Nick Schager writes: Every serious cinephile is aware of Stanley Kubrick, but far fewer are familiar with Leon Vitali, the English co-star of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon who, following that performance, became the auteur’s steadfast right-hand man. Doing everything asked of him by the legendarily meticulous filmmaker—from taking notes, creating marketing materials, and color-coding prints, to casting, rehearsing with stars, and acting himself—Vitali was the irreplaceable assistant who helped shepherd to the screen The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, even as his vital role in those projects remained largely hidden from the public.
That situation is justly rectified by Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, a superb documentary about Vitali’s career alongside Kubrick that serves as a case study of both selfless devotion and self-destructive mania—as well as a much-deserved celebration of a true artist-behind-the-artist. And according to its subject, it certainly doesn’t overstate how uniquely demanding it was to work with one of cinema’s true geniuses.
“Balance is a word that rarely came into my vocabulary throughout my whole time, whether I was working with Stanley or not,” Vitali chuckles when speaking to me from Los Angeles, two days before Filmworker’s premiere (this Tuesday) at the New York Film Festival. “I’m just one of those people who gets quite emotional once they got locked into something. And some things take on proportions of life and death.” Though he found watching himself on screen in this form “a little bit weird,” he confesses, “I can honestly say it didn’t exaggerate, in any stretch of the imagination, how fraught or tense it could be. Or how time intensive.”
As revealed by Zierra’s intimate portrait, Vitali and Kubrick’s relationship was a knotty one. It began on the set of Barry Lyndon, a 1975 period piece epic in which Vitali—a trained Shakespearean actor who, to that point, had enjoyed significant success on the stage and screen—was cast as the stepson of Ryan O’Neal’s title character. At one point, Kubrick had O’Neal and Vitali repeatedly re-do a scene in which O’Neal’s Lyndon viciously beats Vitali’s Lord Bullingdon, to O’Neal’s mounting horror—a moment emblematic of the forthcoming relationship between Kubrick and Vitali. When production neared completion, Vitali—enamored with Kubrick’s brilliance—asked if he might work alongside the filmmaker in the future. That request would lead to his eventual role as Kubrick’s veritable right-hand man, handling every major or minor task asked of him by the demanding director, be it coaching Danny Lloyd in The Shining (in clips, we see him literally running beside the camera, coaching the young star), or overseeing VHS box art and perfecting celluloid prints of past movies, each of which Kubrick insisted be personally inspected.
It was, in short, a dream job, albeit one that took many of Vitali’s confidants by surprise (since he was forgoing a promising acting career), and which eventually took an immense toll on his health, with round-the-clock toil—always on call, always managing the tiniest minutia—leading to multiple hospitalizations and severe weight loss … (read more)