‘Filmworker’ reviewed

Tony Zierra’s Filmworker examines Stanley Kubrick’s most loyal yet most overlooked ally.

“Kubrick and Vitali come across as the Holmes and Watson of the film world; everyone paying homage to the mysterious genius whilst dismissing his loyal companion who keeps him functioning whilst documenting and preserving his adventures for posterity.”

The word “obsession” is often bandied about when discussing Stanley Kubrick, as are phrases such as “perfectionist” and “auteur,” but rarely do any of us stop and consider the people who facilitated his quest for perfection. Regardless of how much creative control a director is allowed, film making is still, at the end of the day, a team effort often requiring hundreds of skilled workers, which brings us to Leon Vitali.

Vitali, self described “filmworker” was pretty much a jack of all trades and a veritable one-man production team. These days, looking a bit like shell shocked Vietnam vet turned hippy, he tirelessly and thanklessly toils to preserve Kubrick’s archives, ensuring re-release prints and digital scans are up to spec, often for no reward other than fulfilling a sense of duty. While the great man was alive, he was called upon to wear many hats; producer, assistant to the director, casting director, lab technician, colourist, producer, shouter of instructions down the phone, publicist, housekeeper, dog sitter…

But what made him give up a promising acting career to put up with the whims of a cantankerous, moody genius for 30 years?

It’s a damn good question. Certainly very few people could do it. It wasn’t merely a 24 hour job but often a 48 hour one, and Zierra manages, for the most part, to keep the focus on Vitali, who seems as obsessive and meticulous as his employer. We’re treated to observations from the likes of Ryan O’Neal who played the title character in Barry Lyndon (1975), the film where the whole Kubrick-Vitali team up began; Vitali, of course, played Barry’s step son and eventual nemesis Lord Bullingdon, a role Kubrick greatly expanded after seeing Vitali’s first day’s work. A grown up Danny Lloyd drops by to recount how Vitali not only coached him, but pretty much directed him on the set of The Shining (1980), the first film on which Kubrick gave Vitali essential behind-the-camera responsibilities. Matthew Modine (who declares, “What Leon did was a kind of crucifixion of himself”), R. Lee Ermey and Tim Colceri are wheeled out to sing his praises and give insights into the behind the scenes dramas of Full Metal Jacket (1987). Interviewees are not confined to Kubrick’s inner circle but favour Vitali’s. His own grown-up children (somehow Vitali had time to father three); his brothers and sister, and even old acting buddy Stellan Starsgård are on hand too. We’re left with a picture of a guy Kubrick relied upon to do all the stuff he didn’t have the time or inclination to do himself, but wouldn’t trust anyone else to do.

But where exactly did Vitali’s ability to tolerate Kubrick’s erratic personality come from? It may be thanks to growing up in a household dominated by a difficult father who was triggered into violent mood swingers by the tiniest misdemeanour. As a result, Vitali and his siblings (all of whom look like they’ve just returned from lunch at a respectable country club in contrast to Vitali’s own bohemian scruffy-chic) had to tread on eggshells until the day he died. One is left wondering if Kubrick and Vitali’s seemingly co-dependent and possibly slightly unhealthy (at least for the sleep-depreved Vatili) relationship might have been, if not the result, but enabled by that. Vitali says he’s often asked how he handled Kubrick; he always responds that no one “handled Kubrick.” He had to learn to handle himself.

Nevertheless, their bromance was well and truly real; Vitali has nothing but the utmost reverence for his mentor—a fact that is clearly obvious from his dedication to preserving the master’s works—and Vitali recounts numerous examples of Kubrick showing a deep appreciation in return, even if it was in the most understated of ways. You get the impression that Kubrick was a man for whom displays of emotion were often difficult or exasperating, but no one in the film ever directly addresses why, even if they do address and deflate some of the conspiracy theories or wild rumours surrounding him.

You’re left with the feeling no one was ever sure if they knew the real Kubrick; Vitali himself seemed to have adored certain aspects of the man whist feeling exasperated at others, but holding the unerring belief that it was worth it to get these movies made and, dammit, still is to see them preserved and screened the way they were intended. The pair come across as the Holmes and Watson of the film world; everyone paying homage to the mysterious genius whilst dismissing his loyal companion who keeps him functioning whilst documenting and preserving his adventures for posterity.

Ultimately, a restrained yet awe-inspiring documentary that really hammers home the dedication and superhuman levels of energy required to make truly great cinema (or art of any kind), Filmworker at last sheds light on a man whose work is its own reward, but who has always deserved every moviegoer’s appreciation and praise.

❉ ‘Filmworker’  was released in cinemas and on demand 18 May; on DVD 23 July from Dogwoof.

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