I’m a bit late to the party on this film, since it came out in October of 2017, but in case you’ve missed it too — if you love the work of Stanley Kubrick, and you haven’t watched Filmworker yet, you’ll want to. It’s a riveting documentary about Leon Vitali, a British actor who gave up a thriving career on stage and screen in the mid-1970s to subsume himself in the work of Stanley Kubrick, becoming the director’s apprentice, right-hand man, and, at times, whipping boy.
Vitali was still at drama school when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and declared it the best movie he’d ever seen. He was likewise impressed with A Clockwork Orange, and he decided he wanted to work for Kubrick. Vitali’s agent arranged an audition for Barry Lyndon, and the actor scored a role as Lord Bullingdon. His time working with Kubrick on that film (Vitali stayed on after shooting was finished to watch how the editing was done) sparked a desire to work with the celebrated director behind the scenes. Kubrick recommended the young actor get some more experience, which Vitali did by helping out in the editing room of a Swedish movie called Terror of Frankenstein (in which he also starred as Victor Frankenstein). Then Vitali contacted Kubrick, who sent him Stephen King’s novel The Shining and asked him what he thought. Vitali told the director he thought it would make a great movie, and the rest is history — albeit a history of which moviegoers were largely unaware until this film was released, and a history that sheds new light on Kubrick’s status as a loner genius.
Vitali took on a wide range of duties for the director, including traveling to the U.S. and auditioning roughly 4,000 children to play Danny in The Shining. He also helped cast R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and he served as on-set acting coach for both those actors. To hear Vitali tell it, his duties over the years were endless; he helped Kubrick on set, but he also took copious notes for the director, handled correspondence and phone calls, arranged logistics — and often took the brunt of Kubrick’s mercurial temper.
Vitali worked for the famously meticulous Kubrick 14 or so hours a day, seven days a week, yet still somehow had time for a marriage and three children. His kids, now grown, recall their father as a loving but mostly absent presence who was constantly working. One failing of the documentary is that it barely skims Vitali’s personal life; his ex-wife is never mentioned, let alone interviewed, and the toll his devotion to Kubrick took on his relationships and his health is noted only briefly.
(I should mention that I greatly admire Kubrick’s work, but not without some reservations; he was incredibly talented, but he falls short — or maybe wasn’t interested — in realistic depictions of female characters. He sometimes softened the harsher details of his source material, making despicable figures such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange more palatable. He also seems to have been a bit of a perv, always finding a way to include at least one scene of a scantily-clad or nude woman in most of his films. That said, I think The Shining is the quintessential horror film, and it’s one of my top five favorite movies.)
Since Kubrick’s death in 1999, Vitali has dedicated himself to securing Kubrick’s legacy, overseeing the restoration of most of the director’s films with the same perfectionist attention to detail that was Kubrick’s hallmark. Watching Vitali’s complete sacrifice of his own ambitions in the service of Kubrick’s creative vision, you’re struck by all the Leons — in varying degrees of self-sacrifice — who make the grand artistic statements of others possible.
What Leon did was a selfless act, a kind of crucifixion of himself.
— Matthew Modine, Filmworker