It has been almost 20 years since Stanley Kubrick passed away, but his presence is still deeply felt among cinephiles. Some may say this is because “2001: A Space Odyssey” is being re-released in honor of its 50th anniversary, but it goes much further than that. Kubrick had a singular vision, and stories of his directorial methods, such as getting an actor to do dozens upon dozens of takes of a single scene, remain legendary as only a handful of filmmakers could have gotten away with this. And as the documentary “Room 237” showed, people continue to share their interpretations of “The Shining” and of the meanings they believe certain images in it have. Indeed, Kubrick’s films had a large degree of ambiguity in them, and watching them just once is never enough.
But just when you thought you had heard every story about Kubrick, along comes Tony Zierra’s documentary “Filmworker” which looks at the life and times of Kubrick’s right-hand man, Leon Vitali. As an actor, he worked a lot in British television, but after appearing in Kubrick’s film “Barry Lyndon,” he dedicated his life to helping the famed director any which way he could. What results is a movie about working with such a meticulous human being, and of the overall effects it had on Vitali to where it is shocking to see he is still above ground.
“Filmworker” starts with a look at Vitali’s early life as an actor, and it shows how o often he worked in British television and movies to where he was never ever lacking for a job, a position I and my actor friends get to enjoy at some point in this lifetime. Then he got the role of Lord Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon,” and this introduced the actor to the Kubrick life he was quick to embrace. In a scene where Ryan O’Neal ends up punching Vitali in the back, O’Neal says Kubrick told him, “You’re not hitting him hard enough.” From there, they did the scene 30 more times, and it served as Vitali’s introduction to Kubrick’s obsessive nature in getting things just right down to the smallest of details.
It is very easy to see why Vitali became such a die-hard Kubrick fan after he watched “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Both films reflected a singular vision no other director could have conjured, and Vitali remarked how “2001” dared to have no dialogue in its first 20 minutes, something which seems unthinkable in this day and age. Following their collaboration on “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick sent him a copy of Stephen King’s “The Shining” to see if it would be worth turning into a movie. Once Vitali told Kubrick it was, the director brought him on so he could search for the perfect child actor to play Danny Torrance. From there, he abandoned his acting career and dedicated his life to Kubrick all the way through his last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Vitali ended up doing just about every kind of job for Kubrick including casting director, acting coach, location scout, sound engineer and color corrector to name a few. Upon Kubrick’s passing, he became the only person to restore his films. To say he dedicated his life to Kubrick’s work would be the understatement of the millennium. We watch as he works tirelessly to get all the details right, and we see the toll it takes on him and his body. He speaks of how he worked two 36-hour shifts on one project and of how he slept on the floor to catch a two-hour nap while fully dressed so that, when he woke up, he could get right back to work.
Watching “Filmworker,” I wasn’t always sure if I should thank Vitali for all the work he has done or pity him. Some describe him as Igor to Kubrick’s Dr. Frankenstein. I prefer to see him as Waylon Smithers to Kubrick’s Mr. Burns. This man gave up a thriving acting career to work for the director of “Dr. Strangeglove,” and their relationship certainly had a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to it. Vitali shows us the note Kubrick wrote to him in thanks for his work on “Barry Lyndon,” and he remarks at how his first handshake with the filmmaker proved to be “very warm.” But once they began working on “Full Metal Jacket,” Vitali admitted he came to see another side of Kubrick, one which few others got to see up close.
Many like to talk about the Stanley Kubrick they met and of how he was so different compared to all the rumors which were circulating throughout Hollywood about him, but Vitali makes it abundantly clear how he knew Kubrick in a way no one else could. At one point, he even describes Kubrick as the film industry’s equivalent to Gordon Ramsey, the chef from “Hell’s Kitchen” and a man who is always in serious need of anger management classes. People keep asking Vitali how he handled Kubrick, but he responds to this by saying he never handled him but instead handled himself so that he could exist in Kubrick’s world.
Actors like Matthew Modine, Danny Lloyd and the late R. Lee Ermey are interviewed at length here, and they have great stories to share about both Kubrick and Vitali. Lloyd and Ermey credit Vitali for helping them with their performances in a way no one else could, and Modine remarks at how selfless Vitali is when it comes to his work for Kubrick. Modine is just one of several individuals who freely admit they are too selfish to dedicate their lives to Kubrick the way Vitali did. O’Neal goes out of his way to say he “fled” the set of “Barry Lyndon” once his work there was done as he was terrified of being subjected to reshoots.
Indeed, the level of dedication Vitali gives Kubrick is both commendable and scary. You also have to feel for him as he suffers under the heavy hand of Warner Brothers while working to give Kubrick’s films the attention they deserved. I remember when the first DVD’s of his work came out and how bad they were, and Vitali spent his precious time getting the color just right. Hearing how Kubrick got incensed if the green was off reminded me of Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo” when his character of Sy went off at a repairman for not taking a difference of three points in color all that seriously. If you are passionate enough about something, you will see it through to the very last detail.
As you can imagine, there is a good deal of trivia about Kubrick on display here. Among the most interesting bits come from Ermey who played Gunnery Sargent Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket” as he discusses how he went about getting actors for the movie, and it is eerie to see him describe what the movie did for his career and of how he has led a great life as it was only a few weeks ago he died due to complications from pneumonia. We also get to hear from Tim Colceri who was originally cast as Hartman before being replaced by Ermey. He ended up playing the doorgunner who shoots away at any and every Vietnamese individual regardless of whether or not they are the “enemy.” Watching Colceri’s face as he reflects on the role he could have had is heartbreaking as his disappointment looks to last a lifetime.
In a lot of ways, “Filmworker” serves as a love letter to Vitali as his work on Kubrick’s films is extraordinary, and we should be thankful for what he has done as this documentary shows how no one else could have preserved the iconic director’s work the way he has. But beyond that, it also acts as a love letter to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes on film sets as they often do not get the respect they deserve. To many, they simply appear as names on a movie’s end credits, and some of those credits move at lightning speed when those movies are shown on the Sundance Channel. But after watching this documentary, we have every reason to thank Vitali for his devotion to Kubrick as, without him, no one could have been able to give “Eyes Wide Shut” the release it deserved. But more importantly, it provides Vitali with the happy ending he has long since earned.
While watching “Filmworker,” I was reminded of what Homer Simpson told his family while they watched the end credits for “The Simpsons Movie:”
“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”
This is, of course, completely unrealistic, but when it comes to “Filmworker,” I want to believe such a thing could be possible.
* * * * out of * * * *