Director: Tony Zierra
Cast: Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick, Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, Danny Lloyd, Stellan Skarsgård, Vera Vitali, Warren Lieberfarb
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Throughout the later stages of his career, Stanley Kubrick insisted on obsessive levels of privacy, which only increased the cult-like fervour surrounding both the director and his films. Since his death in 1999, there have been a number of documentaries that attempt to shed some light on the man and his working methods, notably Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008) and S Is for Stanley (2015). Filmworker fits neatly alongside those previous films, but offers even greater insight, thanks to the unique first-hand position of its central subject, actor-turned-production assistant Leon Vitali.
Director Tony Zierra structures the film as a chronological telling of Vitali’s story, primarily through a series of interviews with Vitali himself, but supplemented with film clips, behind-the-scenes footage and a wealth of archive material, as well as a number of revealing interviews with Kubrick collaborators, including actors Ryan O’Neal and Matthew Modine.
Looking a little like a blond Mick Jagger, Vitali was an up-and-coming British actor when he was cast as Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s 1975 adaptation of Barry Lyndon. Immediately entranced by the director and his working methods, Vitali seems to have proven his worth on set by uncomplainingly doing multiple takes of a scene where Ryan O’Neal’s Barry mercilessly beats Bullingdon, with Kubrick urging O’Neal to “hit him harder” after every take (O’Neal winces as he recalls the incident).
After the film, Vitali let Kubrick know that he’d be interested in working behind the scenes on his next project and the director advised him to get some experience first. He duly did so, sitting in on the editing suite for a subsequent Frankenstein project, and the next time he called Kubrick, he was given a copy of The Shining to read and tasked with going to America and finding a child actor to play Danny Torrance (actor Danny Lloyd is one of the talking heads). From that point on, Vitali effectively became Kubrick’s all-purpose right-hand man on each of his subsequent films, doing a multitude of different jobs, ranging from driver to dialect coach to studio liaison – one particularly amusing detail has Kubrick signing Vitali’s name on his own memos to the studio, so as to maintain a level of distance. On a similar note, it’s also fascinating to discover that Kubrick was so ready to delegate, given his reputation for control freakery and attention to detail.
The film is packed with terrific anecdotes, most notably from R. Lee Ermery, who recalls how he manipulated the fact that Vitali was videoing his training consultant footage into stealing the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Curiously, almost everyone who talks about the relationship between Vitali and Kubrick seems to have felt some degree of sympathy for Vitali and the fact that he gave up his acting career, but Vitali himself is clearly still in thrall to Kubrick, almost two decades after his death. (Indeed, his devotion to Kubrick’s career didn’t end there, as he personally oversaw DVD transfers to Kubrick’s own exacting standards.)
The only disappointing element is the lack of detail about the effect Vitali’s job had on his personal life, other than corroborative testimony from his children that they felt they often came second to Stanley Kubrick in their father’s life. (To that end, it’s perhaps telling that we never see any of Vitali’s wives.) Ultimately, this is a fascinating and revealing documentary about one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers, but, as the closing credits make clear, it also stands as a moving tribute to the unsung hard work and dedication of behind-the-scenes filmworkers everywhere.