Filmworker (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Serving Kubrick

If you are a big fan of Stanley Kubrick’s films like me, you probably know about Leon Vitali, who was initially an actor but then came to assist Kubrick for nearly 20 years till Kubrick’s death. As a guy who spent lots of time with Kubrick, he certainly had lots of things to talk about, and documentary film “Filmworker” gives us an interesting look into his life and career which are still devoted to Kubrick’s works as before.

In the beginning, the documentary presents a brief summary of Vitali’s short but promising acting career before “Barry Lyndon” (1975). As appearing in various films and TV series, he gradually came to establish himself as a young notable performer to watch, and he was certainly excited when he was notified that he was going to play the defiant stepson of Ryan O’Neal’s hero character in “Barry Lyndon”. After all, he was quite impressed by Kubrick’s two previous works “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), and he was certainly willing to do his best even though he was well aware of how demanding Kubrick could be to his cast and crew.

Anyway, not long after meeting Kubrick in person, Vitali began to work along with the cast and crew of “Barry Lyndon”, and, as working more and more for Kubrick, he found himself more interested in filmmaking. Although he did not know much about filmmaking, he could not help but fascinated as watching Kubrick meticulously handling his cast and crew under his slow but confident direction, and Kubrick encouraged Vitali’s interest when Vitali expressed his wish to know more about filmmaking.

Once “Barry Lyndon” came out in 1975, Vitali drew lots of attention and acclaim for his supporting performance in that film, and he was even asked to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, but he was already determined to pursue his growing interest in filmmaking. When he worked as the lead actor of “Terror of Frankenstein” (1977), he volunteered to participate in the editing process of that film for free, and he certainly learned a lot as closely watching the editing process.

After that apprenticeship period, Vitali approached Kubrick, and he was subsequently hired as Kubrick’s personal assistant. Around that time, Kubrick was preparing for making his next film “The Shining” (1980), and Vitali handled various things as demanded by Kubrick. He had to fly to America for photographing many different hotels for the production design team of the movie, and he also took care of the long, arduous audition for finding a child actor to play Danny Torrance in the film. After going through thousands of candidates, he eventually came across a young boy named Danny Lloyd, and he instantly knew he found a right boy for the movie.

After gaining more of Kubrick’s confidence via his diligence and dedication, Vitali came to work more closely with him during the production of “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), but he also had to endure more of Kubrick’s relentlessly demanding perfectionism. As Kubrick’s right-hand guy, he had to take care of numerous small and big things on the set at every moment, and Kubrick depended more and more on Vitali as time went by, though he could be quite abrasive to Vitali when things did not go as well as he wanted.

While he frequently became exhausted as constantly working without enough rest, Vitali stayed beside Kubrick nonetheless because, well, it was always exciting to be around one of the greatest filmmakers in the movie history. Like one of the interviewees in the documentary points out, he was attracted to Kubrick’s undeniable genius like a moth was drawn to fire, and he was willing to spend lots of time on whatever was demanded by his boss. For example, he personally handled the screening and distribution of Kubrick’s works around the world, and we get an amusing anecdote on how he had Warner Brothers promote “Full Metal Jacket” as prominently as wanted by Kubrick when it was released on VHS for the first time.

In case of Kubrick’s last work “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), Vitali did acting again as suggested by Kubrick. He played that sinister guy wearing a golden mask and a red cloak during the infamous orgy scene in the film, and, with some amusement, he reminisces about how he got a little busier than before while still working as Kubrick’s assistant as usual. When Kubrick died in March 1999, he was certainly devastated, but he soon focused on completing the post-production of “Eyes Wide Shut”, and we hear a bit about how much he fought to maintain what Kubrick wanted to accomplish in the film.

Now it is almost 20 years since Kubrick passed away, but Vitali remains loyal to his boss who was also a good friend to him, and it is poignant to see that he is still working hard for preserving his boss’ enduring legacy. As shown at the end of the documentary, he recently participated in the 4K restoration of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and I will certainly think of him when I watch that restoration version of that great film.

On the whole, “Filmworker” is both engaging and informative, and director Tony Zierra did a fairly good job of mixing various archival footage clips with a number of nice interview clips featuring many different figures including Ryan O’Neal, Danny Lloyd, Matthew Modine, Stellan Skarsgård, Marie Richardson, and late R. Lee Ermey. Its overall result is rather modest, but it is still a loving tribute to a relatively unknown figure behind Kubrick’s later works, and it is surely a must-see for any serious moviegoer.

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