Tony Zierra’s intriguing Filmworker tells Stanley Kubrick’s assistant Leon Vitali’s story and casts a hitherto-hidden light on the great director and his working methods.
Eyes Wide Openby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Leon Vitali was a one-man Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Stanley Kubrick’s Hamlet – an invisible Man Friday behind the scenes who was the glue for all the great director’s productions from the Seventies until his death. But who knew? Now solitary and in his seventies, fragile and alone in Los Angeles, Vitali tells his own story in Tony Zierra’s documentary. ‘Filmworker’ is how Vitali self-deprecatingly describes himself.
Vitali had been obsessed by the director’s films since he first saw 2001:A Space Odyssey. As a promising young actor, in 1975 he was cast as Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. From that moment on, Vitali gave up acting to become Kubrick’s full-time assistant, working nonstop, the only person the perfectionist Kubrick trusted to oversee a multitude of filmmaking tasks across the whole spectrum of production and distribution. Vitali did absolutely everything – without much reward or thanks, it appears – and his efforts took superhuman dedication and self-sacrifice.
Yes, it seems Vitali was an obsessive about Kubrick and his work, though that was because he was in thrall to someone he considered a genius. Yes, maybe because of this he was exploited. And maybe there is a hint of an emotionally abusive relationship with him that echoes his childhood, hinted at in the film. In interviews now, he seems a baffling combination of vulnerable and steely and clearly the extreme stresses of his life over many years of (over)working with Kubrick have taken their toll.
During Kubrick’s lifetime – Vitali was with him right up to his death – Vitali did so much and yet after Kubrick’s death he was inexplicably overlooked. Continuing to see himself as the guardian of Kubrick’s legacy, even years after Kubrick’s death he was still fighting to maintain the technical quality of his prints and his heritage. Despite this, his contribution to film and film history was ignored by the industry and he was excluded from a major retrospective of Kubrick’s work in the US. Yet he doesn’t seem bitter.
Though it’s Vitali’s story, even in this documentary he’s dominated by the spectre of Kubrick. The film has intriguing revelations and unseen photographs showing Kubrick’s working methods and numerous interviews with some of those he worked with, such as Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey. It’s an excellent background to film history, a must-see for anyone interested in filmmaking and a long-overdue tribute to an unsung hero, without whose blind loyalty, who knows what films would have reached the screen… I wonder why we have never heard of him before?
Filmworker screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 18 May 2018 in the UK.