I want to work for that man.
When studios gave Leon Vitali a hard time about requests made on behalf of Stanley Kubrick, the director would tell him to stand firm and be exacting. Vitali relays a story within Tony Zierra‘s documentary Filmworker of Kubrick faxing these places his demands with Leon’s signature so they would be forced to see him not as a lesser voice, but the voice. If you’ve ever heard tales about the late auteur’s working habits you know why this would be necessary. Anyone taking the amount of vitriolic abuse Kubrick delivered throughout his cinematic career would jump at the chance for revenge even if by proxy. No matter how crucial Leon was to this machine of creativity, he was an assistant. They could use him as a wrench for payback.
But he wasn’t an “assistant” in the generic definition of the word. He assisted Kubrick, but did so in every aspect of the process. Despite meeting the legend on set during Barry Lyndon as an actor (he played Lord Bullington), their partnership would soon evolve and expand into casting, location scouting, coaching, editing, cinematography, color grading, and restoration. He became a jack-of-all-trades who served nothing but Kubrick’s vision because they shared a passion for the art that went beyond a paycheck. Vitali worked twenty-four hours, seven days a week because his boss was the mind of a man who didn’t punch a clock. Eventually you could say they became indistinguishable in thought process, Leon a sponge who spoke with Stanley’s voice rather than echoed: Gabriel to Kubrick’s God.
At a certain point Leon was surely able to send those faxes without worrying about whether or not they’d be followed because those who knew the intricacies of their relationship saw him as Kubrick. And if Zierra’s document of Vitali’s thirty years under Stanley’s tutelage and now almost twenty years post-death shows us anything, it’s that loyalty made it happen. You only scoff when hearing the old adage “It’s hard to find good help” if you’re the type of person people say it about. For everyone else it rings true because the trust necessary to complete a project as vast as a film of Kubrick’s caliber isn’t easily found. Leon’s declaration to join his crew therefore came with a training period. Once passed, however, the bond became permanent.
Vitali’s trajectory is unique in this way because he literally gave up his career to serve another’s. Or at least that’s the narrative many place upon him. Zierra has an interview with Matthew Modine where the actor speaks about feeling sad about Leon because he saw the choice as one of compromise rather than desire. It’s more dramatic to say a man whose path was paved in gold acting-wise post Barry Lyndon rejected it for Stanley than admit his wants simply changed. As an actor-for-hire who worked on sets of varying values, his craft was all he needed to worry about because the rest seemed unappealing. Seeing the complexities of Kubrick’s set became a transcendent experience in contrast, one that opened his eyes to a world yet unexplored.
There’s romance to that. To see Vitali smile when talking about it is to understand he has no regrets regardless of the children who call him by his first name rather than Dad (if that’s even a result of their strained relationships). His face lights up to Gollum levels of ecstasy when speaking about those years and it’s only through his words that we can truly comprehend his importance to Kubrick’s masterpieces despite his name proving but a footnote. Each anecdote is completely authentic, though, because he has the physical receipts to prove them. But Leon wasn’t some opportunist or “yes man” doing the bidding of someone else either, admiration or not. R. Lee Ermey and Danny Lloyd prove it by speaking with that same awe about him.
This is why his story is so invigorating and depressing at the same time. We’re two decades past Kubrick’s death and yet just learning about the breadth of Vitali’s impact. He wasn’t consulted for the expansive exhibition on Stanley’s work a few years back. He wasn’t even invited to its gala debut. But you could say with all honesty—and more than a few people in Zierra’s film do—that we wouldn’t have the gorgeous transfers of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, etc. we have today without him. Distributors lean on directors to oversee restorations with exacting care, but Kubrick passed away before DVDs were manufactured. Only Vitali had the knowledge, expertise, and connection to get each of them done right.
He oversaw foreign distribution, marketing, and whatever else was needed while Stanley was alive because he had his blessing to do so. But he also finished Eyes Wide Shut and maintained the “maestro’s” legacy afterwards without that support. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to face off opposite executives suddenly freed from their fear of Kubrick’s formidable might. It’s an uphill battle that destroyed his health and almost killed him not so long after his boss and friend passed. This is the one thing Leon doesn’t discuss. And while it’s understandably painful for him to think about, you can’t help but wonder what his candid recounting could do to expose Hollywood’s callous nature. Vitali decides to stay positive instead and it does prove enough.
Zierra shows his subject in full glory with long hair, five-o’clock shadow, and enthusiasm. We go through the many notebooks and files stashed in Vitali’s house as well as glimpse footage of his younger years via TV shows, films, and plays. There’s a good mix of talking head collaborators from both sides of the camera as well as audition tapes, unscripted moments, and pertinent clips to tales being told. As a long-time Kubrick fan, Filmworker delivers an invaluable look into his process while introducing this new character whose fingerprints can be seen alongside Stanley’s on every frame. It might do nothing to diminish the auteur’s controversial mystique (it reinforces it if anything), but Leon’s presence presents evidence of a softer side too. Leon Vitali was that softer side.
[1-3] A scene from Filmworker, courtesy Kino Lorber