Leon Vitali was the guest of honor at the Nuart Theatre on Friday, May 18, 2018 where the documentary “Filmworker” was being shown. Directed by Tony Zierra, it chronicles how Vitali went from being a successful British actor to becoming Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant after starring in “Barry Lyndon,” and of the intense dedication he gave to the filmmaker’s work from “The Shining” to “Eyes Wide Shut.” Vitali was greeted with a much-deserved standing ovation as he made his way to the stage for a Q&A. Joining him were Zierra and actor Matthew Modine who played Joker in “Full Metal Jacket.”
Modine remarked about a scene which was cut out of “Filmworker” where he said “Stanley stood on Leon’s shoulders” and how much of a marriage Leon and Stanley’s working relationship was, and he described it as being “at times dysfunctional” and “lovely in a British way.” Zierra was actually working on another documentary about Kubrick called “SK13” when he met Vitali, and he said talking with Vitali was a must as it was well-known how he was one of Kubrick’s closest associates. Zierra managed to track him down in Culver City and met with him, and what resulted was this documentary which was filmed over three and a half years.
“This is the worst nightmare for a filmmaker that when you are really super independent you pick up another documentary and you can’t even finish one,” Zierra said. “I went back and told my producer and partner, Elizabeth Yoffe, this is the most amazing story and I have to do a documentary about this guy, but I’m not sure if I really want to take on another project. But then I remember she said to me you are going to regret it if you don’t do it, so I went back and I asked him, and he said no. And I realized that Leon is just not used to talking about himself. He can talk about Kubrick forever, so it was quite difficult.”
Zierra then remarked how he and Vitali eventually “broke the ice” when he volunteered to organize the heaps of notebooks and materials Vitali had kept over the years while working for Kubrick. As we see in “Filmworker,” Vitali has a huge collection which really does deserve an exhibit of its own.
Modine talked about the overall crew numbers on a Kubrick film and illustrated just how important Vitali was to the famed filmmaker. In the process, he revealed something very surprising as Kubrick’s movies have such an epic look about them to where it looked like hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people worked for him. But as life often teaches us, looks can be deceiving.
“(People) imagine the enormity of Stanley Kubrick’s legend is that he was a filmmaker who must’ve had hundreds of people working for him, and it was quite the contrary,” Modine said. “Leon really did wear 100 different hats because when you went to work there was sometimes, when we were filming on the stage, maybe it felt like 15 people working on the film. What I feel is that Stanley Kubrick created an environment for himself to be able to keep production costs down to the minimum so that he could have the ability to work for an extended period of time to do as many takes as were necessary. But in fact, he was probably the most independent filmmaker I’ve ever worked with.”
“That’s absolutely true,” Vitali responded. “The crew on ‘Full Metal Jacket’ ended up looking like a well-crewed student film, you know? We had one electrician, that was it, because he shot so much of it in natural light. And any light he did have, it was a bank of lights like in the barracks for instance that just went up and down on a dimmer. So, he was always conscious about getting every single dollar on the screen. It was the most important thing to him.”
Vitali did share stories about Kubrick which involved him calling Vitali a certain word which has a broader meaning in England and Scotland but a simpler one in America as many find it extremely offensive (hint: it begins wit a c and ends with a t), and he also talked about the pie fight scene which was taken out of “Dr. Strangeglove” because they just felt it would have been a terrible way to end the movie. In terms of filmmakers today who Vitali considers in Kubrick’s league, he said he really admires Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro because he gets back to the fairy tale part of the storytelling, and Sean Baker who directed “The Florida Project.” In terms of his favorite Kubrick movie, he said if you put a gun to his head he would have to say it is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
One of the most interesting moments of the evening, however, came when Modine asked Vitali what an artist is and what value art and movies have.
“Artist has become a word like love or hate, and it’s used so loosely I think” Vitali said. “To me, anyone can be an artist. In my vacation time from drama school, I used to work with a brick layer, and I eventually saw the way he worked with the bricks. He was an artist at what he did. I’ve seen car mechanics who find their way around because it’s all a process of elimination. I think an artist’s work is a process of elimination because the hardest thing to do is to get back to simplicity of whatever it is you are trying to tell or the story you are trying to tell, and how often things come in which seem like good ideas but they are big distractions. So, you are all the time working to get rid of the junk, however appealing it might seem at the time. Composers and musicians and actors or any of those, they are all artists because that’s what they do. It’s getting everything down to the simplest that you can make it to make the story resonate and have a point. That’s what I think anyway.”
“Filmworker” is an absolute must see for Stanley Kubrick fans, and it is now playing at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles through May 24th.
Photos, poster and trailer courtesy of Kino Lorber.