There’s being someone’s right-hand man, and then there is Leon Vitali. A strapping young lad who had begun making a name for himself in the early Seventies, this British actor had built up an impressive resumé of theater gigs, supporting parts, cop-show cameos and sitcom ensemble roles – he was being groomed as the hot new thing, a gentler, ginger next-gen Angry Young Man. One day, he walked in to a theater and watched a bunch of white-jumpsuited thugs pillage their way through a teenage-wasteland London. The movie was A Clockwork Orange. The director was Stanley Kubrick. I want to work for him, he told a friend as they left the screening. You should always be careful what you wish for.
Filmworker, Tony Zierra’s extraordinary documentary, dives in to what happened next: Vitali’s agent calls him, saying that the American ex-pat was adapting William Thackeray’s 1844 novel Barry Lyndon and was interested in the actor for the role of the dastardly Lord Bullingdon. After wrapping in July of 1974, Vitali moved on to other gigs, but they paled in comparison to being in the presence of a cinematic genius. Then Kubrick sent him Stephen King’s The Shining, with a note that simply said: “Read it.” He asked the performer if he could help find a child to play the movie version’s psychic youngster. Vitali said yes – and ended up employed by the filmmaker as an all-purpose guy Friday, acting coach, archivist, casting director, Foley Artist, designer of feline surveillance systems, personal assistant, sounding board, punching bag and much more for the next 30 years of his life. Not even Kubrick’s death in 1999 could keep the acolyte from serving his perfectionist deity in perpetuity.
Taking its name from the designation that Vitali gave himself when asked his occupation on travel forms, Filmworker charts the duo’s master-and-servant relationship from project to project, and to say this is manna for Kubrick fans would be an understatement. You want first-hand testimonies on the cinematic godhead’s directorial process? (Vitali recounts reading Lyndon lines while the auteur prowled around, checking every angle and peering through every lens, then rinse, repeat.) Do you crave behind-the-scenes anecdotes on making Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut? (Check, and check.) Ever wonder what happened to The Shining‘s now-grown child actor, Danny Lloyd? (He’s interviewed here, testifying to how Vitali was his best friend and spirit animal on set.) There are stories galore here, tales of 30-take scenes and impromptu casting changes and artistic eccentricities that will have film geeks howling with joy.
But what makes this doc more than just a feature-length DVD supplement is how these peeks behind the curtain are offset by a connect-the-dots case study of obsession and devotion taken to extremes. We see stills of Vitali laughing on set next to his idol, deep into the creative mix; we also see him staring in to the camera now, occasionally looking hollowed out as he recounts weighing as little as 65 lbs at one point and 36-hour workdays interrupted only by vomit breaks. Leon’s siblings talk of their abusive, withholding dad [loud, loaded Freudian throat-clearing] and Leon’s kids talk of their own father sleeping uncomfortably on the couch, just in case he was called to duty in the middle of the night. We hear Leon attest to the almost holy feeling he had being around Kubrick even as others confirm that “Stanley was always waiting for you to fuck up.” The moment between finishing a Herculean task and presenting the result for inspection was agony. Still, Vitali returned to work every morning, every day, every night. It’s like watching a movie about a destructive religious cult with a fawning, ecstatic membership of one.
In the end, Filmworker is a portrait of an unsung hero, a revealing look at how Kubrick’s films were made and a psychological sketch of a would-be Da Vinci determined to keep dusting and polishing someone else’s Sistine Chapel. But at its core, it’s a love story between two men, albeit one characterized by an insane codependence and a lopsided balance of power. You never doubt that Kubrick considered Vitali an employee who he could call at any moment to drop everything and examine a film print or clean his billiards room. You also never doubt that these two were also close friends and possibly the only non-family member the O.C.D. artist trusted.
Near the end, we hear about a touring exhibit of Kubrickian props, scripts, costumes, ephemera. Vitali was shunned by the organizers and left wounded. He also returned to the exhibit 25 or 30 times to lead personal tours of friends and students through his master’s curated life in between overseeing film restorations. Who else will protect this legacy, the disciple asks, if not me? What would his life – or Vitali’s – have meant if this just disappears into the ether?