Throughout history, a great many people have made grand sacrifices in the pursuit of a higher truth, but it’s not often that somebody finds that truth in another person and throws a grenade into their entire life to follow them. (At least aside from cults, anyway.) Yet there can be transcendence in being near greatness too, and in the case of Leon Vitali, the subject of director Tony Zierra‘s documentary Filmworker, even becoming involved in that greatness over time. Vitali might not have been Stanley Kubrick, but Filmworker makes a compelling argument that the Kubrick who lives in cinematic legend may not have become the man he’s remembered for being without Vitali around.
Back in the 1970s, Vitali was an up-and-coming actor who landed the plum role of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon, and quickly found himself beguiled by the director once he’d arrived on set. Vitali developed a taste for understanding the below-the-line process on a film (the editorial assistants, unit directors, and other off-camera players who make filmmaking possible), and for Kubrick’s in particular. The notoriously meticulous filmmaker, meanwhile, found a perfect complement in Vitali, who was more than willing to entirely abandon his then-burgeoning career as an actor of some reputation to commit himself to being Kubrick’s right-hand man in all aspects of production. Soon the two were close collaborators, Kubrick asking and Vitali answering, as the director entered the late period of his career.
If Filmworker never entirely answers its central question of why Vitali gave everything up to work with and near Kubrick, or what exactly motivated him to do it (Vitali insists that “I just wanted to”), it provides just enough when it isn’t doing the one thing it’s best at: offering a window into Kubrick’s infamously detailed processes, as seen through a man who was chiefly responsible for carrying many of them out. Vitali, the kind of open and dedicated subject most documentarians dream about, unloads one curious anecdote after the next. Vitali was the man most responsible for coaching Danny Lloyd to his classic horror performance in The Shining, particularly on-set. Vitali wore the Red Cloak during the climactic confrontation in Eyes Wide Shut. Vitali was among the first to notice that R. Lee Ermey, originally brought onto Full Metal Jacket as a consultant only, should probably just be one of the stars of the movie instead. (The late Ermey, for his part, gets a long stretch in the middle of Filmworker to talk about this from his own point of view.)
Vitali’s real contributions were on the other side of the camera, however, and Filmworker manages the feat of doubling as a chronicle of what many of those contributions were (and still are), and providing a look at just how much work goes into the most finite corners of making a film. Vitali would approve print copy for home releases, oversee the transfers to those releases to ensure their quality, butt heads with Warner Bros. over the presentation and promotion of Kubrick’s films, make sure the archival footage was being maintained in the proper manner, and about a million other things a day as it would seem. Since Filmworker is Vitali’s own story, as narrated by him, the film is far more glowing about Kubrick’s obsessive and seemingly constant working needs than it’s critical, even as you’d be forgiven for finding yourself wondering by about halfway in exactly what compelled Vitali to stick around. Vitali was integral in doing the kind of thankless work that somebody has to do to make and subsequently protect a work of filmic art, and at its best, the documentary highlights his boundless zeal for this work that made him so indispensable.
Filmworker is a semi-loose assemblage of anecdotes, and if it won’t convert any Kubrick skeptics who remain at this point, it’s full of gems for die-hard fans and casual appreciators alike. Matthew Modine shows up to discuss just how rigorous the days on the Full Metal Jacket set really were, Vitali’s adult children pop up to present an even further-removed look at just how demanding the director was on their father, and Vitali himself recalls how “everything had to be to the millimeter,” which is little news these days, but offered from a man who had to fine-tune those millimeters with his own hands. In talking about his own role in Lyndon, Vitali sounds equally mortified and wistful in recalling how Kubrick would make him do complete runs of his major speech, one after the next, until it was perfect.
Yet their relationship was hardly without strife, and some of the better moments in Filmworker emerge when Vitali lets his guard down and speaks candidly about the difficulties of working with a director who wanted to perfect film in ways that most directors learn to leave alone over time. As Vitali saw it, Kubrick’s version of “caring” was to give all of oneself until absolutely nothing remained, a notion at once idyllic and probably impossible, at least for a sane and reasonable person. That’s not to say that Kubrick was unkind, at least not through Vitali’s purview; he’s recalled as an exacting man who knew what he wanted, and who was merciless until the work was truly done. Yet as the documentary’s closing minutes illustrate, there’s a chance that it was never done at all, and that it’ll never actually be done.
Zierra’s admiration for Vitali is exuded by the film, particularly in its title. Vitali rejects the title of “assistant,” as he should, because what he did for Kubrick throughout their 20+ years together until his death in 1999 speaks to so much more. People like Vitali show up on time to sets every day, without ever being lauded in this manner, and as much as anything Filmworker calls for a heightened awareness of their tireless efforts. Movies don’t get made without below-the-line effort on every corner of a set and thereafter, and men like Kubrick don’t become the legends they are without it either. But to find somebody as dedicated to the cause, as much a true believer as Vitali? That’s rare. And special, when you come across it.