American director Tony Zierra’s latest documentary Filmworker chronicles a tale of dedication and sacrifice in the service of art and will be a must for Stanley Kubrick – and now Leon Vitali – fans everywhere.
It isn’t often that an actor’s most prominent role ends their careers, but that’s effectively what happened to Leon Vitali. The British actor was a young, up-and-coming star, with a bunch of credits on stage as well as TV and film. His major break came when he landed the role of Lord Bullingdon, the oikish son and the ultimate comeuppance of Ryan O’Neal’s titular Irish rogue in Stanley Kubrick’s other masterpiece Barry Lyndon.
Filming brought with it the now infamous multiple takes and long almost endless shoot – O’Neal tells a tale of escaping the shoot after the last shot, positive he would be called back for more filming if he dallied. Vitali, however, provides a context – Kubrick was searching for his first angle – claiming there was method to the madness.
The film convinced Vitali that he wanted a more intimate part in the filmmaking process than the surface glitter of simply appearing before the lens. With Kubrick’s friendly encouragement, he sought out the editing room on subsequent films and began to learn the craft. When Kubrick sent him a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining, there was also the offer of a job: to find the child actor who play Danny. The famously aerophobic Kubrick had sent people on trips to far-flung locations to carry out his instructions before, but Vitali would become fundamental to his process and an indispensable member of his team.
There have been a number of documentaries on Kubrick from promotional pieces to the fan experience of Room 237. Closest in subject is Alex Infascelli’s S is for Stanley, which tells of Kubrick’s Italian driver Emilio D’Alessandro. Zierra’s film began as he was finishing another documentary on the making of Eyes Wide Shut, entitled SK13, and Vitali was one of the last subjects to be interviewed. As well as running the show as Kubrick’s factotum, Vitali also had the important role of the red cloaked master of ceremonies at the high-class ritual/orgy Tom Cruise’s character crashes.
Zierra came to understand that there was hardly an element of the filmmaking process from casting to processing the negative to designing the copy on the boxes of the DVD and video cassettes that Vitali didn’t have a hand in. Even though Kubrick made relatively few films in the thirty years Leon worked for him, there was never a quiet moment, as a legacy had to be curated, as well as film projects prepped that ended up never seeing the light of day – a brief, tantalizing glimpse of The Aryan Papers is given.
Driven by a deep conviction of Kubrick’s genius, Vitali collaborated intensely with him, coaching actors, finding locations and props, and acting as an onset gopher. Matthew Modine, in a diary written on the set of Full Metal Jacket, describes him as an Igor to Kubrick’s Victor Frankenstein. The benefit for Zierra’s film is that we are given multiple insights into Kubrick’s world, a mansion in the south of England which effectively ran as a Warner’s financed independent studio. The behind the scenes footage has an intimacy that is captivating and contains a multitude of Easter eggs (is that the typewriter from The Shining?) to complement the anecdotes.
As well as the good, there’s also the inevitable flipside to working with an obsessive compulsive perfectionist genius. Vitali’s jobs included cleaning rooms, sorting out the chaos of a hoarder who also needed to be neat. Given the scale of his tasks, Vitali would sleep rarely and it comes as a surprise later in the film that he had time to father several children, all of whom complain that he didn’t have any time or energy left for them.
With Kubrick’s death, Vitali continued to work on his legacy but without the support of the maestro behind him, found himself isolated. It is never voiced in the film, but Vitali doesn’t seem to have been commensurately reimbursed for his work and contribution, finding himself both in health and financial difficulties.
This film will go some way to redressing the picture and Filmworker acts both as a specific act of homage to this unique man as well as a celebration of the thousands of people behind the scenes who might get on the credit roll but long after the audience have shuffled from their seats.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty