Leon Vitali has been described as a jack of all trades, an Igor-like figure, the moth to Stanley Kubrick’s flame, even a slave. He has a different title for himself, however: filmworker. It’s what he puts on visa applications when traveling to other countries and, considering his all-encompassing job description, it only makes sense that he would require a singular title.
It’s also what Tony Zierra named his suitably workmanlike documentary about Vitali, whose heretofore unheralded work behind the scenes is now on full display in the Cannes Classics sidebar. An actor who got his would-be big break in “Barry Lyndon,” Vitali made a unique career choice following the film’s success: He became Kubrick’s right-hand man. Seeing such an elaborate production come together — Vitali had been acting for years, but never on something that matched the grand scale of “Barry Lyndon” — instilled in him a fascination with the technical aspect of filmmaking, and Kubrick was happy to have the help.
Vitali’s official title in subsequent years was “personal assistant to director,” which hardly conveyed the breadth of his duties. Among them were copious notetaking (occasionally on his own arm), coaching young Danny Lloyd on the set of “The Shining,” putting together different trailers for different countries, inadvertently helping R. Lee Ermy get cast in “Full Metal Jacket,” and overseeing a massive restoration effort after Kubrick’s death. “When someone like Stanley Kubrick tells you to learn your lines,” the tireless Vitali says of his first experience with the meticulous auteur, “you learn your lines.” And, apparently, when Kubrick asks you to do anything, you do anything.
It wasn’t just that Kubrick was a master of his craft, of course — he was also an enigma, even to many who worked with him. As always in documentaries of this kind, much of the appeal comes from the prospect of juicy, firsthand details. Vitali doesn’t disappoint: He talks as much about the exacting auteur’s warm, gentle handshake (“like a buzz went through you”) as he does about his infamous tendency to have actors repeat scenes dozens of times.
(Other salient tidbits and insights, since you’re surely wondering: Kubrick was “a pretty good actor” when it came to hiding his demanding nature from those who didn’t know him well; Gordon Ramsay’s profanity-laced perfectionism makes him a sort of Kubrick spirit animal; and Kubrick was so devoted to his pets that he had Vitali install video monitors in every room of his house in order to observe his dying cat.)
Kubrick himself would likely take issue with the film’s straightforward talking-head presentation, which betrays a much more lax approach than anything seen in “A Clockwork Orange” or “Paths of Glory.” However, Zierra has found a truly unsung hero here: For all of his work, Vitali wasn’t invited to take part in the acclaimed “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition,” which launched in Frankfurt in 2004 and is still touring the world today.
Ultimately, “Filmworker” isn’t actually about Kubrick, even if Vitali still considers himself to be working for his longtime boss and mentor 18 years after his death. Though notoriously difficult to please, Kubrick would likely keep his eyes wide open throughout “Filmworker;” those who knew both men might argue that the film shows even more appreciation for Vitali than Kubrick did.
“Filmworker” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Classic. It is currently seeking distribution.