Documentary about Leon Vitali, who gave up his acting career to become Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man for 30 years. Previously unseen photos, videos and anecdotes from actors, family and crew members add insight into Kubrick and his methods.
There’s being someone’s right-hand man, and then there is Leon Vitali. A strapping young lad who had begun making a name for himself in the early Seventies, this British actor had built up an impressive resumé of theater gigs, supporting parts, cop-show cameos and sitcom ensemble roles – he was being groomed as the hot new thing, a gentler, ginger next-gen Angry Young Man. One day, he walked in to a theater and watched a bunch of white-jumpsuited thugs pillage their way through a teenage-wasteland London. The movie was A Clockwork Orange. The director was Stanley Kubrick. I want to work for him, he told a friend as they left the screening. You should always be careful what you wish for.
Filmworker, Tony Zierra’s extraordinary documentary, dives in to what happened next: Vitali’s agent calls him, saying that the American ex-pat was adapting William Thackeray’s 1844 novel Barry Lyndon and was interested in the actor for the role of the dastardly Lord Bullingdon. After wrapping in July of 1974, Vitali moved on to other gigs, but they paled in comparison to being in the presence of a cinematic genius. Then Kubrick sent him Stephen King’s The Shining, with a note that simply said: “Read it.” He asked the performer if he could help find a child to play the movie version’s psychic youngster. Vitali said yes – and ended up employed by the filmmaker as an all-purpose guy Friday, acting coach, archivist, casting director, Foley Artist, designer of feline surveillance systems, personal assistant, sounding board, punching bag and much more for the next 30 years of his life. Not even Kubrick’s death in 1999 could keep the acolyte from serving his perfectionist deity in perpetuity.
Taking its name from the designation that Vitali gave himself when asked his occupation on travel forms, Filmworker charts the duo’s master-and-servant relationship from project to project, and to say this is manna for Kubrick fans would be an understatement. You want first-hand testimonies on the cinematic godhead’s directorial process? (Vitali recounts reading Lyndon lines while the auteur prowled around, checking every angle and peering through every lens, then rinse, repeat.) Do you crave behind-the-scenes anecdotes on making Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut? (Check, and check.) Ever wonder what happened to The Shining‘s now-grown child actor, Danny Lloyd? (He’s interviewed here, testifying to how Vitali was his best friend and spirit animal on set.) There are stories galore here, tales of 30-take scenes and impromptu casting changes and artistic eccentricities that will have film geeks howling with joy.
Warm, Witty, Wise ‘Filmworker’ Honors Stanley Kubrick’s Extraordinary Right-Hand Man [IDFA Review.
Many words have been written, and doubtless many more will be, about the filmmaking genius of Stanley Kubrick. But if, as Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, Tony Zierra’s “Filmworker,” which showed in nearly completed form at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) after bowing in Cannes Classics in May, is dedicated to the far less familiar name who contributed a great deal of that sweat.
Leon Vitali is known to Kubrick fans as Lord Bullingdon, the petulant stepson of Ryan O’Neal‘s eponymous rogue in “Barry Lyndon” (and to real aficionados also as the masked and robed Red Cloak in “Eyes Wide Shut“). But less common knowledge is what become of the pretty, soft-faced young man playing Bullingdon after the curtain fell on that final scene in which he watches inscrutably as his mother signs Barry’s buy-off check. That’s the story that “Filmworker” tells, somewhat shaggily but with a great deal of infectious affection, and it builds to a deeply moving portrait of Vitali’s own gift: his genius for the kind of unquestioning dedication and steadfast graft that is seldom recognized in the annals of cinema’s Great Men.
