Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.
-Stanley Kubrick, 1999
It’s difficult to imagine how one attains the degree of brilliance displayed time and time again by Stanley Kubrick. In his career he directed only thirteen feature films, yet almost all of them irreversibly altered their genre and sparked imitation both good and bad. With this genius, though, came a work ethic and a compulsive dedication to his craft that would make Kubrick notoriously difficult to work with. There are many stories often told about Kubrick’s borderline abuses of his actors in trying to get the perfect performance out of them. However, in Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, the tolls and rewards of Kubrick’s brilliance are on full display through the eyes of the person who took the most abuse, nearly none of the glory, and who was almost as dedicated to the master’s art as Kubrick himself.
Leon Vitali started his career as an actor in the early 70s. He worked in massive quantities, gaining dozens of credits in a variety of largely forgotten British TV shows prior to his first encounter with Stanley Kubrick in 1975’s Barry Lyndon. That film, which produced Vitali’s most recognized role as the childlike Lord Bullingdon, was also the one that would change his perspective toward the practice of filmmaking. He became obsessed with the technical process of constructing a film, and became determined to move behind the camera despite a promising acting career. Vitali went on to little independent success after that point, instead dedicating himself almost entirely to assisting Stanley Kubrick with his final three films and with any other project involving Kubrick’s work until the director’s death.
Filmworker tells this story in the appropriate manner. Anyone approaching the film from a distance would view it as a documentary about Stanley Kubrick, and in many ways that’s exactly what it is. Yet somewhere in the background is Vitali’s voice, organizing and contextualizing all of it. The film is Vitali’s story, but largely through the scope of his work with Kubrick. In this way the director is still overshadowing his disciple who happily dedicates his life to preserving the art of this filmmaker he so admired.
The film explains the dynamic between the pair in a fascinating if not somewhat puzzling manner. In many ways they seemed like close friends. Kubrick allowed Vitali to be by his side throughout each of his final three films: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. He trusted him to oversee the preservation of his entire filmography. He allowed Vitali to represent him to actors and producers. Yet, Kubrick’s tyrannical behavior spared nobody, and Vitali often found himself the victim of the director’s rage. Among the most interesting elements of Filmworker are the interviews with Vitali’s children, who knew their father in youth only from the interactions they had with him in his office while he was diligently working away every waking hour. His kids tell of nights he spent sleeping on the doormat by his office door, fearful that any sleep too restful might lead to a loss of waking and working hours.
Filmworker is peculiar in that Leon Vitali’s dedication to Kubrick’s work is somehow both distancing and entirely relatable. On the one hand it presents his absolute loyalty to Kubrick in a way that is intimidating. It presents the director’s demanding presence as nearly nightmarish. Yet Vitali never seems put off by the choices he has made. He is content with the work that he has spent his life doing. Though it is hard to wrap one’s mind around that degree of commitment, most film fans could likely understand what it means to so profoundly adore the voice of a particular artist that you feel it is your duty to ensure that their work is appreciated. It is in this way that Leon Vitali found Stanley Kubrick, and it is this relationship between teacher and student, between mentor and protege, between two dear friends that Filmworker beautifully brings to light.