All Work And No Play

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 from their lives. Indeed, so relentless is the film’s insistent 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 in that film. O’Neal is among those in the doc who verify Kubrick’s larger-than-life persona.

Vitali was so smitten and overwhelmed by the contact with 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 his word is to be unqualifiedly believed, Kubrick assigned Vitali such critical tasks as going to America 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 of Full Metal Jacket (1987), and convinced Kubrick to hire him over Tim Colceri, who went on instead to play the helicopter gunner in that film. 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 each film. 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, Leon’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, checked to make sure everyone on the 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 unimpeded. 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, Leon 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’s notorious behavior as the perfectionist one had to tiptoe around to avoid the slightest misstep was well-known, and this account of Vitali’s long working relationship with Kubrick 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 absence of participation in the project by any member of Kubrick’s family. If this constitutes Filmworker’s collective elephant in the room, the viewer has to ask why. Unless I missed it, not a glimpse, not a word, not even an allusion to the director’s family plays a role here, despite the fact that a number of them played key roles in the work itself. Nor do the end credits indicate any familial participation, the only possible exception being an unspecified “special thanks” to the Kubrick estate.

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, by more than one member of the family. But the reasons remain murky. Was it because they believed the film unworthy in the condition in which it was left? Or was their failure to endorse or partake in this documentary a result of long-standing resentment of Vitali’s role in Kubrick’s work?

If Vitali’s life with Kubrick is captured by the moth/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 animators who worked for Walt Disney whose actual 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 Kubrick seems to have given Vitali, in full view of and with the full awareness 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 in 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 cajoled the man he served for decades and 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.