Filmworker: the untold story of Kubrick’s right-hand man

“My mission from the beginning was to see Leon in front of an audience, and for people to see what he’s done, to honour and acknowledge him.”

You’ve never heard of Leon Vitali, but you probably love his movies. For 30 years, Vitali worked alongside Stanley Kubrick, doing everything from casting the spooky twins in The Shining to formatting DVD cases for A Clockwork Orange.

To Kubrick, Vitali was a disciple, a fixer, a confidant and a major-domo, always ready to leap out of bed for a 1am call from the director. On set, people couldn’t tell if Kubrick and Vitali were like master and servant or an old, married couple.

Although Vitali’s fingerprints are all over some of the most celebrated films in history, he’s remained half-unknown since he quit acting to assume his unclassifiable role behind the camera. Tony Zierra’s documentary Filmworker – following Vitali and his partnership with Kubrick – has gone some distance to changing that.

“The industry always looks at titles,” says Zierra. “If you’re not a director, if you’re not a producer, if you’re not a celebrity, they don’t know how to sell you. No one is interested in talking about an assistant. My mission from the beginning was to see Leon in front of an audience, and for people to see what he’s done, to honour and acknowledge him.”

When Vitali attended the premiere of Filmworker at Cannes, he had no tuxedo of his own, so he wore Tom Cruise’s tuxedo from Eyes Wide Shut, which Vitali happened to have hanging in his closet. There, Vitali received a long overdue five-minute standing ovation. “That was the most moving and the most beautiful, for people to realise, ‘Wow, that’s not just an assistant,’” says Zierra.

Vitali first crossed paths with Kubrick in 1975 on the set of the picaresque period film Barry Lyndon. While other actors were summarily booted off set for failing to memorise their lines, Kubrick was so pleased with Vitali’s dedication that the script was revised to give him more scenes.

In one scene, Vitali’s character is publicly thrashed by his adoptive father, played by Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal recalls Kubrick urging him to beat Vitali more and more forcefully in each take – Kubrick pulled no punches.

“I know I hurt him, I know I hurt him,” says O’Neal in the film, still faintly remorseful. “I didn’t want to…but this was Stanley.”

Reunited in Filmworker, Vitali and O’Neal are like two veterans trading war stories, bonded by their trial by fire. Other interviewees describe Vitali’s absolute devotion to Kubrick’s projects, sleeping just a few hours per night and patiently facing Kubrick’s outbursts of temper at unintentional lens flares and other accidents most directors would consider minutiae. Matthew Modine of Full Metal Jacket describes Vitali’s work as an act of “self-crucifixion.”

“People say Kubrick tortured Leon, but I say he also tortured himself,” says Zierra. “[Kubrick] died from his work – he pushed himself to the point where he wouldn’t even go to a doctor. There’s an element of creative obsession there, and Leon is the same way.”

One rarely-seen face in Filmworker is that of Danny Lloyd, once the tricycle-riding child in The Shining. Vitali selected a five-year-old Lloyd from among hundreds of hopeful child actors, and the two stuck together like glue on set. Lloyd retired soon after his big break, and now lectures as a biology professor. For Lloyd, one flash of the limelight was enough.

“Other people had approached [Lloyd] for an interview and he’d said he didn’t want to do it,” says Zierra. “But once I said ‘Leon’, he said yes in about two minutes. He really feels that Leon was a father figure, and he worked with Leon more than he worked with Jack [Nicholson] or Stanley.”

Powdered and sporting a ruff and waistcoat for Barry Lyndon, Vitali resembled an overgrown Lord Fauntleroy. Now, he looks more like an aged rock star, grown threadbare with years of untreated addiction to his work.

“They were two artists, trying to work together,” says Zierra. “You could be Kubrick’s best friend, but his work came first, and he wasn’t going to give you slack.”

Vitali acted for Kubrick one more time in Eyes Wide Shut, as the masked master of ceremonies for the film’s secret society – sitting at the centre of things, yet also faceless and unnamed. Zierra’s upcoming documentary, SK13 will dig into the origins of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s last and probably most polarising film.

“Never think that you’ll figure out Kubrick,” says Zierra. “Kubrick, to me, represents cinema. You can’t figure him out in 90 minutes watching a movie.”

Filmworker will air at Cinema Nova on Friday July 6, as part of Melbourne Documentary Film FestivalMelbourne Documentary Film Festival runs from Friday July 6 until Saturday July 14 at various venues around Melbourne.