these boxes, open all the bags. And as we would open boxes -- turn on the camera and he'll remember. He would open a box and then I would get a smile on the face, like, 'Ohmigod, this' or he starts to tremble or shake because he gets thrown in the moment of like, 'Oh, that's the week I had to do six things and get a new print of Clockwork Orange and oh god, here he's screaming about his notebooks and he's also very stressed.'"
"That's part of his actor self. He would fall back into those moments," Yoffe observed.
"And he forgot what he did. Then we started to hear this line: 'I'm so glad you're doing this because I forgot how much went into everything,'" said Zierra. "Boxes and boxes and boxes of notebooks. And you open the notebooks and they're the craziest notebooks in the whole world."
Vitali was responsible for casting the creepy twins in The Shining. And it was he who discovered and recommended the casting of Danny Lloyd to play The Shining's psychic child. Not only that, he worked extremely closely with Lloyd on his performance.
Similarly, Vitali played a critical role coaching and rehearsing the performance of Lee Ermey, the unforgettable drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
While Vitali wasn't present with Kubrick during the making of his earlier work -- Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and others -- he knew the films frame by frame and played a key role restoring the master's oeuvre for home video release.
When Kubrick died suddenly at age 70 in 1999, with work on Eyes Wide Shut not quite completed, it fell to Vitali to finish the job (he also played the chilling "Red Cloak" in the film).
"He color-corrected Eyes Wide Shut. The DP didn't. Because, again, he knew what Stanley wanted," Zierra marveled. "To me, he is cinema, the hardcore cinema, in so many ways."
Filmworker played in the Cannes Classics section of the festival, a space for restored masterworks (like 1933's L'Atalante) and a selection of documentaries that relate to the medium of film. For Vitali, who came to the premiere with his children, it was that most unexpected sensation -- to come out of the shadows at last, into the embrace of an admiring audience.
"It was quite an honor to see Leon loved or respected for what he did. It was beautiful," Zierra commented. "It felt like the ending of a Bergman movie where the old professor gets acknowledged."
"It was probably one of the most moving experiences that I've ever had," Yoffe added.
Cinetic Media is handling sales of the film, with a release expected in many territories around the world, including the U.S. and Britain -- Vitali's native country and the place Kubrick adopted as his own.
Zierra said he hopes Filmworker will further an appreciation for all who contribute to the art of film, in roles often left uncelebrated.
"You don't hear about grip people and technicians and sound people. When they try to tell people what they do -- there is always this little bit of a hesitation that, 'I'm not a director' or 'I'm not a star,'" Zierra said. "We're starting to get people, even at the lab when we're working or something, they're like, 'I'm a film worker!' It's sweet. It's very sweet."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.