Documentarian Tony Zierra has been fascinated with those who have been so close to fame, they could almost taste it. His first doc, 2001’s acclaimed Carving Out Our Name, profiled four unknown actors desperate to make it in Hollywood. In 2009, he released the doc My Big Break, a dark examination of the price of celebrity has on five friends sharing a house. And just when he thought he was moving in a more cultured direction in terms of his next subject, he met a man who achieved his dream of working for his hero and paid a steep price in the process.
Zierra was beginning work on a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking process—using a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage from Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999)—when he first met Leon Vitali. And after hearing his story, Zierra knew that he had to temporarily set aside one documentary (he has only now begun work editing that film, SK13) and tell Vitali’s story first (partly because Vitali was in ill health at the time).
Filmworker is the story of British actor Vitali, who was on the verge of becoming one of the most respected and popular young actors of his generation when he was cast in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Vitali and Kubrick got along so well that Kubrick eventually took on Vitali as an apprentice of sorts, encouraging him to learn more about the technical side of the movie-making business. The filmmaker didn’t so much teach Vitali the ins and outs of filmmaking; he taught him the daunting, detail-oriented task of how to make a Stanley Kubrick feature film.
Vitali gave up his career as an actor and dedicated himself 24/7 to being Kubrick’s jack-of-all-trades collaborator, which included everything from finding a young actor to play Danny in The Shining to supervising the subtitling/dubbing of all of Kubrick’s films into countless languages. The pair were virtually inseparable, beginning with The Shining and continuing into Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, where Vitali was tasked with much of the post-production of Kubrick’s final work after the filmmaker’s sudden death.
Vitali never complained because, from his perspective, to be this close to an artist he considered a genius was reward unto itself. If anything, Vitali was well suited to handle Kubrick’s sometimes brutal mood swings because he was raised by a father who was also impossible to please. More broadly, Filmworker is a testament to the thousands of faceless people in the movie-making business who thanklessly go above and beyond mere job titles, making sure the work gets done correctly and carrying out the near-impossible task of anticipating the director’s every need.
Zierra’s movie is loaded with stories about collaborating with Kubrick in every facet of pre-production, shooting, post-production, even restoration, color correction, and poster design. Kubrick’s standards were so high and so specific that it was impossible to work alongside him and not become an expert in a given field.
Perhaps the film’s biggest shock comes about an hour in when Zierra reveals that Vitali had a family during this entire 20-year period, and he found it impossible to balance spending time with his children and working for Kubrick full time. We see home movies of the children playing in Vitali’s office while he’s fielding phone calls and typing instructional letters to dozens of different departments at the studio or one lab or another. In every interview or archival film clip, Vitali appears exhausted, even sickly; but he still manages a smile when he recalls his creative partnership with Kubrick, and I’m guessing that expression will last with him until his death bed.
Zierra features some revelatory interviews with the likes of Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey (whom Vitali aided in landing his groundbreaking role in Full Metal Jacket), and so many others who worked with Kubrick, and they back up every story Vitali provides the cameras. Filmworker is a stroll through the mind and eyes of a master craftsman, as detailed by one of the people in his life he trusted the most. But it’s also a very personal account of a man who was willing to subjugate his career and life to help his hero execute his vision. It may not have been the healthiest of relationships, but it’s difficult to argue with the results or the insight this film provides.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. To read my exclusive interview with Filmworker director Tony Zierra, go to the Music Box’s website.
In addition to playing Filmworker, the Music Box Theatre is also featuring 35mm screenings of the four films that Kubrick and Vitali worked on together—Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut—as part of its “Stanley Kubrick: The Filmworker Series,” running from Friday, June 1 to Thursday, June 7. Details and showtimes can be found here.