How far would you go to be able to work with someone you admire? Would you give up your own promising career in the spotlight only to disappear behind the scenes, without getting any credits despite the painful amount of blood, sweat and tears you put into your work? Well, this is exactly what actor Leon Vitali did. He dedicated his life to the work of Stanley Kubrick and was his right-hand man for 20 years. Tony Zierra’s documentary Filmworker (in UK cinemas from 18 May 2018) tells the untold story of Vitali, the hidden figure behind one of the most celebrated directors in film history, illustrated with previously unseen footage, set photos, revealing interviews and more. A definite must-see for film buffs and Stanley Kubrick fans!
From sitcom actor to enabler
British readers might know Vitali from the TV series The Fenn Street Gang – he appeared in various 1970s TV series. After Vitali saw A Clockwork Orange (1971), he was in total awe of the film and the director and ever since it had been his great wish to get to work with Kubrick. Little did he know then what an important role he would play in Kubrick’s work in the years to follow.
Vitali managed to land a role in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975), but it wasn’t until a few years later that their long-term collaboration started. During the shooting of Barry Lyndon, Vitali expressed his desire to work more behind the scenes to Kubrick who then advised him to get some experience. Vitali indeed did so by working in the cutting room for a film by another director he also starred in. After informing Kubrick about this, the latter sent him a copy of Stephen King’s book The Shining and asked Vitali to find a boy to play the role of Danny. Besides casting director, Vitali functioned as the acting coach on the set of The Shining; Filmworker shows footage and set photos of Vitali often just standing only a few centimetres away from Danny during shooting so he could put the young actor at ease but also to give him acting directions.
Besides finding the perfect boy to play the historic role of Danny, we also have Vitali to thank for the superb performance of recently deceased R. Lee Ermey as the obnoxious sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987). From the revealing interviews with Ermey, Vitali, actors Matthew Modine and Tim Colceri, viewers learn the inside story of how Kubrick changed his mind on initially casting Colceri for the iconic role as the gunnery seargant/drill inspector and giving the role to former drill inspector Ermey, who was brought on set as an advisor, instead. Vitali spent every spare minute he had (after working very long hours each day on set and in the production room) in preparing Ermey for his role, drilling him and having him repeat his lines over and over again until he was able to deliver them as fast and fluently as we can see in the film today.
Vitali’s responsibilities grew over the years. While he might have started out as a casting director and acting coach, over time he had his finger in every aspect of Kubrick’s production process such as ensuring international releases, approving subtitle translations, inspecting video store displays, supervising VHS (later DVD) cover designs and transfers from 35mm to other film formats such as Blu-Ray and 4K, and so much more. Besides these more rewarding jobs, he was also asked to solve many other rather mundane chores such as setting mouse traps, often communicated through handwritten short and rather unsympathetic memos from Kubrick left on his desk.
Appreciated collaborator or glorified servant?
Even well after Kubrick’s death Vitali made a commitment to protect his late mentor’s legacy. Although I doubt he has any money to his name, he has taken full responsibility for ensuring the films’ technical qualities, and reproducing them as the maestro intended them to be. Indeed Filmworker alludes to Vitali being the only person left alive who actually has the knowledge and skills to have Kubrick’s films shown according to the director’s vision. However, one of the few unsolved questions – and in my opinion a rather crucial one – of the documentary is WHY Vitali chose to dedicate his life to work with Kubrick. It’s a well-known fact that Kubrick wasn’t an easy guy: he was unpleasant to work with, very critical, and a perfectionist. If you thought that the main character from The Devil Wears Prada had a tough job, you’ll realise that was peanuts compared to Leon Vitali and his extremely demanding and workaholic boss. Vitali coined the term ‘filmworker’ to describe his profession, a far more glamorous term than the jack-of-all-trades, or glorified servant, that he really was.
In this documentary, viewers don’t learn anything about Vitali’s motivations for wanting to work for Kubrick. Was it pure out of artistic admiration for Kubrick’s work? Or was this his way to become part of Kubrick’s inner circle? Or was Vitali worried that his acting career might not be going much further and wanted to secure his future?
Perhaps it would’ve been easier to accept Vitali’s dedication for me as a viewer if he had received any recognition for his work, but I guess it’s quite telling that until this documentary, barely anyone outside of the film industry had heard of him. It’s heart-breaking to see how Vitali, the one person who knows most of Kubrick’s lifework and probably about the man himself, wasn’t even invited to – nor asked to get involved with – the opening of the great museum retrospective on Kubrick that toured the world a few years ago.
The rising popularity of documentaries
Filmworker is one of the many celebrity-related documentaries to come out in recent years. The 2015 documentary Amy about Amy Winehouse is a great example of the rise in popularity of this genre. This impressive documentary won many high-profile awards and for good reason. After I saw it, my perception of the singer had changed completely and suddenly I truly understood her heart-breaking lyrics written straight from her heart. Previously I had known her songs and a bit of her tragic life, but after watching the documentary I felt I got to know her personally and realised that no one she reached out to through her lyrics tried to help her. However, after watching Filmworker I didn’t really feel like I had gotten to know anything about Vitali himself.
It’s strange how the documentary allows you to make certain assumptions about Vitali’s personal life, such as presuming that he’s a committed bachelor, but then suddenly his three adult children are introduced. There’s no mention of his ex-wife and only a few references to Vitali as a father. It therefore feels like the documentary is more a vehicle for releasing previously unseen Kubrick material. It’s indeed a fantastic documentary to learn more about one of the greatest directors of all times and to recognise the crucial role hidden figures such as Vitali actually play in the film industry. Interestingly after visiting the visually stunning exhibition about cinematographer Robby Müller at the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, this documentary was an eye-opener: while most often the film director gets all the credit, he/she often wouldn’t be able to execute their vision without their skilled crew.
It’s truly intriguing and rather baffling to see how someone could so selflessly give his life for the arts, but I would’ve liked to know more about ‘Vitali the person’ rather than ‘Vitali the filmworker’, but I guess you get what’s on the label.