by Nadia Bee
How do you run away with the circus, when you are already right there, in the spotlight? In 1975, Leon Vitali, a talented and lauded actor, was on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in a key role opposite Marisa Berenson and Ryan O’Neal. Vitali then had an epiphany which would change his life in a drastic way – he would work behind the scenes, not in front of the camera; he would work with Kubrick, or rather, for Kubrick. This was the beginning of a life-long adventure, the realisation of his passion for cinema.
Filmworker; Director: Tony Zierra; Festival strand: Create; USA 2017, 89 mins. Our rating: ★★★★/5
Leon Vitali describes his first encounter with Kubrick as somehow being finally at home, experiencing a kind of filial love. Kubrick seems to have returned this in paternalistic fashion – and in due course, became a rather demanding father figure, both understanding and harsh; kind, yet prone to great anger.
Vitali seems to have taken this mostly in his stride; yet Matthew Modine, describing Vitali’s involvement in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, is almost scathing about that tolerance. Vitali, however – he makes this clear in the film – has a very different perspective. Even in contemporary interviews, his strong sense of mission is evident. The work is greater than the man, the films bigger than Kubrick. Vitali’s pride in those works is immense, and clearly sustains him emotionally to this day, as this documentary makes clear.
The interviews with Vitali support this impression. Aside from the initial sense of warmth Vitali recalls from his first encounter with Kubrick, he chooses to reminisce and enthuse about his own work on those films, rather than laud the man. It is the work he professes to love. Long after Kubrick’s death, he remains devoted to the legacy – the artistic legacy in an intangible sense, but also its tangible form, the physical prints. It is clear from what he says, that he is not doing this as part of a sentimental attachment to Kubrick, but rather a fierce attachment to the films. He has spent untold hours upholding the quality of new prints, and projection standards – and in the process, according to this documentary, battling with Warner Brothers.
These types of battles pre-dated Kubrick’s death. Vitali and Kubrick had their own form of good cop/bad cop game, with the amiable and harmless looking Vitali as the bad cop. While it is difficult to imagine this as one observes Vitali in this documentary, Kubrick had a rather clever way of getting around his collaborator’s gentle air. Vitali has a sonorous, deep voice, and after all, he is a very good actor. Kubrick arranged it so his adversaries would only hear Vitali on the phone, and never meet him in person. Kubrick would also impersonate Vitali in furious letters to studio executives – letters that sometimes Vitali would not even be aware of.
All this made for a rather resourceful and exciting production office, and a perfect life for a workaholic, were it not for the sacrifices this entailed. Filmworker is laden with good stories and great footage – not just film clips but also home movies style footage of cast and crew at work.
Some of the stories chip away a bit here and there at auteur theory, a concept often associated with Stanley Kubrick. For example, how not to marvel at the terrifying twins in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel, in The Shining? How not to think of this image as evidence of Kubrick’s greatness as an auteur, and particular to his style and vision? It is after all such a particular and defining image. And yet, the twins were entirely Vitali’s idea, as he describes during one of several interviews in the film. While he was casting for The Shining, he noticed the twins – and a famous picture, by the photographer Diane Arbus, immediately came to his mind. As others acknowledge in the documentary, despite Kubrick’s reputation for stringent control, he was remarkably adaptive and collaborative during the filmmaking process – ideas could evolve, crew and cast could provide input, advise him or even discourage certain ideas.
Instances such as the casting of the ‘Arbus’ twins provide a further insight in Kubrick’s filmmaking – and Vitali’s role in that. He clearly understood Kubrick’s vision to an uncanny degree. That intelligence and insight shows to what degree his involvement was fundamental to the films, from a creative perspective.
Matthew Modine, in another slightly acid recollection, mentions dialogue coaching. Vitali was used to coaching actors on set, ostensibly so they would know their lines inside out – to help them. Kubrick had zero tolerance for actors who did not know their lines. Modine reveals that many in the cast thought – likely unfairly – that Vitali might be Kubrick’s spy.
To what degree was Vitali’s coaching a rehearsal, perhaps shaping performances? Did he have an impact on some actors’ interpretation of their roles? He cast Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance, the little boy in The Shining, coached him, and was his best friend throughout the making of the film. How much then of Vitali does we see in Danny’s character?
While the archive footage is often a treat, especially with home movie footage and sneaking peaks around the set, the interviews are not well-filmed – glare, awkward framing and odd backgrounds, and possibly some opportunities missed with the line of questioning. At times it is almost as if the treasure trove of footage and filmmaking insights were an incidental bonus, with the film rather more concerned with the relationship between Kubrick and Vitali than with its cinematic outcome.
If it feels as if the relationship between Vitali was exploitative, this is not a take that Vitali encourages. It is clear that Kubrick demanded too much of his collaborators, and that Vitali acceded to his demands to a far greater degree than others. The structure of the film industry has also something to do with this – unequal power relationships exacerbated by industry members attachment to their professions. And Vitali, unusually for this industry, did not have a job title; while this is how he came to call himself a film worker, he was, in truth, a filmmaker.
While this modesty would have made his situation even more undefined, it also gave him a great degree of creative freedom. He could do everything and anything – act, coach actors, direct castings, take in hand logistics and quality control. In doing so, he was doing the job of multitudes, at his own cost. He was Kubrick’s ‘homme a tout faire’ – a Filmworker.
This documentary features rich and compelling material, including frank interviews from actors such as Ryan O’Neal and Stellan Skarsgård. Leon Vitali is a fascinating interviewee, and throughout the film there is that tantalising sense that there is so much more knowledge he could still impart.
The film, oddly, presents one story, while telling another. It is however all so absorbing, and so well put together, that the end result does justice to Vitali and to the works he has devoted most of his life to protecting.
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.