“I want to work for that man,” Vitali says he told his companion, awestruck, as Kubrick’s credit rolled up at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And where that assertion might, in any other memoir, be a finessing of the truth, we quickly learn to believe everything Vitali tells us: he hasn’t got a self-mythologizing bone in his body. This is all the more extraordinary for an actor — often ranked among the most ego-driven of professions — and it certainly wasn’t that Vitali was struggling in his job. Through a rapid montage of his pre-‘Lyndon’ early roles in British movies and TV shows (the archive footage selection is a continual delight across the whole film, often very wittily edited to illuminate or comment on a particular chapter in Vitali’s life), it’s clear that the mop-headed young Vitali was doing okay for himself. And of course, he had promise enough to catch Kubrick’s eye when he went in to read for ‘Lyndon’ and talent enough that the writer/director significantly increased his role.
But this is the point at which Vitali’s story diverges from that of many of his peers, such as Ryan O’Neal and Matthew Modine (both frank, funny interviewees here). Vitali took just one more major role (as Victor Frankenstein in a Swedish-Irish “Frankenstein” adaptation), and only did that because the director promised to allow him to sit in on the editing process and learn that craft. Now “upskilled,” he contacted Kubrick again, who gave him a Stephen King book to read and promptly sent him to the U.S. to cast a kid in the role of Danny Torrance.
He found Danny Lloyd (also interviewed) who so imprinted on Vitali as his friend on set that some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage shows that it’s Vitali’s voice shouting Kubrick’s direction to the little boy (“Give me the scared look, Danny!”), and jogging alongside the camera rig as Danny barrels along on his trike. But Vitali wasn’t just wrangling actors, running Jack Nicholson‘s lines with Lloyd and Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers, he was also acting as general factotum to Kubrick’s quicksilver demands — a role the word “assistant” barely begins to cover.
From that moment on, it seems, Vitali was hardly ever away from Kubrick’s side, and there was not a single aspect of the filmmaking process with which he did not have to make himself acquainted, from foley work to child labor regulations to color grading to the obsessive cataloguing and examination of more or less every extant print in Kubrick’s back catalogue. “Filmworker” shows him tutting over VHS artwork not done to his exact specifications; laying to rest some pretty arcane aspect ratio geekery; rummaging through boxes and boxes of fanatically detailed notes and reminiscing about installing monitors all over Kubrick’s house so the director could keep an eye on his beloved but ailing cat, Jessica.
He is a trove of anecdotes about life on set and off with Kubrick (did you know it was Vitali who suggested that the little girl ghosts in “The Shining” be twins? Or that he and R. Lee Ermey basically conspired to get Ermey his “Full Metal Jacket” role despite Kubrick having cast someone else?). And he’s often very self-deprecatingly funny, recalling how people would come up to Kubrick in later years and say “I’d give my right arm to work with you,” and he could practically feel Kubrick thinking “Just your right arm? Why are you lowballing me?”
Vitali himself gave Kubrick everything, and it took a toll. Our first look at the haggard, bandanna-ed man of today is a shock after the image of bouncy youth in those early roles. Almost every interviewee marvels at how he never slept; his children recall him being there but not really there, constantly on the phone or working amid jumbled stacks of correspondence. Indeed it comes as a bit of a surprise when his kids are introduced — one wonders when Vitali put aside the time to conceive them.
But despite all the commentators who seem determined to frame Vitali’s story as a kind of tragedy (perhaps because many of them are actors themselves who cannot imagine a career spent in someone’s shadow could be a triumph), Vitali is magnificently without rancor toward Kubrick himself. “Filmworker” (which is what Vitali wrote with typical humility back when passports had a “profession” section) does tease an exposé of Kubrick’s well-documented “difficult”-ness, but while Vitali is frank about the nature of his demanding and subservient relationship to the man, his warmhearted, dazzled, Everest-high respect for Kubrick’s talent remains undimmed even now.
It is truly inspiring and touching just how little bitterness Vitali has in him, and it stems from his having no regrets over a life dedicated to something he believes in with utterly selfless purity. “How honored was I to be able to work with him?” he says at one point. The honor might be his, but the gratitude should be not only Kubrick’s, but all of ours. Cinema would be much the poorer without Stanley Kubrick’s legacy, but “Filmworker” emphatically proves that Stanley Kubrick’s legacy would be much the poorer without Leon Vitali. [B/B+]
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist, November 26th 2017.