Directed by Tony Zierra
Leon Vitali first met Stanley Kubrick when he auditioned for Barry Lyndon (1975). He was eventually cast, and his prominence within the film opened doors for the young actor. He walked through some but then elected to come work for Kubrick on his next film, 1980’s The Shining, and from then on he gave up an acting career to do just about everything on the other side of the camera for Kubrick. He performed so many different roles that he couldn’t describe himself as just an acting coach, a casting director, director’s assistant or editor. He simply regarded himself as a “filmworker.”
This documentary exists because Vitali’s career is a bit unorthodox. He didn’t just admire and want to work with Kubrick, he gave up just about everything to work with him, night and day. Vitali became Kubrick’s right hand man, and the famous director would sometimes even send stern letters to people using Vitali’s name, a way perhaps to distance himself from the critique but also which blurs the lines between him and Vitali in some way.
From Vitali’s point of view Kubrick was in service of something greater than himself, and Vitali in turn wanted to be in complete service to Kubrick. He recognized greatness in the director, as he himself tells us, and he wanted to be close to that quality.
The documentary mostly lets Vitali speak to us, telling us in his own words why he did what he did. We also spend time with other actors who worked with Kubrick (like Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermy) and get a sense of just how demanding the director was. It took a lot of energy to act for him, and this only further emphasizes the particular insanity that must go into working for him full-time.
When Kubrick passed, Vitali became the gatekeeper to his legacy. He has been in charge of making sure prints of his movies are properly restored, and he’s more or less the expert on all things Kubrick today.
The documentary ends on a note celebrating all the “below the line” people who help raise the “above the line” people. Vitali is the face of all that. He has spent years making sure prints of Kubrick’s films are in working order, that everything is colored properly and sounds the way it should, and should he fail, it might have a dramatic lasting effect on the way new generations view these films of a half-century or so ago. He does it not for any legacy but just because it matters to him.
There are so many others like Vitali, of course, though the nature of his work is a little more broad and extreme. There are grips, gaffers, boom and camera operators, editing assistants, production assistants, etc. There is so much that goes into any old movie and particularly into a Kubrick movie.
Some of the best anecdotes from Filmworker detail how Vitali cast Danny Lloyd and the twin girls in The Shining (both happy accidents) as well as how he got Kubrick to cast R. Lee Ermy in his famous role which had already been filled.
The point is really just to show how much others, like Vitali, brought to the table. Such iconic roles wouldn’t have been the same without him, and who knows how many more such anecdotes there are throughout any one person’s body of work.
The documentary opens and closes with shots of Vitali walking while he explains to us his thoughts on the idea of process. Everything is a process, life is a process, etc. His rationale is that his service to Kubrick is an art form, the act of service itself. For others it may be about the finished work or about making a name for yourself, but when that battle is won, the next begins. So there’s an existential component to this film. Vitali inspects every single frame of Kubrick’s films like he’s Sisyphus rolling the bolder up the hill.
Up Next: Hope and Glory (1987), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool [2017, Script Only], Blind Chance (1987)