It's a rare person who would give up fame and fortune to toil in obscurity for someone else's creative vision. Yet, that's exactly what Leon Vitali did after his acclaimed performance as 'Lord Bullingdon' in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). The young actor surrendered his thriving career to become Kubrick's loyal right-hand man. For more than two decades, Leon played a crucial role behind-the-scenes helping Kubrick make and maintain his legendary body of work. In Filmworker, Leon's candid, often funny, sometimes shocking experiences in the company of Kubrick are woven together with rich and varied elements including previously unseen photos, videos, letters, notebooks, and memos from Leon's private collection. Insightful, emotionally charged anecdotes from actors, family, crew members, and key film industry professionals who worked with Kubrick and Leon add an important layer of detail and impact to the story. Filmworker enters the world of Leon Vitali and Stanley Kubrick from a...Written by
Effective, if a bit disconcerting Doc about Kubrick's assistant Leon Vitali
Stanley Kubrick was known as one of the most fanatically detailed Directors in cinema. But, even the most detailed of filmmakers could not possibly attend to each and every facet of the process. It required many co-workers. One of those collaborators was Leon Vitali. But, Vitali wasn't just an assistant, he literally became Kubrick's jack of all trades for much of the last quarter century of his life. One of the ironies is that Kubrick was so picky with his projects that he completed only three films (THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT) from the time that Vitali became his assistant to his death (and even then, post-production had to completed on EYES posthumously).
FILMWORKER is Director Tony Zierra's effective, and sometimes confounding, portrait of Vitali. Vitali first became enthralled by Kubrick when he went to see 2001 as a young man. By the time that CLOCKWORK ORANGE came out, Vitali had begun a career as an actor, largely on British television. His fascination with Kubrick continued so the opportunity to score even a small role in Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON was literally the chance of a lifetime. As fate would have it, Kubrick took a liking to Vitali's performance as Lord Bullingdon and re-wrote the script in order to increase the part. This gave Vitali an opportunity to not only observe the Director at work, but, to put a bug in his ear that he might like to work for him on his future films. That opportunity came with work with THE SHINING.
What follows is a fascinating portrait of Kubrick as a combination of kindly Maestro and toxic Vampire. He could cajole Vitali and the cast and crew of a picture on one hand, and, then demand effort (and frankly, ability) above and beyond on the other. Not just Vitali, but others describe how exhausting Kubrick's demands were (more than one person is mentioned as having a form of a nervous breakdown on his sets!). Through it all, Vitali's importance to Kubrick grew and grew. From being a fairly defined purely Director's Assistant on THE SHINING to what would become an all-consuming full-time job as his boss' virtual alter-ego (Kubrick would even sign Vitali's name on some of his missives).
Director Zierra's documentary is densely packed for it's 94 minutes. A good assortment of clips illustrate both Kubrick's films, but, also Vitali's early career as an actor. Plus, there's a smattering of behind the scenes footage. Most of it is well chosen, even if, occasionally, they became the equivalent of visual wallpaper in order to have stuff to cut away from the talking heads. Vitali is the main interviewee, but, we also get other Kubrick collaborators both in front of, and behind the camera, and extending to techs in charge of post-production, distribution and home video. Zierra managed to get lead actor Ryan O'Neil to speak about BARRY LYNDON, but, was unable to secure Jack Nicholson or Shelly Duvall from THE SHINING (Danny Lloyd, who was all of 6, represents). Disappointingly, neither Tom Cruise nor Nicole Kidman co-operated either (17th billed Marie Richardson is the lone cast member other than Vitali). Matthew Modine and the late R. Lee Ermey (who's death came after FILMWORKER was completed) speak about FULL METAL JACKET. The interviews are informative and well-edited (Although it must be noted that Kubrick himself would have been aghast at the chalky HD camera-work in them! In one amusing scene we see Kubrick 'direct' a brief video-taped acceptance speech that Vitali recorded. Yes, he was THAT detail oriented).
What emerges is a compelling portrait of one artist (Vitali) essentially giving his life over to facilitate another's (Kubrick). As mentioned, Kubrick only made three movies during the nearly 25 year tenure of Vitali as his assistant. What was he doing in between films? FILMWORKER shows that Kubrick's attention to minutiae extended to attending to each and every painstaking detail of how his completed films were preserved, distributed and promoted. Kubrick would cut special trailers for each major country his films got released in (sometimes differing by only a frame or two). We see Vitali standing in pile after pile of boxes full of old files, VHS tapes, clippings etc.. It became, by his account, a 24-7 position (including holidays) -- even during the 'off' years between films (a full dozen between JACKET and EYES alone).
Zierra thoughtfully dedicates his Doc to all 'Filmworkers' - not just Vitali, but, one can't help but feel he never quite addresses the elephant in the room - why did Vitali give up a promising career as an actor to become a glorified gofer? Other than his professional work, we are given precious little insight to Vitali, the man. We see his three children briefly interviewed, but, his wives (supposedly three) aren't discussed. Perhaps appropriately, the only old footage we see of his kids is with Vitali steeped in work with the children playing in those boxes of Kubrick world. Vitali addresses the camera directly and says it was all worth it, but you can't help but wonder. Yes, it was all done voluntarily, but, at a certain point one has to ask if it wasn't some deranged form of Stockholm Syndrome. While Vitali may never have become a great actor, his resume was adding up. You would think he had some creative bones still in him, that, at some juncture he would have asked Kubrick for a more creative role (or, to even strike out on his own). It's somewhat consoling that Vitali feels he played a role in a great filmmaker's oeuvre, but, one can't escape a mild feeling of depression slipping in. The thought of the dozen years between METAL and EYES being taken up not by artistic input, but instead slaving over the box art for the Japanese VHS tape of 2001 or re-re-re-cutting a trailer for the French re-release of THE SHINING does cast a pall on FILMWORKER.
Zierra has made a fine documentary. The fact that not every question is answered may be unknowable. Just like Kubrick. And, just like Vitali, perhaps.
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