All Work and No Play

Tony Pipolo on Tony Zierra's Filmworker (2017)

Tony Zierra, Filmworker (2017), DCP, color, 94 minutes.

IF THERE IS A SINGLE, OVERRIDING THEME in Tony Zierra’s Filmworker (2017), it is that the life of Leon Vitali, the subject of this documentary, has been more or less divided between the twenty-odd years before he met Stanley Kubrick and the nearly fifty years since. Every talking head in the film, including Vitali’s, testifies to this fact, so much so that it makes us question the reality of every aspect of the man’s life that is not related to Kubrick. Late in the doc, for example, we hear Vitali’s children voicing not very happy memories about their father’s psychological (when not physical) absence. Indeed, so relentless is the film’s perspective that the very appearance of the children comes as a shock: Where, we wonder, did he ever find the time?

Vitali was a talented actor in British films, theater, and television until the day he responded to a casting call for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which he considered “the greatest movie ever made,” Leon was eager to work with its creator. Little did he know that the experience would transform his life. Kubrick, he claims, was so pleased with his performance that he apparently expanded the importance of his role—that of Bullingdon, the young lord who brings down the “Irish upstart” played by Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal is among those in the doc who verify Kubrick’s larger-than-life persona.

Vitali was so smitten with and overwhelmed by the man he regarded as the greatest film artist of the twentieth century that he told Kubrick he would give up his acting career to work for him behind the scenes and to learn the craft of filmmaking. Thus, his life after encountering Kubrick began in earnest, when the master accepted the offer, plunging Vitali into the unexpected, uninterrupted, nearly unendurable maelstrom of activity that went beyond assisting Kubrick on the three features that followed Barry Lyndon. If Vitali’s word is to be unqualifiedly believed, Kubrick assigned him such critical tasks as going to the United States to find the boy who would play Danny in The Shining (1980). And it was Vitali, we are told, who discovered and tested R. Lee Ermey, who played the memorable foul-mouthed sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987), and convinced Kubrick to hire him over Tim Colceri, who instead played the helicopter gunner. Both Colceri and Ermey are on hand to testify: The former confirms his disappointment, while the latter not only declares that the role made his career but that as far as he could tell, he was Vitali’s “assignment”—and that without Vitali his “performance would not have been half as good.”

These are strong claims to make about key responsibilities in respect to a filmmaker who, by everyone’s account, including Vitali’s, was maniacally obsessed with controlling every aspect of his films. Indeed, it was this feature of Kubrick’s persona that drove so many people batty but that seems to have inspired in Vitali such fierce devotion, a determination to serve the director in every way and appease his every whim even as he danced furiously to avoid being trampled to death. In the few allusions to Vitali’s childhood, there are hints that his relationship with a distant, tyrannical father prepared him for such an encounter, teaching him to step back to prevent being badly singed until the demonic rage in the other dissipated. And singe is the word: At the beginning of his film, Zierra cites the image of a moth drawn to a flame, alluding to one of Matthew Modine’s many efforts to describe the phenomenon he witnessed on the set of Full Metal Jacket.

Tony Zierra, Filmworker (2017), DCP, color, 94 minutes.

And so, Vitali’s duties were not limited to prestigious casting responsibilities. He was responsible for overseeing the condition of all prints and video transitions of Kubrick’s entire filmography, meticulously studying how transfers affected individual frames. He negotiated with vendors in many countries, worked with Warner executives, made sure everyone on set knew their jobs and that every actor knew his or her lines—he, even, on occasion, cleaned the couches where Kubrick’s dogs and cats sprawled. As more than one participant in the film avers, Vitali’s dedication went well beyond the norm, incorporating, as one speaker put it, whole swaths of those jobs and categories listed in the end credits of most movies.

In the diary he kept (and published) on Full Metal Jacket, Modine goes from calling Vitali a “jack of all trades” to a “slave.” “Answering everything that came up . . . Leon’s face was a testament to that huge undertaking—a road map of sleeplessness and concern.” If this begins to sound unhealthy, no speaker in the film contradicts the impression. For Modine, Vitali was not only the endangered moth but that unique being who chooses the path of “selflessness,” “crucifying himself” in the service of a great artist. Then again, it would not be off the mark to wonder just who seduced whom.

Kubrick was notorious for his behavior as a perfectionist, and one had to tiptoe around him to avoid the slightest misstep. This account of Vitali’s working relationship with the director is invaluable, even unexpectedly moving. But it also has the unfortunate effect of hitting one long, sustained note and adopting a defensive posture, which, given its many corroborating voices, would seem unnecessary. It’s hard not to wonder what this might have to do with the total lack of participation from any member of Kubrick’s family. If this constitutes Filmworker’s elephant in the room, the viewer has to ask why. Unless I missed it, there is not a glimpse, not a word, not even an allusion to the director’s family here, despite the fact that a number of his family members played key roles in the work itself.

It’s quite possible that the events following Kubrick’s death and the release of the reportedly contested version of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) has more than a little to do with this. Vitali’s vital participation in these efforts and his work with Warner to get the film out came under fire, one surmises, from more than one member of the family. Was it because they believed the film unworthy in the condition in which it was left? While the reasons remain murky, we learn in a final credit that Vitali is still very much involved with the Kubrick Estate, working as a consultant, and supervising a new digital 4K version of 2001: A Space Odyssey among other things.

If Vitali’s life with Kubrick is captured by the moth and flame image, can the image he presents in this documentary be seen as the revenge of the sorcerer’s apprentice? One is reminded of the many Walt Disney animators whose creations and innovations were not fully credited until decades later, for fear that the word “Disney” might lose its luster. But considering the many duties, responsibilities, and creative space that Kubrick seems to have given Vitali, in full view of actors, producers, and other members of the crew, it’s unlikely Kubrick himself would have objected to Vitali telling his story. And as we well know, surviving families of great artists are notorious for their obsessive determination to obstruct alternative or supplementary views that might diminish the stature of the genius who lived in their midst. Meanwhile, whatever exaggerations Filmworker may or may not entertain, Vitali exudes throughout this film the same earnest, eccentric devotion and enthusiasm that no doubt persuaded the man he served and that will surely provide researchers and scholars plenty to think about in the seemingly endless preoccupation with the life and work of Stanley Kubrick.

Filmworker runs from May 11 to May 17 at Metrograph in New York.

Correction: A previous version of this review was based on a version of the film that did not include a credit about Vitali's participation with the Kubrick Estate.